The age old debate “Do Video Games Cause Violence?” is a classic heated discussion of not just a vital medium in the media industry, but also, at it’s base level, a discussion of audience theory. In order to fully understand whether or not video games negatively effect the brains of the players, we have to learn about the way the brain consumes media and how the brain processes emotional responses to said media. In the case of video games, it goes without saying that there is a huge impact on the brain, usually featuring highly brain-intensive situations, whether it be anywhere from a puzzle game to a high octane first person shooter. The brain, as you can imagine, certainly is not short of things to do – unless the game is unnecessarily boring. The brain will be constantly occupied, thinking deeply about solutions to problems, surveying landscapes and understanding new worlds or even triggering high speed instincts, which is what sets video games apart from other media, like film and television for example. This is why video games as a medium are so highly praised, improving hand-eye coordination, problem solving skills and alleviating stress. Essentially by playing games a consumer is training themselves to do many things, which in some cases is an excellent thing, with puzzle games like Picross, KAMI and Portal honing in on puzzle solving skills. On the other hand, there is the side of things like first person shooters, i.e Call of Duty and Battlefield highly training hand-eye coordination, speeding up reflexes and generally getting adrenaline flowing. These two examples have a high competitive factor on top of this, which gives depth and reason to entering the world. With something like CS:GO or DOTA 2 there are incredibly high levels of adrenaline and competitive urge to the extent where it has become a full blown electronic sport and profession to play these games.
To say that this doesn’t influence the brain would be a complete lie. This does, however, include negatively effect too. It is a well known fact that games can become incredibly addictive for a start. Immersing oneself into a world that is rich in lore and pulls you in just by existing in a satisfying way is more than likely going to negatively effect someone interested in the type of games. MMOs and RPGs are most famous for this, with such games as World Of Warcraft – a game currently 13 years old – still retaining it’s original player-base and causing serious addiction. The world is incredibly realistic, with a full blown economy, a breathing population of real people and hugely social guild features. People were fully able to – and some fully prepared to – lose themselves in this virtual expanse and a huge amount of people did – in fact, the same amount of people as the total population of Germany, Belarus and Sweden combined did. Another big problem – or alleged big problem – in the increase in aggression from playing video games. This is probably the most notorious debate of all video game debates. The debate stems from the belief firstly that video games cause aggression and more specifically that violent video games are a cause of this. First of all, it is fact that with a high level of focus comes potential frustration and by nature all tests, activities and puzzles cause this. This means it pretty much goes without saying that playing video games can get intense and frustration can ensue. Does this cause aggression in general however? No conclusive evidence has been found. There are several tests that have checked for a correlation of aggression with violent video games and huge waves of mixed results have come back. There is no conclusive proof that explicit violence affects a gamer’s level of aggression. In fact, there is conclusive proof of the opposite – that higher aggression levels are caused by frustration instead – this was tested on Horizon using a game called Bastet (Bastard Tetris), which will pick blocks based on helpfulness: there’s a 70% chance that the next block you are given is the worst possible block for the situation, a 15% chance it’s the second worst possible block, a 9% chance you’ll get the third worst possible block and a 6% chance that you’ll get a useful block. Obviously being designed to frustrate a player, aggression levels bumped up higher comparatively to players playing regular Tetris. Despite great assumptions and apparent correlations between mass murders and the consumption of violent video games, there is such a high level of conflicting evidence that nothing can be proven, though it’s most likely true for mentally unstable individuals, who fail to form a wall between reality and a game, though to most players appreciating the art form and playing as a hobby, just like watching TV, this notion seems ridiculous and almost completely inapplicable to them. Most of these so called correlations have no real evidence backing them, except for the fact that the person just so happens to play video games as well as being a serial killer – remember that 42% of Americans play video games and in 2013, more than 1.2 billion people regularly played games, so these ties, statistically are no surprise. On the other hand, until we find conclusive evidence, we cannot prove that these ties are not more than just simply a violent individual just happening to own games too. The lack of evidence works against both sides of the debate and truly until this evidence arises, we shan’t know.
