It’s just a game…

Does reading erotic stories excite you?

Are you salivating while watching your favorite Food Network show?

Do you get nightmares after renting that horror flick?

What happens when you’re playing Grand Theft Auto, Soldier of Fortune or a game like Manhunt?

No matter the context, our brain is constantly processing events from the outside world, turning them into physical, emotional and (sometimes) rational responses. In a split second, it has to answer these three questions:

1. What do I see, hear, feel, smell or taste?

2. What does it mean?

3. How do I respond?

If our behavior of choice results in positive feedback (e.g. the release of endorphins, causing a “high”), we’re more likely to choose that type of response in the future. The more we do it, the more we want it, and the better we get at it. It’s classic conditioning.

PLAYING GAMES ALTERS BRAINS

In 2012, researchers at the Indiana University School of Medicine published the results of an experiment with 28 young men between 18 to 29.

One group played a shooting video game for 10 hours over the course of one week. The second week they didn’t play at all. The control group did not play any video games during these two weeks.

Both groups had fMRI analysis at the start, after the first week, and after the second week. Yang Wang, is assistant research professor in the Department of Radiology and Imaging Science. He said in a news release:

“For the first time, we have found that a sample of randomly assigned young adults showed less activation in certain frontal brain regions following a week of playing violent video games at home. These brain regions are important for controlling emotions and aggressive behavior. (…) These findings indicate that violent video game play has a long-term effect on brain functioning.”

In the same year, researchers for Ohio State University discovered that:

“People who played a violent video game for three consecutive days showed increases in aggressive behavior and hostile expectations each day they played. Meanwhile, those who played nonviolent games showed no meaningful changes in aggression or hostile expectations over that period.”

VIOLENT GAMES ALTER BEHAVIOR

Brad Bushman, Ph.D., is a Professor of Communication and Psychology and co-author of the study. He comments:

“Playing video games could be compared to smoking cigarettes. A single cigarette won’t cause lung cancer, but smoking over weeks or months or years greatly increases the risk. In the same way, repeated exposure to violent video games may have a cumulative effect on aggression.”

Recently, a research team at Brock University in Canada found that teenagers who play violent video games over a number of years become more aggressive towards other people. They said their results were “concerning” and argued that violent games could “reinforce the notion that aggression is an effective and appropriate way to deal with conflict and anger.”

“It is clear that there is a long-term association between violent video games and aggression,” said Lead researcher Professor Teena Willoughby. “This is an important and concerning finding, particularly in light of the hours that youth spend playing these games.”

THE SOCIAL ASPECT OF GAMING

Not all studies on video game violence and aggression come to the same conclusion, though. David Ewoldson is professor of Communication at the same Ohio State University that published Brad Bushman’s study. His take on the matter:

“Clearly, research has established there are links between playing violent video games and aggression, but that’s an incomplete picture. Most of the studies finding links between violent games and aggression were done with people playing alone. The social aspect of today’s video games can change things quite a bit.”

He concluded that violent video games don’t always make players more aggressive. It all depends on your playing style. Players who cooperated in playing the video game later showed more cooperation than those who competed against each other. (source)

In January of 2012, the Swedish Media Council published a comprehensive review of the research done between 2000 and 2012 into violent video games and aggression. The Council concluded:

“There is an extensive amount of research that demonstrates a statistical relationship between VCG (violent computer games) and aggression. Much of this measured aggression related only to mental processes and not to violent behavior. In addition, there was no evidence for VCG to cause aggressive behavior.”

“That a person reacts in a given manner in a laboratory environment does not mean that they would react similarly in an everyday environment.”

THE GAME BOYS

Some estimate the video game industry to be worth $100 billion worldwide. Whether or not there is a proven causal relationship between violent games and violent behavior, Vice President Joe Biden wanted to meet with video game industry representatives. He did, and they talked for two hours. The topic: gun violence prevention.

According to Biden, the issue at stake wasn’t just gun control. It was about “civility in society,” and the coarsening of our culture.”

After the meeting, Biden suggested ways to address violence in video games, movies and on television when he sent President Barack Obama a package of recommendations for curbing gun violence. This was in response to the Newtown school massacre that killed 20 kids and 6 adults.

