Last week, Joe Rogan shared a story on his radio show about how he devoted a lot of time to playing the video game Quake in the past and he felt it did not benefit his life, and in fact, was detrimental. This is a completely valid point. Some people do use games in a way that is maladaptive in their lives. There was nothing wrong with Mr. Rogan sharing his thoughts on his experiences with games, how he felt it caused problems in his life, and how stopping playing video games helped him foster other positive changes in his life (in fact, it can be beneficial to hear about the personal experiences of others). The problem arose when he went on to say that video games are a waste of time for those who devote time to them:
“You [could be] doing something exciting and fun, or you could just be playing f*cking video games. Three years later you could just be that same kid, playing video games, waiting for whatever the f*ck game is… You’re going to waste your time.”
Following these comments, the Twitterverse went up in arms (myself included) about the misrepresentation of video games through Mr. Rogan’s complete dismissal of research that has found video game play to be related to a range of social and psychological benefits. I myself pointed out that there are many universities that now offer Esports scholarships to students.
Others shared stories about how they met friends through games or how gaming can help foster a career in the (billion dollar) video game industry.
However, with this outrage came a lot of push back about why anyone cared at all about Joe Rogan’s opinion about video games. The motivation to write this article came from those comments.
The reason that Joe Rogan’s shared opinions about video games matter is because his words have an impact on the way societal discourse around video games is formed. Misinformation spreads, festers, and continues to fuel the 50+ years of moral panic about video games.
Put simply, a moral panic is a feeling of fear that spreads among people about an “evil” that is “threatening” society. For example, the fear that crossword puzzles will enslave America or that playing Dungeons and Dragons will lead to a generation of children being possessed by demons. In this case, the fear being spread is that video games threaten the ability for future generations to become productive members of society.
Moral panics are problematic because they draw attention away from the real factors that may be contributing to any particular issue. For example, the moral panic surrounding the presumed links between violent video games and violent crime prevents further investigation in to factors that we know contribute to peer deviance, such as peer delinquency and poor familial relationships. The way that video games are discussed in the media is a core component of why moral panics around games exist and why they have persisted for half a century.
Moral panics are primarily fueled by our human nature to be lazy thinkers, or “cognitive misers”. As humans, we want easy solutions to complex problems and we want them now.
This cognitive miser-ing has led to creating and sustaining moral panics related to games through agenda setting in the news media and the creation and perpetuation of the gamer stereotype in popular culture.
First, let’s tackle agenda setting.
Agenda setting refers to the ability for news media to influence the importance placed on the topics of public agenda through the creation of public awareness and concern of the most pressing issues as determined by the news media.
Historically, the news media has had significant influence on our perceptions about what are the most salient issues of the day. Decades of research into agenda setting has found that people not only learn factual (or factually incorrect in the case of #fakenews) information from exposure to news, but people also learn about the importance of topics based on how the news media emphasizes those topics. In this way, the information provided by the media plays a key role in the construction of our pictures of reality.
This means that if your trusted nightly news anchor tells you that most of the criminals who committed mass shootings in the last 20 years were gamers, flashed up with action shots of a violent video game, while leaning in to the camera with a suave eyebrow raise as he starts referring to violent games as “murder simulators”… you are going to start to believe there is a causal link there (even though scientific research says otherwise).
Historically, we have seen this kind of agenda setting when it comes to video game effects. From claims of games making players antisocial to claims of links to violent crime, the news about games is rarely positive. This framing of games by the media persists despite the fact that the reality is billions of people across the globe play video games with no report of long term consequences.
At the end of the day, video games are a piece of interactive media that may impact us in some ways (both positively and negatively), but to a degree far less than the influence of other environmental and demographic factors. For example, returning to the previous example of violent video games and violent crime, research has found trait aggression, family violence/conflict, neighborhood stress, antisocial personal traits, and depression levels to be predictive of violent crime among youths whereas exposure to violent video games has not.
The other contributing factor to the continued moral panic about games has been stereotypes (i.e., generalized beliefs about a particular group). These beliefs form because… well, we are cognitive misers. Humans like to group people into neat boxes in order to save time and reduce effort accounting for all of the idiosyncrasies of individuals.
