Shoot-'Em-Up Videogames Don't Warp Minds—Big Tech Does
Last weekend’s mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, in quick succession—as if the shootings themselves are becoming semiautomatic—have returned the public’s minds to the desperate need for comprehensive gun control to end the easy access to weapons of military-style ferocity.
President Trump and his Republican supporters would very much like to change the subject, as they have succeeded in doing mass shooting after mass shooting, and this time they found the same shiny object to hold high—violent videogames.
Speaking from the White House to a grieving nation, the president made the case. “We must stop the glorification of violence in our society,” Trump said. “This includes the gruesome and grizzly videogames that are now commonplace. It is too easy today for troubled youth to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence. We must stop or substantially reduce this, and it has to be begun immediately. Cultural change is hard, but each of us can choose to build a culture that celebrates the inherent worth and dignity of every human life.”
Noam Cohen is a journalist and author of The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball, which uses the history of computer science and Stanford University to understand the libertarian ideas promoted by tech leaders. While working for The New York Times, Cohen wrote some of the earliest articles about Wikipedia, bitcoin, Wikileaks, and Twitter. He lives with his family in Brooklyn.
Ironies abound. For example, right after offering condolences about the El Paso shooting, and before he would need to offer condolences about Dayton, Trump posed with a mixed-martial-arts fighter, Colby Covington, wishing him good luck via Twitter in pummeling his opponent the next day.
And let’s not forget Trump’s smirking response to a Florida rally-goer who suggested that the way to stop illegal immigration was to shoot immigrants. “That’s only in the Panhandle you can get away with that stuff,” the President of the United States said.
Genuine cultural change would have to begin by rejecting such comments, which makes Trump an especially ineffective critic of videogames. Yet stop to consider a shoot-'em-up game, where you are “doing” heinous things. In the case of Grand Theft Auto V—the highest-grossing media title of all time, at $6 billion over nearly six years—players routinely commit violence against women and use torture in addition to the regular stalking and shooting.
One could be forgiven for seeing a bad influence there. It seems intuitively obvious that it could lead to violence in the real world. Except researchers say it doesn’t. It’s almost as if there were a strong membrane that separates the reward structures in the pretend world from those operating the real world.
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I talked this over with Timothy Fong, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA. He studies gambling as well as videogame use and directs UCLA's Addiction Medicine Clinic. Is there a mental health impact on humans from playing videogames? I asked. Sure, he said, but those impacts don’t include promoting violence among players. “That,” he says, “has been disproven.”
There are serious problems that can emerge from playing videogames obsessively, Fong says, as there are for most obsessive behaviors, including depression and feelings of isolation. There just isn’t a one-to-one mapping between the violence and degradation that takes place in a pretend world and the real world.
By contrast, the denigration and mistreatment of real people in the real world—fueled by an ideology of white supremacy or hyped fears of an immigrant “invasion”—appears to lead to still more real-world violence and abuse. For example, one Washington Post study from March found that “counties that had hosted a 2016 Trump campaign rally saw a 226 percent increase in reported hate crimes over comparable counties that did not host such a rally.”
The misplaced focus on violence leaking from pretend digital worlds to the real world misses the glaring digital influence we’re subjected to every day: Silicon Valley companies manipulating users, trying to shape their behavior online and off to make money. That manipulation requires careful planning and testing. Notifications and rewards; tapping into anger, fear, and greed. Something as ill-defined as shoot-gun-online, shoot-gun-offline won’t get the job done, researchers have concluded.
This manipulation is sometimes known as “gamification”—making the mundane more exciting by keeping score, awarding prizes, raising the stakes. The makers of Grand Theft Auto V recently internalized that strategy with an audacious plan to have an operational casino within its online extension, including slot machines, horse racing, blackjack, and poker.
Your avatar walks into the Diamond Casino in the mythical city of Los Santos and buys chips with the money you’ve collected doing bad deeds within the game itself. However, if your avatar is short on funds—you aren’t earning well or have lost your shirt at the tables—you can use actual dollars to buy Shark Cards, which convert into still more Grand Theft Auto money that can buy casino chips.
What an ingenious way to operate a casino. Game players hand over real cash to play roulette, say, and if they win, they are paid off in fantasy videogame currency. Those winnings can only be used to acquire accouterments—a fast car, cool threads, powerful weapons—but can never convert into dollars.
Adding a casino to Grand Theft Auto likely was never about generating a big take, but of a piece with the most pervasive manipulation technique in Big Tech—keeping the user engaged. The makers of Grand Theft Auto know that they can’t extract money from you if you get bored and stop playing.
Facebook, too, is promoting a virtual currency, Libra, to encourage transactions within its platform. And, yes, there is a potential for Facebook to make money directly from handling the currency—it relates to the value of reserves of money held while transactions are carried out.
But, again, the real money for Facebook is likely to come from having the platform become more and more indispensable, leading to users spending more time on it and thus seeing ads. In testimony to Congress, David Marcus, the Facebook executive in charge of integrating Libra into the company’s businesses, said he expected the cryptocurrency to “result in consumers and businesses using Facebook more. That increased usage is likely to yield greater advertising revenue for Facebook.”
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The real public danger from Silicon Valley companies is the exploitation of people inhabiting a virtual world they are discouraged from ever leaving, rather than some nasty digital habits—extremely nasty habits—crossing over into the real world. People in such isolated circumstances can become vulnerable to all manner of deception and manipulation, including racist, hate-filled propaganda. Denied real-world resources and relationships to lean on, they are ill-equipped to defend themselves.
To this day, Facebook carries ads from the Donald Trump 2020 campaign that refer to an “invasion” across the Southern border or falsely claim that Democrats want to repeal the 2nd Amendment and seize people’s guns. The ads are personally tailored and are received individually—a perfect recipe for fueling anger and resentment. They represent a virtual reality that, sadly, bleeds into our shared one.
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