There’s no doubt that the media we consume has an effect on us, the entire advertising and marketing industry is built upon that premise, however just how big that impact can be has always been a subject of debate. Most notably the last few decades have been littered with debate around how much of an impact violent media has on us and whether it’s responsible for some heinous acts committed by those who have consumed it. In the world of video games there’s been dozens of lab controlled studies done that shows consumption of violent games leads towards more aggressive behaviour but the link to actual acts of violence could not be drawn. Now researchers from Stetson University have delved into the issue and there doesn’t appear to be a relationship between the two at all.
The study, which was a retrospective analysis of reports of violence and the availability of violent media, was broken down into two parts. The first part of the study focused on homicide rates and violence in movies between 1920 and 2005 using independent data sources. The second then focused on incidents of violence in video games using the ESRB ratings from 1996 to 2011 and correlated them with rates of youth violence over the same period. Both periods of study found no strong correlation between violence in media and acts of actual violence, except for a brief period in the early 90s (although the trend quickly swung back the other way, indicating the result was likely unrelated).
Violent video games are often used as an outlet for those looking for something to blame but often the relationship between them and the act of violence is completely backwards. It’s not that violent video games are causing people to commit these acts, instead those who are likely to commit these acts are also likely to engage in other violent media. Had the reverse been true then there would have been a distinct correlation between the availability of violent media and acts of real world violence but, as the study shows, there’s simply no relationship between them at all.
Hopefully now the conversation will shift from video games causing violence (or other antisocial behaviours) to a more nuanced discussion around the influences games can have on our attitudes, behaviours and thought processes. There’s no doubt that we’re shaped by the media we consume however the effects are likely much more subtle than most people would like to think they are. Once these more subtle influences are understood we can then work towards curtailing any negative aspects that they might have rather than using a particular medium as a scapegoat for deplorable behaviour.
If there’s one type of game that hasn’t seen much of a revival thanks to the indie development explosion of the last couple years its the top down style of games that was made popular by the Grand Theft Auto series. It should be no surprise really as these kinds of games tend to be quite limiting in what they can do thanks to the fixed perspective, often limiting them to puzzle type games like To The Moon or the aforementioned predecessor of one of today’s most successful third person shooters. Hotline Miami then is the first game in this style that I’ve played in quite a long time and it does not fail to disappoint.
Hotline Miami winds back the clock to 1989, dropping you (funnily enough) in the tropical megalopolis that is Miami. You play as an unnamed man who’s a contract killer, receiving all sorts of weird coded messages on your answering machine that are the location of your next target. At every scene the ritual is the same, you go to your car, don a mask to conceal your identity and then proceed to unleash all sorts of hell upon the people contained within that building. However as the game goes on your world begins to slowly unravel and you start to question what’s real and what isn’t.
As I alluded to earlier Hotline Miami does feel a lot like the original Grand Theft Auto did back in the day with the top down perspective and pixelart graphics being the main factors behind this. However unlike Grand Theft Auto you’re not limited to simple up/down/left/right movement and thus the game plays a hell of a lot more smoothly than it or any other top down game I’ve played in recent times. This is also probably due to the fact that it uses the GameMaker engine underneath which supports DirectX which ensures that no matter how much action is on screen you won’t experience an ounce of slow down.
The developers behind Hotline Miami have described it as a “top-down fuck ’em up” and that description could not be more appropriate. The aim of any level is to clear out all the enemies out of a particular section and there are several ways to go about it. You almost always start off with nothing so your first victim will likely be taken down by the liberal use of your fists applied directly to their face. After that you’ve likely got your hands on some form of weapon which you can then use to dispatch enemies at a much faster rate. Of course there’s also a myriad of guns available should you be able to pry them away from their current owners but the use of them has a price.
Hotline Miami also incorporates stealth as a game mechanic which, depending on the level, you will almost certainly have to make use of from time to time. This also means that the use of guns will attract all enemies within a certain radius to you which can be both a good and a bad thing depending on the situation you’re in. It’s actually quite a neat little mechanic as there are many levels that can be easily breezed through with a knife but will be hell if you try to use any kind of gun, something which I found out after repeating a single section dozens of times.
There’s also a rudimentary levelling system in Hotline Miami which is based off of your score given to you at the end of each level. Now I couldn’t quite figure out how the scoring system worked (as the above screenshot shows I always seemed to score above the total points, unless that isn’t it) but it did appear to be directly related to when I’d unlock something. There are 2 kinds of unlockables in Hotline Miami: masks and weapons. Whilst the latter is somewhat out of your control (weapons are all randomly generated) the former can put quite an interesting twist on how levels play out and can be crucial to certain play styles.
