Violence in games—less dangerous than watching Boxing

Image courtesy of Glenn Carstens-Peters/Unsplash.

Might the President Himself, Due to His Past-and-Present Promotion of Boxing and Professional Fighting, Be More Existentially Responsible for Mass Shootings Than Are Violent Video Games? (And, Might the Studies About the Real-World Effects of Such Games Be Seriously Incomplete?)

Is playing violent video games associated with real-world violence? Study findings are mixed. Is watching violent sports? Results are clearer cut, with the arguably short answer being yes. Why might spectatorship, over gaming, more likely correlate with (or even cause) aggression? To novelly theorize, because spectators do not get injured, violence, to them, is always positively reinforced. After all, the more physically dominant of the teams is the winner; and, even when a spectator’s team lost, that only meant that it had not been aggressive enough: In a necessarily violent sport, victory is achieved through aggression. In video gaming, in contrast, gamers are players who might lose a battle. Thus, violence to achieve an end, in such gamers’ minds, could, over time, be negatively reinforced.

However, regarding gamers and of course, in the immediate short term, per both commonsense and study findings, a loss might, triggered by anger and frustration over such, likely increase aggression. Too, a child, after being burned from playing with fire, becomes, due to hurt, angrier than he was before his mishap. However, for the long term, he learns to desist from such unnecessary hazards. Also, older folk, generally, are less violent than were their same selves in youth. Much of that mental softening could come from a learned unwillingness to be physically hurt again in an altercation. Thus, a similar psychological mechanism might be at play in gamers’ minds: While losing a physical battle, like losing a game, could, in the immediate short term, trigger greater anger than there was before the fight, in time, such injury and loss could reduce the expression of real-world aggression due to the need to find a better coping strategy than risky-to-use violence.

When only watching violent sports (and not participating in such), viewers see the winner as the one whose physical dominance, exhibited in whatever manner, was overpowering. Thus, and as many social scientists have long argued, violence becomes a role model for problem solving and successful behavior: In hostile sports, nice guys must finish last. Moreover, and, now, using a boxing or a professional-fighting match as an example, in one such bout, it could have been that the truly most violent might not have been the actual victor. Rather, the cleverer of the two opponents was. Nonetheless, that smarter one, still, used his brains to solve his problem, and in the end, win via animalistic might-makes-right. Really, when the goal of a fair fight is to knock the other guy out physically, it is hard to conceptualize a win in another way.

When playing a violent video game (or in a violent sport), the gamer (or player) might win or lose. Thus, in whatever amount that playing translates into real-life behavior, if the use of game (or play) violence led to a loss, violence, in a participator’s mind, might not be envisioned as a real-life answer. (Again, here, the immediate frustration caused by a loss, which could temporarily increase aggression, is not being discussed. Rather, what is, is long-term effect.)

While gamers or players losing violent games may learn a life lesson, the same cannot be said for spectators of violent sports with preset rules-of-aggression to establish the winner—who wins via the brute or clever use of violence. Again, unlike spectators, those actually participating in violent video games or sports, because they might lose or get hurt, can be negatively reinforced to violence in ways that spectators are not. (Surely, in ancient Rome, the gladiators were more hesitant to enter the Coliseum than were those enjoying the blood sport at a safe, viewer’s distance.)

Regarding the not-yet-fully-understood effects of playing violent video games on the minds of gamers, future studies, to be more effective, might have to analyze whether those who play hostile games are of, in such games, above-, at-, or below-average proficiency. Too, it should be determined whether those who are below are more likely to stop their violent gaming eventually and—because physical aggression was shown to these individuals to be, enough of the time, an ineffective problem-solving strategy due to their regular losing streaks—move on to more civil pursuits. Were that so, policy and gaming changes should, then, be required, such as, perhaps, the creation of violent video games wherein every single player using violence eventually loses (to those who are more civilly minded)!

If you saw the movie WarGames, consider how the protagonists, in the finale, saved the day: Via convincing an AI machine, that had gotten hold of nuclear codes, that all of its war-starting strategies were, in the end, futile for the achievement of victory. The AI, then, gave up war because it learned the live-by-the-sword-die-by-the-sword lesson: Due to the principle of mutually assured mass destruction, were it, in each possible way that it were able, to start a nuclear war, it itself would be inescapably burned.

Specifically regarding video games, and another manner by which violence from such might be negatively reinforced upon players, programmed games have limited outcomes. Thus, aggression therein could become boring and negatively reinforced. In fact, a broad, 2019 study on gaming discovered a positive correlation between “intensity of engagement with [violent video] games” and increased aggression. If such a correlation turns out to be widely accurate, it lends credence to this paragraph’s earlier speculation about negative reinforcement because boredom runs counter to intensity of interest. (Similarly, a player not truly enjoying a video game—say, due to a feeling that he or she is immaturely escaping reality, and thus, should, rather, be doing something more constructive—could become negatively reinforced to aggression as well.) In contrast, a real-life sport is never the same game twice. So, the violence viewed therein, not dull, is not negatively reinforced. Moreover, studies have shown that greater violence enthralls spectators, which is a positive reinforcer.

