A Second Look at Violence in Video Games

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About a week ago a 16-year old teen stabbed his brother once in the heart with a steak knife after losing a video game and being asked to pass the controller. About six months ago a man killed his 17-month old infant daughter after she unplugged his XBox 360. These were just Philadelphia-area incidents. Who knows what’s going on nation- and worldwide.

You could condemn the killers, and plenty of people have. But my reaction is a little different. The fact that these are murders of passion separates these killers from those who premeditate the slaughter of their family members. And the fact that video games are causing these violent outbursts is worth thinking about.

Because I think that very few avid gamers can say they have never freaked out after their character dies, their quarterback throws an interception, or the power goes out. I’ve flung Playstation controllers. I’ve smacked TV screens. And it makes me wonder that maybe the only thing stopping me from being a fratricider is the fact that I don’t have a brother.

Let’s face it: video game rage is real, and no one is talking about it. In the media’s obsession with the vague connection between playing violent video games and committing real violence, the very clear connection between playing video games and getting extremely pissed off has passed under the radar.

There are 2 facts about video game rage that strike me as significant. 1, even people with normally calm tempers are prone to video game rage. It seems like it’s easier for people to get worked up over a video game than real life. 2, the murders and spaz-outs all come when something happens out-of-game. The man killed his daughter because she unplugged his XBox. The teen killed his brother because he had to give up the controller. And the German in the video is freaking out because the game has a very long load time. A pulled plug, a lost game, and a slow processor are all out-of-game incidents.

With these 2 things in mind, I can formulate a half-baked theory. Let me explain it in a kind of roundabout way.

We could split the things that make you spontaneously furious — let’s call them rage stimuli — into 2 categories. A rage stimulus can be out-of-game, an example being the revelation you are being cheated on. Or it can be in-game, an example being your quarterback throwing an interception in NFL Madden ’07. It’s my hypothesis that spontaneous crimes of passion are more likely to result from in-game rage stimuli than from out-of-game rage stimuli. That’s pure speculation — I don’t know of any relevant studies — but I have a reason for believing it’s true.

Let’s flesh out the two examples.

Case 1: You come home from work and your wife is crying. She asks you to sit down and then tells you that she has cheated on you. You are pissed! You scream. Gesticulate wildly. Cry. Maybe you slam your fist on something, but it’s totally unlikely that you get violent.

Case 2: Your team is down by 5 points late in the 4th quarter. Your quarterback, Eli Manning, throws an interception. As furious as you are, you have no in-game means of expressing it. So the rage accumulates and when your brother demands the controller you stab him in the fucking chest.

The difference is that out-of-game we are able to express our rage as it comes to us. In-game, we are unable to express our rage and so it simmers until we can find an excuse to express it out-of-game. Spontaneous violent acts like the ones mentioned above are the out-of-game products of unexpressed & inexpressible in-game rage.

If this theory is right, then violent games like Grand Theft Auto are actual cathartic rather than damaging. If something irritating happens in-game, you can kill a prostitute or beat the shit out of an old lady. And if this theory is right, more games should incorporate in-game means of expressing rage. FIFA 1998, Road to the World Cup comes to mind. In that game, which came out for the N64, you could press a button that would have your player kick the nearest player as hard as he could. It was a terrible strategy, since your player would almost always be ejected from the game. But we pressed it all the time.

More recent FIFA games haven’t had that feature. After all, violence in video games is bad, right? Don’t be so sure. If there’s anything to what I say, then it’s the lack of violence in video games that’s dangerous.

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