Fighting Words is a column in which writers rub you the wrong way with their unpopular but well-argued opinions on fitness, health, nutrition, what have you. Got something to get off your chest? Send your pitch to email@example.com. The reactionaries want you to believe that violent video games cause real-life violence. But their position is lazy and borne out of convenience. There's little evidence to back it up, and that which exists is largely based on poor research.
But there is evidence to suggest that games, and in particular first-person shooters, may help you build certain parts of your brain and connect to other people. Before we get into it, let's address the unproven claim that digital gunfire puts the real-life taste of blood in players' mouths.
In a 2014 study, Christopher Ferguson, a professor of psychology at Stetson University in Florida, and his team conducted two investigations into media violence. The first looked at the connection between violence in cinema and US homicide rates between 1920 and 2005, and the second examined rates of youth violence against exposure to violent video games over the last 20 years. The former found that while there was a slight correlation between movie violence and real-life violence in the '50s, there was no correlation for the remainder of the century. Violent crimes dropped even as televised violence climbed. The second investigation found that as 12 to 17 year olds were exposed to more violent video games, the number of actual violent crimes they committed dropped. The association casts serious doubt on the claim that we're prone to imitating what we see, or even what we act out, on a screen.
Ferguson's research also questioned the validity of studies that do find a link between video games and violence. Attempts to replicate such studies generally return conflicting results. It's possible that violent games even curb violence by giving gamers an outlet for their aggression, or keeping potentially violent people safely at home. Writing for US News and World Report earlier this year, Ferguson opposed German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière's claim that games "helped inspire" the tragic July 22 mass shooting in Munich. In Ferguson's words:
"This episode follows a fairly familiar pattern. A politician or police officer discovers that the young male perpetrator of a horrible crime also happened to play violent video games (as almost all young males do), and links the two in a public statement. News media decides to treat clueless speculation as something near to fact, and the next turn of the violent video game moral panic is on."
Of course, the media has never presented a clear message about the safety of violent games. Some stories say they don't cause violence, others say they do. Some stories say outright that nobody knows. And as two Daily Mail headlines show, conclusions swing wildly with every tiny study:
While the world continues to debate about the morality of digital violence, researchers are piling up solid evidence that complex gameplay is good for your brain. In July of this year, for example, research conducted at New York University Shanghai found that playing action-oriented video games can help improve players' visual motor skills. The study had two primary findings: Compared to new gamers, seasoned players had quicker response times when operating driving simulation software, and a group playing the first-person shooter Unreal Tournament over a six-month period improved their driving skills more than those playing Mario Kart. The first-person shooter was actually more effective than an actual driving game at improving motor skills and helping experienced motorists drive more safely. This is probably due to the complexity of first-person shooters, which require players to move quickly and make fast decisions in 3D worlds.
Another perk of such games comes from a 2015 study, undertaken by Texas Tech University researcher John Velez. The research found that playing team-based games, and especially the war games used in the study, can make people more sociable in real life. "Cooperative play seems to have the biggest effect in terms of decreasing aggression toward other people," said Velez in a news release. In practice, the research found that playing alongside a teammate in both Halo: Reach and TimeSplitters—both violent first-person shooters—caused the players to act with more empathy toward others. During the study, players were offered the chance to blast their opponents with a loud and unwelcome noise in the real world. Players were more likely to accept the offer if they'd been playing the game alone. Those in teams weren't just kind to each other, they were kind to their opponents, who they'd been trying to kill in the virtual world of make-believe.
That fact that gamers are actually decent humans might explain another one of Ferguson's studies, which looked at more than 300 school-aged children and found no meaningful correlation between violent games and bullying or other antisocial behaviors.
Ferguson is far from alone in his line of thinking. In 2013, for example, 230 academics signed an official letter of complaint to the American Psychology Association, asking it to review and retire its biased policy statements on video games, which had denounced violent games based on weak evidence.
We may be drawn to play violent video games not to become violent in real life, but to attain a sense of achievement, suggests British psychologist Berni Good, who specializes in cyberpsychology, the study of how humans interact with technology. "One thing we find, and the research upholds this, is that these para-social experiences, where people have a connection to characters in games, are particularly helpful for those who don't necessarily have a good social network," Good says. "We're seeing these kinds of games whereby the player can relate to the characters, the storyline, and its impact on their emotional well being, particularly if they are isolated themselves."
As an example, she points to The Last of Us, a kill-or-be-killed horror game framed by a zombie apocalypse. At one point in the game, it's suggested that a main character, Ellie, has been abused. "If you can imagine a player who's been through a similar experience, you may find they feel they can't talk to other people about it." But the right game can have therapeutic value. Players can see their characters survive and prosper. They can see the value in perseverance. This can open people up through something psychologists call the disinhibition effect. "With the disinhibition effect, it's almost like everyone's had a couple of glasses of wine—the social lubricant kicks in and they're able to be honest and forthright," Good says.
Good rejects the idea that killing zombies in make-believe makes people want to wield weapons in real life. "People do know the difference between a virtual environment and their real environment," she says.
So might violent games be good for us? It seems likely. They can help improve brain function and spatial-motor skills, and in some cases, they can help socially inhibited people open up. Plus, games are becoming increasingly able to open honest discourse around heavy issues like mental illness, depression, and autism. Rest assured: Nobody's telling you that you have to play violent games. But the research says that if you want to, you can. And you'll be just fine.