According to Reuters, a senior administration official said that President Obama would be asking for $10 million for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study the root causes of gun violence, including any relationship to video games and media images.

OUR OWN RESPONSE

Of course Biden wasn’t the only one discussing gun violence and control. As was the case after the movie theater massacre in Aurora (12 dead, 58 wounded), Facebook exploded.

People sticking to their guns clashed with those who didn’t know what to make of the ongoing infatuation with firearms. After heated exchanges, long-time colleagues were unfriended and new friends were found. That’s freedom of speech in action.

Here’s what bothered me most.

The voice-over community discussed putting armed guards in schools, weapons at Walmart, strengthening background checks and restrictions on high-capacity ammunition magazines. Those issues are important, but they are symptoms of a much deeper problem in the United States. People hardly talked about the culture of violence in this country, and the role video games play in that culture.

To me, that would have been interesting, because a number of voice-over actors are making a decent living voicing violent games; games in which aggression is magnified, glorified and rewarded. Games that according to people like professor Bushman, make the players more aggressive. 

 Why in all these years, didn’t anyone in our community have the guts to stand up and say:

“This stuff is sick. This stuff is wrong. I don’t want to play any part in it!”

I think I know why.

GAMING GLORY

Things get uncomfortable when they hit close to home. The discussion is no longer about theoretical situations. It touches our lives and our livelihood. Someone’s got to voice these things, right? It might as well be you. A paycheck is a paycheck, and if you’re lucky, you get to go to Comi-Cons and talk about your character and meet the fans. You’re almost a… celebrity!

Secondly, we’ve grown up with the perverted idea that violence makes enticing entertainment. In a twisted way, inflicting imaginary pain causes pleasure. Boys and girls who are bullied at school get to handle mega rounds of ammo and can blast their evil opponents to smithereens. That’s even therapeutic, yes?! 

Military ManShoot-them-up video games are said to improve visual skills and eye-hand coördination. But what happens when the player snaps and gets his hands on the real thing?

FEEDING A NEW GENERATION

Right now, America is talking about the things we feed our kids (and ourselves) and the impact these things have on the health of the nation. You don’t have to be a nutritionist to realize that there is a link between the obesity crisis and our diet. 

The fact that our youngsters have become a generation of video game playing couch potatoes who get very little exercise doesn’t help either. Eventually, junk builds up in the system like a powerful poison, and one day it will present its ugly face.

But what else do we feed our kids? Think about their mental health for a moment. Do we teach our kids how to build meaningful relationships, how to communicate effectively and how to resolve conflicts peacefully?

Do we teach them to loathe cruelty, to engage in dialogue, to be emphatic and become kinder, more understanding and respectful citizens?

Show me one popular video game that teaches those values.

I have yet to find it.

What we are exposed to on a regular basis becomes the norm. It starts to live inside of us. For better or for worse.

IS FAKE VIOLENCE OKAY?

There used to be a time when researchers could say: All that violence on TV and in the movies… people know it’s not real. Watching TV or a movie is passive. It really doesn’t affect us that much. That was before the era of hyper interactive, highly addictive video games.

As Dr. Bushman noted, most people learn best and much faster when they are actively involved. In Psychology Today he asked the question:

“Suppose you wanted to learn how to fly an airplane. What would be the best method to use: read a book, watch a TV program, or use a video game flight simulator?”

Bushman also observed that “players of violent video games are more likely to identify with a violent character. If the game is a first person shooter, players have the same visual perspective as the killer (…) In a violent TV program, viewers might or might not identify with a violent character. People are more likely to behave aggressively themselves when they identify with a violent character.”

He continues:

 “Violent games directly reward violent behavior, such as by awarding points or by allowing players to advance to the next game level. In some games, players are rewarded through verbal praise, such as hearing the words “Nice shot!” after killing an enemy. It is well-known that rewarding behavior increases its frequency. (Would you go to work tomorrow if your boss said you would no longer be paid?) In TV programs, reward is not directly tied to the viewer’s behavior.”

