Editorial: The War on Gaming

With fingers pointed at the National Rifle Association following the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, Wayne LaPierre — the NRA’s CEO — responded today by trying to pivot the argument about violence in our society away from guns and toward movies and video games.

The following is from the prepared text that the NRA distributed prior to an 11am Washington DC press conference today:

“And here’s another dirty little truth that the media try their best to conceal: There exists in this country a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people. Through vicious, violent video games with names like Bulletstorm, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat and Splatterhouse. And here’s one: it’s called Kindergarten Killers. It’s been online for 10 years. How come my research department could find it and all of yours either couldn’t or didn’t want anyone to know you had found it?

Then there’s the blood-soaked slasher films like American Psycho and Natural Born Killers that are aired like propaganda loops on “Splatterdays” and every day, and a thousand music videos that portray life as a joke and murder as a way of life. And then they have the nerve to call it “entertainment.”

But is that what it really is? Isn’t fantasizing about killing people as a way to get your kicks really the filthiest form of pornography?

In a race to the bottom, media conglomerates compete with one another to shock, violate and offend every standard of civilized society by bringing an ever-more-toxic mix of reckless behavior and criminal cruelty into our homes — every minute of every day of every month of every year.”

LaPierre later added: “A child growing up in America witnesses 16,000 murders and 200,000 acts of violence by the time he or she reaches the ripe old age of 18.” citing a well worn statistic from the American Psychiatric Association that also includes acts of violence that occurs in cartoons. So Tom and Jerry are fucking up our children.

Okay, first of all, why these games and these movies? On this one can only speculate, but Splatterhouse is a fantastical game where you kill non-human looking monsters and demons. Why does it get singled out as a blight against the children of Pleasantville? Oh that’s right: the name. See, Splatterhouse sounds like a game that should make parents nervous, especially those who know nothing about video games. That’s why Mortal Kombat, GTA, American Psycho (which may just be too old to be relevant) and the like are mentioned as well — they sound rotten and they also have the virtue of being tried and true whipping boys whenever this debate circles around on back to us. Hell, a Senator even called for a possible ban on GTA V yesterday, sight-unseen.

Now, I will actually agree that the 10 year old, obscure flash game that LaPierre mentioned (thus removing it from obscurity) does seem abhorrent. Kindergarten Killer is a shooting gallery with both disturbing imagery and objectives. The difference between that and the other games mentioned though, is that the others are regulated to a degree and do have a highly successful ratings system.

In addition, while a law (which I favor) banning the sale of video games to minors was thrown out by the Supreme Court in 2011, there are still policies in most retail stores that ban the sale of these games to kids. Are these policies 100% effective? No, but there are also parents who don’t pay attention to the ratings or what their kids play and also parents who simply shrug and give their kids what they want, even if it’s a violent video game.

Honestly, I don’t know what the answer is here. I’ve read up on these studies that say that violent video games have a negative effect on children and I’ve also read how some of those studies have been contorted by talking heads to make the problem seem larger than it really is.

Last night, I found myself wondering if games could have the opposite effect on violent tendencies and then I found this. That’s an article detailing a study by Benjamin Engelstätter, of the Centre for European Economic Research, Scott Cunningham, of Baylor University in Texas, USA, and Michael Ward, of the University of Texas.

From the report:

“Psychological studies invariably find a positive relationship between violent video game play and aggression.”

Later, they mention the difference between the lab setting and the real world: “Yet to date, though there is evidence that violent video games cause aggression in a laboratory setting, there is no evidence that violent video games cause violence or crime.”

“We argue that since laboratory experiments have not examined the time use effects of video games, which incapacitate violent activity by drawing individual gamers into extended gameplay, laboratory studies may be poor predictors of the net effects of violent video games in society.”

So, that basically throws the “video games are melting our souls” argument out the window until the next study that invariably scoffs at this one and so on. Still, is it really good for a kid to play something like GTA or Modern Warfare? Even if they don’t worsen violent behavior, aren’t we still desensitizing them to violence?

Again, I don’t know what we do with this issue. Kids shouldn’t have easy access to something like Kindergarten Killers but should it be banned? Do we want to go down the path of banning games? Wouldn’t a rating system for online games and some kind of age verification make sense? Is that really enforceable? What about the way games are marketed? There was talk about an enhanced warning label back in March, though it seemed like it would paint nearly EVERY game with ANY kind of violent content with the same brush. Should we investigate that further? What about wrapping adult games in black paper and keeping them behind the counter like porn? Is that something to be explored? I don’t necessarily agree or disagree with any of these things in a full, unwavering way, the point is: they should be in the discussion and we should have a discussion, not a pissing contest. This isn’t a just war on gaming because we don’t need to have a war at all.

The reality of this situation is startling but it’s also something that can’t be fixed with ease, blame, or rhetoric.

Examining, truly examining the effects of violent imagery on children is a noble task and we would all be served by a definitive answer that looks at the real world use of video games and movies in our society. Is the study proposed by Sen. Jay Rockefeller and Sen. Joe Lieberman going to give us that? I don’t know, but it could just as easily be more “look at how much I care” political maneuvering.

What are we putting into our kid’s brains and what is it doing? It’s a question that matters a great deal and we shouldn’t quiver at the possibility of any and all change, imagining that we are about to be thrown down the slippery slope that leads to the suspension of our first amendment rights. As is the case with the great gun question that I’ve ably avoided until now, a solution lies in the middle. There has to be a common sense approach that respects rights and allows for the possibility that we do have a problem, but also one that acknowledges that what we view and what we do are separated.

Whispers in the ear can lead to notions in some but when those notions are acted upon there is something else at play, something usually unseen and hard to stop. Video games and movies don’t make monsters and we shouldn’t make monsters out of them, but still we should do our best to make sure that they aren’t helping in that effort in the best way that we can.

Sources: Telegraph, PC Gamer, Wired, Politico, Politico, Geeks of Doom (full disclosure: I wrote that article as well), ESRB, the NRA

Category: Featured, Film, Videogames

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