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Last Updated: Saturday, 7 February, 2004, 08:29 GMT
Blaming the dark side of gaming
It is trite and irresponsible to accuse violent video games of promoting crime, argues Daniel Etherington of BBCi Collective in his weekly games column.

Counter-Strike screenshot
First-person shooters are popular with gamers
It has long been a key argument - are we formulated more by our genes or our environment?

If a gene can dictate that your eyesight will be bad, can another dictate a propensity for violence? Or can certain experiences make you violent?

As a consumer of games that are regularly deemed bad influences, I have to wonder. Can they nurture violence in oneself? Or were the killers whose activities have been linked to games already psychopaths before they ever played the games?

A point here is that often the crimes associated with specific games are perpetrated by young people, many of whom technically should not have been playing games given a mature rating in the first place.

It is elusive but, potentially, teenagers whose moral and ethical understanding of how society works is immature or unformulated could be affected by violence in cultural items.

Instead of slippery ethical notions, though, it is easier to get more cohesive answers to questions of physiology and neurobiology.

Genetic questions

Young men are generally central to the crimes in question, and young men are notorious for their testosterone - something that's long caused injury in more generic violence, such as brawling.

In terms of the nature/nurture argument, are such young men also inclined to violence through their genes?

People playing console games
In the case of gaming there is very much a missing link that would connect it concretely with real-world violence

Increasingly, it looks like the nature versus nurture dichotomy is not only misleading, but wrong. It may seem obvious, but how can there be one without the other?

Scientific evidence points to how environmental factors can cause changes in hormone and protein levels which can then affect certain genes.

So, for example, stress hormone glucocorticoid can regulate the expression of genes that have a bearing on depression.

Other evidence indicates that environmental factors such as prolonged trauma can potentially result in changes to fear and anxiety levels.

Such work would indicate that, yes, even cultural items such as games and movies, may affect us, and engaging with an ultra-violent game could conceivably register with the brain as a stressful or traumatic experience.

However, it must be emphasised that there is no solid evidence in this specific area as yet.

In the case of gaming there is very much a missing link that would connect it concretely with real-world violence.

As Michael Moore so eloquently discussed in Bowling For Columbine, Canada has violence in movies and games, plus more guns per capita than the US, but proportionately a fraction of the killings.

Japan provides a similar case study where fictional violence is arguably more widespread than in the US, but the country's murder rate is around 800 per year in a population of 127 million.

In New York City, there were around 600 murders in 2003 in a population of eight million.

Social, cultural, ethical and neurobiological issues remain in such a tangle that it is trite and irresponsible of ill-informed commentators to claim that games like Grand Theft Auto are central to terrible crime.

Before such accusations are explicitly made, more credible work has to be done in this area.

Scientific conclusions may well remain elusive for decades. For now, enjoy your gaming.

Are video games breeding killers?
31 Jan 04  |  Technology



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