Killing in the name of: When does the blame game stop?

Saturday, 3rd December 2011 06:10 GMT By Julie Horup

Tired of the old chestnut about games causing violence? It’s time for gaming to grow up and stop passing the buck, Julie Horup argues.

Decades ago it was films, then it was Marilyn Manson, and now it’s Grand Theft Auto.

Colorado, USA: 13 killed. Oslo/Utøya, Norway: 77 killed. Alphen aan den Rijn, The Netherlands: 6 killed. Virginia, USA: 32 killed. Illinois, USA: 6 killed.

See, video games do cause violence.

Before you start throwing around trolling comments, calling me a stupid games journalist who shouldn’t be allowed near the Internet, just take a few minutes to consider the statement. I’m right. You know why? Because it’s the truth. Games can cause violence – but despite ignorant attempts to connect the death tolls above with your favourite hobby, this doesn’t mean they’re the reason that unstable sociopaths go on a shooting spree when something goes haywire in their head.

Press A to learn about anger management
Like other forms of media, many just as innocuous to their aficionados, games have the ability to push someone over the edge – when they’re already dangerously close to it. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, and we shouldn’t be afraid to admit it. It happens all the time, and games aren’t the only culprits being singled out; decades ago it was films, then it was Marilyn Manson, and now it’s Grand Theft Auto with a little bit of Modern Warfare as well as Doom. People constantly need a scapegoat in case something goes wrong – just look at what’s been done in the name of religion through history.

Controversially Violent

Mortal Kombat, 2011. Refused classification in Australia for extreme gore.

Bulletstorm, 2011. Triggered a media circus describing it as the most violent game ever.

Left 4 Dead 2, 2009. Refused classification, then censored, in Australia, for extreme gore.

Saw, 2009. Like the source material, considered gratuitous and exploitive by some critics.

Madworld, 2009. Another media darling considered the “most violent game ever”.

Having said that, it’s not as much about games causing violence as it’s about violence being an innate weakness in human nature. It’s there right from the birth, and if not, then it’s being fostered by our surroundings; maybe through abuse, maybe by being left alone to burn ants with a magnifying glass or maybe just because it somehow excites certain problematic individuals to see other people suffer. The difference is that while most of us learn how to control our anger and thus are able to play a simulation of shooting without triggering a violent episode, others aren’t as well equipped, and slip through the cracks.

An individual isn’t prompted to violence because games carry some brainwashing power, or because evil masterminds are masquerading as developers, but because of biological or psychological malfunctions and a lack of care when its important. Call it broken DNA or a dysfunctional society, I honestly don’t care – but don’t pretend it’s because of a virtual playground called San Andreas.

Press X to learn about reality
The fact is that video games don’t breed violence; society breeds violence. When young children were gunned down in Norway earlier this year, it wasn’t successful because the perpetrator had played Modern Warfare 2. Had he played paintball, he would probably be just as skilled (if not more) with a rifle, but who would be sane enough to condemn something playful and innocent like that? It’s just a game.

Critics might want to consider how cathartic an experience it is when you overcome John Terry on a virtual pitch in FIFA instead of chanting disgraceful profanities at him in the real world. In this case maybe he deserves it, but the same goes for Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row. I may feel the urge to slap someone around or whip them with a dildo, but that doesn’t mean I’m actually going to do it. I’m pretty much content with the whole affair never leaving the screen of my telly.

Ctrl + Alt + Del
When we argue so vehemently that games are innocent as little baby lambs, we do them a disservice. We make them different from other forms of media which have weathered these same kinds of attacks and come through unscathed. It’s stupid, really, because it’s a lost cause; the mainstream media will also find something to demonise when senseless acts horrify, and while we could defend games against baseless allegations, we might be better off if we simply didn’t bother. Games aren’t innocent, helpless souls anymore. Their virginity has been popped; they should be able to take a beating, and if not, then they probably deserve a 3/10. They need to stand alongside other forms of grown up media and take the criticism as the sound and fury it is.

I’d rather spend my time slaying dragons or saving the universe than constantly having to convince worried mothers and desperate attorneys that their children are going to be alright.

