Tobold's Blog
Thursday, March 12, 2009
Learning from video games

Yesterday a 17-year old boy in Germany grabbed his fathers gun and went on a rampage in which he shot 16 people, before being shot himself by police. Today you can read the first explanations that violent video games were found in his room. I'm sure by tomorrow some politician will ask for violent video games to be banned to avoid such tragedies in the future. Video gamers tend to shrug this predictable reaction off. Pretty much every 17-year old boy has access to video games, and a large percentage of those games are violent. If of millions of teenage players of violent video games all over the world only very few run amok, the games can't possibly be the cause, or can they?

Earlier this week we had an interesting discussion on the psychological effects of video games. A reader mentioned that games were the oldest medium of teaching, long before schools were invented. So can we really exclude video games from the learning process? Can we say that there is no way that violent video games teach children to regard violence as a possible solution to problems?

One thing to consider here is that playing video games is only one medium among many that promote violence. If you managed to isolate a teenage boy from violent video games, he would probably still be seeing violent movies, see violence on the TV, or read violent comics. If a 17-year old boy is only watching Dora the Explorer and playing with pink ponies, he probably would be regarded as retarded. And given that the same boy on turning 18 can join the army and fight terrorists in Iraq, the idea of completely shielding him from all images of violence until then is utopian.

Behavior is influenced by both genes and environment, although there is an ongoing debate on how big exactly these two factors are. There is good evidence that boys are more violent than girls, and that this has genetic origins. Even if we regard violence as something bad now, in the previous millions of years of evolution it was a trait that improved your chance of survival. So it can be argued that violent video games and other media are just an outlet for violent genetic predispositions. Better let the kid shoot virtual monsters than hurt real people.

Of course video games engage us emotionally, and those emotions can encompass anger and hate. Muckbeast sent me a link to an article about MMOs causing real world violence, where people started fighting in the virtual world and then carried that fight over into the real one. But again there are just a handful of cases among millions of MMO players.

So I would say that the lessons that video games teach us are more subtle than just seeing violence and apeing it in real life. Humans are able to grasp much deeper lessons than that. There is some evidence that the reward structure of video games has had an influence on the reward expectations in real life of a whole generation which grew up with those games. Instead of just banning violence from video games, we could use those games to show the negative consequences of violence. MMOs can be used to teach the positve consequences of cooperation. As games evolve from simple shoot-em-ups to telling more complex stories and having more complex interactions, the influence that these games can possibly have on learning could be used in a positive way. Not by making overly preachy games nobody wants to play, but by making fun games which just happen to also teach you lessons for life. Already some people claim that managing a guild in a MMO is good practice for real world managing positions, although I'd say that while it might help it certainly won't be sufficient qualification. Games like Sim City can teach people about basic economics and dealing with interdependabilities and limited resources. And games like Fable can teach people that their behavior has long-term consequences.

So in summary I'd say that there is some influence of video games on behavior, although it isn't as simple as some politicians would like it to be. And far from being totally negative, learning from video games can often be good for the players. As video games mature, even violence in video games is being shown in more nuanced ways, not just as a simple solution without consequences. It is that mature treatment of difficult subjects we should demand from video games, not the simple removal of all content that could possibly offend somebody.
I bet video games don't cause as much real world violence as football does (sadly).
Sod video games, people were going postal long before they were around. The issue is firearms control.
I think the Onion News Network makes a very important point about this topic:

I'm compelled to say that this has nothing to do with Firearms control and that people kill people, not guns. Yet I keep coming back to the question: "If he couldn't get his hands on his dad's gun, what would he have used instead?"
I don't think that video games in general cause violence. I do think that nerfed video games like WoW do cause violence, exactly because we are completely protected from the consequences of violence.

If I attack a player or an NPC in WoW, the and things go wrong I have to corpserun. If he chooses to corpsecamp me, I lose like 15G as repair cost and 10 minutes res sickness.

If the other player could loot my corpse and take all my purples, I would think twice before attacking anybody. If death would mean I'd have to start over form lvl1, I doubt that anyone would pick any fight.

If it were up to me, I'd make ALL games 18+, which has lesser death penalty than losing the character (maybe giving a 10mins window to teammates to resurrect me and than the consequences are lower, like losing 2 levels).
I actually posted about thoughts risen from similar accounts today. I think that the games teach some sort of moral code to us and the codes currently are very selfish and self centered. The developers actually have a darn big influence on people playing their games these days, as everything is connected. And the more kids learn from the 'net and less from their parents (who are hopefully present and available to them?!), the more the emphasis goes to the control of internet.

