In July 2012, during a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises, James Holmes shot up a theatre in Aurora, Colorado, killing 12 and injuring 70. Adam Lanza shot and killed 28 people—approximately 18 children and 10 adults—at Sandy Hook in December of 2012. On June 26th, 2016, a violent, anonymous 18-year-old gunman shot and killed nine people (mostly teenagers) in Munich, Germany. What do these shootings have in common? Each shooter had some exposure to or history with violence in video games.
The question of whether video games cause or incite violent behavior in people has been around since at least the advent of first-person shooters. Folks have speculated that violent video games, such as Doom or Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty, cause aggressive behaviors in children, adolescents, and young adults. And not without good reason. Consider music. Music is known to invoke various emotions, including negative ones like anger. If one listens to all and only aggressive or angry music, they might adopt a tendency toward aggression. So, it seems exposure to aggressive material does, in fact, influence one’s behavior, though not totally.
I don’t wish to settle the problem of violent games and violent people here. Instead, I wish to reframe the question. The question, I think, is not whether violent video games cause or incite violent behavior; there are too many factors at play that render the probability quite low. The claim I want to make is this: If a game doesn’t warm our hearts to beauty, then we have reason to not play it.
First, a brief word on beauty. Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Is beauty simply what one makes of a thing, a matter of subjective taste? Or is something beautiful or ugly whether or not one thinks it is? These are questions that have divided philosophers for centuries. I think beautiful things are beautiful and ugly things ugly regardless of opinion. Rape, for instance, is ugly; sex between two consenting/married adults is beautiful—that’s as it should be.
If beauty is objective (that is, something is beautiful/ugly regardless of opinion), then the question of violence in video games returns with an interesting nuance. We not only have to ask how a violent video game might inspire violent behaviors, but we now have to ask whether a video game actually inspires appreciation of beautiful things. Do the games we play assist us into a deeper appreciation for beautiful things in life? Can we leave a session of Ghost Recon with a deeper sympathy for brothers and sisters in arms, the nation they died for, and a desire to remember them? If we can’t, then the game may not be good for us, because it doesn’t challenge or deepen our affections.
One objection to the reframed question might be that not all games exist for us. We’re supposed to enjoy the game without expecting something to happen to us while we play. It’s just good, clean, harmless fun. This is true, and I will write an article on this in the near future. But whether we acknowledge it or not, the things we read, hear, and do influence our behavior. If human behavior is malleable, what shapes our behaviors and how. Video games are one of those influential factors. Therefore, we should be mindful of how video games might do so and in what way. So, I think if a game doesn’t warm out hearts to beauty, then we have still reason to not play it.
In sum, we may not commit the next major school shooting; we may be unmoved by it. If GTA V numbs us to violence and sexual promiscuity, we best not play it until we get our senses back. We may not become violent or sexually promiscuous ourselves, but we may not be moved by those who are.