An Introduction to Our Topic: Violent Video Games

Violent video games is a topic that elicits strong emotions from both gamers and media violence activists, but remains one that resonates little in popular opinion and receives far too little attention in the classroom. The dominant view seems to be that violent video games, like other forms of entertainment violence, are for the most part harmless fantasy. Violent video games are simply a new expression of the assumed human, or at least male, attraction to violence and playing war; from toy soldiers to games of Cowboys and Indians to war-themed video games, this is apparently the way it has always been.

However, our attitudes about violent toys and imagery are not fixed, but shaped by our social environment. The ubiquitous GI Joe was taken off the US market in 1976 due to poor sales, only to return with a far more muscular physique during the heavily militarized 1980s. Since 9-11, interest in war toys and war-themed video games have soared; in December 2012, just in time for the Christmas market, sales of Call of Duty Black Ops 2 surpassed one billion dollars in only 15 days (www.forbes.com 7 Dec. 2012).  While women make up a significant percentage of the video game market, the online shooter game culture remains hyper-masculine. The players span the ages (indeed the average American video game player is 33), but some violent video games, like the Xbox version of the highly successful US military recruiting game, America’s Army, have been specifically marketed for teens (Nichols 2010).

Most criticisms of violent games have focused on the popular Grand Theft Auto  series, where the protagonist can engage in such acts as gunning down innocent bystanders, murdering police officers or raping women (and even here the critics are typically silenced by the commonly expressed response “but I have spent hours playing these games and I have never hurt anyone!”). Despite the entertainment industry’s vocal rejection of any suggestion that violent entertainment contributes to a more violent society,  much research has established a causal relationship between exposure to media violence and increased aggressive behavior, albeit the relationship is neither necessary nor sufficient (Bushman and Anderson 2001).  On a more positive note, the very fact that turning off TVs and video games for just 20 weeks has been shown to bring about a significant reduction in physical and verbal aggression in schools, with the most aggressive kids benefiting the most, is suggestive of the impact (Robinson, et al. 2001)

But the issues raised by violent video games go even deeper, and call for an educational response. Significantly, war-themed video games, where the violence, regardless of how extreme, is directed at our enemies, have received little popular or academic attention (King and Leonard 2010). War-themed video games are valued for their authenticity:  tremendous attention is given to ensure that the availability and explosive impact of weapons, the effects of night vision goggles on aiming, the exact movement of a soldier clearing a building, and the buttons on historical uniforms are just right. The scenarios are either historical re-enactments, revisionist ones, where players can win their country’s lost wars, or anticipatory histories, where one can go to war in current  or emerging “hot spots”;  in all cases, though, violence is not the last option, but the first and only option.  The subtitle for a video game reenactment of the First Gulf War said it all: “No Diplomats, No Negotiation, No Surrender” (Stahl 2010: 98).  The ethical and political questions about war, thus, become replaced by the single one of “how to fight”.  Moreover, while the player is captivated by the realism of the game, the carnage of real war remains both absent and typically unnoticed by the player.  This raises a key question: as video games become “the medium and metaphor by which we understand war” (Stahl 2010: 112), does making peace in the real world become more difficult?  And, if so, how, as educators, should we respond?

This second issue of Inspire Solutions examines these issues, as well as a number of others, and stresses the necessity for educators to take video games and their messages seriously.  You will find an article, “War Is Not a Video Game – Or Is It?”, where I expand on the issues raised by war games and present some of my students’ reactions to their deeper look at the games they commonly play. The frequently sexist gaming culture and limited representation of women in video games is a topic addressed through a couple of excellent videos and you will find links to numerous useful articles, including David Leonard’s provocative argument that a “pedagogy of peace” requires educators to bring video games into their classrooms. Finally, we will end on a positive note with Michelle Smith’s wonderful discussion of her video game project to promote Cree culture. Her essay brings up many important issues, including the educational value of socially responsible games, while implicitly illustrating the complexities raised by talking about violence.

