As violent video games continue to become ever more popular and accessible, Tamar Gendler, chair of the cognitive science program and professor of philosophy, and other experts in the fields of philosophy, psychology, and cognitive science, as well as gamers themselves, are debating whether pulling the trigger on your game console constitutes an immoral act. At what point does a game cease to be merely a game? Contributing reporter Lindsay Gellman investigates.

‘When he said ‘son of a bitch’ — that’s the kind of filthy, disgusting language that gets you engaged,” Gendler said.

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She was watching a group of soldiers react to a nearby explosion in the YouTube trailer for the first-person shooter game “Killzone 2” — just the latest attraction in a lineup of violent video games available on the market, joining modern classics such as “Grand Theft Auto” and “Call of Duty.”

Profanity like this, Gendler explained, gets gamers emotionally involved in the world of the video game they are playing, making the experience more realistic and life-like. This, in turn, contributes to a phenomenon cognitive science experts such as Gendler are studying: the conflation of the real and virtual realms.


With gaming on the rise — the market research firm The NPD Group reports that 61 percent of Americans currently play video games, up from 58 percent in 2008 — psychologists and cognitive scientists have become interested in understanding why people are drawn to video games, particularly those that glorify violence.

The developmental benefits of play may provide one explanation, psychology professor Paul Bloom said. Just as animals wrestle to develop physical skills that will become crucial later in life, human beings might be instinctively drawn to violent play, for which video games serve as a convenient simulation, he said.

“Games like ‘Call of Duty 5’ are just updated versions of ‘cowboys and Indians,’ ” Bloom said. “They represent enjoyable practice on something that’s close enough to reality to be useful.”

(Bloom himself enjoys playing first-person shooter games like “Doom” and “Marathon.” “You get to fight Nazi zombies!” he quipped. “The attitude is: ‘I’m here to kick ass and chew bubble gum, and I’m all out of bubble gum.’ ”)

Gendler attributes the allure of violent video games primarily to literature and popular culture.

“The games play off a common trope in novels: ‘I’m the hero, I’m the savior,’ ” she said.

Of the seven video gamers interviewed for this article, all said they play video games — violent and otherwise — because they are entertaining and serve as a break from real life.

“It’s just fun,” Vlad Chituc ’12, a gaming enthusiast, said. “I can’t really explain it, but there’s just something satisfying about shooting zombies.”

Rae Langton, a philosophy professor at MIT who teaches a weekly seminar at Yale, said the draw to violence has been around since antiquity. People have been taking pleasure in violence for as long as history has been recorded — indeed, since the days of the first ancient Greek tragedies and Roman gladiator fights.

Violent video games may also be attractive in part because they serve to emotionally prepare human beings for coping with adversity, Bloom said. In fact, we often even choose to inflict unpleasantness on ourselves, such as by opting to see scary or sad movies, he said.

The reason we seek such experiences is that they equip us with the emotional and psychological tools to overcome more significant instances of emotional trauma, he explained. In the same way, he said, we use video games to experience adversity in a virtual space.

“The world isn’t always pleasant,” he said. “Violent video games serve as a … type of simulation.”


Devotees of violent video games, like those of pornography, tend to be males: While the female gamer population is on the rise, 60 percent of video gamers are male, according to a study released in 2008 by the Entertainment Software Association.

Langton, who studies pornography and objectification of women, said that, while no biological connection exists between violent video games and pornography, the link between the two is no accident. In fact, she said, many people are socially conditioned to perceive violence as erotic.

Bloom, meanwhile, traces this gender discrepancy to males’ tendency to be more violent and easily aroused by visual cues than women.

“Males take more pleasure than females in simulating of violence and violent play,” he said. “Technology happened to develop into a way to exploit pleasure.”

Indeed, recent experimental findings support this notion: A study conducted in 2008 by Alan Reiss, a Stanford researcher, found that while playing video games, reward centers in the brain are more activated in males than in females.

This male-dominated gaming culture is self-perpetuating, tending to alienate women and therefore limiting their access to the gaming world, said Grant Potter ’10, an avid gamer.

“Gaming culture is designed to attract males,” Potter said. “This culture is a result of historical trends that haven’t changed — things like the male-dominated tech culture and advertising that targets men.”


As technology improves, the line between the real and the virtual will become increasingly blurred — complicating the morality of committing virtual violence, Gendler said.

“The boundary between the real and the virtual is more permeable than the language suggests,” Gendler said. “Anything that you’re imagining really changes your brain,” she added.

Imagining performing an action, such as playing the piano, causes structural changes in the relationship between brain synapses nearly as significant as does performing the action, according to a recent study by Susan Greenfield, a professor of synaptic pharmacology at Oxford.

But a key factor in a players’ ability to keep the real and the virtual separate is that video games do not engage the olfactory system, Gendler said. A person’s sense of smell links sensory input to primitive parts of the brain that can activate deep emotions, she added.

Gendler noted, for instance, that violent video game players do not incur post-traumatic stress disorder even after experiencing gaming scenarios that would likely cause PTSD in real life. This discrepancy is most likely due to the fact that video games stimulate players in visual, auditory, and tactile ways, but not through the related senses of smell or taste.

“It’s not clear to me that we’re getting full engagement without involving the sense of smell,” she said. “Fewer people would play violent video games if they were vivid in that way. If you did a subtraction between real experience and playing the game, exactly the items that are missing would be contributive to traumatic response.”

Langton said the problem with simulating violence is that it tends to breed real violence.

“There is more and more evidence that who we pretend to be is who we become,” Langton said. “We encounter the world through imitation. If you walk around simulating anger by clenching your fists, you become angry.”

But Bloom said no such effect has been experimentally determined. While a handful studies have shown a correlation between violent tendencies and violent video game playing, one cannot extrapolate a causal link between the two variables.

Still, Langton said violent games raise moral issues for the gamers themselves.

“Even if you are playing these games on a desert island, there is still the question of whether people should spend their time imagining and doing violent things,” she said. “It is a question of what it means to live ‘the good life.’ ”

For most gamers, however, virtual sin is just that: virtual.

Chituc said while playing violent video games may be “dumb,” he does not believe it is morally wrong or that it makes people more aggressive.

“No more than playing a football video game will make you more athletic, or playing Guitar Hero will make you a better musician,” Chituc said. “It’s just fantasy. If you want to kill hookers in a video game, go for it.”