Economists and anthropologists on video game violence

Academic bloodsport has been on my mind this week since I have been reading the Charlot/Valeri debate that raged briefly in the pages of Pacific Studies in the late 1980s. It is without at doubt the Ultimate Fighting Championship of debates about Hawai’ian Sacrifice, partially because of the intensity with which it is fought (Valeri, in finest Francophone style, accuses of Charlot of managing to miss “not only the forest, but the trees as well”), partially because of its incredible erudition, and partially because it is, as far as I know, the only major academic debate about Hawai’ian sacrifice to date.

The Charlot/Valeri debate is totally unavailable electronically and so I have no link to it here. However, if you are interested in one academic cutting the work of another into very small pieces I hardily reccomend “Edward Castronova’s smackdown”: of “Carnagey’s work on video game violence”:, which features zingers like “the bugbear of statistical significance is loose among poorly-grounded fields, among which one must now, on the basis of their acceptance of this paper, sorrowfully include experimental social psychology.”

Social psychology is, like cognitive science, one of disciplines adjacent to anthropology that I don’t think much of (although I admit this view depends mainly on my ignorance of it) and the endless shallow literature on ‘media effects’ — the playing Half Life 2 will make you want to kill people — drive me nuts because, like Ted, I love playing video games and despite this fact I have not yet killed anyone. Ted sees the problems with this study through the lens of economics and as a result is highly critical of the statistical reasoning in the paper. As an anthropologist I have a different set of concerns.

For instance, the paper is entitled “the effect of video game violence on physiological desensitization to real-life violence.” The study discovered that people who played violent video games and then watched videos of, for instance, two prisoners in jail stabbing another person. As an anthropologist who values participant observation as a method (and was exposed to quite a lot of real-life violence in the course of his fieldwork) it seems to me that in fact there was no ‘real-life violence’ in the study — there were representations of real-life violence. This ellision of the difference between witnessing violent assault and watching violent assault on TV seems absolutely stunning to anyone who has ever watched a fight in the flesh (much less been swept up in one). Frankly, it commits the cardinal sin that the researchers accuse video game hobbyists of — trivializing violence by equating it with its representation. More interestingly, thought, it speaks to an implicit theory of immersion, reality, and engagement which the researchers had when they conducted the study and which, I suspect, underlies a great deal of the knee-jerk reaction against video games. Only in a world where most American spend hours watching television and eating meat from animals they didn’t kill could Duke Nukem seem more threatening than the mindles violence of American television.

As Ted points out in his rebuttal, it basically turns out that people who play violent video games have a heart rate of 68.5 beats per minute, while those who don’t have a hear rate of 70.5. I think the idea is that the violent viode games are desensitized to watching filmed violence so they stay calmer and have a lower heart beat. However this difference — two beats per minute — seems utterly trivial. Given this fact, we are left with a question: how can we explain the researcher’s belief that “individuals who play violent video games habituate or ‘get used to’ all the violence and eventually become physiologically numb to it” (Carnagey p. 7) if their data does not actually lead to this conclusion?

This is the second point where an anthropologist would approach this paper differently than an economist. Anthropology is based on a belief that perception is under-determined by reality — that the qualia of experience are open to many possible interpretations and do not impose one on all people. We humans use arbitrary and conventional structures of meaning — ‘culture’ — to make sense of them. So while economists are interested in examining the veracity of Carnagey et. al.’s beliefs, anthropologists are interested in ‘motivating’ (as they say in structuralism and method acting) the scientist’s beliefs — that is to say, understanding how they are a particular instantiation of the broader cultural context that produced the scientists in question.

And this, of course, is easy to do. Playing only a little fast and loose, we can see fear and anxiety surrounding new technology not just in reception to computer games, but to video arcades, movie theaters (“are children are ALONE at the MOVIES in the DARK with STRANGERS”), and even (in ancient Greece) to writing, which Greeks (I think it was Plato) thought was going to detroy their cherished skills of memorization.

