Does video-game violence lead to the real thing?

By Kirstin Morrell

It’s only a game, right? Last month’s release of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City revived the controversy surrounding realistically violent video games.

Some people, notably parents, are alarmed at the possible influence these games have on young people. Others see this as overreaction. In either case, with the success of its predecessor, Grand Theft Auto 3, which has sold over seven million copies since its release, the success of the sequel seems inevitable.

What does this fascination with violence say about our society?

“I think it’s a sign of a fundamental, underlying problem,” said Dr. Kathleen Scherf, Dean of Communications and Culture. As a mother, she is especially concerned with the effect these games have on children. “I find it bizarre that we have young people engaged in this kind of entertainment activity, which if they did in real life, would land them in prison. I wonder about the mixed messages that we are sending and that we are articulating as a society.”

However, Dr. Sherf does not believe there is a direct causal relationship, but that it is indicative of a larger issue in our society.

“I don’t think that kids who play this game are going to go out and kill a bunch of prostitutes.”

Others have a different opinion of the influence of violence in our society. Local martial arts instructor Andre Gonzales believes the solution lies not in eliminating exposure to violence, but in educating youth about its proper place.

“We evolved from violent animals. We needed to hunt, to kill, to protect our family. That’s what we’ve known in the past, but now we live in a society where that is not allowed,” he said. “We have laws and rules, but it’s still an instinct within human beings.”

Gonzales believes parental supervision and discussion is key to helping youth understand that the emotions producing violence must be understood and channeled.

“Education is everything. Understand the violence. Then it’s not something that influences you, it’s something that you can analyze and put in perspective, because you have the tools to do so.”

Dr. Robert Stebbins, an expert on leisure activities, takes a far more pragmatic approach. In his research, he found that violent play activities among boys have been with us far longer than video games.

“Phony violent activities have been part of male youth play for a long time–long before video games came out. When I was young, we pretended to shoot each other with cap guns,” Dr. Stebbins said. “The real question is then, if this is simply an expression of something that has historically been around for a long time, must all young males be violent?”

Dr. Stebbins believes that while violent play will always remain part of youth culture, the video game craze is probably generational and may disappear when the current batch of youth grow out of their fascination.

“My thought is that it probably won’t last. That is to say roughly in the mid 20s they will find other things to do, just as most criminals tend to mature out at that time,” Dr. Stebbins said. “They get involved with more substantial kinds of activities: trying to make a living, trying to make a marriage work.”

Violent video games are so popular because they require little skill and provide instant gratification, unlike other activities such as skateboarding or baseball. Also, one reason it may be so popular with young men is that it does not involve building a relationship with a subject, which is traditionally a more popular activity among females.

“Violence is something you can do to someone with whom you have no relationship,” Stebbins said.

Unfortunately, statistical evidence supporting either side of this debate is still inconclusive. Two studies published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology show that there is a relationship between violent video games and a temporary increase in aggression and that those who have already displayed aggressive tendencies may be more susceptible to these effects.

However, this phenomenon may not be the problem many people perceive it to be. It is still a recent practice and our society may eventually outgrow its fascination with violent video games. While it is certainly easy to blame video games for the ills of society, statistics show that four out of five youth crimes are still non-violent property crimes. In any case, there is no evidence on either side to prove video-game violence leads to violence in real life.

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