Doom III: Virtual insanity?

With the release of Doom III, violent video games look set to get gorier. But can they incite people to real-life violence, asks Andy Goldberg, or is their impact more positive?
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The Independent Online

The year is 2145, and something nasty is happening at the biggest biotech factory on Mars. There are klaxons going off, and flashing warning lights give a creepy red glow to grey corridors and deserted laboratories. Before your eyes, the guards morph into ghoulish monsters; the Elephant Man looks like George Clooney in comparison.

The year is 2145, and something nasty is happening at the biggest biotech factory on Mars. There are klaxons going off, and flashing warning lights give a creepy red glow to grey corridors and deserted laboratories. Before your eyes, the guards morph into ghoulish monsters; the Elephant Man looks like George Clooney in comparison.

But you pull yourself together. You must save the world from these brutes, and the adrenalin's pumping. You line up a hideous face in the sights of your gun barrel. Boom. You shoot one monster, spilling his guts on the floor. Blood spatters everywhere, mixed with some sort of radioactive goop. You wipe it from your face, but it's just sweat. Oh boy, you think, this is fun. But be warned – if those monsters get you, you could end up on the toilet floor, looking on helplessly while a monster devours your entrails.

Welcome to Doom III, the upcoming sequel to one of the most successful, notorious video games in history – and, boast its makers at id Software, "the scariest game ever made". This intense breed of game comes at an important time for the video-game sector. Interactive electronic entertainment is the fastest growing segment of the entertainment industry, and the dominant form of entertainment among the young.

There are non-violent games that are wildly popular, but a glance at the shelves of any video-game store will show that it is titles such as Doom, The Getaway, and Grand Auto Theft that lead the way, with a mixture of crime and violence. In short, not only is the violence becoming more intense, it is also becoming nearly ubiquitous.

And a lot of people are playing. In the two years since the launch of its PlayStation 2 console, Sony has sold more than 30 million units. Microsoft and Nintendo have sold more than 10 million of their competing Xboxes and Gamecubes, while sales are expected to increase now that all three makers have cut their prices. Untold millions more are playing games on their PCs.

For those who identify violent video games as a prime cause of adolescent violence, this is a harrowing vision. But Todd Hollenshead, the chief executive of id Software, is unconcerned. If his company's expertise at portraying immersive gore could lead to real-life violence, he asks, how is it that there has only been a statistically insignificant number of incidents hinting at such a link, even though millions of people play the games every day?

"The fact you cannot avoid is that in the same time frame in which the video-game industry exploded from revenues of $650m in 1985 to $9bn in 2001, the FBI statistics on violent crime have decreased every year," he says. "Since 1994, the video-game biz has increased annually by 50 per cent, while juvenile crime is down by 34 per cent." (That's not the case for the UK, where violent and juvenile crime have risen in the past five years, against a general background in which crime in total has fallen.)

Hollenshead says that video games are probably more likely to decrease than increase violence. Though he is tentative about supporting an idea that has yet to receive empirical backing, several researchers have theorised that channelling the aggressive tendencies of adolescents into the virtual world of video games can lessen their propensity for violence. In addition, Hollenshead speculates that video games could provide a harmless pursuit for millions of young adolescents who, otherwise, would be roaming the streets, looking for trouble. Police officers might cringe, but could video games be a major cause for the drop in juvenile crime, at least in the US?

Kurt Squire, a researcher into video games and education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Comparative Media Studies Program, says millions of people of all ages and walks of life find a harmless escape from everyday life in the over-the-top action these games provide. One mild-mannered actuary he knows returns from work every day and plays Doom for an hour to vent his corporate frustration, before playing with his toddlers.

The media has tended to ignore such possibilities in favour of sensationalist but unsubstantiated reports on the evil of this new media form. "We are scapegoats – an easy target for the media and critics because they don't understand video games, and they fear what they don't understand," Hollenshead argues. "It was the same with rock'n'roll and comic books – it's driven by fear and paranoia."

This argument no doubt riles those who believe there to be a causal relationship between virtual violence and real-life violence, but meta-reviews of the academic literature find few concrete links between the two phenomena. "The research evidence is not supportive of a major public health concern that video games lead to real-life violence," said researchers Lillian Bensley and Juliet Van Eenwyk, after combing through dozens of studies last year.

Even those few studies that can point to some relationship between violent games and aggression are so flawed as to be worthless, says Squire. "It's obvious that the people who study games don't understand them, far less play them. What amazes me is the lack of evidence. Any that I've seen just as easily suggests that games are a constructive recreational outlet."

Other researchers have found that there is little danger of players transferring violent tendencies from the virtual to the real world. A study last year by John Sherry, assistant professor of mass communication at Purdue University in Indiana, indicated that even the most violent video games are less harmful to children than violent TV programmes, because most children realise that the games represent fantasy. But they expect television to mirror reality.

Henry Jenkins, director of the MIT's Program in Comparative Media Studies, believes that violent video games are little more than harmless variants on the games of cowboys and Indians, or cops and robbers, that boys of other generations played.

There are other explanations for the attraction of male adolescents to virtual violence. Jenkins says teens see video games as a chance to "test the limits of their parent's culture". They also serve a similar function to the violence and darkness of fairy tales, which, according to many scholars, allowed children to confront the darker sides of life and their own nature. And, he adds, teenagers enjoy the intensity of such games, because it is through such heart-thumping distractions that they can escape feelings of rejection or low self-esteem.

Hollenshead has a less theoretical approach. "Every person enjoys different things about the game," he says. "Some enjoy the technology, some enjoy the feeling of being a superhero, being one man against all the scenarios. But it has absolutely no relation to the real world – it's easy to distinguish between fantasy and reality."