Of course this last paragraph is hardly an adequate anthropology of the media effects debate, but it does demonstrate the uniqueness — and the pitfalls — of anthropological approaches to phenomena.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

14 thoughts on “Economists and anthropologists on video game violence

  1. The only convincing arguments I’ve ever seen about the negative effects of TV and/or Video Games had nothing to do with the content of those media, but focused on the amount of hours children spent sitting in front of their box as opposed to being active and moving around. But then, we don’t really need a study to tell us that …

  2. “…and partially because it is, as far as I know, the only major academic debate about Hawai’ian sacrifice to date.”


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  4. I think that one of the things that needs to be addressed is what does and does not count as violence. I’ve tried to argue before with people about the socially constructed nature of violence, but many people are resistant to the idea.
    Why is virtual acts of violence, such as videogames, televisoin, and films more likely to be called, “violent” than actual violent acts such as those in (American) football, hockey and other contact sports? Children are frequently encouraged to play football where they hit and tackle each other and yet we are afraid of them playing games on computers? I don’t know about anyone else’s school, but at my school the jocks got into a lot more fights than the nerds…

  5. Two other angles on this issue, one historical, the other theoretical.

    First, from the “Introduction to the 2000 Edition” of Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were:American Families and the Nostalgia Trap

    The United States has had the highest homicide rates in the industrial world for almost 150 years, long before the advent of violent video games. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, lynch mobs conducted sadistic mutilations as they killed their victims. Sometimes pieces of the victims’ bodies were passed out as souvenirs to the onlooking crowd, which frequently included children. Although rates of youthful violence seem to be higher than in the past, teen murderers are certainly nothing new. Caril Fugate was fourteen and Charles Starkweather was nineteen when they conducted their three-state murder spree in 1958.

    In citing this source, however, I remain aware that Coontz was writing this introduction for publication in 2000. In Freakonomics Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (2005) observe that rates of violent crime in the United States peaked in 1989, after rising for 15 years. Then, however, the trend turned downward, and,

    When the crime rate began falling in the early 1990s, it did so with such speed and suddenness that it surprised everyone. It took some experts many years to even recognize that crime was falling, so confident had then been of its continuing rise.

    It could be, of course, that crime rates declined while violence increased, with growth in violence offset by a falling rate of reporting of violent crimes. Still, the proposition that violence has increased monotonically with the spread of video games seems weak.

    Turning, then, to the theoretical issue, one might ask if desensitization to violence (which might, in fact, result in fewer reports of violent crimes) is a separate issue for video games or, instead, a more general cultural phenomenon.

    If, for example, you read Frederic Jameson’s Postmodernism, or the Logic of Late Capitalism there you will find the proposition that “flattened affect” (a psychiatric term for reduced emotional response) is characteristic of the Postmodern condition, contrasted with the excess emotion characteristic of the Modern hysterias analyzed by Freud. Here the villain is TV in particular, or, more generally, the information explosion that is so characteristic of late capitalist consumer societies, in which individuals are so overwhelmed by information that they tend to shut down as a defense mechanism and focus only on whatever has their immediate attention before quickly moving on to something else.

    There is, however, one aspect of the blame TV argument that may carry over especially well to video games, especially as video games become more realistic. Here the point is frequently made that the rush of information to which individuals are now exposed is increasingly encountered behind glass screens, taken in by individuals who have neither the live experience of, for example, the children at the lynchings described by Coontz nor the slow-downed virtual experience of reading books, where the reader can pause and respond to the text instead of being distracted by the next thing on the screen.

    There is also, a slightly separate issue, the increasing overlap, first evident in TV, between staged, fictional content and what purports, at least, to be news, actual facts on the ground. I recall becoming aware of this myself while watching CNN news footage of jet aircraft taking off from U.S. carriers in the Aegean to bomb Serbia during the Kosovo intervention. It suddenly occured to me, “I’ve seen that scene before…in Top Gun.” The news camera crews were using the same visual idiom used by the filmmakers.

    Lots of stuff to think about here.

  6. I think that one of the things that needs to be addressed is what does and does not count as violence.

    This was brought home to me in my Intro classes, where I assign an article on American football. In the ensuing discussion, one of my students made the then-shocking claiom that there’s no violence in football. Pressed on this point, she noted that nobody *tries* to injure their fellow players (perhaps a bit of wishful thinking in practice, but that’s certainly the ideal) and that the injuries that do happen are not malicious in intent (again, ideally speaking — but we *do* look down on players who deliberately aim to hurt their opponents, so I don’t think she was too far off base). What football is — like movies and video games, and even boxing and pro wrestling — is the *performance* of violence by highly trained specialist performers. Contrast that with the actual violence of, say, a missile attack on a civilian neighborhood, or even the purposeful violence of military action (most definitely *not* just a performance). In a perfectly staged football game, nobody gets hurt; in a perfectly run military operation, people necessarily get hurt.

