“Life’s a game. Everybody’s got to die sometime.” That's what Alabama teenager Devin Moore said when he was apprehended after shooting two police officers and a police dispatcher in 2003. Moore, who was reportedly an avid fan of "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City," was sentenced to death in 2005, but his case is one of many that periodically revives the familiar debate on the connection, if any, between video game violence and real-life crime.
A version of that debate resurfaced in August after a flurry of misogynistic threats against two female game developers and a feminist blogger was triggered by developer Zoe Quinn's relationship with gaming writer Nathan Grayson. "Gamergate" is first about ethics in gaming journalism, but it also provided an excuse for a number of unidentified social media trolls to spew hatred toward women.
“Any time women are working in a field where they are definitely in the minority, there is a lot of hypersexualized imagery around, and some of the men in that field are primed to see women as lesser people. It sets the stage for a hostile work environment,” Cheryl K. Olson, author of “Grand Theft Childhood,” told IBTimes. Olson also co-founded the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health and Media in 2000. In 2004, the group conducted a $1.5 million study on the relationship between video games and violence.
Olson, however, says it’s unfair to place blame entirely on video games, and that other media need to be examined as well. “I don’t think we have enough evidence to single out video gamers as particularly misogynist, since there is also plenty of sexist content in movies and on television,” she said.
More than a decade after the Devin Moore incident, the connection between violence in video games and real world criminal behavior remains complex and controversial. While research does show that video game playing correlates with violence in certain individuals, it's only one of many factors that can contribute to real-world actions.
“Violence is complicated and complex, and one variable, like violent video games, is not a singular cause,” Mary Ellen O’Toole, Ph.D., a former FBI forensic behavioral consultant, told IBTimes. “The personality of the offender, life experiences, mental health issues, exposure to violent social media, etc., are certainly some of the key factors that can contribute to someone’s decision to act out violently.”
“For a small group of people, sustained exposure to violent social media, including video games, can be a factor in encouraging, reinforcing, desensitizing and normalizing behavior that the individual is already considering as a way to get even or become famous,” she added.
Jacqueline Helfgott, Ph.D., a professor of criminal justice at Seattle University, also has conducted a number of studies on the correlation between video games and violence. She found similar results -- that video games could influence people who were already predisposed to violent behavior. “Video games alone don’t cause people to become violent, but we need to have a more complex understanding of how games affect violence-prone individuals immersed in hypermasculine subcultures."
“How different forms of media content operate as risk-factors for criminal behavior for specific people, subpopulations, and subcultures is an open question,” Helfgott explained. “All aspects of culture can affect these individuals. Some of them become isolated or are only playing games online, and not engaging in real relationships – all this while forming their own identities.”
The problem for at-risk individuals is that they can easily become isolated in virtual communities where violence and misogyny are encouraged and rarely questioned. Helfgott believes this solitude, along with our modern culture’s obsession with fame and acceptance, is what drove 22-year-old misogynist Elliot Rodger to kill seven people, including himself, and wound 13 others near the University of California, Santa Barbara, in May this year.
Rodger’s hatred for women was well-documented in his YouTube blogs, and he was also an avid “World of Warcraft” player.
With individuals like Rodger, playing violent video games can be a warning sign of violence, since Rodger would have likely belonged to this very specific subculture. Helfgott has read some of the threats targeted toward game industry women like Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian in the past few months, and believes that the perpetrators probably belong to a “small community whose ideas are validated and shared."
Gamergate activists say they don’t support the harassment of women and claim they're not responsible for the vitriolic tweets and messages sent to female developers like Brianna Wu. So, who is? O'Toole says it's very likely a group whose members engage in "common beliefs, attitudes and behaviors," which often becomes an "us against them" mentality.
"A movement or group that normalizes hate or violent behavior towards others, and encourages this behavior, can influence and motivate a member of the group to follow through with acts of violence, bullying, etc., which they might not otherwise engage in without the group’s moral support," O'Toole said.
Helfgott has also read some of these threats. “It was really frightening, and a prime example of how this insulation of certain members in the gaming community can be pretty scary," she said. "These kinds of narratives are going on – and that’s the kind of stuff Elliot Rodger was thinking.”
While some findings do seem to point toward a correlation between video games and violent, misogynistic behavior, "Grand Theft Childhood" author Cheryl Olson believes that's not looking at the whole picture.
“The higher the proportion of video games rated M [mature] that a 13-year-old boy or girl played a lot, the more likely that teen was to bully other students or get into physical fights,” Olson said. “However, we did more analyses of the data, adding in more things from the survey such as a measure of stressful life events, aggressive personality, and amount of parent supervision. It turns out that when you factor in life stress and aggressive personality, the link between M-rated video games and aggressive behavior goes away.”
So, while video games can be a contributing factor to an individual’s violent behavior, it’s significant only when a number of other factors are also present – and most likely isn’t the root cause. One must also look at the desire to engage in violent acts.
“It is very important to note that most of the time when we talk about factors that lead to violence, we leave out one very important one – the desire and/or personal decision to be violent,” O’Toole said. “In my experience, most people who engage in violent behavior do so because they want to. They willingly and consciously choose violence as a way to deal with their personal, social and professional problems.”
The problem in the current video game debate is the anonymity of the Internet, which Helfgott says creates an invisible “buffer” that makes it easier to bully others. “It’s easy to objectify a person if you don’t know them,” she explained. “That’s one of the things that make it easy for people to participate in cyberthreats and cybercrime. This buffer allows people to devalue others, and that can be harmful, especially in an online community that holds hatred and anger toward women.”