Guns, games and violence: The other questions we should be asking


Microsoft versus Sony, Battlefield versus Call of Duty and Forza versus Gran Turismo. These are some of the rivalries that can get people talking about console wars. “Game On or Game Over” is your place to get inside the minds of Nicholas and Andy as they seek to find the true meaning of gaming and tackle some of gaming’s most controversial subjects. Both are award winning authors – although the awards haven’t been mailed or created yet — but trust them. Would they lie to you?

Nicholas: In the world of gaming there are two age-old questions. The first, console or PC? The second, do video games cause violence? While we’ve discussed this topic in the past, the thought to revisit the discussion came to light after a recent article was published by Polygon titled, ‘Guns, games and violence: The real questions you should be asking’. Written coincidentally in-light of the tragic shootings in Orlando, among other themes, the author made the comment that there’s certainly an influence that video games have on our behaviour, referencing the situation of his then 12 year-old son playing Call of Duty and becoming worrying obsessed in firearms.

To kick off I wanted to touch on this very point first. In the article he talks about his son, through his continued exposure of playing the game, understanding the difference between each firearm, the rate of fire, accuracy, etc. and then goes on to discuss how he become increasingly interested in visiting a shooting range and firing these guns in real life, all at the age of 12 mind you.

So my question to you isn’t whether video games cause violence, but what are your thoughts on the above? There’s no denying the influence that playing a game like Call of Duty had on this young individual, but do you think it’s representative of the impact of these games on all people? What are your thoughts on the very fact that there’s a child (not a teenager, as the writer tries to unsuccessfully insinuate) playing a game like this?

Andy: I hadn’t seen that Polygon article until you mentioned it, which is somewhat surprising because that’s the type of topic that really interests me since I did several research papers along those lines when I was going to college. My initial thought when I first read it, was that I had a hard time really trying to figure out what the author was trying to say, versus what he said. But, I don’t want to turn this article into a dissection of his own and what was said in it, rather I believe your intent is to really touch on the topics he tried to bring up and throw our opinions out there for better or worse, so let’s do just that.

First off there have been numerous studies that have concluded that there is no direct correlation between violent media (games/movies/books) and violent behaviour. So coming at this from an academic perspective we need to move past blaming violent media for causing the world’s problems. In regards to creating interest in something by being exposed to it, sure, absolutely. I would argue that the kid was probably more interested in the stats because of in-game aspects and wanting to do better on the leaderboards, have a higher K/D. I think that’s just a natural thing for kids, and people in general, they do something, become interested in it and seek to learn more about it. That’s pretty much the way things work isn’t it? I mean I don’t do something and keep doing it without looking for more information on it. It can apply to cars, history, cooking, sports or whatever other activity you want to include.

Here’s the thing with violent media and kids, it’s not up to the industry to police itself. They can put R ratings, M ratings, NC-17 rating, PEGI 18 ratings or whatever other rating you want to put on something and kids can still access it. If they want to find and watch/play it they will. It’s up to parents to either limit what their child watches/plays or (and?) teach appropriate lessons on what’s right and wrong, what’s fiction and what’s not, etc. All too often I have heard parents say “Oh they’ve seen worse.” And then purchase the latest iteration of Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty for little Johnny. It seems now-a-days games/media have taken the place of baby sitters, spending time with family, learning about the world, etc.

Are there other things kids can do besides play games or watch movies, absolutely. Why then does parent after parent rely on games and movies to keep their kid occupied and then complain that the kid wants to learn more about guns? If that is the thing the kid is most familiar with, it’s only natural to be curious about other aspects relating to that. The author of the article even says he played the games with his kid. Then the kids wants his dad to take him to a shooting range… could it be that maybe the kid wanted to do more things with his dad? Yes, but it gets better clicks if we focus on the gun aspect doesn’t it? To me that’s my biggest issue with this type of discussion. No matter which side of the fence people are on they put on these magical blinders and the only correct path is the one they see and no-one else’s opinion is going to change their view. Mainstream media doesn’t help either. Something happens and the media says “Oh Billy played World of Warcraft 6 years ago so there has to be a link!” The issue is way more complex than a simple cause and effect but that’s what some want you to believe.

