In today’s electronic world, the future of art and entertainment may not lie in films, or books of old, but in a rather new and emerging medium – video games. In the thirty-five years since the advent of the video game console, video games have turned into a formidable industry. Games can cost as much as some movies to produce, and the games earn the industry considerably more; the largest product debut in history was the release of a video game, taking in $170 million in its first twenty-four hours, and over $300 million in the first week (Hillis). People who play video games are an increasingly large percentage of the population (Crawford 16; Trautmann 2). One of the key attractions of video games is their ability to draw players into a world that they affect, instead of passively watching. Yet that attraction is also the reason video games are at the center of a massive dispute over whether the playing of those games with violent content cause violence. The debate is decades old and has increased in size and scope as the graphics have become more realistic and the popularity of video games have increased (Boyer). Dozens of books have been written, hundreds of studies published, and hundreds of thousands of invectives thrown by each side towards the other (Goldstein). Despite the extensive research, video games have not been proven to be harmful or to cause violence. The persistence of opponents in trying to pin society’s issues on video games is an unfair attempt to demonize a new media for issues that it has not caused.
The uproar over video games began with Exidy Software’s 1976 title Death Race. Based off the Stallone movie Death Race 2000, the arcade game had players take control of a car and try and run down “gremlins”, which on the black and white display looked like little more than stick figures. When a gremlin was killed, a little gravestone appeared- and this was enough for the game to be featured on 60 Minutes (Bordland & King). Not to be outdone, a seedy developer produced Custer’s Revenge, which had players take control of the ill-fated General as he raped Native American women for points (Gonzalez). 1981 saw the release of Castle Wolfenstein, a game where players ran around shooting Nazis and ghouls (Gonzalez). Not only was it violent, but it led to the genre known as “first person shooters”, or FPS. In FPS games, players experience game play through the eyes of a character – arguably making the killing more personal. In terms of violent video games, FPS are the equivalent of “most wanted” by critics- the games have been described as “murder simulators” (Grossman 3).
Next, Midway Games produced Mortal Kombat, a fighting game which features moves including “fatalities”, ripping out the spine of one’s foe (hence the ‘mortal’ bit in the title.) Much like how the film Gremlins spurred the introduction PG-13 rating, congressional pressure forced the video game industry to form the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) in 1993 to self-police video game content (Borland & King). But while these hearings were still going on, Id Software’s FPS Doom arrived on the scene. Surprisingly, the Congressional hearings which resulted in the ESRB never mentioned Doom (Borland & King), but the game rocketed into public attention when media sources, including Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, suggested that violent video games like Doom were what spurred two high school teens to kill twelve classmates at Columbine High School (Bartels & Crowder). Another frequent target of ire is the Grand Theft Auto series, in which players can choose to kill prostitutes and cops. But these obviously violent and mature video games are not the only games that have been targeted over the years; even Ms. Pac Man was supposed to have rape metaphors hidden in the game (Borland and King).
The video game website Gamespot describes the conflict as being broken down into two “tribes” (Gonzalez). The first tribe is certain that violent video games are harmful. Perhaps one of the most high-profile advocates in this group is the American attorney Jack Thompson. Starting out by decrying Howard Stern and his shock-jock tendencies, Thompson has since moved on to video games, first representing the parents of students killed in 1997’s Heath High School shooting. Since then, he has crusaded against the “cop killing” games of the Grand Theft Auto series, the antics of a boarding school protagonist in the game Bully, and other violent or mature video games (Benedetti). During the Beltway sniper attacks of 2002, Thompson proclaimed that the shooter Lee Boyd Malvo had prepared for the killings by playing the FPS Halo; more recently, the attorney incorrectly predicted that the Virginia Tech shooter had “trained” on the game Counter-Strike, only hours after the killings had occurred (Benedetti). Thompson’s assertion that violent video games like FPS chief among them, are used to train killers is a widespread belief among this first “tribe”. Another booster of this theory is David Grossman, a retired member of the United States military who has written several books on violence and the psychology behind it. Grossman asserts that most people have an aversion to violence, and that soldiers must have these natural tendencies broken down in order to be trained to kill on orders (Grossman 12). This is accomplished by the Army by using similar tactics to the mechanics in video games; for this reason, Grossman believes the children playing these “murder simulators” are being desensitized to violence (3).
