TW Viewpoint | Videogame Violence: What You Feast Your Eyes On

August 22, 2018 | Jonathan Riley

Do we become more aggressive and less empathetic by watching violent media and playing first-person shooter games? Evidence suggests the old adage 'you are what you eat' applies to what you feast your eyes on!


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I grew up playing first-person shooter games. I wouldn't consider myself an aggressive person but I realised early on that games were becoming more gruesome, more lifelike and either due to a lack of self-control or an addictive personality, I found they encouraged unhealthy habits to form and impacted both my waking and sleeping subconscious. So I quit!

It doesn't sound surprising to me that, according to a recent CNN article ". . . more than 400 studies revealed a "significant" link between being exposed to violent media (in general) and aggressive behavior, aggressive thoughts and angry feelings" (LINK). In fact, the World Health Organization recently added 'Gaming Disorder' to its list of mental health conditions.

Although some remain sceptical about this significant link there is an interesting test being conducted by a few scientists at MIT. A computer algorithm nicknamed 'Norman', after the lead character in Alfred Hitchcock's film Psycho, has been solely exposed to continuous streams of violent images. The scientists discovered that the data they fed the algorithm was more important that the algorithm itself. After subjecting Norman to a series of inkblot drawings, known in psychotherapy as a Rorschach test, they realised that they had created psychopathic artificial intelligence. Instead of seeing "a black and white photo of a small bird," Norman responded by describing the image as "man gets pulled into dough machine" (LINK).

Now, admittedly, we are not walking cyborgs and the complexity of the human mind cannot accurately be compared to artificial intelligence but it stands to reason that what we consume, in terms of media, has an impact on us. Children around the world in the late 70's and early 80's developed an irrational fear of open water after watching Jaws, or a completely rational and rather legitimate fear of clowns from watching Stephen King's It.

The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai released a journal on the effects that violent media has on the brain. Their research, which was conducted on a group of 54 men, led them to conclude ". . . that participants with aggressive traits have a different brain function map than non-aggressive participants . . . " (LINK) Dr. Alia-Klein, one of the researchers on the team said that "Aggression is a trait that develops together with the nervous system over time starting from childhood . . . . This could be at the root of the differences in people who are aggressive and not aggressive, and how media motivates them to do certain things. . . . How an individual responds to their environment depends on the brain of the beholder . . ."

So your child might not grow up to become an axe wielding maniac, but then again your child may become conditioned to sadistic scenes of gratuitous violence. Instilling empathy into children can be hard enough without the negative influence of violent films and games.

For me personally, the video game that caused me to realize that a line had been crossed was called Manhunt. In a Wired magazine article praising the lasting effect the game had on the genre, Julie Muncy writes: "Violence is the point of the game. But killing in Manhunt is far from glamorous. That's what remains so effective about it. It's not a fun killing game. It's a horror game" (LINK). New Zealand banned the game outright, Australia eventually followed suite and in Canada it became the first computer game to be classified as a film, in Ontario.

This game was released fifteen years ago but more recently a game called Active Shooter (LINK) allowed players to walk through a school to gun down children. The game was ultimately pulled but the violence and realism in games is only increasing in intensity and shocking, vile content, since games like Manhunt were released. Will you permit your children to be exposed and become engrossed in violent media? Who out there is even willing to stop their ears from hearing of bloodshed and shut their eyes from seeing evil?

I am Jonathan Riley for Tomorrow's World Viewpoint.

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