OK, I’m jumping off my soapbox here in an attempt to let you have your say on this one. I know it’s not much of a true question, but what do you think on my opinion above? Am I going from one spectrum (narrow thinking) to the other end? Or is there some validity in what I’m putting down here?


Nicholas: I think there’s some validity, yes. I believe it depends on the child, but it makes sense that the more you’re exposed to something the more you want to learn about it. When I think about where we are today, just you and I, we’re both writing about games because of what? Our prolonged exposure and continual interest in games themselves. It starts off as playing a few levels of Super Mario 20 years ago and eventually it develops into something more. Whether it’s cars after playing Need For Speed or guns after playing Call of Duty. I suppose there’s just a much greater stigma surrounding firearms than vehicles, especially in-light of the recent highlights in the news.

You mentioning the idea that video games have become almost like babysitters for some families is an interesting concept, and one that I’d like us to explore more. If I think about my childhood, my Gameboy was connected at my hip. While I wasn’t allowed to play games during the week, come the weekend I was either playing Super Nintendo or Nintendo 64 when at home, or collecting Pokémon on my Gameboy when I was out. It’s never to suggest that my parents just plonked me in-front of the television and walked away, but it was certainly a hobby of mine that I loved, and still continue to love, doing.

You’ve also mentioned the age restrictions on games and I think that’s fairly important too. Just earlier this week I was speaking with a parent who mentioned that they’d let their teenage children play games like GTA and CoD, but stressed the fact that they were taught what was the difference between right and wrong, games and reality. In your opinion, is it appropriate for a younger person to play a violent game like the ones we’ve mentioned above, on the assumption that they’re taught to distinguish between what’s OK or not in the real world? For me, there’s just something that didn’t sit right when I was reading the original article. It just seemed like his child wasn’t ready to handle those themes. What do you think?

Andy: I agree with you, but only to a certain point. There is actually a – I’m going to say danger here but that’s not necessarily the right word – danger with that line of thinking though. The danger is putting every kid under the same umbrella and having a one size fits all type of approach. There are some 13 year olds that I know that are far more mature than some adults I know. Yet, there are also some kids I know that are not even close to acting mature. So, I don’t think it’s necessarily reasonable to say that every member of a certain group (in this case, kids) can’t participate in an activity (playing Call of Duty) based on the behaviours of some of the group they belong to.

You do raise a good point though in mentioning that there have to be kids out there that played Need for Speed, Forza or Gran Turismo and then in turn became interested in cars. Then they become members of car forums, start talking about cars, learning more, then when they are old enough buy their own car (hopefully not a Mazda) a new hobby is formed. We don’t talk about those kids, because it doesn’t create the same buzz as talking about guns. Heck, I know a 15 year old here in town that fell in love with Minecraft now he’s focusing on being an architect. But, hey that’s something positive about video gaming so we can’t have that lead off any news hour, or be front page in the paper.

If a child isn’t ready to handle a particular theme of a video game then the parents have to step in and pull the reigns back. Yet all too often many parents don’t even know what their kid is playing, or what it’s about. I would even be willing to bet that some of the parents don’t even know what the rating on games mean. Much less that there is a box on the back of the game case describing why the game is rated what it is.  I remember around a year ago seeing small toddler with a physical magazine in front of it trying to swipe the page like an iPad and it couldn’t figure out how to turn the page. I felt so bad for him but it speaks to how we are raising children now for sure.

It’s funny that you read that original article and interpreted it as the child not being ready to handle those themes, but I see the opposite. I see a kid trying to find a way to connect with his dad and try to get the dad to do more things with him. There’s the philosophy term Occam’s razor which basically means “The simplest solution is usually the correct solution.” Yet, we often try to make things much more complex than what they really need to be. I would argue the kid was ready, and mature enough for those themes because he sought out an adult to help him further learn about his interest (in this case going to a gun range). He didn’t take it upon himself to steal a gun, or take one he wasn’t supposed to have etc.

