Video game violence and attendant controversies
Controversies surrounding the negative influences of video games are nearly as old as the medium itself. In 1964, Marshall McLuhan, a noted media theorist, suggested in his book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, that "[t]he games people play reveal a great deal about them. " This was built upon in the early 1980s in an anti-video-game crusade spearheaded by the former Long Island PTA president, Ronnie Lamm, who spoke about her cause on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour in December 1982. The same year, Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, had suggested that games had no merit and offered little in the way of anything constructive to young people. Despite early general claims of the negative effects of video games, however, effects of these concerns were relatively minor prior to the early 1990s.
Discussion of the impact of violence in video games came as early as 1976's Death Race arcade game (a game with black and white graphics which involved running over screaming zombies). In the 1980s titles such as Exidy's Chiller (1986), Namco's Splatterhouse (1987) and Midway's NARC (1988) raised concerns about video game violence in the arcade. Home games such as Palace's Barbarian (1987) featured the ability to decapitate opponents. It was not until graphic capabilities increased and a wave of new ultra-violent titles were released in the early 1990s that the mainstream news began to pay significant attention to the phenomenon. In 1992, with Midway's release of the first Mortal Kombat video game, and then in 1993 with id's Doom, genuine controversy was first ignited as the wide and growing popularity of violent video games came into direct conflict with the moral and religious ethics of concerned citizens. Protests and game-bannings followed the publicizing of these conflicts, and controversies would erupt periodically throughout the 1990s with the releases of such games as Dreamweb (1992), Wolfenstein 3D (1992), Mortal Kombat II (1993), Phantasmagoria (1995), Duke Nukem 3D (1996), Blood (1997), Grand Theft Auto (1997), Carmageddon (1997), Postal (1997), Mortal Kombat 3 (1997), Carmageddon II: Carpocalypse Now (1998), Blood II: The Chosen (1998), Grand Theft Auto 2 (1999), and Requiem: Avenging Angel (1999) among others.
In April 1999, the fears of the media and violence-watch groups were legitimated in their eyes as investigations into the lives of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the shooters in the Columbine High School massacre, revealed that they had been fans of the video game, Doom, and had even created levels for it today dubbed "the Harris levels". A great deal of discussion of violence in video games followed this event with strong arguments made on both sides, and research into the phenomenon which had begun during the 1980s received renewed support and interest.
In December 2001, Surgeon General David Satcher, led a study on violence in youth and determined that while the impact of video games on violent behavior has yet to be determined, "findings suggest that media violence has a relatively small impact on violence," and that "meta-analysis [had demonstrated that] the overall effect size for both randomized and correlational studies was small for physical aggression and moderate for aggressive thinking."
Despite this, the controversies and debate have persisted, and this has been the catalyst for the emergence of the non-violent video game genre. Non-violent video games are defined in the negative by a Modus tollendo ponens disjunctive argument. In other words, in order to recognize a non-violent game, an identifier must recognize the violent game as a distinct class. This has led to a degree of ambiguity in the term as it relies upon a definition of violence which for different identifiers may mean different things. In general, violence may be placed into at least three distinct categories:
- Totally non-violent games – Games in which absolutely no violence occurs. This category contains games characterized by lack of the death of characters, lack of sudden noise or movement, and often lack of traditional conflict. (e.g., Below the Root or Sudoku Gridmaster)
- Games in which the player acts non-violently – Games where violence occurs to the character-player as a result of environmental hazards or enemies but the character-player's reaction is to run away or otherwise distance himself from the violence.
- Games with environmental hazards only – Games lacking enemies, but containing a potentially violent environment (E.g. Alleyway, or Roller Coaster)
- Games with enemies – Games with violent enemies which the player-character must avoid (E.g. the Eggerland series)
- Games in which the player acts non-violently to other sentient beings – Games where a player acts violently against robots or other non-living non-sentient enemies (E.g. Descent)
The majority of these games have not been scientifically tested to see whether children learn the skills the games claim to teach.In another study performed in Chile, educational video games were put into some first and second grade classrooms. Children who had the games in their classroom showed more progress in math, reading comprehension, and spelling than the children who did not use games in their classrooms.