In this tribe are activists and concerned citizens groups such as the Parents Television Council, The National Institute on Media and the Family, and many social or religious conservatives. In addition, the movement has allies in political legislations across the country. Perhaps the most prominent politician involved in the movement is Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-Connecticut), who boosted the 1993 congressional hearings. More than a decade later, Lieberman is still involved in raising parental awareness (Wright). Besides a general opposition to violence in video games and the media in general, some members of this tribe feel that the ESRB has not done its job in properly rating games. For example, the ESRB changed the rating of the video game Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion to ‘Mature’ from ‘Teen’ months after the game had become a best seller. Even worse, the ESRB had to change the rating of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas to ‘Adults Only’ after hackers discovered that the game’s developer Rockstar had left in code that allowed for the protagonist to engage in sex with his girlfriends (Boyer). As a result, Lieberman, as well as Senators Hillary Clinton, Tim Johnson, and Evan Bayh, sponsored the Family Entertainment Protection Act, which would have federally mandated the enforcement of the ESRB system, and the Truth in Video Game Ratings Act, which would require the ESRB to review a video game in its entirety to be certified (Boyer). Across the country, similar laws and actions have been taken by individuals or legislators, to limited success at present (GamePolitics). But their efforts do highlight important issues on censorship, the role of government in regulation, and whether video games are protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution.
The other tribe, advocating for the protection of video games, is a similarly motley coalition of advocacy groups, trade coalitions, and game developers. As attacks on video games have continued, the gaming industry and gamers themselves have banded together to oppose legislation. The Entertainment Consumers Association, or ECA, as well as the Video Game Voters Network both represent video game players. The game industry, in turn, is represented by organizations such as the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), Entertainment Software Association (ESA), and Entertainment Merchants Association (EMA). The ESA has even begun contributing funds to politicians. But unlike many larger interest groups, the web-raised demographic of gamers is remarkably grass-roots and quick to respond to perceived attacks. For example, Fox News broadcast a segment concerning the video game Mass Effect in which author Cooper Lawrence asserted that the game featured explicit sex scenes and frontal nudity, despite never playing the title herself (Schiesel). In response, hundreds of irate gamers administered a form of internet payback, sending the Amazon.com ranking of Ms. Lawrence’s book The Cult of Perfection to a dismal low and tagging the book with the keywords “ignorant”, “hack” and “hypocrisy” (Schiesel). A penitent Lawrence later apologized to the New York Times for her inaccurate statements.
All the sound and fury of both sides does not answer the question of whether violent video games in turn cause violence. As the adage goes, “Just ’cause you say it doesn’t make it true.” While there have been very few studies into the long-term effects of video game play, many studies focusing on short term effects have been published (Anderson & Dill 722). Some suggest that violent video games do have an impact on players, especially children. For example, researcher Steven Kirsh performed an experiment where children played either a violent video game, Mortal Kombat II, or a relatively nonviolent video game, NBA Jam, for thirteen minutes (Kirsh 1). Following the games, the children were read stories in which a same-sex peer caused a negative event to happen, but the intent of this peer was not defined. The test subjects were asked questions after the stories about the peer’s motivations, actions, and how the person should be punished, if at all (1). Kirsh’s results indicated that “children playing the violent video game responded more negatively” to the questions than did children playing the nonviolent game, and that this suggests playing violent video games leads to the “development of a short-term hostile attribution bias” (3).
Professor Craig Anderson has examined such studies and concluded that violent video game play fit into his “General Affective Aggression Model” or GAAM, which “predicts that exposure to violent video games will increase aggressive behavior in both the short term (e.g., laboratory aggression) and the long term (e.g., delinquency)” (Anderson & Dill 723). Anderson admits many experimental studies performed previously have yielded weak evidence to support the hypothesis because of a lack of consideration for lurking variables (a factor not tested for or eliminated which can skew results.) Thus, he and his colleagues designed and ran two studies of their own, each with different methodologies to complement each other and surmount limitations (723). The first study utilized a voluntary sample of undergraduates at a Midwestern university, and used a correlational design and questionnaire. The results found that the amount of time playing video games, the exposure to video game violence, and the aggressive personality of the participants all correlated positively with predicted aggressive behavior (736). The second study utilized the games Wolfenstein 3D as the test violent video game, with the nonviolent game Myst as a counter. After fifteen minutes of video game play on either of the games, participants were asked to complete a survey designed by Anderson and company, similar to that used in the first study. Another round had subjects play the games for fifteen minutes, then play a game measuring response time. The winner subjected the loser (in fact, there was no other player) to a sound blast, with the intensity and duration of the sound chosen by the player. The results suggested that both correlation investigations as well as objective laboratory measures showed that those who played violent video games behaved more aggressively against their opponents (736). In addition, students who reported playing more violent video games over a period of time also engaged in more violent behavior in the real world. Anderson took this as lending considerable strength to the hypothesis that exposure to violent video games may increase aggressive behavior (788). In addition, Anderson surmised that violent video games might have a greater effect on players than violent television or movies, a key point brought up by video game antagonists. Anderson writes that “when viewers are told to identify with a media aggressor, postviewing aggression is increased” (788). Since first person shooters have the players controlling the actions of this aggressor, the game’s impact is theoretically heightened. Secondly, according to several studies, aggressive behavior leads to later aggressive behavior. The active role of video games, then, might lead to the de-sensitization of players to the violent action and thus the likelihood that they will continue the act.