Pouring fuel on a blazing fire by responding, giving the critics more ammunition, never ends well. I’d rather spend my time slaying dragons or saving the universe than constantly having to convince worried mothers and desperate attorneys that their children are going to be alright despite enjoying a pastime that merely imitates a bombastic reality with its catastrophic consequences.

Violent games aren’t capable of giving birth to an entire generation of psychotic lunatics, and they never will be – much as music, film and TV won’t. There’s a reason age ratings have been put in motion, and there’s a reason we can choose to remove blood from certain games, but trying to escape the unwanted responsibility of deranged actions by placing the blame on something as simple as entertainment is perhaps the most irresponsible thing about this whole situation.



  1. The_Deleted

    You could argue the point that being consistently bad at a game could cause a brainwrong. We’ve all heard stories of people breaking controllers and it won’t take a huge leap for some unsavoury individuals to transfer that frustration over to people. There was a case in my hometown recently about a man (44), strangling a kid because he was losing, and being verbally assaulted, by a neighbour:

    It’s easy to dismiss these people as ‘salt of the earth’ types, but the fact is a grown man assaulted a child. Because of a game.

    #1 3 years ago
  2. BULArmy

    Everything can vause violence if you have problems with the brain. A lot of gamers jump that video games are not a big problem, but they can also affect and they can greatly as a visual media. If you arew paranoid or suffer form schizophrenia violent images can definetly affect you as can let say bullying. Here in Bulgaria during the socializim after screening of The Godfather, two students tought they are followed and then killed a lot of innocent people. Yes we can’t blame everything on the movies and games, but we can’t dismiss that in some cases they can be the reason for something bad. I must admit that I became angry often, sometimes over very stupid things, like idiot drivers, friends, girlriend, etc., and to cope with that anger I go and play the disurbing game Postal 2 where I kill all the people in one area and then I feel relaxed. This that mean that in some point I will become a mass-murderer, I don’t know but as teen when your mentality is shaped greatly I played a lot of violent games and if something bad happen in the future, I thing video games can be blamed, because they were a vital part of my development. I just hope that my personality of a very friendly and caring for everyone and everything person I will not do such bad things.

    #2 3 years ago
  3. etienne.f

    Deleted -> What’s the point? He didn’t kill him because of a game, he killed him because he was pissed off. It can happen anywhere, for any reason… And sorry to say that, but, even if games were responsible for what, 200 killed people in the world (?), come on guys, even coconuts kill more people every 5 years in Australia! And what about women murdering their unfaithful husbands? Is it because a few women kill a few unfaithful husbands that we have to ban all the girls and become all gays? Luckily for me, HELL NO, it’s because the behavior of their husbands is not correct, and because they are weak and cannot calm down. There’s always a reason, and as said in this article, it’s not a videogame, a lollipop, a movie or a chicken that gonna make of you the perfect killer.

    #3 3 years ago
  4. The_Deleted

    He didn’t kill the boy, he assaulted him. A 46 year old man assaulted a child because of a game they were both playing. The kid behaved like any arrogant teen, and a mature man, who I understand is a father himself responded with violence.

    #4 3 years ago
  5. OrbitMonkey

    Violence is not a psychological disorder. It is a universal language that we should be taught to speak fluently.

    Mixed martial arts should be added to all schools curriculum, that would be a start.

    #5 3 years ago
  6. freedoms_stain

    @4 he didn’t attack the kid because of the game, he attacked him because he was pissed off, the fact that they encountered each other through a game is pretty incidental, not causal.

    If they had been playing a sport and the same kid taunted him relentlessly for 90 minutes he very well may have reacted in the exact same way.

    As far as I’m aware there is no kid throttling mode in Call Of Duty, so what exactly are you claiming is the causal link?

    #6 3 years ago
  7. deathgaze

    tl;dr: Crazy people gon’ be crazy.

    #7 3 years ago
  8. beemoh

    >There’s a reason age ratings have been put in motion

    Yes, it’s because someone went “Games cause violence!” and nobody fought back properly. The other media came out of the other side of such arguments because they defended themselves, not because they hid until everything blew over.

    That being said, it would be nice if gaming did actually have a platform to defend itself on, rather than just making irritated comments on Twitter and various specialist forums.

    Much of the “Games Are Evil And Wrong” rhetoric comes from highly visible newspapers (generally wilfully misinterpreting studies), highly visible news channels, highly visible talk shows, and highly visible politicians. All the balance is/facts are hidden in the games press that nobody knows exists for nobody to see.

