Editor’s Note: Lindsay Grace is an associate professor and founding director of American
University’s Game Lab, which focuses its research on games designed to change people’s interests, activities and behaviors. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
After 10 plus years of researching how games affect human behavior, I can tell you this:
Games do not teach people to become shooters in real life.
Pundits claim that simulation games or virtual reality can make people better shooters. This is not accurate: if anything, of all the research on games and behavior change, the most compelling link between the two has to do with self-efficacy, a term coined by psychologist Albert Bandura.
Self-efficacy, according to social cognitive theory, refers to a person’s belief in in his or her ability to succeed. Games simply offer the opportunity to change what people think is possible – and to succeed at it … on screen.
Thousands of hours of “shooting” games don’t teach the essentials of a real gun. Players don’t learn about the mechanics of safeties or a gun’s weight. Players don’t learn how to load a gun, to unbox bullets, to specify ammunition or how to purchase a weapon. Players don’t learn how to adjust for a weapon’s recoil, nor do they demonstrate the heat of a gun, or the maintenance of it.
In short, players don’t learn the realities of a gun, they learn its simulation. At best, a well-executed shooting game might increase players’ confidence in their ability to shoot, but the reality is much different.
Pundits, politicians and some academics, like Jeremy Bailenson, who published an op-ed in these pages earlier this week, argue, mistakenly, that video game violence offers a training ground for real-world violence. Video games are not training mass shooters. Games at most inspire self-efficacy. It’s up to the people, the politics and the real environment around them to make mass shooters a reality.
Researchers have developed games that have helped players work toward losing weight, but no game will lose weight for a player. Others have even helped treat cancer by increasing a player’s adherence to medical treatment. But games do not heal or create cancers.
The reality fallacy
People commonly claim that the realism in games is the core training benefit. Realistic experiences have not made people better drivers, despite the plethora of driving simulation games.
I race cars as a hobby and I’m very good at racing car simulations. The first day I hit the real track, I was abysmal. Reality, it seems, is full of physics and psychology not present in games. As a rational human being, I recognized real risk and real cost to the actions I made. On a virtual track, I was happy to scrape a car against a wall or push another into a tailspin. In reality, I would never.
If realism is the key, why aren’t more players of Electronic Arts’ Madden football games find themselves capable of coaching NFL teams? The answer is, of course, because no matter how realistic a game is, there’s no substitute for real experience and opportunity. It certainly can’t substitute for ability.
The mistake of demonizing play
Play is a valuable element of human psychological development. It is an essential activity for the human animal. Years of research indicates that depriving children of play is more likely to produce the kind of person who commits a school shooting than it is to prevent one.
Play gives respite from stress and is beneficial to social development. To the untrained eye, a shooting game is simply a collection of violent, indulgent, anti-social activities. However, shooting games, like most games, offers all types of play and socialization
Such games allow those who fail to find efficacy in their lives an opportunity to at least feel virtual efficacy. Playing shooting games also offers community for the players. The players to worry about are the ones who disconnect from their play communities, not the ones who are active in it.
Mistaking some video games for all video games
Many people make the mistake of evaluating all video games by the few that are violent. A look at the top-selling games indicates the minority are shooting games. Fifteen of 2018’s best-selling console games feature sports simulation, science fiction and similarly nonviolent themed games. They feature Pokemon and Mario or major sports figures.
My own research indicates that less than 20% of the top-selling games on mobile devices are violent. More surprisingly, research indicates the words “shoot” and “kill” occur more often in bestselling book descriptions than they do bestselling game descriptions.
Well before video games became realistic, violence existed. Some of the US’s worst school shootings occurred before games were commonplace. Laying the blame on games is not only shortsighted, it’s unrealistic.
The most comprehensive review of literature linking games and aggression shows that that literature admits scarce empirical data and includes obvious methodological problems. For example, researchers are often inconsistent in the way they define aggression and use tests where results could be as much as indicative of playfulness as aggression.
Even the Supreme Court won’t buy in to a link between mass murder and video games, as Simon Parkin notes in the New Yorker: “As Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court opinion, studies purporting to show such a link ‘have been rejected by every court to consider them, and with good reason: They do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively.’”
And consider: The games US video game manufacturers produce are played all over the world, yet other major game consuming countries, such as the UK and Japan, don’t see anything near the same level of violence found in America.
The reality of mass shootings is that an actual gun gets into human hands. Taking aim at games targets the wrong highly profitable industry.