Monday, February 18, 2013

Can Video Games Actually Influence Violent Behavior?

Requiem for the Puppet Master, proposes that highly sophisticated, life like video games could be used to program a teen-aged boy to commit murder.  The story was conceived and written before the recent rash of mass murders in 2012, and of course is pure fiction. Writing the story, I had no doubt that a violent video game or movie could influence the chemistry in the human body.  Our fight or flight responses can be triggered by both real and imagined danger or threat. Our breathing becomes faster and shallow, our heart rate and blood pressure increase.  So the basis for the story was something I thought readers could buy into. And they have.

Some time ago I took an afternoon off and went to see a movie.  Wait Until Dark was showing in a big, but mostly empty, RKO Orpheum Theatre.  In the movie a recently blinded woman, Susy, (played by Audrey Hepburn) is terrorized by a trio of thugs while they search for a heroin stuffed doll they believe is in her apartment.  Susy breaks out all the lights in the apartment hoping to give herself an edge.  What she doesn’t know is that the refrigerator door is open and the light in the refrigerator is on. The movie is intense. I wanted to tell her about the light. She thinks she is in total darkness.

I was sitting there in the theatre, totally hooked, hoping and praying for her escape when one of the bad guys comes flying out from the side and grabs Susy. I was startled and immediately got wrapped up in the ensuing struggle. About three minutes later as the adrenalin receded I realized that I had stood up and was still standing. And that was just a very old movie (1967 I think).  Consider the difference in sophistication, and technology between that movie and a new violent video game. Consider also the amped up ability of the video game to keep the adrenalin flowing.

There is no doubt in my mind that vivid, realistic, images can influence our body chemistry.  Iowa State University professor Douglas Gentile tells us:

These gamers do have an adrenaline rush, and it's noradrenaline and it's testosterone, and it's cortisol — these are the so-called stress hormones," Gentile says. "That's exactly the same cocktail of hormones you drop into your bloodstream if I punched you."

But, is the rush, by itself, strong enough to change behavior? Probably not. Lots of kids, millions, are playing violent video games and staying in sports, reaching for honor roles, getting ready for college, enjoying their high school years.

There are other important factors that lead to strong enough motivation to kill.  Mental illness, poor self esteem, rejection by peers, being bullied, not having positive, supportive role models all can lead to a very skewed view of the world and his place in it.  The need for recognition combined with some of these other factors can lead some very bizarre behavior including murder. 

And what about girls?  My wife explained it to me.  She says, “Men and boys fight with their fists, guns and knives.  Girls use words to fight.”  She’s probably right, she usually is.