Red Pixels
exploring the connection between virtual and real-life violence
by Nick Yee

A mother watches her son quietly as he plays a computer game. She is mildly concerned as she realizes that the character is a half-decayed corpse, which her son informs her to be a revived vampire. As she watches, the tattered corpse rips a sharp iron ornament from the wall and impales a horribly deformed creature nearby. Blood and intestines splatter on the ground. A chilling howl is heard from the computer speakers. Her son smiles as the creature collapses. Now the mother really concerned.

Mainstream media in the US is not afraid to exploit this parental concern. The media hints that these games might have unhealthy influences on children. Some people warn in no uncertain terms that virtual violence leads to real-life violence. What is interesting is not how willingly the public believe these claims, but how little real evidence there is to support them. The psychological literature is very sparse and inconclusive in this area. Most studies have measured real-life violence with some short-term behavioral difference that many psychologists believe is not a valid and reliable measure of aggression. Clearly if you arouse individuals with intense video games, they may act in ways that seem like aggression, but sports do the same thing. Does playing tennis lead to violence? The reason why no one seems concerned about this latter question is also part of the reason why psychologists have not done much research in this area.

Any study that even suggests violent video games do not lead to real-life violence will come against a great resistance. This resistance is the media pointing at the Colombine incident and crossing their arms - implying "what more is there to say?". The media exhibits several individuals who commit violent crimes and who have played some violent computer games. They conclude that violence in computer games lead some individuals to commit violent crimes. This line of reasoning is seriously flawed.

Consider a researcher who is making observations at the exit of Disneyland. His findings indicate that people who come out of Disneyland are, on the average, much younger than a normal population sample. He concludes that Disneyland has the powerful ability to make people younger. The crucial error he made is that he did not bother to stand by the Disneyland entrance. He did not bother to check the average age of people entering Disneyland. If he had done so, he would have discovered that Disneyland has no effect on age whatsoever. When people watch the news and conclude that violence in computer games leads to violence in real life, they are making the same mistake. To make that conclusion, one would need to show that those individuals were not violent before they played those computer games. If those individuals would have committed those crimes whether or not they played violent computer games, then computer games have nothing to do with real-life violence.

One reason why this seems a more plausible suggestion is because there are many people, including teenagers, who simply do not like to play those violent video games. Why don't they like to play those games? How are they different from those people who enjoy virtual violence? This line of questioning may be more fruitful because we know that not everyone can be led to like a violent computer game.

In a recent online questionnaire study I performed, I tried to explore the connections between individual personality and the appeal of game elements. The questionnaire asked respondents to rate how appealing specific game elements were on a 5 point scale, from very appealing to very unappealing. Some of these included: real-time, turn-base, single-player, graphic violence, and intellectual stimulation. Respondents were also asked to fill out two sections that assessed their scores on two personality scales comprising 9 personality factors. The questionnaire was publicized in online gaming forums and message boards. 380 valid responses were collected. Of the 380 respondents, 31 reported to be female, while 322 reported to be male. The average age was 27.0. The minimum was 13, while the maximum was 64.

The game genre that most violent games fall under is known as the First-Person Shooters, or FPS for short. Here is what was found from the data collected. In general, FPS gamers tend to be male. The elements that comprise the FPS genre are significantly less appealing to female gamers. The older the gamer, the less appealing games from the FPS genre is for them. Respondents who found the FPS elements appealing tended to be more extraverted. Extraverts are affectionate, friendly and intimate. They love to talk and be in company of others. They are very sociable and have many friends and contacts. Craving excitement and thrills, they work and play at a fast pace. They usually have cheerful, optimistic outlooks on life in general. They also tend to score high on the Agreeableness scale. Individuals high in this scale see others as honest and well-intentioned. Thus they are often straight-forward and frank with others, and are willing to help and trust in them. They are humble, sometimes self-effacing, and are usually tender-minded and easily moved.

This kind of personality profile is almost exactly the opposite that the media wants portrayed. One possible explanation for this personality description is not difficult to come by however. People break things when they get mad or frustrated and doing so often helps them feel better. Instead of conceiving violent video games as fueling aggression, it is perhaps more convincing to argue that violent video games help to release tension and frustration. And this safe environment for releasing tension allows teenagers to become better adjusted than individuals who cannot find ways to release their pent-up anger.

