Victoria saw an 8.1 per cent increase in crime last year, largely driven by double digit percentage growth in theft, drug and weapons offences.
Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton has expressed concerns about a dramatic rise in youth offending, with disproportionately high reoffending rates being recorded amongst those under 18.
Mr Ashton believes that many young offenders are members of a”Grand Theft Auto generation” – engaging in crime inspired by violent media, especially video games.
Grand Theft Auto
Grand Theft Auto is a popular R-rated video game which prompts players to carry out violent missions such as car-jackings and armed robberies. The game has triggered considerable controversy over the years, with successive versions becoming more and more lifelike.
Police Link to Violent Crime
Police claim that many young offenders are displaying a propensity for “stylised violence”, which they believe is encouraged by Grand Theft Auto and other games.
For years, NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione expressed the view that knife crimes committed by young people was driven by the unique ability of video games to de-sensitise young users to violence. “How can it not affect you if you’re a young adolescent growing up in an era where to be violent is almost praiseworthy, where you engage in virtual crime on a daily basis,” he said.
But are his comments supported by science?
Police claims are generally driven by speculation that heavy exposure to fictional violence increases the propensity for imitation.
Supporting the purported link, a 2015 American Psychological Association study found that exposure to violent video games leads to “increases in aggressive behaviour, aggressive cognitions and aggressive affect, and decreases in pro-social behaviour, empathy and sensitivity to aggression.”
The study concluded that playing violent games is an independent risk factor leading to displays of aggression.
Based on the report, the APA adopted a new set of policy recommendations; including an update to video game rating systems, and called for further research into the effects of violent games.
Significantly, however, the report fell short of concluding that video game exposure leads to real-life violent crime.
Criticism of the Study
A group of 230 academics from universities around the world have signed an open letter criticising the APA’s link between violent video games and aggression.
The letter has criticised the study’s methodology – including the poor measure of “aggression” and lack of peer review – concluding that evidence supporting a link between games and aggression is weak, and labelling the study’s findings as sensationalist.
The open letter also pointed out that youth violence in the US and many other “gaming” countries is “at a 40-year low”, despite the growth in violent video games and media.
The first long-term study into the link between violent media and real-life violence found that these variables were not related.
The research, led by psychologist Christopher Ferguson, questioned the methodology of previous, short-term studies which used artificial measures of aggression – like blasting another player with a loud horn or making them eat chilli peppers – that do not reflect real-life violence.
Analysis in the Courtroom
In the 2011 case of Brown v EMA, the US Supreme Court was called upon to decide whether the sale of violent games to minors could be criminalised.
To determine that question, the Court had to balance the constitutional right to freedom of speech against public interest considerations, specifically the purported link between the games and real-life violence.
After reviewing hundreds of scientific studies, the Court concluded that there is insufficient evidence of any link between violent games and harmful effects on children.
Domestic Response to Police Claims
In response to Scipione and Ashton’s claims, the spokesperson for the Minister for Home affairs, Justice and Defence material, Jason Clare, affirmed that the government’s review of the purported link was inconclusive.
Former Australian Attorney General, Robert McClelland, also released a report finding no connection. The report pointed out that 92% of Australian households have at least one gaming device, making it virtually impossible to accurately assess the effect of gaming on criminality.
Many see the time and resources spent on assessing the purported link between games and crime to be a wasteful distraction from addressing proven risk factors such as poverty, lack of education and employment, substance abuse and mental health. As Ferguson states:
“Society has a limited amount of resources and attention to devote to the problem of reducing crime…This research may help society focus on issues that really matter and avoid devoting unnecessary resources to the pursuit of moral agendas with little practical value.”