Postscript March 2013: I have co-written and published an academic paper on the theme of this blog. It's free to read: Click Here
Since the Routine Activities Theory (RAT) is a theory of how crime shifts and changes in relation to changes in society - and according to Felson and Boba (2010) the key to such changes is the technology of everyday life - then a significant amount of online activity and games console playing at home might be keeping people off the streets for significant periods every day and reducing the amount of hourly availability of victims and offenders in the offline world, while ensuring homes are occupied more. If it is, and yet that is not responsible for the currently unfathomable 15 year decline in violent crime, car crime and burglary in the Western world then routine activities alone may be nothing like as a good an explanation for high volume crime as its adherents think it is. Of course, the 15 year crime drop in the offline world may be taking place in a direct inverse relationship with online facilitated offending such as fraud, stalking, virus spreading, hacking and copyright theft etc - which RAT would explain. This appears to be an important issue with huge implications for criminology and crime reduction policy making.
Today many people routinely spend hours in cyberspace as part of their everyday lives. Could the huge popularity of the Internet and other interactive hi-technology environments, facilitated by mobile communications equipment and games consoles, be responsible for the 15-year fall in crime?
Marcus Felson's excellent and classic criminology book: "Crime and Everyday Life" is without doubt, and deservedly so, one of the best selling criminology texts of all time. Now in its fourth edition (Felson and Boba 2010), the book provides an explanation of, justification for and a toolkit to implement crime reduction initiatives using Felson's Routine Activities Theory (RAT).
What is RAT?
RAT is, according to Felson and Boba (2010), a "...theory of how crime changes in response to larger shifts in society. The key to such change is the technology of everyday life, which organizes where we are, what we do, and what happens to us. That technology governs how crime carves its niche into everyday life." According to Willison (2000): "This theory has its intellectual roots in the human ecology work of Amos Hawley, which recognises the importance of the timing of different activities by hour-of-day and day-of-week for understanding human society. This last point is central to routine activity theory, which addresses changes from moment to moment and hour to hour in relation to what people are doing, where they are, and the consequences of these as a result."
The unexplained fall in crime
Crime has been falling, pretty much across the board, in the UK and USA since 1995. And as yet there is no particularly compelling or well evidenced cause.
NetCrime: More Change in the Organisation and Disorganisation of Offending
With the advent and increasing popularity - indeed, necessity - of the Internet and the huge rise in mobile communications technology, we might have expected crime to rise dramatically from 1995 as a whole new environment called cyberspace opened up for people to exploit in criminal ways old and new. Felson's RAT (Felson and Boba 2010 p.111) certainly sees that it should be that way: "The age of speedy Internet communications provides new options for youths to break laws, often operating out of their homes. They can produce their own pornography. They can view pornography by others. They can sell themselves as prostitutes. They can make sexual liaisons with those of their own ages or well beyond their own They can send and/or receive threats via the Internet and buy or sell contraband goods. They can, at a young age, learn how to hack the computers of others or distribute computer harm in various ways. They can participate in cyber chat rooms to discuss all of this."
Is the RAT in the NET?
Strangely, Felson appears not to have considered that his own RAT would suggest that all this time spent online must equate to less time on the street leading to less potential offending time and a smaller population of available victims of violence and robbery.
Outside the X-Box
Last week as I walked through the high street in Nottingham in England at around 5pm, two teenagers of about 14 years of age stopped me in my tracks. They asked if I would go with them into a local store called "Game" and just stand there pretending to be their grandfather (grandfather!) so that they could exchange a new video game for one that was rated (18) - adult only. I felt some sympathy for them but let them know that as I was no relative of theirs that I would not help them out as it would be illegal.
That encounter got me thinking.
Two teenagers - full of the kind of spirit that can get a young man into trouble with the law - wanted nothing more than to sit at home and no doubt spend hours playing some violent and exciting interactive game. Could the rise in game playing of this kind on Playstations, X-Boxes, Nintendo. PCs and online be a major cause of what criminologists are saying is an unfathomable drop in crime? And if not then why not - since RAT would predict that if a substantial number of young people are not on the streets either as victims or offenders then overall high volume crime "opportunities" would diminish, resulting in an overall drop in high volume crime rates. Myself and my colleague Paul Hamilton were discussing this today. We have no idea yet whether what we might call the "game substitution hypothesis" is plausible. So we thought we would set out some ideas that support it as something possibly worthy of further exploration:
Research suggests some young people are spending many hours on the Internet or on games consoles.