THE BIGGER PICTURE

The Swedish Media Council I mentioned earlier, makes decisions about age limits for films to be shown in movie theaters. They do not only base their considerations on how much violence the film contains. Assessment is made using a formulation from the UN’s child convention, about whether the film may harm the child’s well-being. The Council states:

“The same reasoning should be applied to computer games: a one-sided focus on the violence in the game leads to other issues regarding content being forgotten. (…) If we adults stop focusing all our energy on the incidence of violence in computer games, we can instead begin asking ourselves questions that the research will never be able to answer: what values, norms and ideologies do we want to pass on to our children?

I don’t think it’s necessarily either/or. Why not have a discussion about norms and values, as well as a dialogue about video game violence? One has to do with the other.

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

Toddler playing video gameI live in a nation that has the highest gun-related homicide rates of any developed country in the world. Gun sales are soaring.

As a dad of a ten-year old, I often wonder and worry about the world I will leave behind for my daughter and her children. Is it going to be a safer, sweeter and saner place, or will we have armed guards on every street corner and in every school?

Is that the “Land of the Free” we so proudly sing of, or is it the “Land of the Fearful”?

How will we teach tolerance and respect and help our children understand and appreciate differences between people, faiths and cultures?

Some scholars say that games are an innocent way for kids to get ready for the real world. Games allow us to playfully engage in imaginary scenarios that -subconsciously- prepare us for things to come. 

If that’s the case, what’s a game like Grand Theft Auto or Manhunt teaching our teens? How is it enriching their lives? With so much exciting, innovative technology at our fingertips, is that really the best we can do for our children? Don’t they deserve better?

As a professional, I think it’s time for voice actors to come together, take a stand and speak out against these ultra violent games that are getting more lifelike by the day.

The fundamental question is this: How do we wish to use our talent? Are we going to use it to produce gratuitous violence or to teach people to get along better? Are we going to search for a solution, or are we going to stay part of the problem? 

Or, do we simply stick our heads in the sand and claim there is no problem?

After all…

We’re simply involved in the production of harmless entertainment.

A video game is just a game, right?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.
photo credit: naughty_dog via photopin cc, malloreigh via photopin cc,  demandaj via photopin cc, Orobi via photopin cc sparktography via photopin cc, Rad Jose via photopin cc

About the author

Paul Strikwerda

is a multilingual voice-over professional, coach and writer. His blog has been voted one of the most influential voice-over blogs in the industry. He's an expert contributor to Internet Voice Coach, the Edge Studio, the International Freelancers Academy and recordinghacks.com.

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Journalism & Media, Social Media

18 Responses to It’s just a game…

  1. Paul Strikwerda

    Kevin, I am so glad that you answered my call and decided to enter the debate on ultra-violent video games and voice-overs. You can find my comments on your blog, on your blog!

  2. Kevin Powe

    Hey Paul – just wanted to say that I’ve put up my thoughts in a longer response over here: http://kevinpowe.voiceoverartist.com.au/2013/violence-and-video-games-and-whatnot/

    (your latest post on the portabooth was very useful, BTW!)

  3. Paul Strikwerda

    Mike, thank you so much for your very insightful comments stressing personal responsibility.

    We don’t live in a land with unlimited opportunities, but in a nation with unlimited choices. Bestselling products such as certain violent video games, are a reflection of what our society is interested in. What we choose to expose ourselves to most, is more likely to have the greatest impact on the type of person we become.

    Highly interactive video games have turned the passive spectator into an active participant. The potential of this technology is phenomenal. It saddens and frightens me, that this technology is used to create so-called “games” centered around death and destruction. Have we become so desensitized that we deem these games to be “innocent entertainment,” equal to reading comic books and playing cowboys and indians?

    I think it’s time to take a good look at ourselves and reevaluate what we consider to be entertaining, enriching and educational.

  4. Mike Harrison

    Another terrific and timely piece by Paul; thank you.

    And, like him, I won’t speak to the issue of firearms. My point is about influence.

    Suppose meat loaf were our favorite meal, and we liked it so much, we had it several times a week. Favorite or not, pretty soon, we’d grow tired of it and would want to try something else. So we move on to a roast chicken. It’s just as delicious as the meat loaf was but it, too, gets played out before too long. So we try something else again. Do you see a pattern?

