The E3 Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles this past week showed that the trend toward violent video games remains strong. Updated sequels to first-person-shooting staples like Call of Duty and Halo played prominently at the conference. Shooting games sell; it is that simple.
Many parent groups see red when they ponder the continuing trend toward violent video games. Mothers Against Videogame Addiction and Violence (MAVAV), for example, sees the problem in epic proportions. The organization’s website declares: “The video game industry continues to market and promote hatred, racism, sexism, and the most disturbing trend: clans and guilds, an underground video game phenomenon which closely resembles gangs.” It is understandable for parents to worry when they see their children taking delight in mutilating and killing on-screen characters, as well as destroying cyber neighborhoods. In my personal experience working with hundreds of cyber addicts, however, I find that when kids have addictive tendencies toward video games—and the offerings of the cyber world in general—it is usually a signal that some other issues are going on. To be clear, generally, excessive cyber behaviors are often a symptom rather than a cause.
I think the video game industry is motivated by profit, and generally cares little about corporate responsibility. However, research suggests the impact of violent video games to be somewhat small. I have had many young people in my cyber addiction support groups who had bona fide anger management issues. In some cases, violent video games provided a helpful outlet for built-up anger, while in others, seemed to exacerbate it. In all cases, however, the anger existed before the violent video games. The games did not make these children angry.
Trevor, a fourteen-year-old in one of my support groups, had been severely bullied in middle school. He had withdrawn from social contact into first-person, squad-level shooting games like Call of Duty and Modern Warfare. He did not just want to kill opponents. He wanted to humiliate them. After he killed a player in one of his online multiplayer games, he then moved his soldier over the top of the “dead” player and tea-bagged him. Obviously, this behavior related to Trevor’s unresolved emotions. His problems were a bit too serious for the group to deal with, so I referred him to a therapist. Dealing with his video game addiction was, nevertheless, the gateway toward getting to his deeper problems.
I have had many folks in my cyber addiction recovery groups go on to have a variety of issues diagnosed, from ADHD and anxiety issues to bipolar disorder. Excessive and obsessive use of video games, computers and the Internet almost always point to other problems which underlie them. Think of these behaviors as simply the tip of the iceberg.