Let’s talk about violent video games!
First off I want to say that this isn’t written by me, I saw it on IGN’s website and it explained perfectly what I’ve wanted to say for the past month or so, I’ve just not been able to write it properly! It’s quite long, but well worth the time! All credit to Casey Lynch from IGN, Original post is here.
On December 14, 2012, a twenty year-old gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and shot 20 children and 6 adult staff dead.
Television and print media wasted no time laboring to connect the shooting to video games. The National Rifle Association implicated the video game industry, calling it a “callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people”, and a small nearby town of Southington, CT, was almost ready to host a modern day book-burning.
Talking about acts of violence – and the violent games and entertainment frequently blamed for them – can be a terribly complicated affair. But that doesn’t mean we must do it terribly.
Let’s talk about violence and games then, with the zest and gusto worthy of our convictions. In the spirit of opening up a conversation, here’s a primer for talking about violence in video games.
Understanding the Objections
These days, many video games are violent, some of them excessively so. You don’t have to look far for examples. This wasn’t always the case, which factors into most of the objections against the pervasiveness of violence in video games. For the sake of clarity, let’s look at two prevailing criticisms against video game violence with the expressed purpose of starting the discussion.
“Objection #1: Video games are for children.”
For decades, generations of games were clearly created for and marketed at kids, and many still are today. Hell, I was one of those kids. Mario, Sonic and Zelda, these weren’t games adults played or cared for, not like we kids did. This was the stuff of our dreams and holiday wish lists. It’s not surprising that most games in the ’80s and ’90s were played by young children and tweens, much more so than by adults.
It makes sense by extension that the non-gaming adult community at large – people who did not grow up playing video games, subscribing to Nintendo Power or reading sites like 1Up or IGN – maintain the perception that video games are still very much the hobby of the young and impressionable, even now.
In reality, things couldn’t be more different today.
A 2011 study called The Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry notes the average gamer today is 37 years old, 82 percent of gamers are adults, and 72 percent of American households now play video games. It also states that 42 percent of gamers are women, with women 18 and older making up a third of the gaming population. What does this all mean? The kids who grew up on the games of the ’80s are still playing today, more than the kids.
In 2013, video games are ubiquitous. Tens of millions of people of all ages and persuasions play them every day, on home consoles, on phones and tablets, on computers and more. Games are specifically made for separate audience demographics, just like movies, books, television and other forms of media. Some are made for kids, some for teens, and some specifically and only for adults.
Distinctions between games for adults and those for kids are fairly clear these days, thanks to the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB). Formed in 1994, the ESRB rates all video games as a guide for parents similar to the way movies are rated by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Games are rated ranging from E for Everyone and T for Teen to M for Mature, 17+.
There is a fundamental misunderstanding that games are only for children. This needs to change for the ‘violence in games’ dialogue to advance.
“Objection #2: Violent video games are “worse” than other forms of violent media.”
he logic of this criticism goes something like this: the vicarious interaction of watching a soldier shoot an enemy in a movie or reading about it in a book isn’t as “bad” as the same interaction in a video game because in a game the player is acting as the soldier shooting the enemy. Hence, video games are “worse” than movies.
This raises the question: worse for who?
Most research around the games vs. movies subject is done so almost entirely in relation to children. We’ve already established that some games aren’t for kids. This objection then has more to do with the “who” than the “what”.
Let’s take video games out of the equation for a moment.
Were experts to conduct a study to measure the effects of ultra-violent movies on children, I imagine evidence would conclude that most children shouldn’t watch violent movies without very serious parental guidance and consideration, and even then, I have to believe it wouldn’t be recommended. Take the Evil Dead trailer below as an example – WARNING: it’s EXTREMELY GRAPHIC AND DISTURBING. It’s worth noting that this video is just as graphic as any game, and it’s available for anyone of any age to view right now on YouTube.
The real issue is this: some kids see these movies anyway, just like many kids play M-rated, violent games. And no one can really do anything about it.
In 2012, an estimated 213.4 million retail boxed video games were sold in the US (down from 292.2 in 2011). Five of the top ten best-selling video games are violent, including Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, Halo 4, and Assassin’s Creed III, and are rated M for Mature, and not for players under the age of 17. How many of those were bought by parents for their children, or were played by under-17 year-old girls and boys with the full consent of their parents?
Observing and enforcing the differences between games for children and games for adults is at the core of the issue. This is a part of the social contract we enter when we choose to recognize the distinctions between media for kids and media for adults.
This is the crux of this discussion, not changing, muting, or blocking the content of the media itself. And hosting a neo-book burning is hardly the answer.
General censorship is a related but separate topic altogether.
Understanding the Bigger Picture
If we remove children from the conversation and we simply talk about violent entertainment, we begin going down a very different road. Should violent games exist at all? Should violent movies like Evil Dead get made and released? What if we switch topics from violence to sex? Should housewives around the country be reading Fifty Shades of Grey? Should everyone everywhere have free internet pornography at their fingertips? How about just access? You can see how this conversation suddenly becomes much larger and incredibly personal.
In the end, books are not bad or evil any more than movies or games are. They are a medium, and only as potent as the context with which they’re loaded. But they do say something about us as a people. Our interest in violent entertainment may be a part of a larger statement about our insatiable appetites for the things we know aren’t good for us but can’t seem to quit. But as consenting adults and citizens, who’s to say I shouldn’t be able to play a game where I can stab people in the neck any more than I can watch pornography, read a political subversive website or wolf down a four-patty animal style cheeseburger from In ‘N Out Burger?
Should there be limits? And who decides them?
Moralizing about the indulgences of a society usually ends where the taste for our own vices begin. One man’s sin is another man’s way of life. This is why censorship is such a controversial topic, and why burning violent games instead of trying to understand them does nothing to further the discussion.
Where do we go from here?
Why are so many kids playing violent video games?
Parents are allowing it, either by direct consent, ignorance, or some combination of the two. Being a parent is tough, thankless work sometimes, single, married, with help, or otherwise. Keeping up with grocery shopping, laundry, homework, sports and activities, chores and bills, who has time to sit down with their daughters and sons to see what they’re playing? You do, Moms. And you do, Dads.
No matter how diligent we remain, we cannot control the behavior of other kids and other parents. Some households will clearly ignore or overlook the social contract that says don’t show my kids inappropriate movies, don’t let them play M-rated games, and don’t go into schools and shoot people.
Personally, we don’t allow our kids to play M-rated games, period. Skylanders, Mario Wii U, Pokemon, Super Metroid are just the right speed for them. Halo, Call of Duty and Half-Life will still be there when they grow up.
And so will this conversation. But will it be different then? It’s an exciting and terrifying prospect to consider. Because make no mistake, fast forward ten years ahead, the ‘violence in games’ dialogue of the future will directly reflect the attention we pay or deny it today.
Let’s talk about violent games, then. Let’s give it a real go.
I promise, the fires will still be there for those who won’t be moved, along with all of our favorite games to burn.
Well, everything except Half-Life 3. Who knows when that will ever come out.