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Friday, 24 March 2017

Editorial: Are video games too violent? Unpacking the '89%' statistic.

Editorial: Are video games too violent?
Unpacking the '89%' statistic.

When talking about violence in video games, an oft-toted statistic is that 89% of them include violence in some fashion -- and it's a statistic that has been pretty thoroughly examined and tested and which does actually hold up fairly well. It's also, at least on the surface, a staggeringly high statistic: Nearly nine in every ten games is violent? That's truly shocking.

Statistics are undeniably useful tools for quantifying the world around us and getting a better idea of the objective truth, but it's also worth remembering that statistics are a stepping stone to examining something, not the end result. To that end, we're going to take a moment and try to unpack this famous statistic and see how it actually relates to what we know about video games.

Question 1: Does the 89% statistic create an accurate image of what the medium is like?

By this, I mean 'do we, human beings interpreting this information, come to an accurate conclusion based on this statistic?' Because this statistic is usually meant to shock, a big and scary number that's meant to make people pause in incredulity and alarm. But is it that shocking, really?

Firstly, 'contains violence' covers a fairly broad and fairly varied church. The violence in, say, a Paper Mario game -- fluffy, barely violent at all, and firmly rooted in fantasy -- bears no resemblance to the attempts at realistic violence peddled by the Call of Duty franchise, which in turn bears no resemblance to the stylish spectacle violence of Devil May Cry, which bears no resemblance to the totally bloodless, non-fatal violence of Pokemon.

When the Kaiser Family Foundation did their own study on this -- a study that backed up the 89% statistic -- they found that about half of games (49%) included 'serious violence,' defined somewhat loosely as violence involving a weapon or risk of death.

(The accuracy of that definition is -- debatable, because I would call, say, the non-lethal and weaponless violence of a UFC game more serious than Mario hitting people with a hammer, but that's outside the scope of this editorial.)

That's a much less shocking statistic, and it becomes even less shocking when you consider that video gaming's peers are film and television: Taking a sample of the thirty-six films released on DVD this month, I found that twenty-three of those (63% or thereabouts) included violence, and that all of those were what the KFF would define as 'serious violence.'

Question 2: Is categorising games by 'contains violence' and 'doesn't contain violence' fair?

Yes, basically. 

Or it is, at least, internally consistent, and the simplest way to categorise games for the purposes of making a choice.

It's also broadly not a system of categorisation we apply to films, books, or television. Instead, we tend to categorise these works by the extent to which they are about the violence in them: A film that is all violence all the time, with plot only existing to connect the scenes of violence, will be thrown into the 'gory action schlock' bin, whereas one where violence is meant to be part of a tapestry of colourful, adrenaline-boosting action schtick will get categorised as 'harmless fun,' and one where the violence is meant to be thematic and tie into a deeper narrative on human nature will get categorised as 'art.'

(That is a vast oversimplification, I know, but it does also illustrate another point that's outside the scope of this review: We do not tend to concern ourselves as much with violence in other forms of media. Perhaps part of that is because that's not interactive violence, but I'd warrant that part of it is also just that we're more accustomed to it.)

But video games contain multitudes, and their treatment of violence is very difficult. Some games, like Call of Duty, are just delivery systems for semi-realistic violence. Similarly, some games, like Overwatch, are delivery systems for unrealistic violence. But then you have games where violence is just a part of a larger experience -- Dragon Age: Inquisition, for example, is not about violence, but it certainly includes it -- or games where violence is used to enhance an emotional or atmospheric effect -- like Silent Hill -- or games which are about violence, but in the form of a narrative about the nature of violence and human nature -- the Bioshock Infinites and Spec-Ops: The Lines.

Going back to the KFF's study, they found that 17% of games featured violence as their primary focus. They never clarify what 'primary focus' means, although given their other definitions, I imagine they're casting their net fairly wide there. But that means that, on top of the 11% of games that don't include violence at all, 72% of games aren't really about violence, and that's a key thing to note.

Question 3: Is the statistic skewed by demands of the medium?

Going back to the comparison with films, it is possible to sit down and watch a film about people going through interpersonal crises, with no violence or external, physical threat. It's not the easiest thing to create, but then, creating any kind of story isn't easy, unless it's -- I don't know, a disaster film.

It's not that simple for video games, because there is the element of player interaction, which means that there usually has to be some form of challenge for the player to overcome. For the most part, games are quite creative about that: Point-and-click adventure games have brought in mystery challenges, Bioware-style conversation options have brought in interpersonal drama, and you even have games like Always Sometimes Monsters, which is effectively a romantic comedy.

(I'm still bitter at that game.)

But the simplest and easiest way to bring in a challenge for the player, complete with a ready made failure state, is to throw angry people or monsters at them and tell them not to let their character die. That's automatically going to skew the medium towards more games that contain violence, rather than less.

Question 4: Does it matter?

Yes. Obviously it matters. All information matters, not least because it can give us valuable data with which to make the medium more varied.

Does it matter in the way people who pull out that statistic think it does, as a demonstration that video games are secretly brainwashing people into violence? No, not really.

There's no hard evidence that video games make people more violent, despite the fact that it wasn't all that long ago that every school shooter came with an ominously delivered line in a newspaper about how he'd played video games. In fact, it seems more likely to be the reverse: People who are entitled, resentful, and inclined towards violently exercising their power over others are more likely to be drawn to entertainment mediums that allow them to violently exercise their power over an army of mindless NPCs. 

(Of course, those people also go to cinemas, most likely, and watch television.)

Which doesn't mean everyone, or even most people, who play video games are inclined towards violence, and definitely doesn't mean that video games make people more violent.

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