The masks will confer some small benefit to you which is loosely based around the animal/thing they’re based off of. Most of them are simple things like extra ammunition or faster executions but others can be nigh on game breaking in terms of the benefits they bestow. My favourite by far was Don Juan as that one turns doors that you open onto enemies lethal which usually allowed me to fire off a single shot, run behind a door and then proceed to eliminate the entire room with several doors to the face. Playing that way might not be everyone’s cup of tea but it was pretty damn fun racking up massive combos in that fashion.
What really lets Hotline Miami down though is the bugs and crashes. I noticed at the start that it asked me if I wanted to disable SteamWorks as a few people were having trouble with it and at the time I thought I’d keep it on just to see how it played out. After about an hour or so I got a (handled) exception and the background sprite failed to render which wasn’t game breaking as I had just finished the level at that point. However after that I started getting unhanded exceptions on a particular level (I think it was “Clean Hit”) and they persisted even after multiple restarts and disabling SteamWorks.
The only way I was able to progress was opening up the saves.dat file which was thankfully not binary and had a pretty easy to decipher structure. Essentially I unlocked a couple levels ahead of myself so I could skip over the level that was causing it to crash and whilst this let me play the next two levels the crashing started happening again much to my disappointment. I’m not the only one experiencing this either and thankfully it looks like the developers are onto it. If I’m honest it would probably be worth waiting for the update before playing it again as it can be extremely frustrating losing your progress in a level, even if it might not take that long to get back there.
The story of Hotline Miami is a surreal experience with the initial encounters being relatively normal (save for the talking to the masked men section) but they slowly morph into what seems like a fever dream that your character is experiencing. It’s intriguing mostly because of all the little clues scattered throughout the game that seem to hint that your character is coming unhinged and you start to question what’s real and what’s not. I haven’t had the chance to finish the game fully due to the extensive crashing (I’m up to the last level, however) so I can’t comment on whether it concludes well or not but suffice to say the story is much more than something tacked on at the end to keep you playing.
Hotline Miami is a brutal, psychedelic beat ’em up that excels in making over the top violence extremely fun, to the point of you worrying about what kind of person enjoying this game makes you. Whilst it might be plagued with crashes that will frustrate many Hotline Miami really is good enough to make you want to keep playing, something which surprised me as I’m not usually that tolerant. If you’ve been pining for the days of the original Grand Theft Auto then Hotline Miami is right up your alley and I dare say that you’ll probably enjoy it a lot more.
Hotline Miami is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was approximately 2 hours with 9% of the achievements unlocked (probably more due to the lack of SteamWorks and plethora of crashes).
3 years. That’s how long I’ve been writing about the R18+ rating in Australia. I had thought that I was pretty much done with it when the rating sailed through the lower house 6 months ago but a week ago the guidelines for the new rating were released by the Australian Classification Board and the gaming community collectively sighed in dismay at what was presented. Taking a look over the guidelines it’s clear that the idea of a unified classification scheme for all forms of media will never come into reality in Australia as apparently games must be treated differently to all other mediums of expression. Their reasoning for this might look sound on the surface (games are interactive and thus more impactful) but their thinking isn’t based on any science I can find and we all know how angry that makes me.
The guidelines themselves are short and concise which makes them rather easy to compare to their previous iterations. Whilst the R18+ rating does open the doors to games that are adult in nature there are some pretty severe restrictions when compared to it’s sister medium of film. Indeed if you look at the guidelines for film’s version of R18+ and then look at the one for games the number of justifications, limits and “in context” qualifiers the comparison is quite stark which shows that the classification board believes that games are more impactful due to their interactive nature. I’ve heard this line before but never actually did some research into whether it was true or not.
Today I found out that it’s not.
Whilst it’s hard to find causative links between video games and any sort of trend in behaviour due to the impossibility of doing proper control testing there is some decent data out there. However meta-analysis of previous studies can show data trends that we can get correlations from. Before you repeat the “correlation is not causation” mantra at me don’t forget that correlation is required for causation¹ so any time you see it pop up the relationship almost always warrants further investigation. In this case whilst the research suggests that violent media may lead to increased aggression that does not directly translate to increased violence and violent media is never the sole factor responsible.
