Video games and violence

The relationship between playing video games and violent behaviour isn’t as black and white as most people assume. There is neither the causal evidence that would support the tabloid alarmist headlines that blame Mass Effect, Call of Duty or World of Warcraft for mass shootings nor the evidence that video games are entirely benign.

We know from research that trauma has a significant and lasting impact on the brain, a pattern widely accepted across numerous studies. For those who have already been traumatised and/or have maladaptive social skills, that increase in arousal sensitises the brain to further threat. It also makes them more likely to respond with anger or fear to a neutral stimulus, perceiving it as a threat. We also know from research that when the threat sensor in the the brain is activated (the amygdala and limbic system) the prefrontal cortex pretty much goes off-line until the threat is resolved. That significantly reduces the person’s capacity for empathy, complex reasoning, social skills and ability to be aware of the impact of your own behaviour on others. This effect is amplified where there is an absence of healthy real life relationships and/or physical exercise (which produce oxytocin, and help to mediate cortisol and adrenaline). And of course we know that people who have raised arousal levels deliberately seek out experiences that match or use that level of arousal, so they are often much more interested in violence and gore than their peers.

That’s all well established neuroscience. We also know that these brain changes can be perpetuated by exposure to violence or the representations of violence in our daily lives or the media we consume. Exposure to violence is an unseen public health epidemic. We also know that this pattern of being over-sensitised to threat and in a heightened state of physiological arousal gets ‘stuck’ for a proportion of maltreated children, particularly where there is an absence of secure attachment figures, and that ‘acting out’ with violence in this group is much more common. The neurological basis for moral reasoning and antisocial behaviour implicate similar brain regionsSimilar areas are also implicated in violent behaviour when this is related to a lesion, dementia or atrophy.

Having reviewed the evidence, I think it is clear that video games do not in themselves cause violence. But playing violent video games increases physiological arousal levels (readiness for fight or flight) just as we know is the case for exposure to real life conflict such as domestic violence within the family. This can create a lasting effect which shows in MRI scans. But the effect is quite specific. We know that MRI studies show differences in the brain when people play violent video games but not when the video games do not involve aggression. We also know that it is dependent on the social acceptability of the behaviours chosen in the game.

It seems likely that watching films or TV can similarly cause an increase in physiological arousal, but this would only be the case with a high level of violence/action/drama, something which is not normally sustained for hours upon end the way it can be in some video games. Also, video games are more immersive because they are interactive, and I suspect you don’t become as habituated to them because of the fact that there is variation on every presentation of the stimulus, whereas rewatching the same film gets dull and predictable and no longer gives us that visceral response. Thus I think that it is reasonable to consider violent video games as a particularly concentrated form of this stimulus.

It seems from the meta-analysis that a small scale shift towards higher readiness for fight or flight and lower empathy/insight/reasoning is happening all over the place amongst people who play a large volume of violent video games with the result of small but measureable increases in the risk of aggressive behaviour. I’d extrapolate from this to what is currently happening with the threats and harrassments towards women and minorities in the gaming space, to suggest that this combination of lack of nurture and exposure to violent material may be contributing to the lack of empathy and insight into the impact of their behaviour amongst people involved. But I suspect that the impact of video game play on real life aggressive behaviour is only a significant issue at the individual level where this is combined with the presence of trauma and/or the absence of nurture. After all, the move from enacting violence in a video game to doing so over social media is much smaller than the move to take actions outside of home technology where you can see the impact on the recipient.

It is only in the extreme examples, where you combine violent video game use with people with horrendous histories, a lack of secure attachment relationships and/or who have entrenched extreme views (eg about women), nothing else in their lives to constrain them, an echo-chamber of harmful views including incitement to violence, and perhaps mental health problems on top that the mixture becomes truly toxic. Amongst this group a small proportion take the threat-talk that is so prolific online and in video game spaces into horrific real life actions.

I can’t see that being so different to the proposed mechanism for lots of other phenomena. As with the relationship between cannabis use and psychosis, or alcohol consumption and suicide, the former is something most people consume without harm so it cannot be causal in isolation, but for a much smaller number of  people with increased vulnerability (genetic, epigenetic or experiential) it can be a contributory factor towards a more negative outcome.

Some thoughts on the recent atrocities in Paris

The news of ordinary French people watching sport, chilling out at a cafe or attending a gig this week being gunned down by violent extremists, really brings home how it could have been any one of us. Its unthinkably awful that anyone would target random innocent civilians like this.

But the response from the public has been split in several directions. Do we need to toughen our stance on asylum seekers? Tighten border controls? Crack down on Muslims more generally? Do we need to show solidarity with the French by lighting everything from water fountains to facebook profiles in red, white and blue? Has this finally brought terrorism to us in Western Europe? Or does it just highlight how we are constantly ignoring the stories of so many people of other nationalities who have been killed across the world recently without making headlines of outpourings of sympathy? These are complicated questions to unpick.