I’m trying not to keep going back to this, but I think it’s a point that we really need to talk more about and that’s parenting. First I want to say it is not up to me to tell someone how to raise their kid. A parent should know their child better than anyone else and be able to judge what they are ready for and what they shouldn’t do yet. I wish parents were more engaged with their children, and what the kids are doing. I’ve heard a mum buy a game for her child and then say “Now stay out of my hair for a while.” It doesn’t matter that the game is M rated for blood and gore, intense violence, and use of drugs as long as the kid leaves her alone everything is fine. I would argue that lack of parenting has much more impact on a child’s development than a video game. Would you agree with that?


Nicholas: There’s certainly a case for that I believe. I think it combines though with the themes of the game and whether the child is ready to be exposed to them. If we take your scenario, of course it seems horrible that there’s someone using video games almost as a pacifier to not have to pay attention to their child, but it’s the disregard for the contents of the game and the assumption here that there’s been no thought into explaining to the child what he/she is likely to be exposed to. Letting someone as easily impressionable as a young child be exposed to the themes in a game like Grand Theft Auto for example is dangerous, especially if you’ve not laid down any of the groundwork to tell them what’s wrong and what shouldn’t be replicated in real-life.

We’ve mentioned the rating system a few times now, and I think that’s the next topic that we should address this week. While the lettering might differ from region to region, the underlying system remains the same. Games are either OK for all ages, suggested for mid-teens and then adults-only. The ratings are there for a reason, but I think more often than not they go ignored by both the retailers that sell these products and then the parents that buy them (excluding adults buying games for themselves in this instance of course). Throughout this article you’ve mentioned the idea of some kids being more mature for their age, but what do you think that means for the rating system that suggests games should be restricted to people of an older age?

Similarly, do you think retailers should have to be held to these ratings, and should deny a parent’s request to purchase MA-15 or R18+ games if they suspect it’ll be played by someone younger than those ages? Consider games the same as alcohol in that respect. Furthermore, do you think there’s an exception? In that, a 13 year old can buy a MA game, but not a R-rated game? What would be the point of having the system if it isn’t to be followed, no?

Andy: In my opinion the rating part of this is directly tied to the parenting part as well. The ratings are there for a reason, they give a quick snapshot of the content in the game and allow parents of minors the ability to make a slightly informed decision. I’m not sure how it is in Australia, but in the US ratings (for games and movies) are more of a guideline intended for parents to make decisions. That’s why there is always the tagline “May not be suitable for…” Retailers here in the US are required to check ID’s for people who are trying to purchase an M rated game if they look 21 or younger. It’s not a law per se, but rather an agreement so that there are not laws passed on it. Depending on the retailer if you sell a game to an underage kid you can be terminated on the spot.

For me when I see the rating system it’s a barometer for a parent to make the decision. Look at the back of a game, get an idea of what the game is about, then based on the maturity of their kid decide if the game is appropriate or not. Personally, I would rather a parent sit down with a kid and have a conversation about why a game is/is not appropriate for them. If it’s not appropriate,  tell the kid why and what they need to do to be able to play the game down the road. I’m not talking “clean your room”, “do the dishes” or other chores, I’m talking behaviours to show you are more mature. How you interact with people, right from wrong, etc.

I think your pacifier analogy is spot-on actually. We’ve all probably seen a parent buy a game for a kid to keep them quiet and to stop bothering the parent. I’m sorry, but if you think your kid is bothering you, you have bigger issues. There is no doubt that kids are impressionable. They learn thing from everywhere. If the majority of their learning takes place in front of a screen – regardless whether it’s games or movies – then there is a larger systemic problem. We have to be willing to educate our kids in every aspect of life. They are not a bother. Can they get on our nerves? Undoubtedly. Can they cause us frustration? Yup. Can they piss us off? You bet. But those are the same things I did to my parents, and my parents took the time to teach me things. My game time was limited to small bits of time. Then I had to go outside and play, mow the neighbours grass, pick-up dog poop, etc. It’s about moderation and experiencing other things.

