In 2004, a young teenager called Stefan Pakeerah met a friend in a Leicester park, where that same friend bludgeoned Stefan to death with a claw hammer. The case hit the headlines, not just for its shocking violence, but because the 17-year-old killer had apparently been inspired by a video game called Manhunt.
Even by the standards of the usual carnage-filled games, Manhunt took things to extremes. Set in a world of snuff films, it actually gave players extra points for brutality. As one games reviewer put it, “The crimes that you commit are unspeakable, yet the gameplay that leads to these horrendous acts is so polished and fierce that it's thrilling.”
Stefan's father was understandably horrified by the possible connection between the game and his son’s murderer. “The object of Manhunt is not just to go out and kill people,” he said. “It's a point-scoring game where you increase your score depending on how violent the killing is. That explains why Stefan's murder was as horrific as it was.”
Except, Manhunt and its makers were innocent. Police later confirmed the game had actually been found in Stefan’s bedroom, not his killer’s. In court, the connection was officially ruled out. Yet the case highlights a long-standing debate among psychologists about the effects – if any – of video games on real-life violence.
In 2015, the American Psychological Association reviewed hundreds of papers and firmly stated that video games DO contribute towards violence, saying: “The research demonstrates a consistent relation between violent video game use and increases in aggressive behaviour, aggressive cognitions and aggressive affect.” But this conclusion was immediately slammed by another group of experts, who penned an open letter pointing out flaws in the research. As psychology professor Dr Mark Coulson put it, “If you play three hours of Call of Duty you might feel a little bit pumped, but you are not going to go out and mug someone.”
Even in 2004, at the time of Stefan Pakeerah’s death, the debate about video games had already been raging for years. The Columbine school massacre of 1999, for example, had pundits pointing their fingers at first-person shooters which the killers had played. In fact, the panic over video games began way back in 1976, with the release of an early coin-operated arcade game called Death Race.
To modern eyes, the graphics of Death Race may seem comically clunky and innocuous, but people at the time were up in arms at the game, which gave points for running down pedestrians. One concerned voice was a certain Dr Gerald Driessen, who dubbed the game “sick” and “insidious”, and said: “The person is no longer just a spectator, but now an actor in the process of creating violence… I shudder to think of what will be next if this one is not defeated by public opinion.”
If only he could have seen what was coming – games like Manhunt and the Grand Theft Auto franchise, which would take “virtual violence” to stunning extremes. But, as we’ve seen, experts still can’t come to a consensus on the effects of the games. Some studies have taken outlandish measures to settle the matter. One involved having people play violent and non-violent video games, and then assessing their willingness to subject people to unpleasant sounds like dentist drills and fire alarms. It turned out that the ones who played the violent games administered louder sounds for the longest period of time.
However contrary to this study, researchers at the University of York have found no evidence of video games making players more violent. In a series of experiments, looking at more than 3,000 participants, the research team showed that there was no correlation between violence in games and this having any affect on those playing them. The experiment was testing players reactions to two combat games, one using 'ragdoll physics' to replicate realistic character behaviour and movement and the other game did not. Following this players were made to complete word puzzles, with the expectation being that those that had played the more realistic version, would produce more violent word associations to the questions. However the result was that players of both games produced the same levels of word association, there was no elevation in those that had played the more realistic game. Though as lead researcher, Dr Zendle pointed out "We also only tested these theories on adults, so more work is needed to understand whether a different effect is evident in chidlren players"
But do such studies really prove anything in the real world? And what about rival studies which show very different findings? For example, some fascinating research by the University of Oxford and the University of Rochester suggests that the real trigger for aggression isn’t to do with how much violence is in games, but how tricky they are to master. One of the researchers reported that “if the structure of a game or the design of the controls thwarts enjoyment, it is this, not the violent content, that seems to drive feelings of aggression.”
correlation does not equal causation
It should also be remembered that correlation does not equal causation. In other words, if some people who play violent games are violent in real-life, it may just be these people have inherently aggressive tendencies which leads them to play those particular games. Gender could also be factored in – males are traditionally more prone to aggression and violence than women, and males are more likely to play violent games. Over 80% of Call of Duty players, for example, are men.
It’s a debate that will continue, and will surely become even more heated as games become increasingly sophisticated, and we find ourselves hacking, slashing, shooting and chainsawing our way through people in virtual reality games. As journalist Ben Rayner wrote of Manhunt: “Do I think games such as these could have dire psychological consequences, particularly for young people? As always, I remain agnostic on the matter. Who knows, really? The debate will never be resolved.”