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.
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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.