    If a mainstream, generalist show like The Wright Stuff, since it’s the one with the most obvious bee in its bonnet about games right now, features a film tomorrow saying how it’s terrible and it’s going to make everyone go out killing, accompanied by a creatively-edited trailer, then there’s a good chance that the director or an actor will be on another mainstream, generalist show getting to talk about how it’s not what the other show made it look like (or getting to justify why it is what it looks like), or that same show will have some regular feature where other films can come to the fore and effectively show that the medium isn’t all bad.

    Meanwhile, if The Wright Stuff does another one of its bits about games, that’s all the information that most people will ever see about the entire artform. There will be no alternative view on another, comparable programme, or in a newspaper. If we’re lucky, we might get half an hour in the middle of the night on some nothing cable channel nobody watches anyway, every other week.

    Yes, there might be a bit on some website like VG247 or CVG, but let’s face it, nobody outside our little bubble knows they even exist, never mind are aware of what content they’re publishing. For all the time we spend patting ourselves on the back about how mainstream games are because Angry Birds had however many million downloads, if you ask the man on the street to list all the videogames they know of, they’ll give you a list of one: Modern Warfare 3, because that’s the one they’ve heard of in the latest round of scaremongering. If you get a particularly smart one, they might be able to work out from the name that there were two more Modern Warfares before it.

    It’s only “noise and fury” if it is ineffective. But all the “noise and fury” over Manhunt 2 lead to the British government comissioning The Byron Review, which resulted in tighter regulation for videogames. “Noise and fury” is the reason Australia never extended their 18 rating to games in the first place, why Germany has to have their own special versions of games made, and why MMOs in certain Asian countries have to close at night.

    Yes, maybe being angry on Twitter is pointless, and yes, maybe we could do without that tiny minority that go a bit too far and send letters they shouldn’t to people they shouldn’t. But that doesn’t mean gaming should just bend over every time someone threatens it.

    #8 3 years ago
  9. PEYJ

    Of course video games are not “hired assassins” that will inspire people to kill just like that. But to actually believe that game cannot influence someone in the long run to become a worse person, I find downright naive.

    Everything can influence us in the wrong way and there seem to be a too easy “it use to be music, then it was movies and now it’s games – just shut up”. A video game gives us the power to do stuff that we do not have the possibility to do normally. It sort of makes us gods for a while, from where I’m standing it seems that more and more individuals seek escapism almost as a drug, and if that drug is mainly about killing and deciding over other entities lives, it does not seem that implausible that gamers can become misguided in life.

    Furthermore, being in my thirties I always look at a game and a genre, and both deliberately and unconsciously compare it to other games and genres from the same generation and previous generations. I am putting the games into perspective. And I do not only compare it to other games but also movies and the media in generel.

    Children and youngsters are of obvious reasons only to a lesser degree or not at all able to do this. That’s why many video games are not for everyone – there were never aimed at or made by children or youngsters.

    As for the example about the father killing a child, I actually believe the root here lies in “bad winner”-mentality that seems to be a norm of our time, when we are looking at competitive entertainment. And since gaming is one the preferred leisures of today, it seems that the “pioneering” in this area happens in the realm of video games.

    All this, I find, makes it clear that video games is too important to dismiss merely as being entertainment – by all sides. Video games lost their innocence several years ago.

    #9 3 years ago
  10. Cygnar

    Mz. Horup, you make a strawperson of people who defend games as a medium: very few people “argue so vehemently that games are innocent as little baby lambs.” Games are violent to be realistic, to make a point, to shock, or simply to entertain. No one with any far-reaching voice in the gaming industry denies that some games are extremely violent and offensive. What most of them will deny, however, is that video games are uniquely different from other forms of entertainment such as music, film, or comic books in their capacity to “cause” violent behavior, and therefore deserve additional restrictions above and beyond those applied to other media.

    It is also less than convincing to merely assert that video games “cause” violence, and then argue from that starting point. You have effectively glossed over the entire point of contention, which is whether games ought to be treated differently from other forms of entertainment. Whether games “cause” violence where music and movies do not is the very fact about which all the various experts, developers, lobbyists, and enthusiasts disagree. While the bulk of your article may ring true, I think it misses the point. That violent people exist independently of video games is not, and probably has never been, an issue in controversy.