On a different vein, because physical fitness can be achieved in safer ways, violent sports, with arbitrary rules, are, in the larger scheme of things, purposeless. Thus, for those who like to watch such sports (that is, those with an intensity of interest), aggression for no reason other than for the sake of competition and arbitrary fun could be what is being pounded into spectator minds. In distinction, and to paraphrase a speculative, 2016 Psychology Today article to explain why violent video games do not necessarily promote violence (“Violence In Games Does Not Cause Real-Life Violence : A more nuanced look at the relationship between violence and games”), such games might have heroic purposes, say, a character’s aggression might be used to save society. Consequently, what might become enforced in a gamer’s mind is not socially inappropriate violence, but rather, a justifiable use of force.

“We must stop the glorification of violence in our society.” Those were the words of the U.S. President in response to recent, mass shootings (RIP to all the victims). Also, the President, as he has in the past, spoke against violent video games by stating that such could be likely triggers for these awful killings. But, is the pot calling the kettle black?

The President was inducted into New Jersey’s Boxing Hall of Fame due to his hall-of-fame-worthy glorification of the violent sport from the time when he promoted fights in Atlantic City. Furthermore, it is due to the President’s historic support of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC)—wherein both bouts are sometimes held in cages and fighter deaths have occurred—that the organization broadly exists as it now does: This once-fledgling sporting group got off the ground, years ago, due to the backing of the then future President!

Therefore, since the President both was once a leading boxing promoter and gets a great deal of credit for transforming the UFC into a major sport from its once-backwater status, if violent sports more reliably cause or trigger aggression from spectators than do violent video games from gamers, must not, to this day, the President himself share a responsibility, more than do violent video games, for any mass shootings that have been triggered by any social combativeness in the public that stems from the mass viewership of all the fights for which the President has been and is responsible? From a social scientist’s point of view, the arguable or even likely answer is, “Yes. The President might be more existentially responsible than are violent video games.”

However, because only the Omniscient knows the President’s true share of culpability in this matter (if, to be magnanimous, he has any), the previous is not at all to say that the President is certainly responsible for any mass shooting or incident of violence. After all, it might have been that any particular shooter or purveyor of violence had not, for instance, ever watched any UFC fight. Hence, this editorial’s subtitle starts, “Might the President”; and, all of this article’s points should be taken only as existential and speculative questions, without a pinpointing of any exact blame.

The President’s associations with violent sport are not merely in the past. To quote from a Time-magazine piece, of Aug. 4, 2019: “As the nation reeled from two mass shootings in less than a day, [the] President . . .  spent [some time] after the tragedies . . . sending out tweets . . . promoting a celebrity [UFC] fight.” And, like father, like son, Don Jr. and Eric, a month ago, were in the news due to their attending that particular UFC bout.

Crucially, if seeing violent sports correlates with or might likely trigger aggression in spectators, what happens to the President’s mind when he is enjoying watching a fight? Does that have ramifications to his political, cultural, military, financial, and nuclear policy? Is it at all possible that it does not? Might this partly explain, to give but two examples, why he has restarted an international arms race and created a major trade war with China?

When I, the author, sent an early version of this piece to Dr. Jack Rozel, who is President of the American Association for Emergency Psychiatric and an expert on mass shootings, he wrote that my theory—expressed in this article’s first paragraph, about why violent video game playing might not be associated with violence while violent-sport spectatorship might—was, to his knowledge, novel. Therefore—and both to switch perspectives and to be fair to the President regarding his view (and others’) that violent video games do promote real-world violence—I investigated the methodologies of social-scientific studies about the affects of violent video games on gamers. In particular, I paid attention to the following, before-mentioned, 2109 study, used by the press to attack the President’s comments:

“Violent video game engagement is not associated with adolescents’ aggressive behaviour: evidence from a registered report,” which was authored by A. K. Przybylski and N. Weinstein, and published by the UK’s Royal Society. What I found was that these findings did not account for whether the gamers perception of violence was positively or negatively reinforced in the gamers’ minds (too, I found that other studies, about violent-video-game effects, did not consider these variables in the results). To quote from the paper: “Our main interest concerned the relationship between the amount of violent video game play teens engaged in the previous month and the extent to which their parents judged their behaviour as aggressive during this time.”

Moreover, while Przybylski and Weinstein’s study did find, as stated earlier, a correlation between intensity of interest in violent games and aggression, that result was excluded by the authors as being “cherry-picked.” However, via common sense, it would seem that three of the most important variables predicting whether playing violent video games might be associated with real-world violence would be a combination of, even first and foremost, intensity of play (interest), the results of such intensity (did the players win or lose for instance), and after-the-fact enjoyment, or instead, regret (say, over immature escapism). A fourth, crucial variable seems to be what the earlier-mentioned Psychology Today article relayed about violence in video games often being heroic. That author, Dr. Jessee Marczyk, wrote, in that 2016 piece, that he was aware of the lack of studies about violent video games that went so far as to investigate whether such a heroism variable could better determine associations that gamers may or may not have with real-world, antisocial violence.

