Game Violence Debate Returns to Washington

Yesterday, leaders of the video game industry met with the vice-president and congressional leaders to discuss violence in computer and video games in the wake of the Newtown massacre. On Tuesday, the vice-president is expected to produce a package of recommendations to the president for dealing with the issue of gun violence, and games are just one piece of the puzzle.

In a career largely occupied with covering emerging tech and interactive entertainment, I’ve studied, contemplated, and written extensively about games and violence. My thoughts on the subject don’t fit a nice binary split, but they’ve been published far and wide and are easily summarized.

  • Game violence does not “cause” real-world violence. The only truly comprehensive studies have shown no causality between committing an act of violence in a game and committing an act of violence in the real world.
  • Honestly, though: you don’t need big studies to prove this one. As the game industry exploded from nothing to everywhere in two decades, there was a radical drop in violent crime. If game violence led to real-world violence, the streets would be running with blood. If you want to trace correlations back to causes (which you shouldn’t do), then you could argue that video game violence reduces violent crime. You could even formulate a common-sense theory having to do with the power of catharsis. I wouldn’t argue with it, but it wouldn’t be proof.
  • Here’s the big red however, though: video game violence is part of the general background noise and cultural coarsening of modern society. It’s mere existence is not a terrible problem, but the hands-off, head-in-the-sand attitude of too many parents towards some hyper-violent series (yeah, I’m lookin’ at you, Call of Duty) is a problem. Kids shouldn’t be playing these games, and if your 12-year-old is playing the latest Call of Duty, you’ve made a serious error in judgement.
  • The race-to-the-bottom tendency of some game publishers is worthy of self-examination. It’s only been in the last four or five years or so that the mainstreaming of truly excessive and dramatically inexcusable violence has become commonplace. A genre that started with Doom troopers blasting pixelated aliens now has gamers mowing down unarmed, very realistic-looking civilians. I’ve written at length that games cannot play by the same rules as movies where violence is concerned. My reason is simple: the subjective perspective of the gamer is more intimately entwined with the onscreen actions than the objective perspective of a film-goer. In a movie, a character is a killer. In a game, you’re the killer.
  • The game industry has the single finest rating system in the country. It could use a bit of work (an “Adult” rating that means something and more descriptors), but in terms of ratings, warnings, content descriptors, and more, it far exceeds the same systems for music, film, and television.
  • Laying Newtown at the feet of the game industry in a country in moral free-fall and with a 24/7 IV drip of sex, violence, profanity,  moral depravity, and coarseness is just singling out one particularly juicy target among many. We need to uplift the culture and return to beauty and truth. Sometimes, the journey to that beauty and truth may indeed involve a trip through the dark, the ugly, and the violent, as everything from Dante to the Dark Knight series shows us. We can’t be afraid of that or turn away from it, but we need to keep it in context and the violence needs to be at the service of something greater. Games used to be content with violence in the context of heroics, with people striving towards some noble goal. Now the violence is just in the context of more violence, existing only for itself. At that point, it becomes little more than pornography.
  • There’s no real worry about the government “cracking down” on videogame content, because the Supreme Court already smacked that one down in Brown v. EMA. In the light of that decision, anything the Obama administration attempts by way of regulation will be mere posturing.
  • I do, however, believe game makers need to stop wrapping themselves in the first amendment and start thinking more responsibly about their content. These are major corporations selling products, and the products they sell should indeed be subject to scrutiny by the citizenry to determine if their content is healthy for our culture.
  • That scrutiny needs to start in the home.
About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • Tom

    Call of Duty, at least in single player, is far more nuanced than it gets credit for. Admiteddly, the multiplayer is a mostly blind-luck deathfest, but that’s by no means unique to Call of Duty.

    A far better target would be games like Grand Theft Auto or Saints’ Row, where the player is a criminal who can and is encouraged to kill legions of civilians. Even Skyrim, held up as more of a thinking man’s game, allows the player to kill civilians and join Satanic assassin cults (although, by the same token, the player has the option not to do these things).

  • Sus`

    Our sons put together a little presentation on why they should be allowed to play Grand Theft Auto. We heard them out and my husband decided to try it. Within two minutes of playing the game after the kids were in bed, I was disgusted. Then my husband put in some kind of trick code and suddenly there were game characters getting naked and having sex in our family room. The game went in the trash. We told our sons that they presented the issue well but we were not persuaded.

    I don’t know if these games cause violence or not, but I do know that not allowing my kids to play them will not hurt them.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    GTA and Saints Row are vile. I don’t think I’d agree that CoD is nuanced, but I have a particular beef against the series because it began as a solid shooter that I felt safe recommending to parents. The early games were rated T, and had good historical content. Things started getting uglier with WaW, and after that the wheels really came off. I thinks it’s just nasty and vicious now. That’s not to say there’s NOTHING in there that passes muster, just that in the aggregate, it’s a problem series, and one that fell very far.

