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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.



Moving Beyond #GamerGate

Good Luck #GamerGateSeveral of my game industry colleagues have written blogs and articles opining that now that the controversy is being reported by the mainstream press as rampant misogyny and hatred under the guise of campaigning for journalist ethics, #GamerGate is a dead issue.

If I may borrow from Mark Twain, the reports of #GamerGate’s death are greatly exaggerated. When I retweet an article about #GamerGate, I still get plenty of responses from zealous supporters asking me to look at articles and YouTube videos supporting their position that the issue, for them, really is about the ethics of game journalism. However, I think what is driving many of these gamers is that they feel they are being marginalized by a press that is unfairly labeling them as misogynists and will continue to fight back so that their voices will be heard.

Since I don’t think their campaign is going to subside any time soon, here is my unsolicited advice to supporters of the #GamerGate movement to make it a more positive one.

First, drop the #GamerGate hash tag from your tweets. The hash tag was first used by actor Adam Baldwin in response to former boyfriend Eron Gjoni’s very public character assassination of Gjoni’s ex-girlfriend, Zoe Quinn, a game developer whom Gjoni claimed cheated on him with several people, including game journalist Nathan Grayson. Although Grayson had never reviewed any of Quinn’s games and didn’t mention her in any article that he wrote after their relationship began, Quinn and her family were subjected to a harassment campaign that included doxxing, hacking attempts, and threats of rape and death.

While #GamerGate supporters say that their campaign is really about journalistic ethics, its origins are rooted in the rants of a jilted ex-lover about an incident that proved not to involve any actual violations of journalistic ethics. The original campaign against Quinn was more than unethical – it was hateful, immoral and criminal. Trolls and psychopaths have co-opted the #GamerGate tag, and for the rest of the world outside your movement, the term has become synonymous with misogyny and hate, not ethics. If your interest is truly in improving the ethics of game journalism, then adopt a different hash tag, such as #GameEthics, that isn’t burdened with such vile baggage.

Second, your campaign itself needs to be conducted in a much more ethical and professional manner. Currently, the campaign comes across as a witch-hunt in which an uncoordinated army of anonymous #GamerGate supporters zealously and publicly out journalists and others for any perceived violation of journalistic ethics. Sensational terms like “corruption”, “nepotism”, and “cronyism” are being over-used and misapplied. To those of us outside your movement, you appear to be a crazed mob that doesn’t have a coherent understanding of what it is ranting about.

Game publishers and journalists have long enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with each other in which there is an ongoing danger of conflicts of interest. So, the pursuit of ethics in game journalism is a worthy one; however, this pursuit needs to be handled professionally to have validity. Leaders in the #GamerGate movement should unite, rally around a single communication channel (such as a website), and assemble a panel of legitimate journalistic ethics experts whose identities are publicly known. This group might draft a code of ethics that game journalists could be encouraged to adopt, and #GamerGate supporters might report suspected violations of journalistic ethics to the panel for review and analysis. If any true ethic violations are determined, #GamerGate leadership should handle communication of such violation professionally, such as through a letter to the editor of the offending publication, while discouraging supporters from conducting their own individual and anonymous campaigns of harassment and public humiliation.

Third, if you think that game criticism is currently too biased towards a leftist ideology, resist the temptation to boycott websites or intimidate speakers. Your own members have complained about being insulted, marginalized and stereotyped; but attempts to fight fire with fire only makes your appear to be thin-skinned bullies who are escalating the situation. Instead, devote your energies to creating forums in which game criticism is done through the prism of other ideologies. Gaming is for everyone, and it is in everyone’s interest to encourage diversity, rather than attempting to drive out those who think look and think differently.

Finally, you should be campaigning against any harassment directed towards female journalists and developers. I know that many of you say that you are doing it now, but the effort needs to continue. #GamerGate began with many of its supporters conducting a misogynistic harassment campaign, and as long as women in the game industry are harassed in social media, you will be blamed. Your movement has a lot of bad history to overcome, and you need to work hard to let it be known that this horrendous behavior is antithetical to your goals.

You must take these steps if you want your goals to be taken seriously by the world you are trying to influence. If you don’t, your movement will never be respected and the term “gamer” will continue to be tainted by the ugly side of #GamerGate.