    Hollywood was still in its early days when radio came about. There were not many movies to see (and they didn’t even have sound until 1927), and there weren’t many radio stations, either (and there was no picture). Besides newspapers and magazines, playing board games with the family or outside with our friends, those were pretty much the entertainment choices we had.

    But even with those few choices, for a time we were satisfied. But there are only so many times we can have a particular experience before the experience no longer interests us. Even when TV came along: at first, it was as great a novelty as radio and even motion pictures initially were. But, even with only three television networks and a handful of local independent stations, the programming on TV satisfied us… until it no longer did.

    Thus began the quest for programming so new and different, we would soon forget about what had satisfied us in the past. More action, more drama, more steamy love scenes, more… anything, just to keep us entertained.

    We do not like being bored. So we constantly push the envelope. We, as the audience, demand it and producers know they have to provide the new, the challenging, the controversial, or their competitors will.

    But something many people don’t seem to understand is that with all the freedoms we have in this country; specifically freedom of speech or expression, freedom must come with responsibility. Producers do not set out to create entertainment that brainwashes us into becoming us killers. But here’s the thing: whether anyone likes it or not, what we experience – whether on TV, in films, video games, even real life drama – influences us in some way. If that were not so, the advertising industry wouldn’t exist. Ever since the first newspaper and magazine ads radio and TV commercials, advertisers have been able to convince us to buy their products or services.

    What we experience, hear and see, at the very least, plants a seed. We might not immediately run out and buy the new detergent, but something about the ad or commercial sticks with us so that the next time we’re shopping, we recognize the brand and decide whether or not to buy. Even if we don’t buy right then, the ad or commercial has succeeded in making an impression. From that point forward, everything is left up to us: the decisions we choose to make.

    We cannot blame fast food restaurants for our weight problem. The restaurant chains make food that people seem to want, but they do not force anyone to buy and eat it. We make that choice. Same thing is true in everything else we do. We are the ultimate gatekeeper. We do not have to say ‘yes.’ But, if we do say ‘yes,’ there are consequences (and, that’s not necessarily a bad word; there can be good consequences). If we choose to say ‘yes’ to learning more about something before we buy it, that makes us a better consumer.

    But, by the same token, if we choose to say ‘yes’ to something that is offered (not forced upon us), and something about it can be considered questionable by some (even ourselves), then we bear the total responsibility for accepting what is offered and what we choose to do with our knowledge or perception of it.

    Agreed: it’s very sad that some forms of entertainment now seem to require violence to hold the attention of some people. Those of us who don’t care for that kind of entertainment can opt not to experience it. Those who do must determine if they will simply be passive spectators (or participants, if an interactive medium) or not. Either way, we can only hope they have to capacity to understand that what is presented is merely entertainment and not a basis for, suggestion or even directive to commit acts of violence themselves.

    Stuff is out there. We either choose to experience it and thereby allow its influence, no matter how slight it may seem, or we don’t. Our behavior is our doing.

  5. Paul Strikwerda

    Hey Rick, as you know I was born in a country where practically no one owns a gun (and yet it is a safe place to be). Perhaps this makes me more sensitive to the issues I’ve been writing about. I think it was tragic that only after the violent death of 20 children and 6 adults, America is finally waking up and ready to embrace some form of gun control. It’s about time!

    Because the study of video game violence is part of the package President Obama recently announced, I thought this would be a good time to look at my own community. The jury may be out on whether or not there’s a clear link between aggressive behavior and violent videos, but I am shocked and appalled by the graphic nature of certain games. Brilliant technology that could be used for the benefit of mankind, is utilized to produce violent trash. Vice President Biden called it part of “a general coarsening of American culture.”

    One thing’s for sure: I will never lend my voice to these types of games and I hope many colleagues will take a similar stand.

  6. Rick Lance

    Point well made! Paul, you got GUTS!

    Now you know why I never had kids… other than the 4 legged ones I opted to raise.

    Safer, easier, quieter, calmer… and I can distinguish fantasy from reality in my own safe way. Selfish? Maybe, but I’m glad I made that choice.