    #10 3 years ago
  11. DSB

    The idea that games should accept partial responsibility is just as retarded as movies or music doing the same. And personally I don’t know anyone involved with those forms of media, who are willing to humbly bow their heads and accept what is essentially blood libel, because someone with no understanding of the medium needs a scapegoat.

    At least that’s how I understood the argument. Yes, videogames are used as scapegoats, but they’re a mighty appropriate scapegoat, and as such it might as well accept part of the blame.

    That doesn’t make any sense. Either games cause violence, or they don’t. If they only cause violence in the case of people with certain pre-existing conditions, then it would be madness to accept responbility.

    Spree killing has been around since the time of recorded history. And they’ve always had an overwhelming number of young people as perpetrators, for numerous obvious reasons, such as mental illness usually blossoming around the time that people graduate from puberty.

    The fact that things like movies, music or videogames come to recreate the reality of mass killing as entertainment is hardly surprising. Murder has been entertainment in written and spoken word format since long before the Bible.

    Mindless appeasement isn’t going to enrich videogames as a medium. Surrendering to peoples misunderstandings would only serve to cripple it creatively, and it still wouldn’t gain an ounce of respect in the eyes of loud mouthed pundits, who are suddenly vindicated in not having to know the slightest thing about the subject, to place it in whatever wild context they see fit.

    #11 3 years ago
  12. Ireland Michael

    I don’t particularly care for extreme violence in video games. I find it crude and juvenile.

    Therefore… I simply don’t play them.

    You can write a thousand words on the subject, but the issue really is that simple when you boil down to it.

    #12 3 years ago
  13. The_Deleted

    I’m not saying the game was the cause of the attack, I’m saying the game was the antecedent.Does that make a game accountable? No. But you don’t sit and compete during movies or books. Competitive games can raise peoples stress levels the same as sports. Can’t handle your negative emotions… don’t compete and endanger others.

    #13 3 years ago
  14. Cygnar

    Even though it is a known fact that football games routinely cause destructive and deadly riots across Europe and South America, the sport is neither banned nor heavily regulated by the government. FIFA competitions make it abundantly clear that competitive activities are not banned and regulated just because they are competitive, or even because of their propensity to incite violence–if they were, even the Olympics would be a thing of the past.

    Nor are violent forms of entertainment banned simply because of their violence. The continued existence of the market for hardcore Japanese horror films makes that clear. Entertainment that glorifies violence and subversive activity still exists in the free world, such as black metal music and grotesque films such as Nekromantik. Especially in the case of film, the fact that an entertainment product conveys no message beyond its approval of illegal and cruel activity is still not grounds for its regulation. How is a game’s assignment of points or story progression in return for violent actions any different from a film’s moral approval of the same sorts of activities?

    Is it the combination of violent activity and competition that makes games so uniquely objectionable? Are violent, single-player games with no competitive elements acceptable? Manhunt and Postal were single-player games, and yet they usually top the lists of objectionable games. The arguments about games and violent behavior apply whether or not the games in question are competitive, because there are competitive games that are not objectionable (people get into fights over Madden, but no one blames shootings on it) as well as objectionable games that are not competitive (such as Grand Theft Auto). There are even games that can be intensely frustrating for some, but which are neither violent nor competitive: Mario is a prime example, but very few people claim that Mario deserves to be banned or limited only to mature audiences.

    The real argument from lobbyists, parents, and the like has nothing to do with frustration or competition. It all boils down to violence and interactivity. For me, the issue is whether games are like football: will lawmakers conclude that regulating violent activity is enough to fight violence, or will they regulate all the activities they think lead to violence? If they choose the latter, lawmakers will need to account for why video games require different treatment from other forms of entertainment. As it stands, The Catcher in the Rye has stronger links with murder than any video game does, but any child can buy a copy at any bookstore in the free world. Maybe that will change if public aversion to violence is allowed to control speech.

    #14 3 years ago
  15. OlderGamer

    One thing over looked and not mentioned here:

    Video gaming is interactive. Music, Books, TV, Movies are not. Video games are empowering.

