Ever since I can remember, popular culture has been a scapegoat for the ills of society. In the early part of the 20th century it was jazz music. During the 1950s it was rock and roll. In the 1970s and 1980s it was violent movies, television and, of course, rock and roll. The 1990s saw the rise into prominence of a new form of content delivery to pick on video games.
The video game industry first came under serious scrutiny with the release of Mortal Kombat in 1992 and Doom in 1993. Both of these games have since become archetypes of the overly violent game, and are still often cited as a cause of violence among the populace, and children in particular. The Entertainment Software Rating Board was formed in 1994 by the industry in response to politicians threatening to pass legislation restricting the sale of violent video games.
The issue of whether video games cause violence has popped every few years since then. After the Columbine school shootings in 1999 it was brought to light that the shooters were avid players of Doom, and many talking heads referred to the game as a strong cause behind the shootings. The release of Grand Theft Auto III in 2001 brought along yet another anti-video game fervor, and it has since replaced Doom and Mortal Kombat as the targets of choice for parental and religious groups.
But saying video games cause violence because someone who committed a violent crime played them is fallacious. According to the Entertainment Software Association sales of computer and console games in 2004 in the United States were around $16 billion and represent about 250 million units of software. Assuming, quite generously, that .01 percent of those games, 2.5 million, were the direct cause of crime by those under the age of 18, that’s still more than twice as the number of charges filed against that age group in 2005, about 1.3 million according to crime statistics from the FBI. If video games actually had a significant effect on how many crimes were committed that percentage would be much greater. The vast majority of people who play video games do not commit crimes. It is far more likely the violence in the games is what attracted the people who did commit crime to play the game in the first place.
I’m not saying video games do not have a psychological effect on people. Numerous studies have reported that exposure to violent media causes increases in aggression and anti-social behavior. Most studies on the subject claim the correlation between playing violent video games and psychological damage is very strong, though there are studies that have shown the exact opposite as well. Those studies that show a correlation are the most damning piece of evidence against video games, and are often cited by those in favor of legislating the medium. Few studies have been done on the possible cathartic effect of video games, however, and I’m curious as to how much of a similar effect playing sports has on people of the same age.
But lets look at the facts of the situation. Simply put, if video games are a significant cause of any violence at all, then the rise of video games in the 1990s and into the 2000s would only have multiplied exponentially the amount of crime on our streets. This is not the case.
According to crime statistics from the FBI, the total amount of offenses charged has dropped 4.4 percent since 1996, and crimes charged against those under 18 years of age has dropped about 25 percent. Murder by youths has dropped 46.8 percent, and motor vehicle, including grand theft auto, has dropped 54 percent.
Popular media is always used as a scapegoat. One of, if not the, most popular media, video games, is the scapegoat in vogue at the moment. But the fact of the matter is video games can’t be causing violence because the violence it’s supposed to be causing simply isn’t there.