So I got involved in a debate online recently about violence in video games, in the aftermath of the latest shooting tragedy in the US. The debate itself was over at Paul Strikwerda’s blog. I’d suggest reading the initial post and comments over at Paul’s blog, as I won’t try to reframe Paul’s argument here and risk putting words in his mouth. I did find the debate short and disappointing though, which is why I wanted to take the time to think things through and post a wall of text over here.

First, the caveats: Paul appears to be a great guy, he’s tremendously talented and prodigious in his output. This post isn’t attacking him, but rather picking at some flawed thinking and hand-wringing around a topic I’m rather concerned about. Whether violence in video games and media in general affects us on some deeper level is something I care a lot about. I’ve cheerfully consumed violent media for most of my life, and while I don’t personally believe that media has a harmful effect, or that children are so fogged in their thinking that they can’t separate reality from fantasy, I try to keep an active interest in the other side of the argument. Confirmation bias is something worth striving against.

That’s part of why my partner and I snapped up the chance to attend a couple of presentations at PAX 2012 by Dr Tyler Black and Dr Matthew Chow looking at videogames, family, addiction and a few other things besides. Both presentations highlighted a frustrating problem: that the debate around video games and any societal damage they cause gets buried in mountains of flawed science, published to grab headlines and create sound bites. Often an intrinsically flawed initial study will then be cited by subsequent studies in the same area as empirical truth, to build on the same unproven argument.

Scientific studies are prone to manipulation in order to produce a desired result, and it takes a trained eye to pick apart the flaws and shortcuts. Delusions of Gender is packed with examples of this. Cordelia Fine gleefully tears apart reams of bad science propping up another of society’s great myths: that men and women just think differently. So it’s not enough to just look at the findings of a study. You really need to pick through their methods and citations to really trust a study. And know what you’re looking for. And boy, that’s time-intensive. That’s why I try to file ideas mentally under ‘Sounds interesting, further research required’ or work off networks of trust and credibility.

In the comments section of Paul’s post, there’s the disturbing trend of people chiming in with “I believe the brain works this way, just because”. Without science behind them, unfounded opinions on neuroscience are interesting, but pointless. And while our brains do rewire themselves constantly to process information, there’s no research (that I’m aware of) that suggests that we’re actively influenced by all of the information we process.

Your Brain At Work explores this as a tangent to the core material of the book. So while your brain might shuffle the information stored to make room for a particular fact, or update a semantic network of links to associated information, or whatever it is it’s doing, there’s no evidence suggesting that you’re being reprogrammed like some sort of Manchurian Candidate. If that were the case, then psychological manipulation like advertising or NLP would be redundant.

Gun violence is a knotty, complicated problem tangled up in a likely web of societal causes. I’m not going to claim to know the answer by any stretch. But I doubt there’s one isolated factor we can set apart from everything else and say “That’s IT!”. What I do know though is that for a long time a popular response to these problems has been to be loudly and conspicuously morally outraged at some scapegoat key cause, whether it’s comic books, or rock and roll, or Dungeons and Dragons, or video games, as the scapegoat du jour. This interview with Marilyn Manson from Bowling with Columbine sums it up beautifully. Please, listen right until Manson’s last comment. It’s well worth the time invested.

And this is the part of this whole recurring argument that starts to get my blood boiling. This kind of hand-wringing, “Won’t someone think of the kids” response does no one any good. If anything, it does more harm than good, because it clouds the more difficult conversations about getting down to root causes and dealing with the actual problems. Dressing up a political or moral preference in dodgy neuroscience is even worse, because it creates a veneer of respectability that needs to be picked at like a creme brulee before you realise there’s nothing solid behind it. I’ll happily go on record as saying that there is no solid, respectable science showing a causal link between video games and violence. In fact, the statistics show a general trend in the opposite direction. I’m very open to being proven wrong, though.

And this is the aspect of Paul’s post that got my hackles up enough to think over all of this for a few weeks, and then spend enough time to pen my own thoughts on the topic. Paul paints a picture of voice artists who are involved in this work as unscrupulous, ignoring the harm they are most definitely doing in exchange for fame and money. Now, I have all the respect in the world for people who clearly delineate their own moral boundaries for their work. Mahmoud Taji does this clearly and respectfully on his own website, and more power to him. But making such sweeping statements about other people’s choices is at best presumptuous, and at worst outright offensive. The point where you start prescribing objective value to something based on your subjective opinion is where you start walking on some thin ice.