The history of video game development shares approximate contemporaneity with media violence research in general. In the early 1960, studies were conducted on the effects of violence in cartoons, and throughout the 1970s and 1980s a number of studies were conducted on how televised violence influenced viewers (especially younger viewers). The focus of many of these studies was on the effects of exposure of children to violence, and these studies frequently employed the social learning theory framework developed by Albert Bandura to explore violent behavioral modeling.
Surgeon General David Satcher
has conducted research in the field of video game violence and has concluded that "findings suggest that media violence has a relatively small impact on [youth] violence."
With advancements in video technology and the rise of video games containing graphic violence in the late 1980s and early 1990s, media violence research shifted to a great degree from televised violence to video game violence. Although under current debate, a number of researchers have claimed that violent games may cause more intense feelings of aggression than nonviolent games, and may trigger feelings of anger and hostility. Theoretical explanations for these types of effects have been explained in myriad theories including social cognitive theory, excitation transfer theory, priming effect and the General Aggression Model. However recent scholarship has suggested that social cognitive theories of aggression are outdated and should be retired.
One difference between video games and television which nearly all media violence studies recognize is that video games are primarily interactive while television is primarily passive in nature. Video game players identify with the character they control in the video games and there have been suggestions that the interactivity available in violent video games narrows the gap between the theory and practice of youth violence in a manner that goes beyond the effects of televised violence. Acknowledgment of the fact that, for better or worse, video games are likely to remain a part of modern society has led to a brace of comparative studies between violent games and non-violent games. As technology has advanced, such studies have adapted to include the effects of violent games and non-violent games in new media methods such as immersive virtual reality simulations.
Results have varied, with some research indicating correlation between violence in video games and violence in players of the games, and other research indicating minimal if any relationship. Despite the lack of solid conclusion on the issue, the suggestion that violent games cause youth violence together with the clear popularity of violent video game genres such as the first-person shooter have led some game designers to publish non-violent alternatives.
Lawsuits and legislation
As research supporting the view that video game violence leads to youth violence has been produced, there have been a number of lawsuits initiated by victims to gain compensation for loss alleged to have been caused by video-game-related violence. Similarly, in the US Congress and the legislatures of states and other countries, a number of legislative actions have been taken to mandate rating systems and to curb the distribution of violent video games. At times, individual games considered too violent have been censored or banned in such countries as Australia, Greece, etc.
Former attorney Jack Thompson
has filed lawsuits against the makers of violent games, alleging the violent content causes real-world violence.
In 1997, Christian conservative activist and (now former) attorney Jack Thompson brought suit against Atari, Nintendo, Sega, and Sony Computer Entertainment on behalf of the victims of Heath High School shooting in James v. Meow Media. The suit was dismissed in 2000, absolving the companies of responsibility for the shooter's actions based on a lack of remedy under Kentucky tort law. In 2002, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal, and in 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari, refusing to review the case because it was not dismissed on 1st Amendment grounds.
In 2000, the County Council for St. Louis, Missouri enacted Ordinance 20,193 that barred minors from purchasing, renting, or playing violent video games deemed to contain any visual depiction or representation of realistic injury to a human or a "human-like being" that appealed to minors' "morbid interest in violence." This ordinance was challenged in 2001 by the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA) as violative of freedom of expression as guaranteed by the first amendment. The IDSA cited the 7th Circuit case of American Amusement Machine Association v. Kendrick as precedent suggesting that video game content was a form of freedom of expression, however in 2002 the Eastern District Court of Missouri ultimately issued the controversial ruling that "video games are not a form of expression protected by the First Amendment" in Interactive Digital Software Association v. St. Louis County.
In the aftermath of the Columbine High School massacre, a $5 billion lawsuit was filed in 2001 against a number of video game companies and id Software, the makers of the purportedly violent video game, Doom by victims of the tragedy. Also named in the suit were Acclaim Entertainment, Activision, Capcom, Eidos Interactive, GT Interactive Software, Interplay Entertainment, Nintendo, Sony Computer Entertainment, Square Co., Midway Games, Apogee Software, Atari Corporation, Meow Media, and Sega. Violent video games mentioned by name included Doom, Quake, Redneck Rampage, and Duke Nukem. The suit was dismissed by Judge Babcock in March 2002 in a ruling suggesting that a decision against the game makers would have a chilling effect on free speech. Babcock noted that "it is manifest that there is social utility in expressive and imaginative forms of entertainment, even if they contain violence."