    This doesn’t, however, address the issue that seems to be at the core of worries about movie and video game violence, namely whether we the audience perceive such performances as performed or actual violence. Certainly my own affective response is different when I see a pile-up on the freeway than when I see a pile-up in _The Matrix_, but there are certainly cases where we can see responses that aren’t so distinctive — e.g. the death of the “bad guy” at the hands of the “good guy” in any number of action movies compared with the gleeful celebrations held outside prisons when a convict is executed. This suggests there’s a moral dimension involved — one that is absent, I should add, from football. Is it equally absent from video games?

  7. The current Wiki entry on violence says,

    Violence refers to acts of aggression and abuse which causes or intends to cause criminal injury or harm to persons, and (to a lesser extent) animals and property.

    This might be taken to explain why the criminal who fires a gun at a cop becomes, if recorded, an instance of violent crime, while the cop who fires back, and may, in fact, kill or severely harm the criminal does not. On this definition, too, the student who said that football is not violent was simply speaking the truth. Aggression and abuse that remain within the rules of the game are not criminal and, thus, by definition not violent.

    The anthropologically interesting question is the range of aggressive or abusive acts criminalized–thus, violent–in particular groups, in particular situations, at particular moments in time.

    *The Roman paterfamilias was within his rights–thus, not violent–if he beat a slave, a wife or a child. Now, some child rights activists argue that spanking, in any form, be criminalized–thus, violent.

    *Public execution by hanging, drawing and quartering was once perfectly legal–thus, not violent. Now opponents of the death penalty may see any execution as cruel and unusual punishment that should be made illegal–thus, violent.

    *The Dayak headhunter wasn’t a violent man unless he took a head from his own group–until, that is, colonial authorities outlawed headhunting, turning taking a head into violence instead of a respectable manly way to the fertility of his group’s crops.

    The examples are easy to multiply. The key to serious analysis is to recognize the validity of Pierre Bourdieu’s point that debates over definitions of violence are, like all other debates over social or cultural boundaries, sites of struggle. But that doesn’t make the struggle or its consequences, shifting boundaries over time, less real. It makes them something to understand and, if possible, explain.

  8. John, thanks for adding this to the debate, but I wonder: can we really take the Wikipedia entry at its word and assign “violence” only to the criminal? If we remove the word “criminal”, isn’t that a more accurate rendering of not necessarily what the word means (off in Erewhon where words have meaning on their own) but what it means to most speakers? Are all acts of violence outside the law? Is violence illegal?

  9. No, of course we can’t take Wiki as an authority. Wiki is just a data point. It is interesting, though, how that “criminal” marks a boundary between acceptable and unacceptable agressive behavior in a way that makes violence unacceptable and makes “violence” a negative label. If we accept this usage, what, then, are anthropologists to make of cultures from Homeric Greek to Samurai and Comanche, in which a warrior ethos not only legitimizes but also glorifies aggression?

