Wednesday, March 08, 2006


Violence in Video Games:
How Much is Too Much?

State regulations on video game retail have gamers up in arms. Gamers—those who identify themselves by video game playing—are divided on the issue. Washington, Indiana, and Missouri have issued laws instituting fines upwards of $5,000 for retailers who sell violent or sexually graphic games to minors. Such laws have been spurred into place by such events as the Columbine shooting after which a proposed link between the shootings and video games was popularized by the media. Other violent events, such as a similar shooting in Minnesota, or the shooting of two policemen in Alabama, have been linked to video games by the media. Numerous studies, notably the oft-quoted 2000 study by Dr. Craig A. Anderson and Dr. Karen E. Dill in addition to a 2004 study by David Walsh, have been made on the subject, but results have yet to directly link video game violence to real life violence. However, despite a lack of conclusive data, politicians are cracking down on the ability of children to purchase video games, with heavy fines in place for those that would sell games deemed “inappropriate” to minors. To many, including the restrictions on the proliferation of video games is a violation of constitutional protection stating that no law shall be made “abridging the freedom of speech.” Others, like U.S. District Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh, Sr. in 2002, have ruled that video games have “no conveyance of ideas, expression or anything else that could possibly amount to speech” and thus enjoy no constitutional protection.
Laws currently in place in several states already restrict the purchase of video games by minors. In Michigan, for example, a law was passed in 2005, (Act No. 108 of the Public Act of 2005,) a retailer who sells games that are deemed “inappropriate to minors” (i.e. sexually explicit, violently graphic) to minors can be fined up to $5,000 for a first offense, $15,000 for a second offense, and upwards of $40,000 for further offenses. What’s more, anyone in charge of a retail establishment who allows a minor to play or even view such a game can find his or herself subject to a fine of $25,000 or 93 days in jail. By comparison, in the same state—Michigan—laws on selling tobacco (charged with a misdemeanor and $50 per offense) and alcohol ($500 fine and 90 days in jail) to minors. The video game industry is currently fighting state regulation of video games with its own regulatory committee, the Entertainment Software Association, in addition to the Video Software Dealers Association, and Michigan Retailer’s Association. The three groups have filed a suit against the governor responsible for the act, Governor Jennifer Granholm. Granholm has signed the retail-control law on video games and claimed that she had good reason for doing so. Granholm has made a written statement concerning the law, that “the graphic nature and wide availability of these games should disturb all of us, whether or not we are parents.”
The population of gamers appears greatly divided on the issue, judging from a tally of forum posts. The majority appears opposed to the act, supporting the retailer’s right to sell games to anyone. However, the minority supporting the act, roughly a fourth of the total posts to several forums concerning themselves with the issue, are more verbose on the subject.This is but one example of a law that has already been passed in several states. Illinois, Washington, Indiana, and Missouri have already enacted similar laws, and California may soon follow suite.
Opponents argue that states are choosing to ignore a rating system already in place for video games. Current and proposed state laws propose to judge video games as “suitable” or “unsuitable” for minors by means of state review boards, disregarding an existing rating system. The Entertainment Software Rating Board, (ESRB) an organization set in place to promote a sense of self-regulation in the video game industry has already been developed. The ESRB, established in 1994, is a self-regulatory body that “independently applies and enforces ratings, advertising guidelines, and online privacy principles adopted by the computer and video game industry.” (ESRB’s home page) The ESRB is known for its a rating system, and rates all video games submitted to them for review. With a system similar to the Movie rating system, games are rated as appropriate for different age ranges. Games are rated “E” for Everyone, “T” for Teen, “M” for Mature, “EC” for Early Childhood, and “AO” for Adults Only. According to the ESRB’s website, a 2004 study by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, 83% of parents surveyed agreed with the ESRB’s game ratings, while U. S. Senator Joseph Lieberman is quoted with calling the ESRB as the “best entertainment rating system” in the U.S. Despite such praise, there are problems with the ESRB regulations on games. As a private organization, it has no way to enforce its ratings. Thus the ESRB cannot prevent a retailer from selling a game rated “AO” or “Adults Only” to minors. Critics say that the ESRB is as best “a suggestion committee.” While ESRB ratings are not mandatory by any means, most of the major video game development companies utilize their system and proudly print ESRB ratings on their video game packaging. Manufacturers are also doing their part in encouraging the importance of the ESRB rating system by reminding reading out the rating of a game in television and internet commercials. Television commercials both display and voice the rating of a game at the ends of the commercial, and a subsidiary of the ESRB, the Advertising Review Council (ARC) monitors all advertising materials relating to video games.
“Why must all this be done?” one might ask. “Why is there such a commotion about video games?” Certainly there have been no cases of people beaten to death with Playstations and even fewer cases of people strangled with video game controller-cables. The question raised is content and the effects it has on developing minds. A 1998 study by Jane M. Healy notes that “frequent exposure to ‘mindless’ television or video games may idle and impoverish the development of the pre-frontal cortex, or that portion of the brain that is responsible for planning, organizing and sequencing behavior for self-control, moral judgment, and attention.” [Nash article] The main issue is the question of what effect continuous viewing of violence has on developing minds. In a press release by the American Psychological Association in 2000, it was found in two studies that “playing violent video games like Doom, Wolfenstein 3D or Mortal Kombat can increase a person's aggressive thoughts, feelings and behavior both in laboratory settings and in actual life.” A quote from the study by Dr. Craig A. Anderson and Dr. Karen E. Dill on the subject states “One study reveals that young men who are habitually aggressive may be especially vulnerable to the aggression-enhancing effects of repeated exposure to violent games.” More studies against video games, like a 2004 study done by David Walsh that states that “exposure to violent games increases physiological responses, aggressive thoughts, aggressive emotions, aggressive actions and exposure to violent video games decreases positive actions.”
However, a similar body of work exists for the positive effects of playing video games. In “What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy” (2003) James Gee states that video game players are instead active problem solvers, and that video games serve as mediums for active problem solving and help the brain to learn new ways to solve obstacles and challenges. Another study conducted at the University of Bologna in 2004 concluded that “owning videogames does not in fact seem to have negative effects on aggressive human behavior.” Perhaps what is most interesting is a 2004 report in The Journal of the American Medical Association suggested that if video games were connected to youth violence, then the rise in video game sales from $3.2 billion in 1995 to $7 billion in 2003 would have resulted in a subsequent rise in youth violence. Instead, the report states, youth violence is on the decline.

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