Pat Romano

Humanities, Dawson College

Selected Works Cited

Bushman, Brad J. and Craig Anderson. “Media Violence and the American Public: Scientific Facts Versus Media Misinformation.” American Psychologist (June/July 2001): 477-489.

Robinson, T.N., et al. “Effects of Reducing Children’s Television and Video Game Use on Aggressive Behavior: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. 155 (2001): 17-23.

King, Richard C. and David J. Leonard. “Wargames as a New Frontier: Securing American Empire in Virtual Space.” Joystick Soldiers: The Politics of Play in Military Video Games. Eds. Nina B. Huntemann and Matthew Thomas Payne. New York: Routledge, 2010. 91-105.

Nichols, Randy. “Target Acquired: America’s Army and the Video Games Industry.” Joystick Soldiers: The Politics of Play in Military Video Games. Eds. Nina B. Huntemann and Matthew Thomas Payne. New York: Routledge, 2010. 39-52.

Stahl, Roger. Militainment, Inc.: War, Media and Popular Culture. New York: Routledge, 2010.

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5 Responses to An Introduction to Our Topic: Violent Video Games

  1. Matthew Côté May 14, 2015 at 3:30 pm #

    The part that stood out the most to me in this article was when it said “the violence, regardless of how extreme, is directed at our enemies,”. As someone that used to play quite a few violent war video games, i can personally say it is ALWAYS like this. I have never played a game where you play as the enemies or the “bad guys”. You are always playing as either the US, Canada, or some country in Europe that is considered an ally. Not once have i played as a Chinese soldier, a Russian one, or a middle eastern one. This raises issues as it could perhaps be seen as propaganda to get the American people to fight against others and be more patriotic. These games only show one side of the story and always present these other countries as the bad guys. Then again, if I were to play the devils advocate I could say that perhaps you always play as these countries because that is where the video games are sold and they believe that they will make the most money by making people play as their own country.

  2. Emily November 28, 2015 at 11:24 am #

    These video games that simulate the experience of being at war, no matter how authentic in graphics and detail to uniform, do not provide a proper representation of war. The human losses and the effects that war has on a soldier’s well-being aren’t shown and that leads to a skewed perception on the reality of war. If we are trying to make a more peaceful world, violent video games are making it much more difficult to achieve that goal. As the youth of today, we are the next generation to promote change in this world. If the amount of media violence that surrounds us diminishes, we can begin to promote a more peaceful world where violence is not the only option.

  3. Félix Perron December 13, 2015 at 8:22 pm #

    While it is true that most, if not all, war video games don’t portray a realistic portrait of actual wars, I believe they can have another effect on people. Although we can’t deny the fact that the children who did not have television for 20 days were less violent, I think some video game players actually use violent games as a way to blow off steam. We can also affirm that not all games go for a realistic view. Some try to make their game as a war game, while trying to convey a message against such violence like, for example, the emerging ‘Art Games’ genre.

  4. Zakary Dorfman May 12, 2016 at 10:55 pm #

    I believe that video games are entirely a cause for aggression and destructive behavior. This article brings up many different good points on the affects that war video games have on children especially. While we think that playing war video games are exposing these children to fictional actions because it is virtual it has the opposite affect. I did not even realize to what extent these video games have on children’s behavior. Another factor that is under looked in these games is the countries that the war takes place in and which soldiers they depict.

  5. A. Popov December 7, 2016 at 9:06 pm #

    It’s evident that militarism surrounds mostly male children’s toys; going to the ‘boys section’ at any toy store proves this. When children are playing these games at a very young age, they absorb the violent words, actions, etc. because they’re still developing and learning. But it’s also parents appropriating these aggressive behaviors especially with the saying ‘boys will be boys’ that basically states it’s in male nature to be attracted to violence. I believe that there is an issue here, and perhaps, if there was more conversation surrounding the topic, there would be more that could be done instead of just banning these types of games in the household. All because the child can’t play these games in their homes doesn’t mean they won’t play it at all.

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