The Importance of Violent Games

Posted on January 4, 2013 by TheSaint in Things that NEED to be said, Why We Play

I expect this to be one of my more controversial blogs but I believe these things need to be said because the “common wisdom” on this subject is, in my opinion, dangerously wrong.  In a previous blog on the subject of human males evolutionary influences towards craving hunting type games, I asserted that although hunting may have started as a pack activity to pursue game it would also have meant that the most dangerous competing predators remaining in the environment were other humans and thus the human need to hunt game probably evolved into a strong human need/necessity to hunt each other.

Many of my recent blogs have been on the subject of why people like to waste time playing games for no productive purpose.  Where would the evolutionary stimulus to sit in front of a TV all day and push buttons for no productive purpose have arisen?  The primary theme of these blogs is that modern humans have lived in an environment entirely UNLIKE the ones they evolved to survive in.  We were independent and reproducing at 12-14 years of age and dead by our early twenties of disease, injuries or predation.  For the past few generations we have not needed to hunt, make our own cloths or food, dig our own plumbing, heat our own homes constantly with wood, grow our own food, defend ourselves from predators, or worry that every contact with food, water or others may result in life ending diseases or parasitic infections.  For tens of thousands to millions of years of our evolution WANTING to excel at these tasks and feeling good about it has resulted in our survival down to this era.

Today western humans face few or none of these adverse circumstances.  Our children are treated and regarded as children long into an age when they would have lived out their entire reproductive lives in earlier times. Not only do they not have to engage in significant work in the form of physical labor to survive at a young age, they are not allowed to by law.  Today “work” is sitting in a cubicle under a constant light source in a highly climate controlled environment moving a mouse and touching keys while occasionally consuming extremely nutrient rich foods that are acquired with no effort.  It is little wonder that we are fat and depressed  when we don’t have to move or even burn a few extra calories to regulate our own body temperature to survive while calorie rich food is constantly available.

The premise of my argument is that not only did we evolve to face and survive extremely adverse conditions requiring enormous exertions’, personal risk and meticulous repetitious physical labor. The fact that we have created a world in which it is no longer necessary does not mean we have ceased to WANT or NEED the stimulus that we derived from facing these difficult challenges and consistently overcoming them.  We watch TV, play games, and force ourselves to go to a gym to work out for no productive purpose, or take other drugs to fill the void created in our lives by the lack of environmental adversity we evolved to NEED.  Our species needs environmental hardship to be healthy. We need competition and possibly even warfare to be healthy.  When we don’t get them we are sick, fat, depressed and dysfunctional.

Dressed for war and nowhere to go?

Dressed for war and nowhere to go?

Real warrior

Real warrior

A great deal of the media we consume is designed to fulfill deep primal needs we can no longer satisfy in the real world.  It is commonly believed for example that playing violent games can cause children to crave violence in the real world.  I submit that the exact opposite is true, that consuming media that satisfies deeply primal urges provides what we would consider a safe outlet for instincts that we would consider unacceptable to act out in the modern world.  Children hitting, bullying, fighting with each other, forming gangs, etc. which are all regarded as shockingly unacceptable behavior today were absolute prerequisite training for survival among other highly predatory humans a few hundred years ago.  In other words, consuming violent media does exactly what people claim it does, “desensitize” us to violence.  But becoming “desensitized” to violence does not make us want more of it, it makes us want it less because we no longer get satisfaction from consuming it and the real world can never provide it in the volume and intensity that we get from a game.  You can’t believe that video games can possibly provide a “realistic” depiction of violence without conceding that it would be impossible to match the levels of violence gratification from games in reality. Today we criminalize what is very natural aggressive behavior and try to expunge through conditioning the idea that even thinking or wanting to “hunt” is sick or wrong.  A child that kills animals for fun is considered a “psychopath” today but not so long ago they were just learning to hunt just as all “psychotic” young predatory mammals do.


In some respects the violent and/or sexual nature of modern games and media may not be what causes people to behave in what civilization now considers deviant ways.  The real problem may be that people no longer have legitimate outlets for these natural instincts and modern media provides the only safe method for satisfying them.  Just as eating a big meal satisfies your appetite, playing violent games probably reduces children’s natural urge to engage in aggressive behaviors by satisfying them.  I would not assert that this makes these forms of media a “good thing”, but short of turning off the television and making children work hard every day in a subsistence lifestyle and engage in competitive team sports, it would seem that they are the next most effective ways to pacify children and deter them from trying to satisfy their instinctive violent urges in the real world.  I assert that lack of adversity in our lives is at the root of many of modern societies ailments and that the media we consume is how we satisfy these instincts safely.   Now that we have abundant wasted time on our hands and no socially acceptable outlets for satisfying our primal motivations we consume media (and other things) to feel gratification that we would otherwise have achieved by hard physical work and physical competition for resources a few short generations earlier.