The kid playing Call of Duty by the rules of Geneva Convention rules may be an odd incident, but IMHO this is a great way to influence the kids playing the games. And the more 'mature' players, too.

Like Gevlon just posted there, the effect of misbehavior should be as tangible as possible to make the message clear, but we'll see what comes out of Darkfall and the like... ganking is fun as long as you are the ganker.

Good post, good points. Hopefully it get's renown.

Oops... the url I was supposed to include to the Call of Duty article:
Correction: He shot himself after the police wounded him.
Friends claim that while he had Counter Strike on his computer he didn't use the internet much. But his father had 15 guns and he had a lot of horror videos and several airguns in his room.

If you are 17, didn't manage to complete school, lost your friends, because they made it, have been humiliated by the girls of your class and have access to weapons you are trained with. Well .. I'm not certain that I would start to working on a boring job that barely brings nets me more money than you get via social welfare either way.

These things happen. Teenagers can be extremely brutal against each other - psychologically. From time to time somebody who has access to the means decides to make a point.

About the video games:
I suggest we ban tea candles because they encourage people to become fire raisers and lay fires in forests that have the potential to kill hundreds.

By the way: Banning video games doesn't work unless you want to restructure German internet the Chinese way. Currently you can just go to and download whatever you want.
Hey Tobold,
the discussion on banning video games has already started: (german newssite).

Cheers, Chris
"Guns don't kill people, video games kill people!" What kind of a twisted reasoning is that? By the way, it has also been found that the gunman was playing table tennis. I suggest we ban table tennis, as that obviously leads to violent behavior.
I've been reading Jung lately, and that has given me a theory as to what the effects of violent video games are on the psyche.

See, Jung posits that the personality, amongst other things, is split into the Persona, which is the face we show to the outside world in an effort to be approved of, and the Shadow, which contains all the urges and personality traits that aren't in the Persona. (This is a gross oversimplification, but it'll do).

Now, in Jungian psychotherapy and theory generally, one of the most important tasks is confronting the Shadow, and bringing it from the unconcious into concious awareness (again, oversimplification). This actually allows greater control over the urges of the Shadow, because you know what they are and where they come from.

Video games, like martial arts (which I also participate in), would seem to be an excellent way, within the context of play, of allowing the user to safely explore and engage with Shadowy urges. The more powerful those urges, the more we'll be drawn to express them in a safe way, by and large (see the studies that show that, rather than video games making kids more aggressive, aggressive kids are more likely to be drawn to violent video games). And that's actually a net positive impact - certainly, people with more integrated personalities and more self-awareness, by and large, are actually less likely to commit violent acts.
Richard Bartle, few days ago:

I think what's more telling than what they are learning from video games is what they are not learning from games, family, friends and so on. They are NOT learning how to control themselves, or that killing is bad, or that life is precious. "If we educate people without teaching them spiritual principles we might just make them clever devils"
Seems the same old same old to me, i.e:

"[ Video games | Dungeons & Dragons | Heavy Metal | Rock Music | Books | The Devil ] made [ me | him | her ] do it!".
Video games are a "risk factor" in the psychological potential for cancerous actions. Yes, I use "cancer" deliberately, since that frames the concept well. Smoking is a risk factor for lung cancer. Dana Reeve died from lung cancer, despite not being a smoker. It's possible to have problems without having succumbed to all of the risk factors, but more risk factors typically mean more problems. It's as true with physical cancer as with psychological/emotional cancer.

Horror movies are a risk factor. Divorced parents are a risk factor. That witchy shrew who stole his heart in home room is a risk factor. Easy access to guns is a risk factor. Negative music is a risk factor. Bad parenting is a risk factor. Stress is a risk factor. None of these alone will typically be enough to push someone over the edge, but the human mind can only take so much. Layering risk factors on top of each other is dangerous.

A game may be the "flash point" or the "straw that broke the camel's back", but more often than not, it's not the prime motivator or the most significant problem, when everything is tallied up.
"Can we say that there is no way that violent video games teach children to regard violence as a possible solution to problems?"

I think you're really looking at this the wrong way around. People already regard violence as a possible solution to problems. Using violence to get what you want is instinct for us, and people are trained from day one to fight against those urges, so we can have a more productive society.

The reason that playing is the world's oldest teacher is because we also have instincts that encourage us to practice combat skills so that when we do employ violence as a tool to get what we want, we'll actually succeed.