If you’re offended by something the answer is more art, as Tycho from Penny Arcade put it recently. The answer isn’t censorship to remove the things we find no value in personally, but more art. More conversation. Earnest exploration of the impact of the media we’re consuming. No art form is so sacrosanct that it’s above criticism, but there needs to be a more robust reason behind looking at what should and shouldn’t be there for consumption than the fact that we find it personally grotesque. And the exploration of those boundaries are out there. Games are evolving as a medium, and there is both intelligent criticism and intelligent exploration of complex themes out there. I cannot recommend Spec Ops: The Line enough, with Brendan Keogh’s excellent critical reading of the game, Killing is Harmless for example. I’d say more on that, but I don’t want to ruin the experience.

Violent video games are not demonstrably harmful, and suggesting that the people involved in creating them are ignoring harm they’re inflicting in return for the spoils of their Faustian pact borders on arrogance. Now, as a thank you for digesting this wall of text, here’s where I provide something useful rather than my own gasbagging about the topic. Paul posited the following challenge in his post:

“Do we teach them to loathe cruelty, to engage in dialogue, to be emphatic and become kinder, more understanding and respectful citizens?

Show me one popular video game that teaches those values.

There are an increasing number of games out there providing an interesting moral sandbox for the player to explore, and that navigate those themes. I’m not going to claim that there’s one single game that meets the stated criteria, because that’s both a lofty goal to aim for, and any one game that tried to do all of those things would be the kind of preachy infotainment that kids just disengage from. But I passed around the hat to some rather savvy local peeps, and I got the following list of recommendations to explore.

There’s games with (as far as I’m aware) no violence at all:

And then there’s a list of games that have violent content, but actively explore those virtues:

  • Mike Harrison

    There’s lots of influence out there. In many forms. But most everything we do ultimately comes down to a choice we consciously make.

    As I commented on the blog post of Paul Strikwerda referenced here, one of the best examples is advertising. If it was impossible to influence people, advertising could not exist. For decades the tobacco industry ran newspaper and magazine ads, sponsored radio and television shows and ran countless, unavoidable commercials. And, in their advertising, the tobacco industry convinced many millions of people around the world that sucking the smoke of a burning plant would relax us and make us fit in with ‘the crowd.’ Some of their commercials even featured actors in the role of doctors claiming that smoking cigarettes was GOOD for us. While there were some who didn’t buy into that, those many millions who did eventually found themselves with lung and heart disease; many dying from it.

    Because of this it was finally decided that the advertising of tobacco products should be stopped. But those who had become addicted to the nicotine couldn’t stop smoking. And, despite the confirmed health risks and the mandatory warnings about them on the individual packages, there are still those who will begin smoking.

    Whether it was a schoolmate’s idea for the two of you to cut classes one day, or a friend’s idea to tag (spray graffiti onto) a wall, or whether it was seeing another driver cut across the median because of traffic congestion, influence is out there. We see, hear or otherwise experience it and, like any form of stimulation, it gets filed away in our brains.

    But it then becomes OUR DECISION whether or not to copy or take part in those experiences. It is up to us.

    • http://www.beawesomeonline.com Kevin Powe

      (apologies Mike – I thought I’d replied earlier, but either Disqus hiccuped, or I got distracted with work – bet on the latter)

      I absolutely agree that it’s possible to attempt to influence someone directly. The little I understand about the advent of values-based advertising fascinates me – most of which comes from the documentary Century of the Self, revolving around Edward Bernays. It’s the soup we swim in. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Century_of_the_Self

      Given that we’re in a time where we still understand the risks, and people still exercise (and value) their freedom of choice to do something deliberately harmful, I’m not sure I’d put their success down solely to advertising, although it’s got to have some effect, given how viciously the industry fights each further restriction put on them.

      The only point we likely disagree on is an exact value of influence. A friend tagging a wall somewhere would be processed as new information and filed away, but still evaluated against an existing moral framework. It’s the idea that gets brought up again and again that video games can make an army of Manchurian Candidates that I find inane.