A lot of what modern society considers “deviant” behavior is in fact entirely “natural” behavior being expressed or satisfied in deviant ways.   We have no evolutionary model for how we are supposed to conduct ourselves when we now live long past our natural lifespan and no real hardship or physically demanding effort is required of us to survive yet we remain instinctively programmed to behave as though we are actually living in a very different age and environment.  In my opinion the “healthy” remedy for these problems in this era is that children should be expected to engage in physically demanding work at a young age and should be encouraged to participate in competitive physical sports.  These activities stimulate a broad range of important instinctive desires in a healthy way that results in a natural sense of well-being, confidence and accomplishment as opposed to the artificial ones created through games and media.  In short, facing and overcoming physical adversity is as essential to our health and well-being as good diet and exercise.  It’s no coincidence that almost all of the media we consume revolves around stories about people overcoming various forms of adversity, it’s the feeling everybody desperately wants to experience.

The Saint Sumo wrestling World Champion Bayumba

The Saint (age 43) unsucessfully challenging Sumo Wrestling World Champion Bayumba

It’s easy to blame games when kids go nuts and shoot up a school because we all know that ALL kids play games these days so of course there is a 100% correlation.  It’s a tragedy that nobody notices that what these kids are NOT doing is being consistently socially engaged with their peers in team sports, or working hard at a demanding job.  One of the most difficult adjustments for me coming out of Alaska at 16 after living a pretty rugged lifestyle was dealing with how sedentary civilized life was.  I started running 12 miles/day and weight lifting to deal with it, but I was astonished at how comfortable kids my age were with doing nothing physically demanding all day.




  1. I think there might be a lot of 1/2 truths here; I don’t feel comfortable with how you brought them together and You probably don’t want us to be comfortable with these ideas. Good Job!

  2. I think it’s interesting on one hand, we like it when the military says they are using our games for training, but on the other hand, we say they don’t negatively impact kids. I’m not sure who is right or wrong, but we as an industry need to make up or minds. 🙂

    • Bruce! Hope you are well. I see no conflict, our military doesn’t train kids to use guns to shoot up schools. The military uses books and movies to train people as well…

  3. Sadly there has been so much pseudo science spouted by well meaning people that its messed up the debate. Scientific facts such as “Children who play violent video games experience an increase in physiological signs of aggression” and “Children who play violent video games experience an increase in aggressive actions” may be true, but they are useless because they ignore the overall effect, focusing on just the few minutes after stopping playing.

    Basically doing anything violent, game or real, will leave someone briefly more ‘wired’ and alert. But what is totally missed is that it is a BRIEF situation, followed by what? Its not been studied, but speaking personally, its followed by being more relaxed. My guess is its like a kind of release, playing violent games, and the overall effect is to reduce buildup of violent tension.

    And people need to remember that on both short (20 year) and long timescales, there has been a REDUCTION in violence at the same time as an increase in playing violent video games. In fact its quite dramatic that they are not connected. If violent video games caused violence, we would have seen a huge spike in violence in the last 10 years, and the opposite is true.

    There have been a few studies that claim to show an increase in violent tendencies among people who play violent games for several days. One study doing the rounds is based on THREE DAYS, . And it totally fails to quantify the types of people playing them. If you take naturally fairly mild people and have them play violent games, maybe they get a bit more aggressive. But if you take already violent people and have them play games, what happens? As its a free choice for people to play violent games or not, then you can not infer anything from artificially forcing people to play violent games that they naturally would not play.

    So Alex – I reckon you can take the message further, and say we should encourage people to play violent games, because when the proper research is done, it will find that it lets people work off pent up aggression and the overall result is less external violence.

    Studies like that one doing the rounds need to be severely challenged. A much more realistic study would be to take kids who regularly play violent games and somehow switch them to non violent games, and see if their aggression reduces. Even doing that may change too many things to make it realistic – for example they will be mixing with a milder set of people on-line. And who knows – if all the COD people move into playing Dirt2, it could become one huge demolition derby. My guess is the individuals would stop playing games and go be violent on the streets instead.

