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Play, Part 2: Violence in videogames

Last week I looked at what psychiatrist Stuart Brown says about the power of play and how it can mitigate aggression. This week a look at the videogame part of the picture….

Asked by a middle school teacher about violence in videogames at a recent media-literacy conference, Prof. Henry Jenkins said, “Every storytelling medium throughout the history of the world involves violence – the paintings in art museums, Shakespeare’s plays, the Bible – have images of violence…. The question isn’t ‘Can we get rid of violence’” in art, civilization, or life? “We can’t,” said Jenkins, who has traveled around the US speaking at schools and talking with students, parents, and educators about the place of violence in the entertainment part of their lives, led research, held workshops for the videogame industry, and testified on Capitol Hill about videogame violence.

“What we need is for this storytelling medium to make sense of our aggression, trauma, loss, and violence in the way that art does this. We have to create a climate where the images of violence are not trivialized, where violence has an impact.” Because the teacher was asking specifically about violence in World of Warcraft, which is set in medieval times, Jenkins mentioned a friend who’s a medievalist, who told him that people “hacked and slashed all the way through medieval culture, but periodically medieval tribes would gather their dead and mourn them. That sense of mourning and loss gives awareness of the consequence of violence. We need to be asking, ‘How do we build mourning into the games we play, how do we put ethics into them?… The deepest research suggests that media are least powerful when they seek to change our beliefs and behavior and most powerful when they reinforce them – those are the criteria we need to look at.”

So I’ve been looking for signs of videogames becoming more compelling and sophisticated in that way – moving beyond random violence and shooting sprees for their own sake to story lines, character development, scenarios and conditions that powerfully convey the impact of violence. I saw one sign last year while reading a thoughtful review in Slate of Grand Theft Auto IV. He wrote, “I get the sense that freewheeling killing sprees will no longer be the main draw. This is partly because the central missions and story are so well-conceived and well-written compared with previous iterations of the game and partly because the violence is far more disturbing…. What makes Grand Theft Auto IV so compelling is that, unlike so many video games, it made me reflect on all of the disturbing things I had done” (see this for more).

The key consideration, Jenkins said, is whether the violence in a game, film, or any art is meaningful (again, does not trivialize the violence but rather gets the player or viewer thinking about its meaning and impact) or just a “media effect” (which has no educational value). “A focus on meaning rather than effects has helped us to identify some pedagogical interventions which can help our students develop the skills and vocabulary needed to think more deeply about the violence they encounter in the culture around them,” Jenkins wrote in his essay, “The War Between Effects and Meaning.”

Related links

  • Psychiatrist Stuart Brown, who I blogged about last week, recently told public radio host Krista Tippett that the research on videogame violence is “not very solid” and there is evidence that “a limited amount of videogames probably increases imaginativeness and skills.”
  • Videogame numbers. US online gaming, which is growing at 10 times the rate of US Internet population, “attracted 87 million visitors [in May], representing a very healthy 22% increase over last year,” comScore reported.
  • Good game?: The behavioural effects of video games” in The Economist
  • Professor Jenkins’s full talk, given at the New Media Literacies conference at MIT in May, is here.
  • Study on videogames and aggression released last year
  • New Media Literacies Project at MIT

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