  7. Paul Strikwerda

    Kevin, as I was researching this topic, I found studies that claimed that playing violent video games made no difference whatsoever, and studies that claimed the opposite. That’s exactly why I mentioned the findings of the Swedish Media Council and why President Obama believes the topic deserves more study.

    The fundamental question remains: Does what we expose ourselves to on a regular basis, influence us? Secondly: In what way does it influence us and to what extent?

    I believe the answer to the first question is YES. In fact, as you’re reading these words, I am influencing your thought processes. The second question is not as easy to answer and differs from person to person.

    I think a game is never just a game, especially since video games have become so absorbingly interactive and technologically advanced. It’s fascinating to see how far we’ve come in only a few years.

    As a parent, I often ask myself: What do I want to expose my daughter to? What will enrich her? What will it teach her? What’s the most beneficial use of her time? Sometimes this can involve playing video games like Wii Ski and Sports Resort. We love playing these things together, even though my daughter says she prefers playing old-fashioned Dutch shuffleboard!

    One of her favorites is the Wii game “Endless Ocean”. It takes the player into an amazing underwater world. During the game, kids learn about different sea creatures and oceans; they go on archeological quests and they can even heal animals that are hurt. The hidden message is very much one of protecting ocean life and conserving the planet.

    As she was playing the game, my daughter developed a great love for the ocean and its inhabitants, and at one point she even wanted to become a marine biologist!

    Now, I can contrast this with an ultra violent video game, but I’m sure you can predict what I will point out. Kids are more susceptible than grown-ups. They come to us pretty much as a blank canvas, and it’s up to you and me as parents to introduce them to the world and help them find their way.

    Ultimately, I don’t need a psychology professor or communication expert to tell me that a game like Mortal Combat or Splatterhouse is okay to play. Based on content alone, I find these games repulsive, perverted and sickening.

  8. Kevin Powe

    Hey Paul. Long time reader, first time commenter.

    Media, violence and its effects on us as consumers is a topic I’m deeply concerned about as well, but I’ve got to strongly disagree with you on this article. There’s a lot of sensationalist science surrounding this issue in particular, and typically neuroscience in general.

    My partner and I attended a presentation at PAX 2012 talking about parenting and video games run by Tyler Black, because we’re planning a family and wanted to be informed and responsible parents. You can find the presentations online here: http://www.tylerblack.com/PAX12/ – violence and video games was one of the questions that came up, and he recommended looking at Chris Ferguson’s work (http://christopher.ferguson.socialpsychology.org/)

    In short, there’s no reputable science proving a link, although I’m more than happy to be corrected on this. It’s one of those arguments that feels like it should be correct, and attracts bad scientific practices because papers that are published showing a link grab headlines.

    If you look at the correlation between video game spending and gun-related crime for example, it’s demonstrably false: http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2013/01/12/dont-blame-the-video-games/

    I love your work. You’re incredibly prodigious in your output, and always a great read.

    …but the idea that voice talent would only perform for violent video games because they’re deliberately ignoring an ethical dilemma?

  9. Paul Strikwerda

    Howard, thanks for that powerful story. Until a certain age, kids can’t make a clear distinction between the real world and the imaginary world. It’s all part of the same continuum. That’s why it’s so upsetting to see kids watch R-rated shows with their older brothers and sisters, and play video games that should never have been allowed on the market in the first place.

  10. Paul Strikwerda

    Matt, it’s interesting to know that the NRA though this app would be appropriate for children as young as 4. Because the NRA has a high media profile -especially in light of the current gun control debate- I’m not surprised the networks picked the story up. I really hope we can broaden the discussion to include ways of dealing with violent behavior and peaceful conflict resolution. Let’s look at the causes while we’re tackling the symptoms.

  11. Matt Forrest

    Re: the NRA app, it was the Apple store that rated it and then re-rated it, not the NRA. I’m also not sure what “realistic violence” it contains, since shooting a target with a gun is about as violent as slicing a watermelon with a knife.

    Interestingly, while everyone’s getting upset about the timing of the NRA app, the new Devil May Cry game came out about the same time, and no one’s even talking about that!

