THE BLOG
12/19/2012 10:47 am ET Updated Feb 18, 2013

Games and Gun Violence: Cause and Cure

The games industry does not like its product being implicated as a cause of horrific violence. Because the majority of recent mass shooters have had a documented affiliation with violent video games, the media has been quick to point fingers. In the hours and days after shootings like Newtown, talking heads quickly speculate that the game play of the shooters affected their judgement. Perhaps they became desensitized to violence because of the games they play, or that their minds -- already wired differently -- became so distorted from the adrenaline of games that they thought they could kill easily.

These accusations, however, are easy to dismiss with even the most basic science. Researchers have routinely found that games don't cause children to become uniquely violent any more than movies, TV or books have in previous generations. But this easily confounds most parents, teachers and psychologists. After all, how can experiences so engaging and violent be completely blameless? As much as the games industry wishes it wasn't true, they are somewhat to blame. Games may not create the violent impulse in the first place, but they certainly can make kids better at violence if already predisposed to it.

Games are, after all, an effective training tool in other contexts -- so why shouldn't this be so for murder in real life? Games are used to train air force pilots, nuclear plant operators, hotel desk clerks and bus drivers -- each job being more complex than shooting up a room full of defenseless, naive 6-year-olds. So why can't games -- with their powerful engagement mechanics and ever-more realistic interactions -- help make better killers?

They can, and if we don't do something about it, they will continue to do so. This does not augur for more regulation; that would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The best solution is to take a homeopathic approach: acknowledge that games are both the disease and its cure. This process is called gamification, and it uses game concepts to transform everyday experiences into teachable moments, causes for personal victory and systems that drive good behavior over the long term. The proof of its efficacy is multiplying by the day, and experts presenting at events like GSummit run the gamut of industry, focus and company size. If used correctly, gamification can thwart violence even as mainstream games glorify it. Though they can take many forms, gamified solutions speak directly to the gamer generation and beyond in the language and context they understand, tuned to maximize engagement and learning.

Here then are four gamification concepts that could reduce gun deaths substantially over the coming decades:

Teach kids a self-preservation response to violence: Newtown's teachers responded heroically to gunshots, spiriting kids away into hiding places until the coast was clear. This undoubtedly saved many lives, and apparently was part of their training in the event of a prison break nearby. But rather than just train teachers, we need to train kids on how to respond reflexively to violent situations. Gamification can be used to train them on what to do if they hear a gunshot or see a weapon without leaving the psychological scars of 1950s nuclear "duck and cover." Although not a panacea for eliminating violence in the first place, a game that uses a metaphorical character in a virtual world could accomplish this objective readily. This would also potentially help kids learn how to avoid fighting in general (in games and in real life) rather than engaging in battle.

Experience the Post-Violence World in a Different Way: In most games when you die, your character simply starts again. Players generally learn not to fear dying because penalties are low. In general we see this through a positive lens for teachable moments: Users can take more risks and learn better from failure in ways unique to games. However this could also serve to trivialize death and its repercussions. To combat this, we could create gamified experiences that allowed players to see how their loved ones had to deal with their passing after the fact. This has been done with some success in industries such as insurance -- though not targeting children, per se. In this intervention, we'd be seeking to focus on empathy-generation for loved ones not for opponents. With industry support, this model could be integrated into existing games.

Use Gameplay for Violence Fingerprinting: Gamers often have a "play DNA" of sorts -- a unique way they approach games that may reveal their underlying personalities. Using sophisticated data gathering, and their preferred game experiences, it might be possible to predict an individual's risk of violence from the way they play. This might be more practical and scalable than attempting to use a test-based psychological test across the whole population. This information could then be used to tailor experiences in games or classrooms to intervene in the lives of the most at-risk kids.

Reward Gun-Free Families: One potentially transformative point of intervention would be to create positive motivation for families to do away with their guns. These could include tax or insurance incentives, or simply unique fun events that only non-gun households get to attend. Such events could be real (e.g., amusement park events) or virtual (e.g., online game play, special badges in popular kids games), and in either case would be focused on a positive incentive for not having guns. Clearly, pro-gun households could do similar things albeit with less overall public support, and there is the potential for emergent crime risks targeting non-gun homes. The key would be to activate kids to lobby their parents to go gun-free rather than identifying homes literally with their gun-ownership status. This can be best accomplished with a structured, non-cash incentive that is more scalable than buy-back programs.

Regardless of how we approach the social challenges of guns and violence, we will need to acknowledge the role that games play. While their exact level of responsibility in creating the problem may be the subject of some debate, games' ability to help create a solution is incomparable. Rather than focus solely on challenging gun control, or advocate restrictions on entertainment that will be challenging to enforce, let's embrace the opportunities presented to us by this unique moment in time. With gamification we can use the power of games to protect, heal and elevate us, even as those virtual bullets become all too real.

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