In terms of whether the right response is to call for harsher actions towards violent extremists, I am reminded of an article I read in the psychologist, and an evidence review in the BPS research digest about the psychology of terrorism and extremism respectively. The main point I took from it is that acknowledging the kernel of legitimate grievance behind such actions and engaging in dialogue with moderates from similar demographics are both actions that make it harder to for extremists to recruit, whilst moving towards more polarised positions (eg all this tough talk about closing borders and not negotiating with terrorists) or language blaming the whole of a culture or religious group make more people within that broader group feel inclined to sign up to the more extreme positions.

Whilst the actions of ISIS are deplorable, the generalisation of negative feeling to all muslims is appalling. I even read about a tragic story in which a Hindu man had been pushed into the path of a train and killed by someone who thought this was a suitable reprisal for 9/11. Islam is a religion as large and diverse as Christianity. Nobody thinks the Klu Klux Klan represent Christians, yet large swathes of the western world appear to think ISIS speak for all muslims, when they are just as misrepresentative of the mainstream view within Islam. And alienating Muslims from the western world is a big mistake. The huge amount of moderate representatives of Islam (over a billion of them) are ordinary people who are just as appalled about the action of extremists as members of other religions or none. And they also form the moderate pole of the spectrum from which the extremists are drawn to ISIS. So we need to ensure that we engage this group in how we address these atrocities, and to integrate them into our societies to ensure this polarisation does not continue to play out across the world.

Extremism comes from perceived injustice and powerlessness amplified in small groups of like-minded others, and justified with reference to religion. Reducing injustice, allowing grievances to be heard and addressed, and being inclusive to moderate representatives are the only variables that anybody outside of the individual and those very small cultural subgroups has any control over, and it is these things that let South Africa get out of apartheid and Northern Ireland get out of the troubles there. I can’t see any other way to address the other conflicts going on in the world, be they in Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza, Nigeria, Syria or Somalia. Surely, even if we accept that some human beings will always turn to violence, the aim is to reduce the scale of conflicts down from wars to individuals, so that less people get caught in the crossfire?

As to whether we have reacted with more sympathy to deaths in France to deaths elsewhere in the world. Again I think this is a complex issue. There is implicit bias in the system, coupled with habituation. We are more attentive to stories that feature people we identify with, and we pay more attention where the events seem novel, rather than recurrent. Think about children going missing from home and the coverage that white kids from ‘nice homes’ get when compared to any other ethnicity, or kids from the care system (by way of example, the other day I noticed that three kids went missing from the same place on the same day and only the white girl got news coverage). The British media definitely place more focus on events that affect white, western nations. Even though non-mainstream media and some voices within social media are picking up on this theme and people are starting to question the systemic bias in the news, I think it is fair to say that we do have endemic problems with racism in the western world. Whether that is due to prejudice, vested interests or the fact that telling stories about familiar protagonists or showing photos that look like the customer is more likely to sell newspapers or screen time, I don’t know.

However, people are always illogical about world events. An individual story you can relate to humanises what would otherwise be too overwhelming to process. Genocide, war, famine are all too big to conceptualise, so we figure we can’t make a difference and don’t give them much head space. We don’t know anything about the refugee camps outside Syria, or the day to day grimness of so many of these wide scale conflicts. However, a mother who can’t feed her child in the news coverage of the famine, an orphan who plays football on a LiveAid appeal video, the shock of an ordinary looking person at a gig or a cafe talking about how they saw their peers getting gunned down, or a dead baby washed up on a beach – those are the individual stories that we can relate to. They call out to us, and force us to place ourselves in the shoes of the protagonists, and that makes us sympathetic and much more drawn to positive action.

So do we speak up about all the missing stories when friends share content about Paris, to show their virtuousness is not evenly applied? I’m not so sure. It seems to me that the solution is not to criticise those people who do feel empathy with the individual stories they can relate to, but to tell the stories of the other conflicts in more relatable ways also, so they get a similarly empathic and constructive response. Compassion isn’t like a cake that is a finite resource that has to be shared out between all callers. It is something we can cultivate and broaden, and help to bring out in others.

It reminds me of a quote from Martin Luther King: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that”.

And we have to reach beyond the boundaries of religion, ethnicity or nationality. Does it never seem absurd to you that people on this little blue-green planet we have evolved through the millennia to share are arguing about where somebody drew lines on a map hundreds of years ago, or whose stories about creation and morals are correct, without recognising that people are just people? Whatever colour of wrapping they come in, or language they speak or whether they believe in a God, and what name they call it makes no material difference to their ability to experience joy or suffering just the same as us. No matter how strange their lives seem, we’d have done the same if born into their community, and they’d be like us if born into ours.

So let us reach out in compassionate and loving ways to those around us, and especially to those showing ignorance or being excluded from our society. We are all in this together.