In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

Gran Theft Auto V and Merchants of Moral Panic

In response to the release of Rockstar North’s Gran Theft Auto V, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg warned of the “corrosive” effect of computer games on players, in his LBC Radio show. Mr Clegg said:

These games can have an incredibly powerful, and I expect in some cases a corrosive effect, on someone’s behaviour. They occupy a hermetically sealed world of their own and that can have a very detrimental effect.

Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens also counselled: “If the Devil had his own bible, it would probably take the form of a computer game”. Mr Hitchens noted:

It’s a curious coincidence that Aaron Alexis, the man who massacred 12 people in Washington DC last week, liked to play such games for hours on end (Call of Duty was apparently his favourite).

Gran Theft Auto V has sold very well, and attracted controversy for its interactive torture scene. (Photo: sebianoti)

Gran Theft Auto V has sold very well, and attracted controversy for its interactive torture scene. (Photo: sebianoti)

There have been many merchants of moral panic, particularly around computer games. In the United States, activist Jack Thompson and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton campaigned over the supposed moral degradation being beamed through games.

Games have their own universes, like all high fantasy fiction. A computer game player is not a tabula rasa, upon which any values may be carved. They will have families, friends and social groups, and learn values via them. It is through this prism that players will view computer games. Violent people may play such games, but that does not mean they emulate game violence.

Games of Morality

Controversy has arisen from Gran Theft Auto V featuring an interactive torture scene. Far from encouraging or glamorising torture, being able to ‘Press X to torture’ is generating revulsion and criticism from players. Pressing a button to fire a gun, accelerate a Ferrari F40 or jump over a turtle is very different from really doing those acts. The IGN reviewer wrote: “There’s one particular scene, a torture scene in which you have no choice but to actively participate, that I found so troubling that I had difficulty playing it”. Hideo Kojima, Metal Gear Solid creator, said of his latest release: “I didn’t want to go as far as having playable torture.”

This media effects hypothesis – pixelated violence creates real-life violence – cannot withstand elementary examination. The rise of computer games is concordant with a decline in violence, in both Britain and the US.

Violence, particularly youth violence, has declined despite historical increases in computer game sales. (Photo: Ferguson and Kilburn)

Violence, particularly youth violence, has declined despite historical increases in computer game sales. (Photo: Ferguson and Kilburn)

A 2009 meta-analysis performed by Christopher J. Ferguson and John Kilburn found: “Publication bias was a problem for studies of aggressive behavior, and methodological problems such as the use of poor aggression measures inflated effect size. Once corrected for publication bias, studies of media violence effects provided little support for the hypothesis that media violence is associated with higher aggression.” A 2010 meta-analysis concluded otherwise, but the association was still only weak and that meta-analysis received criticism from Ferguson and Kilburn.

Despite no firm confirmation, the belief that violence in computer games generates real-life violence still lingers. It’s an intuitive statement, and is usually made without evidence. The interactivity of computer games strengthens this intuitive proclamation: it is a simulated argument, rather than a real one.

Updated (16/12/2013 22:12): I noticed that the link for Ferguson and Kilburn’s 2009 meta-analysis no longer showed anything worthwhile, so I replaced the link.

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This entry was posted on September 22, 2013 by in National Politics and tagged , , , .
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