Video game controversies are societal and scientific arguments about whether the content of video games change the behavior and attitudes of a player, and whether this is reflected in video game culture overall. Since the early 2000s, advocates of video games have emphasized their use as an expressive medium, arguing for their protection under the laws governing freedom of speech and also as an educational tool. Detractors argue that video games are harmful and therefore should be subject to legislative oversight and restrictions. The positive and negative characteristics and effects of video games are the subject of scientific study. Results of investigations into links between video games and addiction, aggression, violence, social development, and a variety of stereotyping and sexual morality issues are debated.
The Entertainment Software Association reports that 17% of video game players are boys under the age of eighteen and that 36% are women over the age of eighteen, with 48% of all gamers being women of all ages. They also report that the average age of gamers is 31. A survey of 1,102 children between 12 and 17 years of age found that 97% are video game players who have played in the last day and 75% of parents checked the censor's rating on a video game before allowing their child to purchase it. Of these children, 14% of girls and 50% of boys favored games with an "M" (mature) or "AO" (adult-only) rating. 32% of American adults play video games and to 2007, the number was increasing.
Since the late 1990s, some acts of violence have been highly publicized in relation to beliefs the suspect in the crime may have had a history of playing violent video games. Some research proposes violent video game use correlates with a temporary increase in aggression and a decrease in prosocial behavior (caring about the welfare and rights of others), but these results have not been reproduced. This link between violent video games and antisocial behaviour has also been denied by the president of Interactive Digital Software Association in 2005 in a PBS interview. In this interview he states that this problem is “…vastly overblown and overstated…” by people who “….don’t understand, frankly, this industry”. Others theorise positive effects of playing video games including prosocial behavior in some contexts and argue that the video game industry has served as a scapegoat for more generalised problems affecting some communities.
Negative effects of video games
Theories of negative effects of video games tend to focus on the potential for players to model behaviors witnessed in the game which may be exacerbated due to the interactive nature of these games. The most well known theory of such effects is the General Aggression Model (GAM) which proposes that playing violent video games may create cognitive scripts of aggression which will be activated in incidents in which individuals think others are acting with hostility. Playing violent video games, thus, becomes an opportunity to rehearse acts of aggression, which then become more common in real life. The general aggression model suggests the simulated violence of video games may influence a player's thoughts, feelings and physical arousal and this in turn creates a short-term (and possibly a long-term) effect on an individual's interpretation of an aggressive or violent act. The GAM has been controversial, however, with some scholars criticizing it on the basis of a number of problematic assumptions, such as that aggression is primarily learned, that the brain does not distinguish reality from fiction, etc. Some recent studies have explicitly claimed to find evidence against the GAM.
Some biological theories of aggression have specifically excluded video game and other media effects because the evidence for such effects is considered weak and the impact too distant. For example, the catalyst model of aggression comes from a diathesis-stress perspective, implying that aggression is due to a combination of genetic risk and environmental strain. The catalyst model suggests that stress, coupled with antisocial personality are salient factors leading to aggression. It does allow that proximal influences such as family or peers may alter aggressiveness but not media and games.
Research has focused on two elements of the effects of video games on players: the player's health measures and educational achievements as a function of game play amounts; the players' behavior or perceptions as a function of the game's violence levels; the context of the game play in terms of group dynamics; the game's structure which affects players' visual attention or three dimensional constructional skills; and the mechanics of the game which affects hand-eye coordination. Two other research methods that have been used are experimental (in a laboratory), where the different environmental factors can be controlled, and non-experimental, where those who participate in studies simply log their video gaming hours.
A common hypothesis is that playing violent video games increases aggression in young people. Various studies claim to support this hypothesis. Other studies find no link. Debate among scholars on both sides remains contentious and, as of yet, no clear consensus has been reached either for or against effects, whether positive or negative.
In 1998, Steven Kirsh reported in the journal Childhood that the use of video games may lead to acquisition of a hostile attribution bias. Fifty-five subjects were randomised to play either violent or non-violent video games. Subjects were later asked to read stories in which the characters' behaviour was ambiguous. Participants randomised to play violent video games were more likely to provide negative interpretations of the stories. Another study done by Anderson and Dill in 2000 found a correlation in undergraduate students between playing violent video games and violent crime, with the correlation stronger in aggressive male players, although other scholars have suggested that results from this study were not consistent, and that the methodology was flawed.
In 2001, David Satcher, the Surgeon General of the United States said "We clearly associate media violence to aggressive behavior. But the impact was very small compared to other things. Some may not be happy with that, but that's where the science is." In 2001, a meta-analysis review was conducted at Iowa State University in order to determine a relationship between video game violence and aggression in teenagers. Out of 3,033 participants, the effect size was positive, deducing that high video game violence does in fact lead to heightened aggression amongst teenagers. Another meta-analysis conducted the same year by John Sherry was more skeptical of effects, specifically questioning whether the interactivity of video games made them have more effect than other media.