Whether or not this is true is disputed by other findings (Sherry 409), but amongst proponents of the violence theory it is often considered a given. Brad Bushman of Iowa State University, along with colleague Anderson, for example, wrote that “Research conducted over several decades has shown that violent media increase aggression. It is now time to move beyond the question of whether violent media increase aggression” (“Violent Video Games and Hostile Expectations” 1679). This theory has often been accepted in the larger media, as well, with the testimony for such a link sometimes coming straight from the shooter’s mouth. In Tennessee, teens William and Josh Buckner told police they were bored, so they decided to “ape” their favorite video game -Grand Theft Auto- and killed a nurse on the interstate with a .22 rifle (Bradley). Jack Thompson and others stated that GTA was also the motivation for Alabama youth Devin Moore to kill several police officers after he was brought in to a police station on suspicion of carjacking. Moore had no previous criminal record, and seemed to cooperate until he suddenly “snapped”, taking an officer’s weapon and shooting his way out. The story was picked up by outlets from The Reader’s Digest to 60 Minutes and widely discussed (Bradley).
Moore’s case also represents some of the pitfalls of the theory that video games cause violence. Moore was from a broken household, one of the reasons he spent so much time playing games in the first place (Bradley). But the first tribe instead concentrated upon his video game habits, much like Columbine and Virginia Tech. Not surprisingly for such a contentious issue, there are as many psychologists and scientists that believe video games do not cause violence or aggression as there are who argue the opposite. Many of the studies that demonstrate links have been attacked for their methodology as well as their scope (Jenkins). A chief criticism is that the laboratory tests have no basis in actual video game playing habits. Discussing television violence, researcher Jib Fowles noted the disparities between lab treatment and actual consumption of entertainment:At home, everything is known; here, everything is unknown, demanding attentiveness. At home, the lights are low, the child may be prone and comfortable, and viewing is nonchalant; here, the room is overlighted, the child is seated upright, and the viewing is concentrated. Most signally, at home television viewing is an entirely voluntary activity: The child is in front of the set because the child has elected to do so and in most instances has elected the content… In the behavioral laboratory, the child is compelled to watch and, worse, compelled to watch material not of the child’s choosing and probably not of the child’s liking… Furthermore, what the child views in a typical laboratory experiment will bear little resemblance to what the child views at home. The footage will comprise only a segment of a program and will feature only aggressive actions (Fowles 26).
Jumping off this idea, Jeff Goldstein of the University of Utrecht notes that “almost no studies of violent video games considered how and why people play them, or why people play at all… Laboratory experiments cannot tell us what the effects of playing video games are, because there is no sense in which participants in these studies ‘play'” (Goldstein). This assessment is mirrored in researcher Barrie Gunter’s overview of video game research, where Gunter states that “even with experimental studies, there are problems of validity that derive from the fact that they do not measure ‘real aggression’ but rather simulated or pretend aggression” (Gunter 109). Furthermore, Goldstein cites studies which suggest that not only can players judge and distinguish between violence depicted on the screen and real violence, but “when there are few cues to their unreality, bloody images lose their appeal” (Goldstein). In other words, both kids and adults note that in real life, there would be no swelling musical score to accompany their cartoonish killings with bodies flying in a Hollywood fashion (exaggerated physics, spectacular explosions, et al). Similarly, in a study of small children, Daniel Graybill and colleagues found no effects of video games on aggressive behavior, utilizing a button push system to reward or punish another child similar to the method used by Anderson (Graybill 8). Jonathan Freedman, a professor at University of Toronto’s Department of Psychology, evaluated all the studies published on video games and violence and found fewer than half of the scientific studies published discovered a causal connection between exposure to violent media and aggression or crime (Freedman 1).
