Whenever questions regarding violence and computer games are brought up, it is always the same game at the epicentre of the debate. It is a game which, even since its humble 2-D beginnings has always been steeped in controversy. Although some defend it, there are many people who - after seeing it fleshed out into this staggeringly realistic, completely amoral world of murder, car theft and armed robbery - really believe that Grand Theft Auto has incited people to kill.
Manhunt and Grand Theft Auto Made Me Kill
How else, some argue, do you rationalize violent crimes committed by Playstation owning youngsters whose actions seem otherwise unexplainable? What else could be brutalising them to such an extent they are capable of murder?
The whole debate resurfaced recently in Thailand when, after robbing and murdering a taxi driver, a 19 old Thai teenager ‘confessed’ he only did it to re-enact a scene from GTA IV. The game was slammed by the British Police Federation as ‘sick, deluded and beyond fun’ while Grand Theft Auto IV was immediately banned across the whole of Thailand.
Similar events took place back in Britain. After bludgeoning a 14 year old to death with a hammer, a 17 year old boy from Leicester told police he only committed this heinous act because he saw it on the blood sport game Manhunt. After a media storm, with the Daily Mirror running the headline ‘Murder by Playstation’ - as though the boy had nothing to do with it – retail giant Dixons refused to stock the game because they were worried it might drive more people to kill.
Recent Research into Game Induced Violence
However, is there any scientific proof that video games had any part in the actions of these individuals? If they had never played violent video games could these murders have been averted?
Well the truth is that, although many people have attempted to prove there is a link between video games and raised levels of aggression, there is no concrete evidence for it what so ever. Interestingly what all the evidence does suggest is that far from increasing violent crime in young people, violent computer games have actually brought it down. After researching the issue, Patrick Kierkegaard – an academic from the University of Essex – concluded that… ‘there is no obvious link between real-world violence statistics and the advent of video games. If anything, the effect seems to be the exact opposite and one might argue that video game usage has reduced real violence.’
He went on to cite the statistics of juvenile crime in the US, which has fallen sharply since the meteoric rise of computer games almost 20 years ago… ‘Violent crime, particularly among the young, has decreased dramatically since the early 1990s. With millions of sales of violent games, the world should be seeing an epidemic of violence. Instead, violence has declined.’
The Columbine High School Massacre
These findings tie in with one of the most controversial events ever to have been linked to violent computer games: The Columbine High School Massacre. Many people believed that the actions of the two teenage shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who killed 13 people and wounded countless more before committing suicide, were instigated - to some extent - by their fascination with violent games, music and films.
People believed that, almost like dark seeds, these morbid ideas had been gradually cultivated in the youngsters minds through a combination of Marilyn Manson death metal music, the FPS game Doom, and Quentin Tarantino movies. But what is truly shocking about the Columbine High school massacre is that, linking back to Patrick Kierkegaard’s argument, far from contributing to the massacre, violent video games could have actually averted it.
It is true that both Harris and Klebold loved spending time at their computers and, amongst other things playing violent first person shooters. Harris particularly enjoyed the game Doom and even created his own set of levels which can still be found floating around the internet. Computers were a way for both teenagers to escape lives which for one reason or another, they found unendurable. However both were banned computer access by their parents after growing concern from their high school. Suddenly bored and with vast amounts of spare time, this was the point at which Harris and Klebold began to plan the massacre.
Is it not unreasonable then to suppose that had their computer access not been taken away Harris and Klebold might have continued to express these violent fantasies virtually? Could it not have at least bought time which would have stopped them from getting properly organised and planning everything so meticulously? After all, both teens were in their final months of their last high school year.
An Uncomfortable Truth
Of course this is all speculation, but if people argue that computer games had a hand in the killings, the opposite line can also be taken. But, just like the case of the Thai GTA IV supposed copycat murder, and the Manhunt style bludgeoning of an innocent teenager, it is obvious that far from being turned homicidal by computer games, these individuals already had something seriously wrong with them to begin with.
The real reasons behind what makes somebody kill could never be explained in such simplistic terms as ‘because they saw it on a computer game’. The answer is far more complex; buried deep beneath intricate layers of psychological make-up we can barely scratch the surface of.
Although our society likes to distance itself from violence it is nevertheless a deep rooted part of human nature which reaches back long before video games. The simple truth is that the relationship between computer games and violent behaviour is one of moderation. Like a buffer zone they offer people a way to express violent fantasies safely and, more often that not, without them ever spilling out into the real world.