A 2002 US Secret Service study of forty-one individuals who had been involved in school shootings found that twelve percent were attracted to violent video games, twenty-four percent read violent books and twenty-seven percent were attracted to violent films. Some scholars have indicated that these numbers are unusually low compared to violent media consumption among non-criminal youth.
In 2003, a study was conducted at Iowa State University assessing pre-existing attitudes and violence in children. The study concerned children between ages 5 and 12, and were assessed for the typical amount of time they played video games per week and pre-existing empathy and attitudes towards violence. The children played a violent or non-violent video game for approximately fifteen minutes. Afterwards, their pulse rates were recorded and the children were asked how frustrating the games were on a 1-10 scale. Last, the children are given drawings (vignettes) of everyday situations, some more likely to have aggressive actions following the depiction, while others an empathetic action. Results show that there were no significant effects of video game playing in the short term, with violent video games and non-violent video games having no significant differences, indicating that children do not have decreased empathy from playing violent video games. Conversely, children who play more violent video games over a long period of time were associated with lower pre-existing empathy, and also lower scores on the empathy inducing vignettes, indicating long-term effects. It is possible that video games had not primed children for the particular aggression scenarios. This data could indicate desensitization in children can occur after long-term exposure, but not all children were affected in the same way, so the researchers deduced that some children may be at a higher risk of these negative effects. It is possible that fifteen minutes is not quite long enough to produce short-term cognitive effects.
In 2003, Jeanne B. Funk and her colleagues at the Department of Psychology at the University of Toledo, examined the relationship between exposure to violence through media and real-life, and desensitization (reflected by loss of empathy and changes in attitudes toward violence) in fourth and fifth grade pupils. Funk found that exposure to video game violence was associated with lowered empathy and stronger proviolence attitudes.
Another study from 2003, by John Colwell at the University of Westminster, found that violent video game playing was associated with reduced aggression among Japanese youth.
The American Psychological Association (APA) released an official statement in 2005, which said that exposure to violent media increases feelings of hostility, thoughts about aggression, suspicions about the motives of others, and demonstrates violence as a method to deal with potential conflict situations, that comprehensive analysis of violent interactive video game research suggests such exposure increases aggressive behavior, thoughts, angry feelings, physiological arousal, and decreases helpful behavior, and that studies suggest that sexualized violence in the media has been linked to increases in violence towards women, rape myth acceptance and anti-women attitudes. It also states that the APA advocates reduction of all violence in videogames and interactive media marketed to children and youth, that research should be made regarding the role of social learning, sexism, negative depiction of minorities, and gender on the effects of violence in video games and interactive media on children, adolescents, and young adults, and that it engages those responsible for developing violent video games and interactive media in addressing the issue that playing violent video games may increase aggressive thoughts and aggressive behaviors in children, youth, and young adults, and that these effects may be greater than the well documented effects of exposure to violent television and movies. They also recommend to the entertainment industry that the depiction of the consequences of violent behavior be associated with negative social consequences and that they support a rating system which accurately reflects the content of video games and interactive media. The statement was updated in 2015 (see below.)
Some scholars suggested that the APA's policy statement ignored discrepant research and misrepresented the scientific literature. In 2013 a group of over 230 media scholars wrote an open letter to the APA asking them to revisit and greatly amend their policy statement on video game violence, due to considering the evidence to be mixed. Signatories to the 2013 letter included psychologists Jeffrey Arnett, Randy Borum, David Buss, David Canter, Lorenza Colzato, M. Brent Donnellan, Dorothy Espelage, Frank Farley, Christopher Ferguson, Peter Gray, Mark D. Griffiths, Jessica Hammer, Mizuko Ito, James C. Kaufman, Dana Klisanin, Catherine McBride-Chang, Jean Mercer, Hal Pashler, Steven Pinker, Richard M. Ryan, Todd K. Shackelford, Daniel Simons, Ian Spence, and Dean Simonton, criminologists Kevin Beaver, James Alan Fox, Roger J.R. Levesque, and Mike A. Males, game design researchers Bob De Schutter and Kurt Squire, communications scholar Thorsten Quandt, and science writer Richard Rhodes.
In 2005, a study by Bruce D. Bartholow and colleagues at the University of Missouri-Columbia, University of Michigan, Vrije Universiteit, and University of North Carolina using event related potential linked video game violence exposure to brain processes hypothetically reflecting desensitization. The authors suggested that chronic exposure to violent video games have lasting harmful effects on brain function and behavior.