    • Jeremy Kenyon, co-founder of WildTangent!

      Let’s say that these studies are all true and these games do make our fat, lazy little prodginy more agressive. Why would that be bad? Maybe they’ll actually go outside and play for a change or dare I say it… rough house with other children… How did we become so terrified of a little agression that we equate ANY expression of agressiveness with going postal?

      • Good question. Its from the same bad reasoning that led to a drop in competitive sports in UK schools for a while – the idea that anyone could better someone else was frowned on, because everyone is equal. Reality is of course nothing like that.

        Its of course important is to teach respect for everyone, but it would be more helpful to teach people with strengths to appreciate they have a gift and that it comes with a responsibility – whether its physical prowess, creative powers or whatever. We as a society love to appreciate those that stand out – whether its olympians, Steve Jobs or Psy – and that is good. Stifling aggression will stifle many of those sorts of people and we will be poorer without them.

        We need to recognise aggression and teach people to control it, not try to pretend it does not exist and suppress it. Competitiveness needs to be channelled and kids need to be shown how to use their aggression in healthy ways. School sports, competitive anything, done right, are good. Maybe violent video games are popular because there is a lack of other ways for kids to use up their aggression – but its still better than no way to use it up.

        Most progress is made by fairly aggressive people. You could maybe argue we should never progress, but I doubt many people want to go back to living in caves and dying at 25.

        And, to be controversial, if we didn’t allow aggressive tendencies, we would all be speaking German now.

        • I simply can’t resist observing that if the gernams had resisted their agressive tendencies wouldn’t have needed ours… 🙂

          • That is the nuclear deterrent argument – I guess I do not believe we should reduce our preparedness in advance of proven enemies. If the rest of the world does a 180 and starts breeding out aggressiveness then maybe we could follow – but the exact opposite is the case – we (UK, USA, western world) are already the least aggressive nations, no matter what the anti-west propaganda says. We already tend to rely on technology to counter aggression, more than meet aggression with aggression. Not sure where it ends, especially with the islamic world closing the technology gap so quickly. One thing is for sure – if we did end up in a war then all those aggressive video gamers would be much in demand…

  4. Sorry for being late to the discussion but this topic is timeless anyway.

    I personally would like to believe that aggression is not part of human nature and any exposure to violence is more likely to do harm than good.

    Quote from (I highly recommend reading the whole article):

    The presence of some hormones or the stimulation of certain sections of the brain has been experimentally linked with aggression. But after describing these mechanisms in some detail, physiological psychologist Kenneth E. Moyer emphasizes that aggressive behavior is always linked to an external stimulus. “That is,” he says, “even though the neural system specific to a particular kind of aggression is well-activated, the behavior does not occur unless an appropriate target is available . . . [and even then] it can be inhibited.”

    Like the animals – “red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson put it – human beings are thought to be unavoidably violent creatures. Surveys of adults, undergraduates and high school students have found that 60 percent agree with the statement, “Human nature being what it is, there will always be war.”

    It may be part of our society’s folk wisdom, but it sets most of the expert’s heads to shaking. A number of researchers who have spent their lives working on the problem of aggression have concluded that violence, like selfishness, is “in human nature in the same way that David was in the marble before Michelangelo touched it,” in the words of psychologist Barry Schwartz of Tulane Medical School.

    • I’d like to believe in Santa Clause but that doesn’t mean that I devote a lot of energy to fabricating convincing arguments for why he SHOULD exist. You realize that it’s not a legitimate academic argument to cite unnamed experts who make sweeping patronizing statements about human violence without naming them or the specific studies that they conducted. The 1988 opinion piece you cited from Psychology Today is not written by a researcher or “expert” on anything, he is a book author who makes his living speculating about human behavior;

      The claim you cite from Kenneth Moyer is easily disputed. I know from experience that I require NO external stimulus to get angry, sad, hungry, thirsty, tired, or want sex. These moods are governed by natural hormonal fluctuations that scientists from THIS decade increasingly understand to govern our moods and behaviors. Set aside the question of how Moyer could possibly have studied people ABSENT external stimulus to test his conclusion… were they dead? According to Moyer’s obituary he fought in WWII, one can hardly blame him for wishing that violence in human nature could be expunged but it’s dysfunctional to pretend otherwise. What I am suggesting is that accepting that “violence” is a natural, healthy, deeply ingrained survival instinct makes it less of a “scary” mysterious phenomena and instead something we can deal with by recognizing that people need safe/healthy outlets to express that urge. It’s is delusional academics who advocate denial or propagandizing violence away that create an environment in which kids are never taught how to constructively channel their NATURAL survival instincts into hard work, exercise, competitive sports, or other HEALTHY outlets. Teaching people to engage in denial is the real sickness.