But how does any of this this relate to audience theory? Well…
The Hypodermic Needle Model is an early method of understanding how an audience takes in media. In essence, it suggests that an audience consume the media and immediately take in all the messages of the media the same way in one specifically designed way. Many definitions will call this a ‘Passive Audience’, as in, they do not object to anything and are impressionable and that the media is consumed one-hundred percent as intended. I would describe it as a black and white look at the product with no grey areas, but really there isn’t even a secondary colour, it’s the thought that everyone has the same view with no questions. The name is rather apt then; like through a hypodermic needle, the substance (in this case, the product) simply is pushed into the body (or in this case, the brains) of the audience and that’s that. This model is considered bonkers at this point, we know that no human thinks the same way as another, we’re all individuals and not one clump of brains that all are impressionable and open to everything. Each person has different morals and each person will accept or reject certain statements too. Gaging responses wasn’t truly written in detail about until people began to question the plausibility, or in this case, the ridiculousness of the 1920s Hypodermic Needle Model. In 1973, Stuart Hall devised a new model, defining a set of specific responses that audiences can take, which seem like no-brainers to us now.
This model was the Encoding/Decoding Model, which explores the different ways that audiences decode media, as opposed to ‘consume’. The term consume has become increasingly out of date as we begin to understand psychology further, as this refers to the idea of just taking the media in simply. Hall refers to it as ‘decoding’ or ‘reading’ in his theorem, the reason for it has been eloquently summed up in the below quote:
“By the word reading we mean not only the capacity to identify and decode a certain number of signs, but also the subjective capacity to put them into a creative relation between themselves and with other signs: a capacity which is, by itself, the condition for a complete awareness of one’s total environment” – The Cultural Studies Reader. Edited by Simon During. 2nd edn. London, England: Taylor & Francis.
In short, Hall talks about three main hypothetical positions, or stances on interpreting media:
- Dominant-hegemonic Reading
- The decoder takes connotations from the media straight up with no questions. Taking in the media “Full and Straight” is how it is described.
- Negotiated Reading
- The decoder accepts the connotations from the media, accepting what would be the ‘preferred reading’, though applied differently per person. In essence, modifying the media in order to accept it further by applying it to themselves or by reflecting themselves. An example of this is the many layers of Christianity as a religion – it’s all the same book, but many different people take many different stances.
- Oppositional Reading
- Simply put, rejecting the code. The exact opposite of dominant-hegemonic reading.
The Uses and Gratifications Theory is one of the leading interpretations of the consumption of media and bases itself around the audience’s reasoning for using – reading/consuming – the product. This is famously explained in a quote from Elihu Katz, where he begs the question of “what media does to people”, as opposed to “what people do with media”. At a base level it states that audiences only consume the media they need in their lives, as in, they aren’t cracking a code – ‘consuming media’ – unless they want/need to. This is once again kicking out the Hypodermic Needle Theory and shutting down the idea that an audience is completely passive to all media. According to the theory, the piece of media must be able to provide one of the following to a reader:
Identification: The consumer can pick apart the product and identify with it and apply thoughts that the product raises to their own lives.
Education: Learning from the product.
Entertainment: Gaining pleasure and enjoyment from the product.
Social Interaction: Gaining conversation points and topics to talk about and discuss with other people – sharing an experience and gaining discussion about it.
What does this have to do with video games and aggression you ask? Well it’s more meta than that. On the side that firmly believe that violent video games cause people to become aggressive and violent, they are essentially applying the hypodermic needle model to games and players. They’re assuming that if a player plays a violent game, they immediately and uncontrollably accept everything within the content as acceptable and the games implant this subconscious urge to replicate in-game content (i.e violence). In thinking this way with no given evidence for why, you are implying that this outdated method is taking effect. There are of course people on this side who hypothesise, as opposed to believe, that violent video games do cause people to become more violent, which are inclined to test their hypotheses, which come out with, admittedly, some results that are substantial. Taking a step further into the meta, the people who firmly believe with no necessary evidence that video games do cause violence and aggression due to their violent nature are reading the assumptive media in a dominant-hegemonic position, whereas someone who is waiting for evidence may be more negotiated or oppositional in terms of their position. You could even argue that hearing the statement that ‘Violent Video Games cause aggression and make people violent’ and believing it outright is the reader succumbing to the Hypodermic Needle method.
Overall, then, can we say conclusively that violent video games cause aggression? Of course not, not without substantial evidence. On the other hand, can we say that they 100% do not? Not even slightly, despite lots of evidence being on this side, the only way to disprove or prove this notion would be to get evidence from the other side, as until we know for sure it would be lying to outright state that they do not cause aggression. So why does this debate continue? Because it is about more than just aggression – it is about audience theory, about bias, about fact and fiction and a battle of the in-depth psychology of audiences, not just as a whole, but individually.