Games don't teach people to be violent, but rather our violent instincts shape the types of games we want to play.
I believe they can intensify already latent issues.

But mercury build up which can come from fish, coal power plants or environmental factors will also make someone aggressive. Hormonal imbalances, Physical damage to the brain, (A recent study said your average 30 year old football player had damage equivilant to a 60 year old Alzhiemers victim), Steroids, Testosterone or overused many ingrediants you can find in "All Natural" food supplements. (Recently they found traces of steroids in some health supplements made in china. They were using the same equipment to make the food supplements and the steroids) Lead , horror movies or a few dozen other things that can hit the environment. I know of a town in texas where they drilled thier well into a salt dome in the 40's and they drank that water till the 80's when the EPA made them quit.
Even some perscription drugs have side affects that make people get violent or suicidal.

Like most things in life thier is no quick easy answer. But I do think that parental oversight and education will far override any impact video games will have on a healthy youth.

I think its human nature to look for a quick easy fix. If you can turn off the video games and then move on thats easy. Actually dealing with all the uncertanties is very uncomfortable because it leaves you with a situation you'll have to worry about indefinitely.

I'm pretty sure if we look at violence per capita as opposed to any other time in human history without tv or video games it's lower.
The reason video games get singled out is because people of the politician's and journalist's generation are less inclined to play them. After all Macbeth is pretty violent and no one suggests banning Shakespeare if a text is found in a teenager's room.

For all that I'm not happy with consequenceless violence which is very much what is portrayed. Gevlon as usual makes a very insightful observation then shoots it down by going beyond insightful to ridiculous.

For what it's worth, my sympathies to everyone affected by this tragedy and please don't let my defence of video games be construed as any lack of acknowledgement of the horror of this incident.
I think that, in the future, we'll come to view violent video games in the same way we now view masturbation. Masturbation is a perfectly healthy way to express certain biological desires. Aggression is also a biological desire, with appropriate and inappropriate ways to express such. We have historically pathologized both of these drives rather than allowing them appropriate outlets. We have tried to shame, punish, and scare those who indulge their natural desires in non-harmful ways.

You can't effectively suppress the urges to be sexual or to be aggressive. They tend to leak out in unhealthy ways. Society views aggressive urges acted out in *any* manner, even harmlessly, as indicative of a character flaw or a sign that said person is somehow mentally unbalanced. Yet we can't continue to enforce perfectly pacifist ideals on everyone's biologies without serious mental repercussions.

The culprit in inappropriate violence is not the game. Some people are getting out perfectly normal aggressions via games, leaving them free to be peaceful the rest of the time. Some people are desperately trying to work through unhealthy aggressions that they really need some help with. That we can't tell the difference shows just how hypersensitive we are to *all* forms of aggression, even though the vast majority of it is perfectly normal.
However you put it, the games and the codes of conduct within a computer game form and change the players perception of the codes of conduct in real, too. For the ones whose 'moral codex' and personality is strong and complete enough, this isn't a problem, but to those who are lacking from the 'common sense' or 'common moral' areas this may be of effect. As Gevlon put it in his response, the consequences of irrational violence in games are negligible, thus teaching the kids playing the game that it's alright to use violence to gain their needs.

Sure, the more splintered our society and our contact with our surrounding real life comes, the less we will have moral connection to other people and the more the internet connections will affect our thinking and decisions. There was a local newspaper article a few days ago asking about our 'own' thoughts and decisions in the world where our life is full of Facebook/Myspace/Twitter groups and 'group thinking': at what point we cannot distinguish our own thoughts from the thoughts of the group we belong in those 'communities'?

Our culture is evolving now faster than ever and our brains are still the same which the human race has had from the time Homo Sapiens evolved. You can see that in this chain of comments, too, as we're discussing about "aggression is also a biological desire", "violence being part of human nature" and such.

I'm all for permadeath or harsher punishments for ganking and similar in MMO's. For Call of Duty and similar shooters the War Crime Trials could be the next sequel of the game.
Some of my first thoughts when I heared it was "I bet they'll blame video games". And yeah, next interview I saw, it was mentioned. Every generation must have something to blame everything on. Used to be violent movies. Violent Comics.Rock music. Violent books.

The truth is that of the million of people playing violent video games only a small percentage goes mental and starts killing people. And of those, you can't prove they started killing because the play video games. Lots of killers do not play them and these cases existed even before video games were invented.
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