  • Harry Piper

    I’m having a play through of Spec Ops: The Line at the moment. It’s a very dark and violent game, but I think it’s quite brilliant in the way that it makes clear how self-destructive and consuming the pursuit of violence is. Other critics have made the point that it’s kind of an attack on Call of Duty:Modern Warfare, as well as violent shooters in general.
    There has been the beginning of a debate about video-game violence in the game-o-sphere over the past couple of weeks – Rock Paper Shotgun has a couple of articles up on it, as does IGN and a few vloggers. Quite a few of the responses have been along the lines of – “It doesn’t hurt anyone/Free Speech!” – but there are a few people asking important questions about needless violence in gaming.

  • Tom

    The Treyarch games, (WaW, Black Ops, Black Ops II) are certainly gorier, and MW2 has “No Russian,” but even that level isn’t, or wasn’t intended to be, an excuse to kill people. In the larger series, it is

    SPOILER ALERT, IN CASE ANYBODY STILL WANTS TO PLAY MW2

    an indictment of possible government policies against terrorism and the ability to use agents as pawns, which backfires horribly and leads to World War III, and in fact turns out to be orchestrated by a despairing, grief-stricken general to reassert America’s power and allow the deaths of his men in the first game

    SPOILER ALERT FOR ANYONE WHO IS UNAWARE OF MODERN VIDEO GAMES

    in the nuclear blast (which is itself one of the most powerful scenes I can remember watching). “No Russian” was clearly designed to be a moment to make players think about their actions. Even though it didn’t work out that way in many cases, it certainly had that effect on me. In fact, throughout the series, the quotes that show up when the player dies are most often anti-war, or at least extremely cautious about going to war. By this standard, MW3 is actually the worst, as it is, despite not being overly violent, the least anti-war both in its quotes and its imagery. But hey, Infinity Ward didn’t make that one, thanks to a complicated royalty-firing-lawsuit situation between the heads of Infinity Ward and Activision [speaking of the heads of IW, one actually named his son John Galt West (I noticed in the credits for CoD 4), so I'd guess he's an objectivist and quite possibly a Paulite, which would make him most likely non-interventionist, which adds another layer to the story].

    And Black Ops II adds a measure of player choice, which really does elevate the experience, but that’s partway out of “moral implications” and into “gameplay” territory.

    And that’s all I have to say about that.

  • Marcus Hock

    I am 42 and a gamer. Over the past several years, games have grown increasingly more realistic and graphic in their violent content, and have, in my opinion, a great deal of misplaced “strong” language. The violence/video games debate is played out almost monthly in the video game magazines as well.
    I would agree that the industry has an excellent censoring and rating policy, and were I a parent, I would pay close attention to those ratings. Further, as much as I, as an adult, enjoy games like MW3 and Black Ops II, I would be very hesitant to let my children play them. At best I would put the parental controls on the games.
    All that being said, I was so pleased by most of the letters to the game magazines, from both parents and children. The ultimate responsibility for what children are exposed to rests with their parents. They are the ones paying for the games for the most part, and should have say over what their children are seeing. Just pulling a popular game off a shelf is no longer an option.
    Further, if a youngster attempts to purchase a game without an adult present, the store clerk (at least at Game Stop and Wal Mart) are supposed to ask for id and refuse the sale if the rating is more adult than the child’s age.
    Games, while not necessarily a true direct cause of societal violence, are just part of the casual way in which violence is treated in the entertainment industry. As consumers, parents who purchase these games for their children have a responsibility to monitor their play and to educate their children on what actually occurs within the context of the game.

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  • Patrick

    I stopped playing multiplayer games on my Xbox because the horrible language and violence associated to the games. I kept thinking, “man, do you not have parents what monitor what you do?” Seriously – I get depressed thinking about some of the kids I’ve interacted with when gaming.

    People wonder why our society is going to hell? Spend twenty minutes on a modern shooter on a console and it will become abundantly clear.

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  • victor

    I tend to agree with you. The chief requirement for me to play a game is that I have to be able to play it within earshot of my kids, and for that reason most modern shooters are ruled out for me (that and FPS tend to make me very queasy). Is all the cursing really necessary? And it’s not even good cursing. It’s like when a 13-year-old first learns to swear: take a short list of “bad” words and throw them into the conversation at random to appear edgy.

  • Mr. Patton

    I guess “Bowling for Columbine” fell on deaf ears if this is still being discussed as an issue to our violent culture here in the U.S.A..

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    Considering that Bowling for Columbine was a mendacious piece of propaganda by lying zealot, I certainly hope it fell on deaf ears. Lies don’t get us anywhere, only Truth and reason.

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  • Mr. Patton

    I see you used the word “propaganda”. It would be refreshing if you could qualify that.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    Michael Moore is not a documentarian. He’s a propagandist, as in someone who manipulates data to present one side of a story in order to shape opinion. This isn’t up for debate. He’s the Leni Riefenstahl of modern leftism. He’d be a joke if the ignorant didn’t take him seriously.

  • Metro

    Shooter games (realistic simulations) are used to condition US military recruits to overcome the social conditioning that prevents them from killing people without hesitation. There are therapies based on breaking down phobias or barriers by repeated exposures/simulations. Untold wealth is spent on advertising – based on research which proves repeated exposure to an experience influences behavior.
    The real issue here is whether children (who are setting basic cognitive patterns) should undergo intense training to overcome the hesitation to kill humans, while they are still developing.