      Here is an actual scientific study performed in this century by actual experts from accredited academic institutions that supports the argument that violent media does not influence violent behavior but genetic influences DO.

      • Yes, that’s right. This reminds me of Steven Pinker’s talk on TED about how and why there is too much emphasis on nurture in the modern society:

        This got me thinking that maybe it’s not so much about the level of violence per se but more about the plot of the story and the conclusions players jump to when interacting with the story. In other words, there might be a violent game/story that effectively teaches empathy. And there might be a non-violent game/story that “promotes” arrogance and greed. Having said that I struggle to come up with exaples of the latter 🙂 What do you think about that?

        • I think that only people who are already weak minded and dangerously unbalanced can be strongly influenced by media to do something crazy like dress up as the Joker and shoot up a movie theatre. Of course he could just as well have gotten the idea from reading a Batman comic book and maybe without the influence of media he would have just shot up a movie theater WITHOUT dressing like the Joker. I think people seek media that satisfies their urges, not develop urges for the media they are forced to consume. I think people generally “learn” the social coping mechanisms they didn’t inherit genetically from their parents.

          • Alex, are you familiar with the work of Daniel Kahneman? He pioneered the research into human judgment and decision-making mechanisms. In short, his findings were that we generally use two distinct brain systems when making decisions: System 1 – fast, impulsive, often irrational, requires no voluntary effort (intuition, gut feeling) and System 2 – slow, logical, rational, uses deductive reasoning, requires effort.

            Although we live under the impression that system 2 is responsible for most decisions we make, our life is controlled largely by the first system.

            This is probably the main reason why storytelling can be effective in conveying ideas, influencing, convincing, persuading, teaching people. By telling stories we communicate directly with System 1, the one responsible for most daily decisions people make (especially people with who are often too lazy to use System 2). Also stories leave long lasting vivid images and associations in our brains that might affect our future decisions. On the other hand, facts and bullet points are quickly forgotten.

            This leads me to conclude that the stories media tells us could (depending on HOW the story is told) leave impressions that would affect our future decisions.

          • Yes, Kahnehman did not share your conclusions from his work. He was famous for observing that most people made decisions about what they are going to do or what they are going to believe subconsciously and then rationalize them with their forebrains retroactively. I think Kahneman would say of your point of view that you are trying hard to rationalize something you want to believe when the facts do not support your conclusions.

          • This would be a valid point if I had a strong opinion on the subject. I don’t. This is THE reason I used the weak phrase “I would like to believe…”. Sorry for not being clear enough.

            Let me try to explain why I’ve joined the discussion. As far as I can see there are several kinds of opinions people have regarding violence in media: a) violence in media increases aggression; b) has no effect; c) decreases aggression. There is clearly no public consensus on this matter. I generally try to have an open mind on such things and explore validity of every option. That is what I am trying to do here. I am trying hard to find an answer by bouncing ideas off experienced and knowledgeable people, not “to rationalize something I want to believe in”.

          • Fair enough. In my experience the problem with seeking consensus on anything is that it can never be found. Even when people agree on business terms in a deal that does not mean they have found consensus, only a set of terms on which they can agree to disagree. Being a rationalist I have no interest in consensus or other peoples opinion’s. I try to understand the facts and separate them from human motives. When I look at a lot of the literature and media on the causes of violence I find a lot of human rationalization and very few facts. Hitler didn’t play video games and I doubt that he watched a lot of Human Centipede type movies in his youth… so clearly violent media is not a NECESSARY component of violence. If it “influences” violent behavior then why don’t we hear about crazed video game playing kids shooting up European, Japanese or Korean schools? I think there are some violent-media hating people who would like to believe that media causes these things because they would like to prevent you from having access to such media but there is no factual case that I have found for violent media CAUSING violence anymore than carrying umbrellas causes rain. Rain actually causes people to carry umbrellas and craving violence creates market demand for violent media.


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