In 2003, Washington State enacted a statute banning the sale or rental to minors of video games containing "aggressive conflict in which the player kill, injures, or otherwise causes physical harm to a human form in the game who is depicted by dress or other recognizable symbols as a public law enforcement officer." In 2004, this statute was subsequently declared an unconstitutional violation of the first amendment right to free speech in the Federal District Court case of Video Software Dealers Ass'n v. Maleng.
In 2005, Jack Thompson brought suit against Sony Computer Entertainment and Grand Theft Auto in representation of the victims of the Devin Moore shooting incident. On 7 November 2005, Thompson withdrew from Strickland v. Sony, stating, "It was my idea [to leave the case]." He was quick to mention that the case would probably do well with or without his presence. This decision followed scrutiny from Judge James Moore, however Thompson claimed he received no pressure to withdraw. At the same time, Judge James Moore had taken the motion to revoke Thompson's license under advisement. Jack Thompson appeared in court to defend his pro hac vice right to practice law in Alabama, following accusations that he violated legal ethics. Shortly thereafter, the case was dismissed and Thompson's license was revoked following a denial of his pro hac vice standing by Judge Moore who noted that "Mr. Thompson's actions before this Court suggest that he is unable to conduct himself in a manner befitting practice in this state." In March 2006, the Alabama Supreme Court upheld Judge Moore's ruling against the dismissal of the case.
In 2005, California State Senator, Leland Yee introduced California Assembly Bills 1792 & 1793 which barred ultra-violent video games and mandated the application of ESRB ratings for video games. Yee, a former child psychologist has publicly criticized such games as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Manhunt 2, and opposes the U.S. Army's Global Gaming League. Both of these bills were passed by the assembly and signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in October 2005. By December 2005, both bills had been struck down in court by Judge Ronald Whyte as unconstitutional, thereby preventing either from going into effect on 1 January 2006. Similar bills were subsequently filed in such states as Michigan and Illinois, but to date all have been ruled to be unconstitutional.
In 2005, in reaction to such controversial games as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Senator Hillary Clinton along with Senators Joe Lieberman and Evan Bayh, introduced the Family Entertainment Protection Act (S.2126), intended to protect children from inappropriate content found in video games by imposing a federal mandate for inclusion of ESRB ratings. All three senators have actively sought restrictions on video game content with Sen. Lieberman denouncing the violence contained in video games and attempting to regulate sales of violent video games to minors, arguing that games should have to be labeled based upon age-appropriateness. Regarding Grand Theft Auto, Lieberman has stated, "The player is rewarded for attacking a woman, pushing her to the ground, kicking her repeatedly and then ultimately killing her, shooting her over and over again. I call on the entertainment companies—they've got a right to do that, but they have a responsibility not to do it if we want to raise the next generation of our sons to treat women with respect."
In June 2006, the Louisiana case of Entertainment Software Association v. Foti struck down a state statute that sought to bar minors from purchasing video games with violent content. The statute was declared an unconstitutional violation of the 1st Amendment. Amici filing briefs included Jack Thompson.
On 27 September 2006, Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) introduced the United States Truth in Video Game Rating Act (S.3935). The act would require the ESRB to have access to the full content of and hands-on time with the games it was to rate, rather than simply relying on the video demonstrations submitted by developers and publishers. Two days later, Congressman Fred Upton introduced the Video Game Decency Act (H.R.6120) to the House.
Degrees of violence
Video game rating boards exist in a number of countries, typically placing restrictions (suggested or under force of law) for content that is violent or sexual in nature. About 5% of games fall into a category rated "mature" and recommended to those 17 years old and older. Those games account for about a quarter of all video game sales. Gamers seeking violence find themselves increasingly age restricted as identified violence level increases. This means that non-violent games, which are the least restricted, are available to all players at any age. This moral or legislative public policy against violence has the indirect effect of encouraging players of all ages and especially younger players to play non-violent games, however it also produces something of a forbidden fruit effect. For this and other reasons, the effectiveness of rating systems such as the ESRB to actually curb violent gameplay in youth gaming has been characterized as futile.
Table of violence ratings