If you were a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would you allow professional video gaming (also known as eSports) as a new Olympic Games event?
That’s exactly what the committee is considering right now.
You might think that the IOC’s hesitancy to include eSports is associated with the lack of physical movement it involves. But instead their concern is related to the violence that is embedded in many video games. IOC president Thomas Bach said:
…the red line would be eGames which are killer games, where you have the promotion of violence or any kind of discrimination as a content. They can never be recognised as a part of the Olympic movement because they would be contrary to our values and principles.
But on-field sport also has a long history of violence – it is often accepted as a intrinsic part of the contest and game. As George Orwell once claimed, sport involves “…sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting”.
Rather than pitting one against the other, however, let’s consider the messages around violence and aggression that sports collectively give children and young people – and devise strategies to lessen their impact.
Violence in video games
With titles such as “Counter-Strike”, “Call of Duty: Infinite warfare” and “Streetfighter”, it’s no wonder that violence is frequently singled out as a defining and negative feature of video games.
About 90% of children younger than 12 years, and 95% of children aged 12 and older, play video games. More than 85% of video games on the market contain some form of violence.
Video game violence is often based on hyper-realistic bloody battles and shootouts. Players (generally children and young people) commonly select from an arsenal of weapons to kill first-person style, in war or street-crime related narratives. Most violent video games include justifications of the portrayed violence, a distorted portrayal of consequences, and dehumanisation of opponents.
Community and parental concerns centre on whether playing online battles and first-person shooter games will encourage real-life aggressive behaviour and desensitise children to violent acts.
Violence on the sporting field
However, others may argue that watching a real boxing match or taekwondo fight – two sports that allow acts that would be deemed illegal if they were committed on the street – would have the same effect on a child. It’s a valid point.
At the forefront of the on-field sport violence conversation is the number of injuries – estimated at more than 600,000 per year in US sports. Concussions, which are a serious form of head trauma, are not just being seen among professional athletes but among school-aged children too.
For spectators, the majority of on-field professional sport is watched on a screen. At the same time, professional sport has become increasingly commodified and detached from everyday life.
The celebrity lifestyles of many leading athletes (and their the wives and girlfriends) can “dehumanise” athletes to the point where they seem like characters in a game. Watching professional sport often provides a sense of freedom and escape from modern life and, in this manner, can be viewed as being somehow less “real”.
This is apparent in the fact that fighting is “considered by many as an integral part of playing hockey in the National Hockey League (NHL)”. Ice hockey fights are so popular with fans that a dedicated Twitter account has been established.
Similarly, the movie Green Street Hooligans depicts football “firms” (violent football fans who induce street fights against supporters of other teams), who rank the achievements of their firm as well as that of their team on the pitch.
It is now generally accepted in the academic community that violent acts on the sporting field often work as a catalyst for violent behaviour. This is often exacerbated by poorly designed stadiums and excessive alcohol consumption by spectators. This context sends a powerful message about violence to children who attend professional sporting events.
What the research says about the impact of violence in sports
While US President Donald Trump is among those who are adamant that violent video games lead to aggressive behaviour – such as school shootings – the evidence is less clear.
Research is often based on laboratory experiments in which researchers randomly assign participants to play a violent or non-violent game. In the short term, the findings paint a patchy picture.
In some studies, violent game play was found to have no effect, while other research has suggested that it increased aggressive behaviour and reduced prosocial behaviour, empathy and moral engagement.
Similarly, on-field sports can negatively effect children who participate. A recent study found that 38% of children experience violence in sport – including psychological and sexual violence. Results showed that this had a significant negative impact on psychopathology and quality of life in adulthood.
How to educate kids about sporting violence
Many children today participate in and/or watch both on field sport and video gaming. No single risk factor consistently leads a person to act aggressively or violently, rather, it is the accumulation of risk factors that tends to lead to aggressive or violent behaviour.
Children are influenced by what they observe. Coaches and players across all sports should be encouraged to promote anti-violence messages rather than pushing players to “win at all costs”. Pre- and post-game rituals for all sports that highlight connections between opponents, such as handshakes, can make spectators aware of anti-violence norms and promote civility towards others.
Meanwhile, critical conversations with kids about rules embedded in on field and eSports games could potentially lead them to deconstruct the violence they are seeing. Additionally, we need greater acknowledgement of violence in established games and a balance of non-violent games across all sports.
While on-field sport and eSport have many benefits, including team work and problem-solving, sport of all kinds is rife with aggression that impacts kids physically, emotionally and mentally. Instead of asking which is worse, let’s consider the collective effect they have on kids, and what we need to change to improve it.