Issue 92, Winter 2003/2004

by Seth Killian

Maybe the next time a social scientist or politician is interested in making pronouncements about the effects of violent video games, they should actually check out the players.

I’m a life-long video game player and a former national champion at “Street Fighter” (one of the world’s most popular video games), for which I now organize international tournaments. I’m no social science researcher, and my experiences are clearly anecdotal. However, I’ve seen the effects of violent video games, and on a scale far broader than any laboratory experiment. The advocates who claim there is a link between violence and video games should test their hypotheses at our events:

The tournaments take the games that invite you to punch, kick, shoot and slash your way to domination, and put them into a testosterone-soaked crucible of competition. Add a discourse of insults and bragging, an almost maximal culture clash, and members of rival street gangs. Stir the pot with incessant noise, emotional stress, sleeplessness and terrible food. What do you get? According to attendees, the best time they’ve had, with zero physically violent incidents in the ten years of these events.

Players scream, curse, and even hit the machines in disgust, but not each other. At events that include a wide spectrum of races, creeds, ages and socioeconomic backgrounds, battles are left strictly in-game. Stepping outside to share cigarettes, a pizza, or to buy Cokes, they ask “Where you from?” Answers range from Long Island to Peru; Kuwait to Korea.

The universities that host our tournaments would kill to have the kind of diversity Street Fighter attracts. Far outnumbering the stereotypical pasty white geeks are black guys in cowboy getups, hip-hop Arabs, ex-Marines, and Vietnamese gang members.

So here’s a situation where you’ve got thousands of unruly people playing some of the most purely violent games. They’ve been maximally exposed to these games, many from childhood. They are overwhelmingly young and male. They’re being tested in front of their friends, with pride and money on the line, against people they may be prejudiced against. So where’s the violence?

There’s no evidence that these players are more violent in other settings than any other cross-section of the population, either. Connected by chat rooms and message boards, the community is close-knit and heavily into gossiping. A lot of these players are also friends of mine. If they were in to violent behavior, the other players and I would know.

If you can set aside your amazement at our failure to slaughter one another, you might even notice something else: a vibrant, diverse, and even democratic community. These tournaments are entirely grassroots, sponsor-less, player-produced productions. Those who can, help out as translators; DJs and stage crew geeks set up the lights and sound; and people with arcade experience keep the equipment in good repair. Everyone’s a player, no one is paid, and all the entry fees go directly into the prize pool. Apart from the swearing, insults, and virtual violence, it’s kind of like an Amish barn raising.

Whether by allowing them a measure of control over an otherwise chaotic life, a venue to find respect, or a way of defusing daily frustrations, these games and the community have been credited by players with everything from helping them find jobs to getting them out of gang life. They make lasting friends of people from cultures and backgrounds they would otherwise have never met.

The existing research on violent video games can’t explain this reality, because most of it is flawed. Sample sizes are ludicrously small, comparisons are made between radically different games, multiple and poorly defined variables are often invalid, and the studies invariably conclude by glossing over these evidentiary gaps to reach the desired conclusion, linking barely measurable, innocuous laboratory behaviors with an appetite for real-world destruction.

These failings are well-documented by researchers like Henry Jenkins and Jonathan Freedman, who have called for rigor to replace the rhetoric, though largely to no avail. As a result, there is less a mis-communication between players and psychologists, politicians, and parents than no communication at all. Pundits predictably spout contrived, even laughable conclusions, while remaining pointedly oblivious to the routine experiences of millions and millions of actual players.

Science doesn’t have to be politicized to be bad, but it sure helps.