  10. It is pretty obvious that the link between the consumption of violent media as a direct cause of violent crime is wishful thinking. However, it may be that media shapes the way violent acts are constructed and thereby possibly intensifies what would otherwise be a less violent act. A few posts back, John McCreery points out that there is an “overlap” between fictional content and news, citing the striking similarity between CNN news footage of jets launching from US aircraft carriers to bomb Serbia during the Kosovo war and scenes from the movie Top Gun. The US was going to bomb Serbia anyway, but perhaps the level of intensity with which the bombings occurred was magnified by iconic Hollywood images, like those found in Top Gun.
    I think back to the controversy that arose when Oliver Stone released Natural Born Killers. People were appalled at the outrageous glorification of violence in that movie and feared that the movie would inspire murders like the fictional murderous rampage at the center of the film. Surprisingly, their fears were confirmed. 18-year-olds Sarah Edmondson and her boyfriend Benjamin Darras supposedly watched Natural Born Killers before carrying out a robbery that resulted in murder. Relatives of one victim filed a lawsuit against Oliver Stone. The Columbine shooters used the acronym “NBK” as a code for the planned shootings referring to it as, “the holy April morning of NBK”. Just last month there was a shooting on a college campus in Quebec. The shooter, Kimveer Gill, killed one and injured 19 others before killing himself. He said Natural Born Killers was one of his favorite movies in his blog.
    These people who went on killing sprees were clearly mentally disturbed to begin with and would have probably been violent sooner or later. But movies like Natural Born Killers served as inspiration and acted as a guide by which to release murderous impulses. Would Kimveer Gill have chosen a shooting spree as his method of relieving his aggressive impulses had he not seen Natural Born Killers? Although I recognize that watching a violent movie doesn’t turn you into a robot killing machine deprived of freewill, for the above examples I’m compelled to admit that violent media images have a larger impact than we’d like to admit. Maybe Gill’s shooting spree would not have been a shooting spree at all… something violent and reprehensible, sure. Is it possible that through an unhindered stream of media violence, even the government is bombing countries with more gusto than they normally would have had they not seen Top Gun?

  11. Movies offer narratives that, to mentally disturbed people, can substitute for a lack of creativity in their deranged fantasies that they would have otherwise acted out in real life. Video games, by contrast, don’t yet have the capacity to tell stories of the same emotional depth and quality as film can. If it’s stories that drive people to murder, then you have nothing to worry about from video games! They might feature a storyline to string together more interactive gameplay moments, but it’s not the type of narrative that can feed deranged fantasy. I’ll argue that playing video games makes a person less aggressive over time because it gives them a safe, legal, private outlet for their aggressions. The people in the original article who had a heart rate that was on average 2 beats-per-minute lower were calmer because they were playing violent video games. They weren’t desensitized, they were relieved.

  12. How very interesting that someone would decry a body of research as “shallow” and then support that opinion with the statistically ridiculous (n=1) statement that s/he plays violent games but has never killed anyone. If this is an example of the depth of thinking typical of anthropologists, I believe I’ll follow your example and dismiss the entire field out of hand on the basis of the absurd argument presented here.

  13. As a former active duty, and current part-time soldier, I’ve had the opportunity to learn something about the nature of human violence and aggression.
    There are a lot of young soldiers that join up for the opportunity to live out the fantasies they play in video games and see in movies, or hear in music. It’s a matter of culture, and culture matters. To say that the world and culture that a person is raise in doesn’t affect their behavior, or desires, is to say that culture doesn’t matter, which is a strange position to be taken here. Of course, it isn’t just one thing, but we don’t deal with just single, quantifiable variables used to run regressions like other social scientists. We look at the human holistically. There are biological aspects of brain chemistry/plasticity, diet, drugs, environment/pollution; and, cultural aspects which can’t really be separated from the biological, linguistic, or historical dimensions involved.
    Over all rates of violence and homicide are going down, as our culture is becoming more violent, but it is also a matter of who is committing these crimes. I actually know killers, I’ve lived with them and call some friends.
    Most weren’t killers before going to war, but some become somewhat addicted to the action and killing. For some its the culture that makes them curious and fantasize, and for others its the reality, and of course, for some its both.
    There’s actually empirical evidence that has been done by the Army, so this doesn’t just have to be about anecdotes.

    Dave Grossman, a former Army Ranger and current psychologist working for the military has compiled a great deal of research done by the army, others, and himself, and put them in a series of books. He wrote a book about this titled,

    “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.”

    Here’s the review:

    Drawing on interviews, published personal accounts and academic studies, Grossman investigates the psychology of killing in combat. Stressing that human beings have a powerful, innate resistance to the taking of life, he examines the techniques developed by the military to overcome that aversion. His provocative study focuses in particular on the Vietnam war, revealing how the American soldier was “enabled to kill to a far greater degree than any other soldier in history.” Grossman argues that the breakdown of American society, combined with the pervasive violence in the media and interactive video games, is conditioning our children to kill in a manner similar to the army’s conditioning of soldiers: “We are reaching that stage of desensitization at which the infliction of pain and suffering has become a source of entertainment: vicarious pleasure rather than revulsion. We are learning to kill, and we are learning to like it.”

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