The Politics Of Video Game Violence

Last May, a user of the social media discussion website Reddit posted a 2005 video of then-senator Hillary Clinton arguing for age regulations with violent video games. In the video, Mrs. Clinton argues that children playing violent and sexually explicit video games display “increased aggression.” The post sat at the top of the subreddit /r/Gaming, which boasts some 10 million subscribers, many of them mocking  the idea that playing violent games turns users into violent people by imagining other activities similar to playing violent games and becoming violent.

Clinton’s opponent in the 2016 Presidential Campaign, Donald Trump, said almost the same thing about video games as she did, but a decade later.

It is easy to see why video game players defend a favorite pastime, but why do so many others target video games when there has long been violent content in our other forms of entertainment — movies, television, sports, and even fairy tales?

The basic claim is that video games are more likely to affect people’s behavior than more passive forms of entertainment for three reasons:

  • žGames are immersive: when we play video games, we are not just watching violent acts, we commit them.
  • žGames are repetitive: while the violence within a movie or television show may last only a few minutes, the violence in video games is content.
  • žGames reward violent behavior: a violent criminal in a show will probably eventually get his comeuppance, but in video games give players points and achievements for committing violent acts.

Thus, opponents of violent video games say that such games train players to become violent.

It cannot be denied that players can become very aggressive while playing violent video games. According to a 2001 study reported in the journal Psychological Science, children who play violent video games experience an increase in both the physiological signs of aggression and aggressive behavior. These are findings that Mrs. Clinton alluded to in the video, leading her to state that “We need to treat violent video games the way we treat tobacco, alcohol, and pornography” while promoting the Family Entertainment Protection Act, legislation that would have criminalized the sale of games rated “Mature” or “Adults Only” to minors.

However, a relationship between virtual aggression and real-life aggression isn’t necessarily cause and effect. For example, it may be bullies in real life also enjoy being bullies in virtual life, so they play violent video games. But it was not the video games that caused the bullies to become violent in the first place. The American Psychological Association concluded in 2015 that while violent games increase aggression, there is a lack evidence to say it extended to criminality or delinquency. The results of other studies trying to decide if there is a causal link between violent video games and violent behavior is inconclusive.

So, if the relationship is uncertain, why are politicians so quick to blame video games, especially after a violent incident perpetrated by children such as with the Columbine High School shooting, after which the media revealed that the two killers played a lot of violent video games?

When a tragedy such as this occurs, the public looks to its leaders to take action and prevent such a thing from occurring again.  After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, the media reported that the shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, played violent video games, President Obama directed the Center for Disease Control to study the best ways to reduce gun violence and asked Congress to fund research into the effects that violent video games have on young minds.

Unfortunately, complex problems like gun violence rather have simple solutions.  And rarely do we agree on what the proper solution is.  Democrats often say that the solution to gun violence is to put restrictions on gun purchases, while Republicans will say that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” and arguing that a breakdown of the family and religious values is a cause of criminal behavior.

Yet violent video games seems to be a subject that both Democrats and Republicans can get behind. Beginning in 1992, the U.S Senate held hearings on video game violence and the corruption of society due to the popularity of violent video games like Mortal Kombat, causing the game industry to create the Entertainment Software Ratings Board to rate game content.

The establishment of the ESRB was a good thing for the game industry, but politicians have less noble reasons for advocating restrictions on violent video games. It gives them a cause (violence in our society) to talk about when campaigning, as well as an easy solution (banning violent video games). This makes the candidate look heroic and caring to many of their supporters and constituents.

Fortunately for game players, they do have an advocate on their side. In 2001, the United States Supreme Court struck down a California law that would have imposed a penalty to retailers for selling M-rated games.  There decision that effectively gave video games the same free speech rights as books, movies or television shows. It established that video games were a protected art form.

Of course, the battle is far from over, because as I wrote above, there are no easy answers to complex issues. But that hasn’t stopped politicians from trying to find easy answers, particularly in this election.



About David Mullich

I am a video game producer who has worked at Activision, Disney, Cyberdreams, EduWare, The 3DO Company and the Spin Master toy company. I am currently a game design and production consultant, a game design instructor at ArtCenter College of Design, and co-creator of the Boy Scouts of America Game Design Merit Badge. At the 2014 Gamification World Congress in Barcelona, I was rated the 14th ranking "Gamification Guru" in social media.

Posted on August 15, 2016, in Games and Society and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Darn, I was interested in reading that study (to figure out whom the experimental and control groups were & their sizes, as well as things like definitions of aggressive behaviour), but the article turned out to be paid. :/ I’m somewhat interested in impact that Video Games have on humans (albeit relatively casually), and in my experience the effect seem to be exactly opposite – the players are more social and, uhh, “docile” (I’m not sure about the proper word). Especially when compared with things like sports – to this day I remember ScrewAttack’s report from 2012 E3, when they were worried that Los Angeles team will win a local match and cause riots, like it did a few years earlier (though again it might be related to interest choice rather than cause-effect).

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