Does this mean gaming, by itself, creates violent criminals and mass-murderers?
We really don't know the answer to this question, but my instinct is that it does not. People that engage in the most notorious crimes are generally extremely troubled individuals, and these difficulties often begin early in their lives. They may include traumatic abuse and neglect, multiple losses and dislocations, and profound difficulties in attachment, which can result in a facility for deception and a very basic inability to empathize with others. Some theorists also believe there may be neuro-biological and temperamental/dispositional factors involved.
While it wouldn't surprise me if a mass murderer or anti-social character enjoyed playing violent videogames, and even became desensitized to the violence from playing, my gut instinct is that these games don't make sociopaths out of people who were not previously inclined. There were plenty of sociopathic killers before videogaming, so it's likely that these folks just found other ways of psyching themselves up for mayhem in the past.
I also find the research on aggression confusing because it conflicts with two pieces of important data. While videogaming has become a major activity for young Americans over the past few years, and much of it is quite violent, rates of violent crime in the USA have dropped, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports. These rates have continued to drop in recent years despite a bad economy and rising unemployment, factors often cited as increasing the potential for violence. If videogaming is proliferating, and it has such a profound effect on aggressive behavior and thought, why isn't this reflected in the violent crime data? It is possible there are other off-setting factors (better policing, stiffer penalties, for example), or that the current generation being raised on violent videogames will become more aggressive as they grow older. But for now, it's hard to argue that the rise in videogaming has brought about a new era of mass violence.
The other data point is my experience, however anecdotal and unscientific it may be.
What I see among friends, family, and clients is video gaming used as an outlet. I see it as a way to escape, relax, get a thrill, and to develop connections through group play. Even with the most engrossed gamers I know, I see no evidence of increased aggression to the point of violence. Instead, I see many examples of what I described above: withdrawal and detachment, preoccupation with gaming, loss of investment in real life goals and aspirations, and a tendency to appear flattened-out effectively. I've seen this lead to depression and despair, but not to violent aggression. I have even wondered if some gamers play out violent fantasies through gaming in ways that make them less, not more, likely to act them out in real life--the displacement may prove to be satisfying enough. I have no evidence to support this--it's just a hunch.
The violent aggression I do occasionally see seems more related to intensive drug and alcohol consumption, and often involves young people from different sub-cultures than the gaming world--athletes are a good example because their activity involves so much actual aggression, which can sometimes boil over into real life.
So, in the final analysis, I don't think violent videogaming directly causes sociopathy, though I do accept it may increase aggression levels, and I do think it might pump up a particular sociopath before a particular crime. This doesn't mean I am not concerned about online nastiness and the way it affects people, both during play and in their real-life experiences, and I think the jury is still out on whether long-term intensive violent videogame play could make you a meaner or more aggressive person.
This new age of technology creates lots of apprehension. While there are reasons for worry, we shouldn't let suspicion amount to certainty when there are so many other factors, beyond gaming, that contribute to anti-social behavior and violence.
Dr. Mark Kline is trying to get his StarCraft II SCVs to make better conversation when not busy being a psychologist, parent, or community educator.
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