  12. Howard Ellison

    Well said, Paul. And why does it take so long for the science to be heeded? Years ago, making a BBC Horizon documentary, long before video games existed, we watched (through a one-way) three year olds playing peaceably with their tots and teddies.
    The toddlers were then shown a short video of teddies beating one another up, no more violent than a Punch & Judy show.
    What followed shocked us all on the crew. The toddlers all began punishing their teddies, yelling at them, throwing them around.

    Just a one-off? Their horrible mimicry has stayed with me, and I for one won’t voice anything that is needlessly vlolent or exploitive. You’re right, Paul, association is deeply powerful. We should each do what we can to ensure it is positive and humane.

  13. Paul Strikwerda

    Jo, part of the strong impact these hyper interactive games have, is based on the level of association with the main character(s). The more we “become them,” the more we feel that we’re part of the game. As I said in my response to Ted, that’s a magnificent teaching tool with endless positive possibilities. Think about a “game” that will allow people studying to become a surgeon, to conduct virtual operations to hone their skills… Instead, the most popular games are filled with violence and destruction. Personally, I would be ashamed to lend my voice to these types of games.

  14. Paul Strikwerda

    Ted, I purposely didn’t want to write yet another piece about gun control because the core issue goes much deeper. As a voice actor, I also wanted to stay closer to home and ask questions that may make some colleagues uncomfortable. Games train the brain in sophisticated ways that were not possible, ten years ago. In that respect they can be a powerful and positive learning tool. I find it unfortunate (to say the least) that this magnificent technology is being used to produce interactive scenarios that involve death and destruction.

  15. Paul Strikwerda

    Matt, I agree that the NRA game is in a different league, but it’s topical and timely. It’s actually an iPhone/iPad app, released one month after the Sandy Hook massacre. The Newtown shooting prompted the President to propose a series of sweeping gun control measures which also look at the video game industry.

    According to NPR, the NRA app was apparently first rated as approved for children as young as 4 — children even younger than the 20 who were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. But now the rating is “12+” because of “frequent/intense realistic violence.”

  16. JO

    Great article, once again! And such a good choice of topic.

    Personally, I hate violent computer games. I do believe they are the cause of some crimes in this world and also lead some vulnerable people to a place that they possibly wouldn’t have considered. It’s a known fact that once you physically “see” something, it becomes very visual in your mind and thought process. Some people live a life of fantasy and violent computer games is just another fantasy option. A nasty one.

    I suspect that most people wouldn’t act like their computer game character in real life, however, you run the risk of tipping someone over the edge; perhaps making them believe they do share similarities with that character.

    Anyway, I digress. In essence, I personally choose my work carefully. If something doesn’t feel right and makes me think it would upset my Mother, for example, then I simply wouldn’t do it.

    I like living guilt free and not having to worry about questionable content of my voice work. I like to be proud of my work and voicing something sinister would make me embarrassed and ashamed. Why would I want to feel embarrassed or ashamed?

    Peace out ;) lol x

  17. Matt Forrest

    Good article, as always Paul. While I agree with most of it, I wouldn’t put the “NRA: Practice Range” app in the same category as “Grand Theft Auto” and “Mortal Kombat.” There’s a huge difference between shooting targets on practice ranges and murdering prostitutes and drug dealers with chainsaws and flamethrowers.

    I have no problem voicing most things – if I don’t, somebody will, of course – but there are limits, and extremely violent video games and projects that require me to blaspheme my faith are two no-gos.

  18. Ted Mcaleer

    Thought provoking and well laid out evidence. A very polarizing topic and my personal opinion is we should look at all things, no sacred cows, and see if we can fix it. That is the issue, to stop the violence, bullying, road rage, people with bombs blowing themselves up in public places, people blowing up trucks near federal buildings.
    This is the symptom of a society that is ill, I don’t believe people are killing people with guns because they are available, so why are they killing people. If this is one of the causes, I would gladly espouse it. Thank you for making me think hard about something that I feel strongly about. More people should engage in thoughtful and respectful dialogue instead of “half cocked” pseudo solutions, based on their personal feelings. Maybe we should put all of that stuff aside on both sides of the gun issue (the rid world of all guns vs. take it from my cold dead hands), take that and look at why people are killing each other in the first place.

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