Moderation is actually something we should touch on. I’ve talked to kids that once they get home from school they plop down in front of their screen and start gaming. They game until dinner, then start up again right away. All too often now-a-days the screen is the babysitter and any lessons or imprint made to a kid are from that. Again, I can’t tell anyone how to raise their kids – but if a screen is the primary way of keeping a kid occupied it would seem that some rethinking is in order. I don’t think the problem is violent games or media, I see it more as an issue of people not wanting to accept responsibility. To put the effort into teachable moments, and to raise all-around good kids. To me games are just an easy target because they have guns and violence. Why do you think it is that mainstream media is so hesitant to dig deeper in things like this instead of just being satisfied that someone played World of Warcraft 3 years ago so that has to be the reason behind it?


Nicholas: Despite how popular gaming is, I still believe it has a stigma attached to it. That being, it’s the past-time of ‘nerds’ who stay indoors every weekend and have little to no social skills. It’s slowly becoming more mainstream, and we’re seeing that with the popularity of mobile gaming (especially Pokémon GO over the past week), but the old-school media still has a while to go before they recognise gaming for what it is. What’s disappointing is that for every good news story that comes about from gaming, again, recent Pokémon GO walks in Sydney being one of them, there’s two or three negative ones that stem up as well. Case in point, thieves using lures in the app to, excuse the pun, lure people in before robbing them, and a lady who discovered a dead body while searching for Pokémon in her area. There’s certainly movement in the right direction, but not at the pace I’d like it to be moving at if I’m honest.

We’ve discussed quite a bit this week, and in ways that I didn’t expect it would when we first started. At the beginning of the article we spoke about the writer whose child, through playing Call of Duty, developed an (in my opinion) unhealthy interest in firearms. In-light of the recent shootings (or dare I say, continual shootings) in the US, do you think games should be used to educate people (both young and old) on the devastation of gun violence, or do you think games only desensitise us, therefore further perpetuating the issue?

Andy: Oh man, I think that question could be an entire article. I’m not sure I can do it justice but I’ll give it my best shot. When I first read that question I thought about it in a really black and white type of view. Either a yes, or a no type answer. Yet, the more I think about it the more conflicted I become and the more I realize it’s not a yes or no. I’m not really sure there is a right answer if I’m being honest.

On one hand I think there needs to be a separation between entertainment and trying to educate someone. If we look at games as a way to educate people on the damage guns can do, should we then not also do the same for driving too fast, jumping off buildings or that stealing is bad? I mean a lot of that is common sense right? Even kids should know that going fast in a car is dangerous, and jumping off a building into a haystack isn’t necessarily the smartest decision ever. Games are fiction, they suspend our sense of belief and take us to other worlds where we can experience new and magical things. I’d hate to see that magic taken away because we have to shoehorn some education piece to appease people that not understand gaming anyway.

On the other hand, knowing how many kids and people in general, games can reach is a perfect opportunity. We already discussed kids are going to play the game anyway so why not throw a teachable moment or two into the game. Do it in a way where it’s not in your face, more subtle and if done correctly there is a great deal of impact and reach to be made. Of course we then have to talk about what “done correctly” means… unfortunately I don’t have the answer to that. That’s way above my paygrade, and one I’d probably screw up anyway.

Here’s the thing, regardless if games are used to teach things or not in-order to make any lasting impact that education needs to be on multiple fronts. Yes, games can play a part in it, so can TV and movies, teachers can help and so can parents. If a kid has a question we have to be there to answer it. We have to explain it in ways they can understand, and that they listen to. Like anything if we rely on education to occur based off one teaching then there is a chance that we’ll miss that moment. If we can get multiple sources teaching the same lesson, then we have a much better chance of retention.  Regardless of who, or what, does the education everyone owes it to our kids to do it. Kids don’t ask questions because they want to be a bother, they ask because they are curious. It’s up to everyone to answer those questions, otherwise the kids will find their answers somewhere else, and they may not always be the right answers.

Tune in next time for the next instalment of Game On or Game Over. If you have any ideas for our next article, feel free to contact Andy or Nicholas on Twitter.