Note: Most of the data linked in this article comes from sources that relate to the United States. It's not because I don't care about other countries, it's just easier and simpler to get numbers for the USA and that's all I needed to make my point. Don't worry about it. Your country is still awesome.
Yes, we're having this argument again. A couple of weeks ago Katie Couric aired a exploitative and sensationalist episode on videogame violence. It's bad, but it's bad in a perfectly ordinary way that we've all seen a dozen times before: People who don't play or understand videogames begin a ridiculous and uninformed moral panic over them. Like the unintentional hilarity of Reefer Madness, they superimpose their bent worldview onto a Scary Issue to "raise awareness". Unlike Reefer Madness, Couric has appropriated real and tragic events to suit her story, rather than just making up her own. I'm not going to go over the whole thing in detail. Chris Person at Kotaku has already done a wonderful job of dissecting everything that's wrong with the piece.
A couple of days after it aired, Couric posted this message to Twitter:
Passionate gamers upset w convo whether violent video games can contribute to v behavior. Tweet the positive side of violent v games? Thanx!— Katie Couric (@katiecouric) May 3, 2013
I mean sure, she just spent an hour on her show portraying violent videogames as dangerous to children and society, but in the name of fairness she's willing to hear what the other side has to say - as long as its 140 characters or less.
This is a really pernicious way to continue the conversation. Imagine if I argued that nose piercings caused brain cancer. To support my argument, I talk about two people (there's a robust data set for you) who had pierced noses and who also had cancer. And then I ask everyone if there's anything positive about nose piercings. Instead of defending my ridiculous and shoddy argument, I've put the opposition in a spot where they somehow have to justify the existence of the thing I'm attacking.
It's hard to give the positive side of lots of things: Celebrity gossip shows, greasy food, rock music about sex and drugs, trashy romance novels, and shallow Bejeweled knockoffs for Facebook. You can't show the societal benefit of this stuff. That doesn't matter. In any kind of civilized world, you shouldn't need to prove that your entertainment benefits society. That's not why we make or consume entertainment.
The argument is taking the angle of, "since these games [maybe] cause violence, and since they have no redeeming social value..." and then letting the audience take over from there. Couric doesn't need to dirty her hands arguing that violent games should be banned. She can just construct a narrative where that's the obvious conclusion and let nature take its course.
I will concede that violent videogames probably have the effect of desensitizing kids to violence... in videogames. Now, if someone wants to do a study to prove that this leads to desensitizing kids to actual violence, and then prove that this makes them more likely to perpetrate acts of violence, and then see if that effect is widespread and not just limited to "certain individuals" who likely have problems with violence regardless of how they consume it, and if you want to establish that this effect is any worse than the same thing in books and movies, and if you want to show that kids are playing these games in anomalously high numbers despite all the safeguards we have in place... well, you've got your work cut out for you. Get the research done (hint: you don't do research on talk shows) and then maybe we can talk about violent games being a threat.
But fine. Let's talk about the positive side of violent videogames.
1. The rise of videogames is concurrent with a fall in violence.
Violent crime is down. Way down. It hasn't been this low since 1967. And this drop in crime began in 1994, the year after Doom - the great-granddaddy of all mindless murder simulators - hit the market.
Now, unlike your typical videogame demagogue, I'm not so sloppy with my science that I'm going to say videogames reduce crime. Sure, violence has dropped as games have grown, but violent crime is a complicated thing and studying it is a slow process that requires a lot of data. But this does provide a huge uphill climb for anyone trying to link games to violence. If they lead to violence, then where is the violence? Right now the link between videogames and crime is about as plausible as a link between cheese fries and anorexia.