    Gaming, imo, must be treated differently then other media. To not see it that way is to be a bit jaded and maybe blinded by the hobby that one enjoys. I think that is what Julie was driving at.

    IMO, gaming does not cause violence, but I do think it can purpitrate it. It didn’t start the fire, but it is like dousing it with a steady flow of gasoline.

    #15 3 years ago
  16. DSB

    Interesting point OG, but it’s certainly not always true. Plenty of people interact with their music by assuming certain subcultures associated with it, nevermind going to wild and violent concerts, and books arguably aren’t worth reading if you aren’t willing to form the content in your head.

    The real difference is that music, books and TV is more scripted, and then the question becomes whether the freedom to act unpredictably poses any actual risk to people.

    I doubt it. Most people dream of murdering someone on their way to work. Try being late and stuck in a traffic jam. Visions of beautiful glistening napalm leaving an open road will materialize with a vast number of people.

    It doesn’t make them violent, it doesn’t make them psychotic, but if they already are, then a situation such as that could make them go ballistic.

    Just as a videogame. Because ultimately all it does is stimulate your imagination. I’ve never truly felt like I was killing anyone in a videogame, or like I was running over an actual person with my car. How the notion that videogames are interchangeable with reality comes about, I really don’t know.

    I think it only applies to a select few, already dangerous individuals. And you cannot punish a medium because people who are mentally ill can’t handle it. There’s a lot of things they can’t handle, but that no one wants to ban. Just look at the number of psychotics who claim to be Jesus or Satan, both of which represent powerful personalities of a grandiosity that would speak to a vast number of paranoid schizophrenics.

    Where’s the debate on banning religion? Obviously it too provides fuel for the madness of violent psychotics.

    #16 3 years ago
  17. OrbitMonkey

    People enjoy violent spectacle, always have. We keep saying we’re civilised, but really the only difference between us and the Romans is the level of our technology.

    #17 3 years ago
  18. Cygnar

    Shall we keep actors who play serial killers in movies under surveillance? What about authors who write “subversive” books and truly believe in the moral correctness of the acts they write about? And what of the rap musicians who engage with an industry that responds well to violent content? These people all interact with their media and routinely engage in fictional violence as a part of their work. It is generally accepted that these people are by and large not at an increased risk of engaging in violent behavior. My question to you is whether or not there is any relevant difference between actors and writers who engage in fictional violence, and video game players who engage in fictional violence.

    No one has to prove to anyone that she is mature enough in order to voice an approval of murder, bigotry, and sexual deviance in the form of a novel, music album, or film. These acts must be different from gaming if we are to treat them any differently. But is there really a relevant difference between writing a novel about murder and playing a game asking players to murder characters? The obvious answer is that, in some sense, the player “does” the murder where the author does not. But this argument fails under pressure. Seldom, if ever, does a game ask a player to plan a murder, as a detective novelist must when writing a book. A writer may brainstorm for weeks or months to think up the “perfect crime” to write about–just think of how many ways popular writers have come up with for killing other people and avoiding the consequences. Gamers, on the other hand, merely “engage” in the violent acts themselves, but there are few games, if any, that require a player to actually think like a murderer like an author must.

    Maybe the difference between playing games and writing arises when games “approve” of violent acts by rewarding or requiring gamers to “do” them. But why, then, does the “No Russian” stage of Modern Warfare 2 leave such a bad taste in our mouths? The game never approves of, or even requires players to engage in, the shooting. Much like a detective novel, MW2 presents a heinous crime and disapproves of it. Yet the game and the book must be different if we are to have any reason for treating them any differently from each other.

    I agree that gaming is different from other forms of entertainment. The question is, what does the difference boil down to, and does this difference matter?

    #18 3 years ago
  19. Gurdil

    Totally agree with you Julie! Great article! That’s what I keep saying when people tell me video games cause violence: “No more than movies or books” What could they possibly answer to that except the usual “erm… well… you know, on TV they said it caused more violence than any other medium” which, of course, is the lamest thing to say ever? Gaming is a medium, no more, no less. If a complete nutbag plays a violent video game, it might trigger something that will awaken his violence, just as a violent movie could.
    Remember people, the best answer is “Well, do you think I’m a psycho who would slaughter an entire high school? Yet, I’m a gamer. Video games can’t trigger something that’s not already here…”

    #19 3 years ago

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