Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Violence in Video games

Violence in Video Games:
How Much is Too Much?

State regulation on the selling of video games to minors has gamers up in arms on both sides of the issue. Several states have issued laws instituting heavy fines for retailers who sell violent or sexually graphic games to children of extremely young age. Such laws have been spurred into place by such events as the Columbine shooting, as well as other violent events in which video games have been accused as being an impetus for violence. Numerous studies have been made on the subject, but results, though in possession of impressive numbers, fail to find a direct link between video game violence and real life violence. However, in an effort to curb what can be curbed in the realm of violence, politicians are cracking down the ability of people to purchase video games, with heavy fines in place for those that would sell games deemed “inappropriate” to minors. Gamers—those who identify themselves by their regular playing of video games—are divided on the issue. While many see the restrictions on purchasing as a violation of Constitutional rights, or at least tantamount to such, others support the state-enforced regulations on the subject.
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. Andrew Dietrich, who reviewed the case in his article “Industry Fights Law on Violent Video Games” in the October 2005 issue of Crain’s Detroit Business offers a comparison of the state’s laws on selling tobacco (charged with a misdemeanor and $50 per offense) and alcohol ($500 fine and 90 days in jail) to minors. The industry is currently fighting this issue with such representatives as the Entertainment Software Association, Video Software Dealers Association, and Michigan Retailer’s Association with a suit filed against the governor responsible for the act, Governor Jennifer Granholm. 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, suggesting, perhaps, that if a higher level of literacy is any sort of gauge of intelligence, that the more intelligent of the community support restrictions on buying the game.
This is 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. What is of great concern to many that are opposed to the laws is that the states are choosing to ignore the rating system already in place for video games. The Entertainment Software Rating Board, the ESRB, is an organization set in place to promote a sense of self-regulation in the videogame industry. One familiar with the Comic’s Code of 1954, may be aware of a similar parallel. In response to Dr. Fredric Wertham’s book The Seduction of the Innocent in 1940, the comic book industry, as a whole, instituted a Comics Code, to regulate and control what could be printed in comic books. Mollified, special interest groups and concerned citizens laid down their arms, and no government intervention was necessary. In the modern-day case of video games, state governments are paying no such heed to the current system in place. The ESRB, established in 1994, has created a rating system, and rates video games submitted for their perusal with a system similar to the Movie rating system. Games are rated “E” for Everyone, “T” for Teen, “M” for Mature, “EC” for Early Childhood, and “AO” for Adults Only. While ESRB ratings are not mandatory by any means, most of the major video game development companies utilize their system with the rating of a game clearly printed on game boxes. While retailers are not required to utilize ESRB ratings in selling games, they are encouraged to do so by the manufacturers themselves. Television commercials both display and voice the rating of a game at the ends of the commercial, in a manner similar to a side-effects disclaimer on many types of medicine. The state laws being put into place, however, plan to ignore the ESRB’s rating system and institute for them what they deem “graphically violent.” This would mean that rather than professionals that deal with games on a daily basis, the games would be judged by those who have no familiarity with the genre. A comparison brought up by many gamers has been that such a course of action would be as effectual as having the same people decide what is on display at a private art gallery.
“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. Armchair gamer psychologists babble on about hand-eye coordination increases while similarly seated people on the other side of the fence raise similar issues about the degradation of hand-eye coordination because of such games. 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 stated “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.”
To break in tone for a bit, I would have to say that this reminds me of an analogy of which one of my professors is very fond. Professor Peyser often illustrates to his classes the disjunction between “Going to College” and “Making Money.” His argument stemmed from mistaking association with actual casual relationships. He confirmed with a show of hands from the class that many of us were attending college so that we could make more money out in the real world. He then referenced the study with which we all had passing familiarity—that of people in given age groups, those that had graduated college made the most money. He pointed out that there is no evidence linking the two—that all the study showed was that people making more money happened to share in common the fact that they went to college. What was more likely linked to their greater income, Peyser stated, was the fact that they went to college, not what they gained there. What influenced their higher pay were the factors that lead to their attendance in college: i.e. prosperous background, desire to succeed, high intelligence. Thus, those that made more money later in life did so because of their desire to learn, or their ambition, or advantaged background, and college was an indicator of such, not a cause. I have to wonder if this is applicable in the situation of video games. Could it be that those that are already predisposed toward violence play video games, and that video games are not a cause, so much as an indicator? And, similar to the college=success scenario, not all those who play video games are predisposed to violence, just as all who go to college are not predisposed to high pay.
This is exactly the point brought up by Internet pundits Jerry Holkins and Michael Krahulik. Affectionately known as “Tycho” and “Gabe” (their pen names,) Holkins and Krahulik operate a webcomic known as “Penny Arcade.” However, the popularity of their comic, has made them highly influential names in the gamer community. Holkins maintains that the generation of a person that would go on a shooting spree lies not in video games, but in the raising of the child, a claim that Krahulik affirms. Another popular columnist/comic writer, Tim Buckley, of the comic “Ctrl-Alt-Del,” claims that blaming video games is a case of shifting blame from poor child-rearing so that parents need not take responsibility for their children’s actions. Holkins and Krahulik add that it is parents that should be monitoring a child’s video game purchases, not the State, and that those same parents should be responsible for monitoring those children as they play—to at least become familiar with the sort of games that a child is playing. Scott Kurtz, writer/artist of the webcomic “PvP” takes a different standpoint, drawing upon his childhood with games, and reaching the conclusion that video games are terrible for children. His specific position on the issue is that
“Video games are obsessive. They are violent. They cause children to become violent. They are time sinks. They suck every waking moment away from your kids. When you're kids aren't playing video games they are thinking about how great it's going to be when they get to play video games again. Video games will retard your child's social growth. Video games will stunt their social skills. If you don't make them do other things, video games will turn your children into mindless, unimaginative, illiterate boobs who have no real thing to call their own save the dominance they can reign over other children who are also playing video games.”
It comes across as rather harsh, especially from someone who has, on occasion, represented the gamer community in several conflicts. His perspective is interesting, especially when compared to Holkins and Krahulik. All three are adults who have spent youths alongside arcade machines, but Krahulik and Holkins are taking a wildly different stance from Kurtz. What is more surprising, or perhaps less, surprising, given the reader’s point of view, is that both Krahulik and Holkins are both recent fathers, and plan to raise their children with video games readily available. It seems that they plan to practice exactly what they preach, allowing their children access to games as they come of age. Both describe scenarios in which they will both review the games personally, then monitor their children as they play, relying not only on the ESRB ratings of games but hands-on-reviewing of the games to make sure they are appropriate for their children.
This last example illustrates, perhaps the position to which I find myself drawn. After reading through articles, rants, and posts on the subject, I find myself irrevocably drawn to one side. (I wonder if anyone can truly remain perfectly neutral on any subject.) While I do not feel any enmity toward state governments for enforcing their laws, I do not feel it is their responsibility. I find myself more and more persuaded that is really is the job of parents to monitor and regulate that in which their child engages. That, however, may be an influence from other communities of which I am a part. As the eldest of four children, I find myself often assuming a pseudo-parental perspective, protective of the younger ones. Because of this, I suppose, I am somewhat biased on the topic. I feel that children should be protected, and that that responsibility lies with parents.

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