Even if the studies suggesting a video game-violence link were not under scrutiny, plain statistics cast doubt on the hypothesis. First off, despite the increasing numbers of children (and adults) who play video games, there is no similar increase in crime. According to the Federal Bureau of Statistics, violent and property-related crime has been decreasing since 1993 (Ferris). While crime rates in all demographics have been decreasing in the past few decades, the decrease is in fact the most dramatic in children; the Department of Justice reported that crime levels for 14-17 year olds reached the lowest levels ever recorded in 2003. In 2004, the murder rate hit a forty-year low, the same year that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was the best-selling video game. To be fair, Anderson addresses this question in a paper addressing “myths” of the video game debate, saying that “Media violence is only one of many factors that contribute to societal violence and is certainly not the most important one” (“Media Violence and the American Public” 1). But based on the results provided, he is still overstating the effect of media violence. According to the same Surgeon General Report on Youth Violence Anderson quotes (1), there are twenty-seven risk factors rated higher than exposure to violent media, including poor academic performance, poor parental relations, socioeconomic status, and gender- being male puts one at a greater disposition to crime than does playing video games (Ferris; Satcher). (Anderson did follow up in correspondence and stated that incidence rates -the proportion of a group that reports a certain behavior- are more reliable than pure crime rates due to variables and that these rates have been increasing in recent years) (Fuchs).
The media at large is also disconnected from video games- they don’t seem to play them. Cooper Lawrence, when asked by game critic Geoff Keighley during the Mass Effect segment on Fox News if she had ever played the game she was lambasting, giggled and replied “no.” Colin Campbell of web site Next Generation notes that Fox’s problem is typical of a widening credibility gap in the media’s representation of video games:
This is, in fact, a failure on [certain elements of the media] because it’s not normal NOT to play games. Playing games is the thing regular people do. So when the networks start blustering about how it’s “interactivity” or “gore” or “porn” in games that does the damage, they look like idiots (Campbell 2).
Campbell continues by noting that no network would call for a ban of a book they dislike, or even a TV show, but this limit does not seem to apply to video games (2). Especially after Columbine, and even before, newspapers and news outlets blamed video games for school massacres, even as the FBI admitted the rarity of school shootings prohibits an sort of profile of a “typical” shooter (Sternheimer 14). This may in part illuminate why video games are receiving such a bad rap. University of Southern California professor and author Karen Sternheimer argues that politicians and other “moral crusaders” frequently create “folk devils”, individuals or groups defined as immoral or evil (15). Video games have become contemporary folk devils due to their supposed threat to children (17). These crusaders then pin the issues of society -school shootings, supposed introversion- on the games and ignore other factors, such as the shooter’s poor relationships with others or depression. Sternheimer and others also note that even if one can determine a causal relationship between video game play and violence, this does not imply causation (17). Rather, it may be that those who are more violent, due to upbringing or mental health, are simply also attracted to violent entertainment (Ferris). But in the case of video games, the exception proves the rule: if these games are causing aggression, why aren’t the bulk of the millions of American teens or adults playing ‘Halo’ going on rampages?
Despite what the media might say, scientific evidence for the video game is at best, causal in relationship and highly disputed; at worst, it is flat out contradictory, despite hundreds of studies (Freedman 1). The investment of politicians and moral soundboards in the rush to create this modern day folk devil means that the dispute will only continue for the foreseeable future. Video gamers banded together and sent a massive floral arrangement to Jack Thompson with a card encouraging an open and friendly dialogue between the lawyer and the video game community; Thompson rerouted the flowers to industry foes, telling them to “grind them up and smoke them if you like” (Tilley). But despite this opposition, it appears that much like the folk devils of the past, video games will inevitably win. It was only a few generations ago when uptight social conservatives were afraid the “black music” that was rock and roll would tear apart American society; today, the genre has mushroomed. While the stereotyping of video games is unfair and unfortunate, it is unlikely that these intransient people will be able to stop the continuing acceptance of video games in today’s culture.
2 Trautmann 2.
3 Crawford 16.
6 Borland and King.
7 Grossman 3.
8 Bartels and Crowder.
10 Grossman 12.
14 Anderson and Dill 722.
16 Anderson and Dill 723.
17 Anderson and Dill 736.
18 Anderson and Dill 788.
19 Sherry 409.
20 Bushman and Anderson 1679.
23 Fowles 26.
25 Gunter 109.
26 Graybill 8.
27 Freedman, 1.
29 Anderson and Bushman, “Media Violence and the American Public”.
31 Campbell 2.
32 Sternheimer 14.
33 Sternheimer 15.
34 Sternheimer 17.
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