Thus, do youths who both regularly win and do not regret their time spent intensely playing violent video games role-modeled on evil, non-heroic characters have higher associations with real-world aggression? That is what we need to know to better solve the raging debate about violent-video-game effects. And, ideally, future findings will account for such critical, so-far-unanalyzed factors.

That studies have not tracked what could be the most important variables in determining violent-video-game effects means that the whole brouhaha in the recent news that attacked the President, over his claims that violent video games could trigger mass shootings, seems premature, and thus, unjustified. After all, such assaults, based on available social science, relied on sufficiently incomplete findings. In truth, however, mass shooters themselves might be correlated with those who regularly win and who do not regret their time spent intensely playing violent video games role-modeled on evil, non-heroic characters. We do not know.

Relatedly, studies of the affects of the media’s depiction of violence should, too, be more nuanced. Doing so might even clarify any causal relationship between media violence viewing and real-world aggression. For instance, in such research, the ultimate message, imparted on a subject’s mind by his or her seeing whatever media violence was used in the study, should be more considered:

From time immemorial, social criminals were subject to public punishments, including the most gruesome and violent executions. Why did authorities administer such cruelties in the eyes of the populace? To dissuade citizens from doing the same as that criminal being served justice. Thus, in such cases, where serving justice genuinely dissuades others from the same crime, viewing violence can, paradoxically, promote civil, law-abiding behavior. Therefore, returning to our modern age, if the moral of the media depiction of violence was not counted as a variable in studies examining viewership effects, whether the violence was positively or negatively reinforced could not be determined.

The number of studies on violence in the media are vast. And, for this particular article, I could not accomplish exhaustive research on all such findings. Nonetheless, I did browse through 2013’s Encyclopedia of Media Violence (M. Eastin, ed.; Sage Publications). Therein was a section, regarding morality, that mentioned that, at the time of publication anyway, there had been only one study, in 2011, about morality and video games. When I investigated the focus of that study (titled, “The Influences of Video Gaming on US Children’s Moral Reasoning About Violence”), which regarded the way by which video games might alter moral reasoning, I discovered that it did not precisely correspond to my particular, justice-being-or-not-being served point about an already-fixed morality.

In that same section of the Encyclopedia, there were a number of studies listed on media violence’s link to morality, especially in children. Going through the abstracts, I discovered that far more needs to be understood about this specific variable. Consider: To a youth whose icons are police officers, such an individual might be negatively reinforced to the use of violence were he or she to see a movie of criminals killing cops in a shootout and getting away with it. However, that same media depiction, to someone who idolized gang-bangers, could positively reinforce aggression. Thus, if studies did not account for the morality or the role models of viewers, such findings, blind to the affects of significant positive and negative reinforcements, could be severely lacking as to study conclusions about how media images of violence correlate to real-world violence.

Speaking of mass shooters, who have often copycatted prior mass shooters due to being exposed to details of those gruesome events via the media only, how could individual morality not factor into the equation of how much real-world aggression emanates from viewing media violence? Such a variable must be relevant because others, those with a non-perverse morality, when shown media images of mass shootings, do their best to quell any repeat of such calamitous, antisocial violence. Likewise, when media violence is showing martyrs for a political cause, such images, creating sympathy, might be triggering more peace! (Although, paradoxically, such an eventually ensuing peace might have been made manifest by civil aggression from the media viewers against those authorities that had unjustly and violently oppressed those martyrs.)


3 thoughts on “Violence in games—less dangerous than watching Boxing

  1. Dear Chaim,

    The points in your fascinating article were at issue over 2000 years ago in Greece, when Plato and Aristotle advanced opposing views on violence and whether it causes more violence OR drains violence out of our systems.

    How are you? Where are you? Hope all is well!

    Best, Douglas Golde P.S. It’s a priori, not a–priori.

  2. Dear Douglas, thanks so much for your appreciation and your attention to detail! I plan to look into what you write regarding the Greek philosophers; and, as necessary, update the article. It would make it stronger no doubt. To save me time, I ask you, as the expert, what was their debate’s conclusion? That answered might save taxpayers a million-dollar study! (Ha, ha.) FYI of course, I was unfamiliar with this particular bit of ancient history. Had I been, I would have already mentioned it in the article.

    Otherwise, regarding me, it’s a lot of work to do our part to save the world!

    God bless!

  3. PS. Regarding “a-priori, more-of-a-deductive-than-a-statistics-based sociologist,” I had considered no dash. However, with poetic license, I, in this case, decided to use one because this long series of hyphenated words seems very deductive-like.