Improving Our Aim: A Psychotherapist’s Take On Video Games & Violence


A little while back I was playing Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare with one of my patients, we’ll call him Alex*.  Twenty minutes into our game, I was clearly losing badly and dying a lot.  Although I am a gamer-affirmative therapist, first-person shooters have never been a favorite of mine.  In fact it was only recently that I started playing them at home and with patients at all.  The game ended with me having died 25 times to his 2.  Alex chuckled as I tried to swallow my frustration.  He reassured me that he had “sucked too” at COD when he started, and asked if we had time for another round.  It took every ounce of therapeutic stamina to acquiesce.

He fiddled with a few custom settings that were mysterious to me and round two began.  Within a minute I had downed him twice with ease, and after the third kill I became a little suspicious.  “Did you give yourself a handicap?” I asked.  Turned out he had adjusted his health down to nearly nothing.  As we sat there playing a game of war and killing, I realized with a start that I was seeing not just aggression, but compassion as well.

Much, recently, and perennially, has been discussed about the possible connections between video games and violent behavior.  Studies and metastudies have alternately supported and decried the correlation between video games and violence or desensitization to violence.  In the midst of these heated debates, worried parents and family members of gamers try to make sense from spin, as they raise children in a world of technology light years away from the world they grew up in.

In his book, The Gamification of Learning and Instruction, Karl M. Kapp writes that “games are based on models of the real world. A game may be regarded as a dynamic model of reality in which the model provides a representation of reality at a particular period of time. This is known in the academic literature as an operating model, as distinct from verbal graphic, mathematical or physical models. It is also important to note that the modeled reality may be hypothetical, imagine, or fictional as if often the case in games like Dungeons and Dragons and video games like the Halo series.”

If games are in fact models of the world, should we be surprised that many video games have content of violence, or for that matter compassion.  We live in a world and a time of immense conflict and violence, where planes fly into skyscrapers and people kill children.  Any model that is to be experientially accurate must struggle with that.  If video games had no meaningful referent to the world we live in they would also be unable to provide any sense of escape or entertainment.  They need to resemble our experience without being seen as identical to it.

From the outside in, parents can have a hard time grasping this.  They see blood and carnage, and recognize what the model is, but not playing themselves do not necessarily experience the ways video game are not identical to the world at large.  Media can often aggravate this hype, by taking the view from the outside in as well, and implying it is the whole story.

But here are some facts to think about.  Wikipedia states that 12 million people have downloaded and presumably played “Angry Birds” on their iPhones and iPads.  Yet the reality is that 12 million people have not as a result taken up animal cruelty or ornithology.  In 2010, Joystiq reported that Farmville had surpassed 80 million players, and yet we have not seen a large spike in people taking up farming as a career in the U.S.  And as someone who has played Call of Duty and experienced it from the inside, I can tell you that the feelings I associated most quickly to it were those I had when I played Hide and Seek as a child, rather than a dangerous surge in aggression.

In my work I try to balance my reading the research on video games and violence with my patients’ internal experience of it.  Parents often struggle with this, and in general remembering that no matter how close they are to their children they are not within their psyches.  Few actually try to play the games to see if their experiences playing match their experiences observing, and this is understandable because the learning curve to play many games is steeper than anything adults have experienced since high school.  This is largely because in high school and college, most adults were taught to identify the area of knowledge and expertise that comes most easily or is most profitable to them and silo down in it for the rest of their lives.

Not long ago, a story was released of a man who had hired virtual hit men to stalk and kill his adult son in the video game he played.  If you are a parent you may find this stunning, or you may find it on one end of a continuum you identify with, namely the frustration and urge to control your child’s use of, choice of, and time spent playing video games.  Many of us justify this by blaming video games for poor academic performance or behavior, and then are mystified when the games are taken away, and academics still suffer.  Because the underlying issues are not addressed the video games are identified as the culprit, and then Magic: The Gathering cards are singled out, and when they are removed something else takes it place, including alcohol or other substances.

What we need to remember is that people are often learning things from within the model of different video games that may in fact be preparing them for work in the 21st century.  This includes becoming desensitized.  Desensitization is not only a broad term, but also one which gets a bad rap in our society.  But the truth of the matter is that many occupations require a level of desensitivity, which allows us to effectively perform a task in the face of difficult feelings evoked by it.

This includes first-responders such as EMRs, police and fireman, for whom being sensitive in the moment of a crisis might be overwhelmed and put themselves and others at risk.  It also includes medical professionals, including therapists, who need to treat people while simultaneously seeing horrific injuries.  One ophthalmologist I know actually credits playing video games as a child with preparing him for the hand-eye coordination necessary to perform complex and delicate surgical procedures, but I also wonder if a certain level of desensitization to the experience of what he is doing to another person’s eye in that moment isn’t also necessary.

No amount of research can eliminate the need for empathy or compassion, whether you are a therapist or a child watching your therapist struggle with frustration in a video game.  As models of reality video games may always need to allow for the possibility of violence and desensitization in them, but they also provide experiences to learn about compassion and sensitivity as well.  As a species we have the propensity of both, and at least in the short run we are more likely to increase compassion and understanding than we are to eliminate violence.


*Alex is based on several patients whose identifying information has been disguised to protect patient privacy.
Mike LangloisMike Langlois, LICSW received his BA from Connecticut College in 1991, and his MSW from Smith College School for Social Work in 1994.  He has over 15 years of experience counseling adults and families. His work includes treating patients who use video games from a gamer-affirmative stance, and his theoretical background combines psychodynamic theory, contemporary cognitive and learning theory with cutting edge technologies.  He is currently an adjunct faculty member of Boston College School for Social Work and a teaching associate in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, where he supervises interns and clinicians.  He also serves on the Massachusetts Commission for LGBT Youth. Read more at

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