What the research does show however is that the tendency towards aggressive behaviours is no more influenced by interactive games than it is passive consumption of other forms of media. Indeed more research shows that contextual justification of violence is by far more influential than the interactivity or quantity of violence present. Thus the idea that games have to be somehow held up to a different standard than that of other mediums due to its interactivity is at best an emotional argument and not one we should be basing laws around.
Of course since these are a set of guidelines it ultimately comes down to the reviewers to enforce them and there’s a chance that they won’t do so literally. Indeed many games that got slapped with R18+ ratings in other countries previously were waved through under the MA15+ here in Australia and it’s quite possible that with the introduction of the R18+ rating that many of the games that fell under the NC banner previously will get waved through in much the same way. This is pure speculation on my part however and we shall have to wait for the first lot of R18+ games to come through the ACB before we’ll know if there’s any credence to that theory.
It makes me incredibly angry to see policy based around emotional arguments rather than solid research. If I can find the right articles in the couple hours I spend on researching these things then I’d expect nothing less from public servants who are paid to do the same in order to advise their politicians. I can only hope that the government takes the advice of the ALRC seriously and looks towards unifying the classification scheme so we can abandon these silly schemes of differing levels of classification for different types of media. It’s another long shot for sure but after 3 years of shouting to get to this point I’m not about to give up now.
¹And for those smart asses out there who will then tell me that you can have causation without correlation I’ll tell you to go back to your data and have a good hard look at it. If SPSS tells you that there’s no correlation in the data when you somehow know there is then there’s a problem with your data or hypothesis.
When tragedy strikes we humans always look for someone or something to lay blame on. It’s part of our grieving process, done so we can struggle with the enormity of the situation that has been presented to us. It’s also an emotional time and this has the unfortunate side effect of clouding our usually rational minds, possibly leading us astray in our search for understanding. One such topic that has always managed to get muddled in with the emotional blame game is the effect that violent video games have on both children and adults. The recent events in Oslo have brought this topic back to the front of everyone’s minds and it would seem that the debate has begun raging once again.
The general sentiment amongst the public seems to be that violent video games do adversely affect children in some way. As a child growing up in a world that thought this I was often barred from playing games that involved killing human or human looking creatures. I wasn’t alone in this respect either, with many of my friends relying on their older siblings to gain access to this banned material. Still none of my friends have grown up to be violent individuals so at least anecdotally it would seem that there’s no real substance to the general public’s sentiment on violent video games.
Still there have been so many incidents where the two have been linked that it’s warranted further investigation. There have been many direct studies and meta-analysis done on the subject and the results don’t provide any evidence for a strong link between violent video games and violent tendencies. There is some evidence to suggest that there might be some short term effects but the evidence to the contrary of that conclusion is strong enough to warrant further analysis before drawing conclusions. Scientifically then it would seem that the idea that violent video games breed violent children and adults simply does not hold up to scrutiny and should be taken as such.
It was at this point that I was going to go on a long tirade against all the major news publications for their portrayal of games in the media when it comes to tragic events, quoting various articles and debunking their points with copious amounts of links and evidence. I sifted through dozens of news articles on the subject, cherry picking out the ones that mentioned video games and pouring over them. What I found was a trend the likes of which I hadn’t seen before, most of the big media sites were running articles that would usually only mention the video games in passing not even attempting to make a tenuous link between violent games and real world violent behaviour.
There are of course some notable exceptions (with the ACL chiming in during SMH’s article) but overall the coverage of the Oslo incidents lay the blame squarely at the perpetrator and not at video games. It seems that finally after decades of video games being the punching bag for all sorts of societal problems the media, and thus the general public, are coming around to the idea that video games aren’t the murder simulators they were once made out to be. It’s a sign that the gaming industry has finally started to be taken seriously by the wider public (mostly because we make up a much greater percentage of the population than we used to) and this means we can finally have rational discussion on the real impacts of gaming on our society, rather than the emotionally charged blame games we’ve had until now.
Gaming is and always be a big part of my life and it has always pained me to see how ignorant the general public was being about how those games were affecting both children and adults. The Oslo terrorist attack, whilst an unforgivable tragedy, has shown that perhaps we as a society have begun to turn the corner on the violent video games issue. With a R18+ rating on its way for Australia the evidence is mounting that we’re beginning to accept games as a real medium for expression that’s appropriate for both adults and children alike. The future will bring us conclusive evidence as to the real affects that games have on our society and we can look back on the emotional debates as simply part of the medium maturing, hopefully as a fading memory.