      To bring it back to Paul’s example of his daughter playing Endless Ocean. The game didn’t nefariously program her to become interested in marine biology – it presented new information, and it appears that she followed those threads using one of the most beautiful human traits, curiosity. And I can absolutely relate to that – I’ve been exposed to a lot of ideas or bodies of knowledge first through computer games.

      Thanks for taking the time to respond, Mike – I appreciate your opinion!

  • Anonymous

    Woo, respectful disagreement and thoughtful explanation of view points, one could feel really honored to be a member of this profession. Thank you.

    • http://www.beawesomeonline.com Kevin Powe

      Thanks for the kind words, @BunnyShank:disqus ! I definitely feel honored to be myself, so I’m glad to hear that.

  • Paul Strikwerda

    “Flawed thinking,” “presumptuous,” “outright offensive,” “Dressing up a political or moral preference in dodgy neuroscience,” “bordering on arrogance”…

    Those are strong words reflecting strong feelings, Kevin. I want to thank you for being one of the few colleagues who had the guts to enter the debate on voice-overs and ultra-violent video games. It’s a topic I care a great deal about and I’m glad it struck a nerve. 

    You wrote: 

    “(…) there’s no research (that I’m aware of) that suggests that we’re actively influenced by all of the information we process.”

    I believe that we don’t need a professor to tell us that the smell of a favorite food or a repulsive stench elicits a physical reaction. That’s our body being actively influenced by the information we process.

    We don’t need a scientist to prove to us that listening to certain music or poetry influences our heart rate and blood pressure, and can even cause our eyeballs to leak. 

    External events influence our internal state non-stop. It’s a fact of life. If we wouldn’t respond to them, we’d probably be dead by the end of the day. 

    Living is a process of learning. It’s a process of adapting to external and internal stimuli. How we adapt to these stimuli and to what extent we allow ourselves to be influenced by them, differs from person to person and from context to context. 

    Significant emotional events have the potential to literally transform our thinking and our actions (for better or for worse). For instance, my former father-in-law’s outlook on life was forever changed after he was detained in a Japanese POW camp during the Second World War. 

    If I’m correct, part of your argument revolves around the fact that you feel that the evidence for a direct link between an increase in violent thoughts and behavior in people playing violent video games, is unscientific. 

    In “It’s just a game,” I have acknowledged that the scientific community is not in agreement, citing a number of conflicting studies and scholars. You seem to suggest that the studies pointing at a link between increased violent thoughts and behavior and violent video games, are “flawed”and “prone to manipulation in order to produce a desired result”.

    I could just as easily have argued the opposite, but that would have been manipulative. Instead, I agree with the president and vice president that more study is needed. There are many factors influencing human behavior, and to isolate violent video games and make them the source of all evil, would be rather silly and shortsighted. Yet, I’m not prepared to take the opposite view, declaring them to be totally harmless entertainment, ready-made for (as you say) cheerful consumption.

    In your opinion, I have painted “a picture of voice artists who are involved in this work as unscrupulous, ignoring the harm they are most definitely doing in exchange for fame and money.”

    That statement is incorrect on three accounts. I already pointed out that I believe the evidence about the possible harmful effects is inconclusive. I never called my colleagues “unscrupulous.” Lastly, I did not single out the pursuit of fame and money as the only reason for voice actors to voice these violent video games. 

    I don’t mind my colleagues making an honest buck voicing video games. I do believe that ultra-violent video games are an example of what vice president Biden called “the coarsening of our culture,” and I think the time is right to have a discussion about the nature of these games and the role our profession plays in the making of them. 

    I also think it’s worthwhile to talk about how we can best utilize this phenomenal technology that makes today’s video games so incredibly powerful, addictive and engaging. I’m glad you were able to find a few games that appear to be non-violent. I’d like to see more of them and I’d be happy to lend my voice to these games. 

    And finally, as a blogger, I never claim to “start prescribing objective value to something” based on my subjective opinion. I don’t believe in objectivity, period. What something means to someone is by definition subjective. Also, I did not advocate “censorship to remove the things we find no value in personally.” As human beings we have the ability to distinguish between what we find useful and useless, based on personal criteria.