Research has failed to establish that violent media is either a necessary or sufficient condition for causing crime.
Research suggests that computer games can be addictive (immersion and unreality factors) and playing can be compulsive.
Taking a Routine Activity Approach, it would seem that an increase in computer gaming might feasibly lead to a rise in the illicit market for stolen PC's and games consoles. But there might be fewer thieves to supply it if:
Fewer potential offenders are getting addicted to opiates and other drugs or misusing alcohol out of boredom because they have escaped boredom in the real world by entering a more exciting cyberspace to play and interact with others.
Potental offenders and victims are becoming gaming "addicts" and/or compulsively checking Facebook or other social networking sites.
The game players and other "netizens" are playing at home so (a) fewer potential offenders on the streets and fewer potential victims (b) houses are occupied for longer and so less susceptible to burglary.
Immersion and gaming prowess and reputation may be sufficient substitutes for the same things in the offline (real) world (some anomie issues to research here).
The Internet allows more people to work from home so teleworking may reduce the pool of "available" victims on the street and also ensure fewer homes are empty during the day.
Jeff Ferrell's Cultural Criminology paper on boredom does not examine this issue. Instead he focuses upon how boring modern life is caused by workplace and urban planning that forbids spontaneity. Spontaneity leads to friction with the criminal justice system. The "system" offers us places of entertainment such as shopping malls, cinema and night clubs - all to be used only in proscribed ways, which leads therefore to expressive offending or else boredom that is one cause of drug misuse leading to addiction.
But gaming is a manufactured entertainment virtual space. Ferrell's argument might explain why virtual vandalism is committed. Mathew Williams' excellent paper: Understanding King Punisher and his Order is a good example. But Ferrell does not consider how a manufactured environment - online or offline - might reduce crime.
Routine Activities Theory and the Crime [or Game] Substitution Hypotheses
Since the Routine Activities Theory (RAT) is a theory of how crime shifts and changes in relation to changes in society - and according to Felson and Boba (2010) the key to such changes is the technology of everyday life - then a significant amount of online activity and games console playing at home might be keeping people off the streets for significant periods every day and reducing the amount of hourly availability of victims and offenders in the offline world, while ensuring homes are occupied for more hours every day. If it is, and yet that is not responsible for the currently unfathomable 15 year decline in violent crime, car crime and burglary in the Western world then routine activities alone may be nothing like as a good an explanation for high volume crime as its adherents think it is. Of course, the 15 year crime drop in the offline world may be taking place in a direct inverse relationship with online offending such as fraud, stalking, virus spreading, hacking and copyright theft etc - which RAT would explain. This appears to be an important issue with huge implications for criminology and crime reduction policy making.
How might Game Substitution and Crime be Researched?
Very tentatively (back of an envelope stuff this afternoon) we thought researchers might:
Measure time spent gaming by groups that research predicts are at greater risk of becoming offenders.
Conduct ethnographic studies with young people to gauge whether, and if so to what extent, gaming is used as a substitute for risky activities in the offline (real) world. And do this in relation to both potential offending and victimisation.
Examine issues of offline and online peer status.
Examine (correlation) between console and game sales - and any data on playing time and type of games - with the general crime trend over the past 20 years.
Try to gauge what percentage of young people today have access to or own the hardware necessary to play video games.
A quick Google search reveals that a few other thinkers are making similar speculations:
We now need to research this issue to test the Crime Substitution Hypothesis.
Another thing that may have reduced crime, through people spending more time at home, is public smoking bans.
Postscript 9th February 2011
Last week I sent this blog to two academic friends who are experts in hi-tech/cybercrime: professors David Wall and Majid Yar. I spoke also with Professor Graham Farrell about it yesterday. All there kindly commented on the hypothesis. We are all of the tentative opinion that this seems like a rational hypothesis worthy of further research.
Wall, Yar and Farrell offered some ideas as to how the hypothesis might be tentatively explored. In our brief correspondence and conversations we agreed that the best way forward might be to examine lifestyle and crime surveys to gauge any changes over time between "going out behaviour" and "time spent indoors". We need to look at changes over the past 15 years or so in terms of time spent watching entertainment programming (TV; DVDS).
I would also propose that we need to distinguish between people entering cyberspace (gaming, Internet) indoors (at home) and those who are using public areas to do the same (libraries, cybercafés, gaming centres and, in particular, mobile telecoms.).