The above personality profile is for the FPS gamer in general, and does not differentiate between a 15 year-old gamer from a 50 year-old gamer. Clearly, age should matter. What if we looked at a 13-16 year-old group and a 30-36 year old group separately and did the same analysis? Dividing the respondents into 7 age cohorts of 40 respondents each, we get a better grasp of what is going on.

Gamers from 13-19 years of age who enjoy FPS games tend to score high on the Agreeableness scale. It is from this age range that the general agreeableness trend originates. Gamers from 20-23 years of age who enjoy FPS games tend to score high on Extraversion but they also score high on the Judging/Perceiving scale. Perceivers are very flexible and adaptable. They like to let life live and enjoy the flow. They are spontaneous and prefer the tentative over the definite. They like to keep their options open and like to move from topic to topic. They usually have difficulty bringing projects to an end and may appear indecisive and sloppy. As we move into the 24-26 age range, an interesting thing happens. FPS gamers in this age range tend to score high on Neuroticism. Someone with high neuroticism is easily affected by the surrounding atmosphere. They get worried easily, are quick to anger, and easily discouraged. They often feel uneasy and embarrassed. They have difficulty resisting temptations and coping with stress. What is interesting is that this tendency did not appear in the general analysis.

Individually, these trends are only mildly interesting. It is when they are taken together as parts of a whole that the story reveals itself to be much more complicated than what we had bargained for. For one thing, there is no such thing as a FPS gamer personality. We now know that such a general profile is meaningless because FPS games, like other game genres, mean something different for gamers of different ages. Thus, different game genres in general attract different kinds of personalities, but these personalities also change depending on age. This is further complicated by the fact that most gamers usually enjoy several different genres.

This complexity is one of the other reasons why research has been sparse in this area. Any trained psychologist knows that the answer cannot be the simple yes or no, that it must lie between, and that the dynamics must take into account not only personality, but social, family and developmental factors as well. The story at this point is complex already, but it is still only a shard of the entirety of what is happening. Psychologists have shied away from this profound problem not out of cowardice, but because the most important question is whether virtual violence causes real-life violence and they know that these games are not leading to mass violence.

In fact, one quick moment of reflection should be able to convince anyone of this. Millions of people around the world have played violent computer games, but we only know a handful of people who become murderers and also play those games. On the other hand, many people who drive cars will become involved in a fatal car accident in their lives. On average, driving cars lead to more deaths than violent computer games. The media magnifies the few incidents that have occurred, and people forget about the vast majority of people who play these games who never end up killing anyone. Driving is more dangerous than playing computer games, but unfortunately, car accidents do not make headline news. No one remembers car accidents. More than a year after the shooting however, everyone still remembers Colombine.

The attentive reader might have noticed as they read the personality profiles that if people who enjoy FPS games tend to score high on Extraversion and Agreeableness, then this also means that people who do not enjoy FPS games tend to score low on Extraversion and Agreeableness. People who score low on the Extraversion scale are usually known as Introverts. Introverts are reserved and formal. They prefer to be alone and seldom seek out company. They tend to stay in the background and perform their activities at a more leisurely pace. They have a low need for thrills and have a less exuberant attitude in general than extraverts do. Individuals low on Agreeableness have a cynical and skeptical outlook on life. They find it hard to trust others and often appear guarded and reluctant to get involved. They are aggressive and competitive, especially when placed under conflict. They often feel superior to others, and are hard-headed and rational. What is ironic is that this the way the media normally portrays hard-core violent gamers.

But why might gamers who do not enjoy FPS games tend to be more introverted and less agreeable? Why are they the ones described as aggressive and competitive? This is harder to explain. Perhaps they find it difficult to express their emotions and thus difficult to release their frustration in virtual simulations. Perhaps they find it difficult to resolve their own emotional states. And here I leave the readers with a provoking suggestion that the media has never considered. Perhaps it is the people who do not like violent video games who we should really be concerned about.