  • Kristen inDallas

    I tend to avoid the gratuitously violents games, though I know when we’re dealing with online multi-player games, stuff that starts out reasonable can go down hill pretty quick. For me the key is taking a close look at what server you (or your child is playing on.) Several games include options on server types, back in the old WoW days there were anything-goes servers, some that restricted where fighting could occur (NPCs or duels only), some language restricted. If a kid is playing any game online with others the community they’re playing in should be monitered just as much as the content of the game. The same rules that apply to their after-school friend group, should also apply to their gaming group, to the extent possible.

  • David Lewis

    The question is not if violent games and other violent entertainment always results in the people making use of that entertainment violent–if that were true then the game designers would kill each other before publishign the final product. The question is what does it do to people balanced on the edge of sanity.

    According to a documentery on Frontline (PBS) the number of state mental hospital beds, in proportion to the entire population of the country, dropped 95% from 1955 to 1995. There used to be a state hospital in Newtown with 4,000 patients; it closed in 1995. The idea that the discovery of thorazine emptied the hospitals is false, such drugs appear to be a quick fix with very bad long term effects and the cure rates for schizophrenia did not improve after it was introduced. It makes people sick, they stop taking it, and become more agitated than they were before. Given that there are thousands of people in the general population who used to would have been institutionalized, what does first person violent video games do to them?

    While the state hospitals were full, mass shootings were unheard of. The mid-sixties were when deinstitutionalizion began. The late sixties were when guns were regulated in real way (other than machine guns, where were sort of regulated in the mid 1930′s). Up until 1968 anyone could buy semi-auto high-capacity war surplus guns via mail order for $20. From 1920 to 1935 one could buy a full auto tommy gun with a hundred round magazine via mail order. The point is that when anyone could easily get anything, there really were no mass shootings. Once deinstitutionaliztion took hold, mass shootings started, even though the gun laws tightened up.

    This isn’t to start a debate what gun laws ought to be, but the point is that there is something else going on here besides just guns. Given that niether the largetst mass murder of people in the US nor the largest mass murder of school children in the US involved guns, that something needs to be addressed.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    While I don’t think a steady stream of hyperviolent shooters is a good thing for the young, please don’t pad your argument with pseudo-scientific nonsense gleaned from Dave Grossman (which is who “the army uses shooters to break down inhibitions” jive comes from). Grossman just makes stuff up and pretends it’s SCIENCE!(TM) because he’s got some extra letters in his name.

  • victor

    Oh, never mind. It turns out that violent video games are all just a conspiracy of demons coding back and forth to each other anyway, and that Ratchet and Clank is the worst of the lot.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    I always had my doubts about that Ratchet. And Clank? Soooo gay.

  • Mr. Patton

    Mendacious logic bordering on idiocy by demonizing the person and not the content, classic.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    I’ll try to use smaller words this time: Michael Moore IS his content. His work is opinion. It is not fact. He has been proven to distort meaning by editing. He is dishonest. He is a demagogue. I don’t believe I’m actually having a debate with a sentient human being who believes a Michael Moore movie qualifies as some kind of evidence or argument, and not as the video equivalent of a bag person yelling at people walking by. Go ahead a Google it for yourself. I’m done with this stupid digression.

  • Mr. Two Cents

    Jesus said,”He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.” And that is exactly what we are doing: “living by the sword.” Mind you, it’s not because we may own a sword. (After all, Jesus knew that Peter had that thing from the very beginning-and I wonder if he really was the only disciple in possession of one). It’s because we have turned this tool of defense into a toy for entertainment. And in doing so we are enabling the weaker-minded individuals of our society to use the tool for unimaginable horror. Only it’s not unimaginable anymore; and, believe me, that imagination wasn’t created by the gun.

  • Jmac

    Man, you said exactly what I came here to say. I’m an RPG guy in general, so shooters never did much for me, but Spec Ops was amazing. Whatever there is to be said about violence in video games, Spec Ops was the most damning take on modern shooters I’ve seen. When even the loading screen calls you out as a terrible person, you tend to stop liking shooting things.

  • http://Facebook.com Kenneth Hendricks

    Game violence should be aloud. Sutch as saints row and grand theft auto. Still the gamers should still remember that the world does not need the people that sit at home, and play these games all day. sure a couple hours of games of this is ok, but if you just sit at home and play these games all day. your expendible to the rest of us. I now this because I used to play games on weekends. from the time i got up till the time i went to bed. thats when i realized that if i want to be a soldier a videos game is not gonna help me save someones life. Sure a call of duty/halo game you get into cover you reheal or you get a health pack and your instantly healed. in real life you get shot it can effect you for the rest of your life. a video game is not gonna save you when your not paying taxes or the rent. im thirteen and ive realized. theres people out there are complete nirds and are homeless because of this. corporations that make video games dont care about you they care about there money. saints row is an ok game but they still need to make a good cause in some games. not just because they piss you off you go and blow there head off and take there territory. if your in real life you dont just win against the government. ive been arrested before and there is no one thats just gonna go beat the crap out of the cops and get away with it. just remember and dont hate.

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