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The Positive Empowerment of Violent Video Games

The gore nest pulses like a heart. Demons crawl forth from its sinewy roots and skitter across the ground. Their eyes glow yellow. At the center of the gore nest lies a throbbing, fleshy core—its life mass. That’s what’s feeding the demon horde. As long as that core stays intact, the forces of hell will continue to breed and spread across planet Earth.

Only you can stop it.

Doom is one of the most influential, successful and established video game franchises of all time. Its premise is simple: Nefarious scientists have opened a portal to hell, Satan has sent his demon-spawn through the portal to invade earth, and you, the player, have to kill them all before they take over the planet. It is, in two words, insanely awesome. It is, in two other words, gratuitously violent.

Gameplay in Doom is marked by open areas infected by gore nests. When the player approaches a gore nest and rips out its core, hordes of demonic enemies appear. Players can kill demons by shooting them, but they can also earn health boosts by performing up-close-and-personal attacks called “glory kills” (you can snap a demon’s neck or rip their arm off with just one button click), or they can chainsaw an enemy for extra ammo. All this to say: In Doom, the play mechanics encourage swift, persistent, powerful violence.

In the wake of the Parkland school massacre and dozens of mass shootings like it, politicians are searching for the source of the United State’s inordinate amount of gun violence. Of course, many are pointing to the guns themselves. Others point to mental health issues. Last week, President Trump set his sights on video games as a key contributor to mass shootings.

The president said after the Parkland shooting, “I’m hearing more and more people say the level of violence in video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts,” and last Thursday, Trump hosted a meeting at the White House between video game makers and anti-game critics.

On the pro-game side, representatives of the Entertainment Software Association and the Entertainment Software Rating Board pointed to numerous studies that showed no correlation between violent behavior and violent games. They supplemented the research by saying a) games are protected by the First Amendment, and b) the ESRB provides enough information for parents to make informed decisions about the games they let their kids play.

Meanwhile, those who criticize violent games, like Missouri Rep. Vicki Hartzler and conservative activist Brent Bozell, have their own research saying violent games do lead to violent behavior. Hartzler wrote after the 2013 Sandy Hook mass shooting: “We must have a conversation about mental health issues and other possible contributors to violent behavior, such as violence in video games.”

The research is inconclusive on both sides. In 2013, the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Violent Media published their findings on the subject, concluding: “No single risk factor consistently leads a person to act aggressively or violently. Rather, it is the accumulation of risk factors that tends to lead to aggressive or violent behavior. The research reviewed here demonstrates that violent video game use is one such risk factor.”

So there might be a correlation, but there’s nothing to indicate direct causation. To complicate matters, the University of York published further research in January of this year concluding there is, “no evidence to support the theory that video games make players more violent.” That study featured 3,000 participants playing games and found that, “video game concepts do not ‘prime’ players to behave in certain ways.” The unsatisfying answer from all this: We’re still not sure.

A key aspect to the APA’s research into violent games is that they’ve always considered games within the broader spectrum of “violent media,” to include movies and television. Within this debate, many have made the distinction that games play a different role in behavioral formation because games, by nature of the medium, involve the consumer more directly than movies or TV. However, some experts say that distinction isn’t supported by data.

“We used to think that video games would have a much larger effect than passive media like TV or movies, but the research has not seemed to bear that out,” Iowa State psychology professor Douglas Gentile told NPR last week. “It seems to be about the same size effect, which is somewhat surprising because [games] are active. What we’re coming down to is learning, and it seems we don’t learn particularly differently from video games than from TV or movies.”

Let’s return to the premise of Doom: The player, all alone, stands between the forces of hell and the preservation of humanity, and that road to salvation is stained with lots and lots of blood. Critics can point to a game like Doom and accuse it of turning the player into a killer, but there’s a flip side to that unique “active” aspect of video games.

Doom might ask you to kill demons, but that mechanism is also empowering the player with a wide array of strengths, abilities and talents they don’t have in the real world. It’s a way to become someone different, someone better, someone stronger. Of course, this sort of empowerment is less controversial if we frame it within the noble, save-the-princess context of an adventure game like The Legend of Zelda, or within the triumphant, championship-chasing context of a sports game like NBA 2K18, but nevertheless, Doom’s video game form also straps it with that same positive surrogacy.

In Doom, you’re not just a player; you’re a hero. The game lets you literally face your demons, and not only that, it lets you eradicate evil from the entire planet. Yes, it’s over the top, and yes, it’s excessive, but Doom invokes a feeling of success and control that some players might not have outside the world of the game. That matters, and that feeling can only come with the active participation video games require.

Are all game developers innocent, then? Of course not. There’s a responsible way to make games, and the industry should continue to moderate and question what it sells consumers. That being said, positioning violent video games as the direct forefather of real-world violence is grossly unfair, and it deprecates the unique aspects of the form as something inherently malicious.

This is a complicated issue. Violent media might play a part in violent behavior, but it is not the end-all, be-all answer. When innocent people die, it’s a mistake to chase down one peripheral enemy while everywhere else, gore nests continue to spawn threat after threat. This conversation should be about keeping people healthy and keeping people safe. Instead, it’s been about optics, witch hunts and erecting straw men.

Only you can stop it.

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