In some ways, stereotypes are helpful. For example, with decision making. If you are walking down a dark alley and someone appears behind you, the commonly held stereotype of “dark alley lurkers” will tell you it is best to act with caution. Are all people who lurk in the alley at night bad? Certainly not. Some are just lost. Some are enjoying a late night game of Pokémon Go. But being able to make the quick decision that it is best to proceed with caution is one that will help keep you safe. In other cases, stereotypes can be detrimental, particularly when these over-generalizations lead to negative perceptions of group. Case in point: the gamer stereotype.
The stereotype of the online gamer is a basement dwelling, socially inept, male. As put by Williams and colleagues in 2008:
“…game players are stereotypically male and young, pale from too much time spent indoors, and socially inept. As a new generation of isolated and lonely ‘couch potatoes’, young male gamers are far from aspirational figures.”
The stereotype of gamers persists in popular culture despite the fact that it has little basis in reality. For example, gamers have not been found to be significantly different from their non-gaming counterparts on a range of factors, including the size of their friendship circle, frequency of exercise, occupational success. The average gamer is also in their mid-thirties and more than half of video game players are female.
But the stereotype of gamers has created a nice little box. This little box makes for quick and easy cognitive miser-ing when wanting to fit the idea of a “gamer” in a trope-sized box. Prime examples can be seen in the Make Love, Not Warcraft (2006) episode of South Park or when Penny starts playing online games in The Barbarian Sublimation (2007) episode of The Big Bang Theory.
The media portrayals are important because they influence our thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors. A study conducted in 2012 assessed the extent to which people knew about, and personally endorsed, the stereotype of gamers. Results indicated that regardless of whether the participant played games or not, they were keenly aware that gamers were portrayed as unpopular, unattractive, lazy, and socially incompetent. Non-game players were more likely than game players to personally endorse these traits as factually representative. This is not trivial, as there is a difference between being aware of a stereotype and endorsing it. Combined with the fact that there is no evidence to support the accuracy of these stereotypes, the researchers suggest that these findings point to the power of media portrayals to generate stereotypical representations of gamers and convince the public of their validity.
Another recent publication, “From Minecraft Tricks to Twitter Hacks” published by the New York Times, similarly sensationalized the role of video games, and its potential link to deviant behaviors (criminal behaviors, in this instance).
While this article did present a more balanced argument than most using the “video game + criminal act” title, the title itself is primarily the problem. The article starts with the authors noting the teenager scammed his friends while playing Minecraft to demonstrate criminality from an early age and argue that this might have been his inspiration for later crimes.
Highlighting his in-game Minecraft behavior (particularly in the title of the article) seems to be more moral panic fodder about video games than discourse on the role of video games in fostering this individual’s criminal behavior. This is particularly the case as factors that have been well demonstrated to have strong links to criminality, such as parenting behaviors and peer deviance, are given far less attention. In the article, it goes almost completely unacknowledged as to why he was using Minecraft in the first place as a vehicle for acting out.
It is also worth noting that, generally speaking, one’s in-game behavior does not necessarily equate to out-of-game behavior (e.g., Online Disinhibition Effect). In fact, some researchers have suggested that video games may be effective tools for ‘acting out’ deviant behaviors in a space detached from the real world.
The combination of a lack of congruency between in- and out-of-game behaviors combined with the lack of attention placed on the antecedents to his deviant Minecraft behavior, suggests that the emphasis on his video game play is just another sensationalized headline.
This is not helpful. This is why the moral panic persists.
Taking all of this together helps to explain why we have seen the last half century riddled with moral panics about games and gamers. This is why it is important for the media to do their due diligence when talking about video games and their uses and effects on society.
The focus on the moral panic detracts from us all understanding the role that games truly hold in the 21st century. They are tools for connection (especially during these times of COVID-19 physical distancing) and vehicles for fun (they are games after all!). I think we are all ready to start unpacking the real issues as to why we see violence among youths? Or why some young people are having difficulties transitioning in to productive adulthoods? Or why, for some, gameplay becomes maladaptive? Is it the games? Probably not. But we have to move past the forest of the moral panic to see what is in the trees.