    I do worry and wonder why people are drawn to certain games I find utterly repulsive. Inspired by Phil Keohgan’s No Opportunity Wasted (http://www.nethervoice.com/2012/09/27/woulda-coulda-shoulda/), I try to live a life in which every moment matters. I can’t see the benefits of wasting hours and hours in front of a screen, blasting zombies to smithereens. 

    • http://www.beawesomeonline.com Kevin Powe

      First of all, thank you for your patience in waiting for a reply, Paul. I’ve been earnestly chewing over this for the last few months. I’m replying finally to give you the courtesy of a response rather than out of a wish to have the last word. I appreciate tremendously both the tone of your response here, and the time you’ve taken in responding.

      With the discussion revolving around scientific studies, one of the things it’s really highlighted for me is the herculean effort involved in really knowing something. While I can follow the chain of logic involved in Dr Black’s working, I don’t think either of us have the time to sit down and really evaluate the legitimacy of particular studies. Which is really scary, given how much weight societally we give to facts supported by studies.

      And yes, my language was strong in response. You’re absolutely right that this has struck a chord, because this is the same morality circus I’ve seen play out again and again, and it’s far older than me. There are more significant and thorny issues we should be looking at with this kind of volume and earnest sincerity. And while I agree absolutely with a push for robust scientific investigation, I can’t help but see the announcement of an investigation into media, in the immediate shadow of such a tragedy, as anything but grandstanding when the same administration is incapable of passing even the most common-sense, watered down gun regulation laws.

      I’m all for scientific enquiry into whether there’s an issue here. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and I’m by no means fixed in my viewpoint. If violent games are actually harmful, that’s something I want to know. But this all comes back to the tricky tyranny of actually, really knowing something. We can’t just leave science at the door when it’s convenient to an argument and revert to homilies and believing that certain things are ‘just common sense’. And there’s far too much ‘well it’s just logical that X is true’ surrounding this debate. And even the publishing of individual studies themselves aren’t enough to base an opinion on. Exhausting stuff.

      Lastly, I apologise sincerely if I drew the wrong conclusion on your opinions on the science involved or your fellow voice acting professionals, but reading back over your post, I get to the same conclusions. The article is structured to present a particular side of the question both from a scientific and a moral viewpoint. Your personal conclusion is highlighted, intentionally or otherwise, in the headings you choose. And while you cite one study that showed no causal link, in the remainder of your post you reference studies showing a positive connection. And when talking about voice actors voicing games, you say:

      To me, that would have been interesting, because a number of voice-over actors are making a decent living voicing violent games; games in which aggression is magnified, glorified and rewarded. Games that according to people like professor Bushman, make the players more aggressive.

      Why in all these years, didn’t anyone in our community have the guts to stand up and say:

      “This stuff is sick. This stuff is wrong. I don’t want to play any part in it!”

      I think I know why.

      GAMING GLORY

      Things get uncomfortable when they hit close to home. The discussion is no longer about theoretical situations. It touches our lives and our livelihood. Someone’s got to voice these things, right? It might as well be you. A paycheck is a paycheck, and if you’re lucky, you get to go to Comi-Cons and talk about your character and meet the fans. You’re almost a… celebrity!

      Secondly, we’ve grown up with the perverted idea that violence makes enticing entertainment. In a twisted way, inflicting imaginary pain causes pleasure. Boys and girls who are bullied at school get to handle mega rounds of ammo and can blast their evil opponents to smithereens. That’s even therapeutic, yes?!

      and close on:

      As a professional, I think it’s time for voice actors to come together, take a stand and speak out against these ultra violent games that are getting more lifelike by the day.

      The fundamental question is this: How do we wish to use our talent? Are we going to use it to produce gratuitous violence or to teach people to get along better? Are we going to search for a solution, or are we going to stay part of the problem?

      I can’t reconcile that with your statement that you’re happy with voice actors working in that part of the industry, as far as it goes.

      All of that said, I very much appreciate your willingness to engage in this conversation, and while we have vastly different viewpoints about the media we consume, I honestly believe we’re operating from similar motives: a deep concern to avoid doing harm, and to find the truth. And I think you ask one of the most important questions to work from here:

      Is that the “Land of the Free” we so proudly sing of, or is it the “Land of the Fearful”?

      How will we teach tolerance and respect and help our children understand and appreciate differences between people, faiths and cultures?