In 2007, a study at Iowa State University, the University of Michigan, and Vrije Universiteit by Nicholas L. Carnagey and colleagues found that participants who had previously played a violent video game had lower heart rate and galvanic skin response while viewing filmed real violence, demonstrating a physiological desensitization to violence.
In 2007, a study at the Swinburne University of Technology found that children had variable reactions to violent games, with some kids becoming more aggressive, some becoming less aggressive, but the majority showing no changes in behavior.
In the same year, at Michigan State University, John L. Sherry conducted a meta-analysis of studies about video game violence. He concluded that the influence of video game violence on aggression was minimal and previous findings of an effect may have been methodological in origin. For instance, smaller effects were found in experimental studies with longer exposure times, suggesting effects decreased over time.
In 2008, a longitudinal study conducted in Japan assessed possible long-term effects of video game playing in children. The final analysis consisted of 591 fifth graders aged 10–11 across eight public elementary schools, and was conducted over the course of a year. Initially, children were asked to complete a survey which assessed presence or absence of violence in the children's favorite video games, as well as video game context variables that may affect the results and the aggression levels of the children. Children were assessed again for these variables a year later. Results reveal that there is a significant difference in gender, with boys showing significantly more aggressive behavior and anger than girls, which was attributed by the authors to boys elevated interest in violent video games. However the interaction between time spent gaming and preference for violent games was associated with reduced aggression in boys but not girls. The researchers also found that eight context variables they assessed increased aggression, including unjustified violence, availability of weapons, and rewards. Three context variables, role-playing, extent of violence, and humor, were associated with decreased aggression. It is unknown if the observed changes from the two surveys are actually contextual effects. The researchers found that the context and quality of the violence in video games affects children more than simply presence and amount of violence, and these effects are different from child to child.
In 2008 the Pew Internet and American Life Project statistically examined the impact of video gaming on youths' social and communal behaviors. Teens who had communal gaming experiences reported much higher levels of civic and political engagement than teens who had not had these kinds of experiences. Youth who took part in social interaction related to the game, such as commenting on websites or contributing to discussion boards, were more engaged communally and politically. Among teens who play games, 63% reported seeing or hearing "people being mean and overly aggressive while playing," 49% reported seeing or hearing "people being hateful, racist or sexist while playing", and 78% reported witnessing "people being generous or helpful while playing".
In 2009, a report of three studies conducted among students of different age groups in Singapore, Japan, and the United States, found that prosocial mostly nonviolent games increased helpful prosocial behaviour among the participants. In 2010, Anderson's group published a meta-analysis of one hundred and thirty international studies with over 130,000 participants. He reported that exposure to violent video games caused both short-term and long-term aggression in players and decreased empathy and pro-social behavior. However, other scholars criticized this meta-analysis for excluding non-significant studies and for other methodological flaws. Anderson's group have defended their analysis, rejecting these critiques.Rowell Huesmann, a psychology and social studies academic at the University of Michigan wrote an editorial supporting the Anderson meta-analysis.
In 2010, Patrick and Charlotte Markey suggested that violent video games only caused aggressive feelings in individuals who had a preexisting disposition, such as high neuroticism, low agreeableness, or low conscientiousness.
In 2010, after a review of the effects of violent video games, the Attorney General's Office of Australia reported that even though the Anderson meta-analysis of 2010 was the pinnacle of the scientific debate at that time, significant harm from violent video games had not been persuasively proven or disproven, except that there was some consensus that they might be harmful to people with aggressive or psychotic personality traits.
The attorney general considered a number of issues including:
- Social and political controversy about the topic.
- Lack of consensus about definitions and measures of aggression and violent video games (for example, whether a cartoon game has the same impact as a realistic one).
- Levels of aggression may or may not be an accurate marker for the likelihood of violent behaviour.
- The playing of violent video games may not be an independent variable in determining violent acts (for example, violent behaviour after playing violent video games may be age dependant, or players of violent video games may watch other violent media).
- Studies may not have been long or large enough to provide clear conclusions.
In 2010, researchers Paul Adachi and Teena Willoughby at Brock University critiqued experimental video game studies on both sides of the debate, noting that experimental studies often confounded violent content with other variables such as competitiveness. In a follow up study, the authors found that competitiveness but not violent content was associated with aggression.
In 2011, a thirty-year study of 14,000 college students, published by the University of Michigan which measured overall empathy levels in students, found that these had dropped by 40% since the 1980s. The biggest drop came after the year 2000, which the authors speculated was due to multiple factors, including increased societal emphasis on selfishness, changes in parenting practices, increased isolation due to time spent with information technology, and greater immersion in all forms of violent and/or narcissistic media including, but not limited to, news, television and video games. The authors did not provide data on media effects, but referenced various research of the topics.
In 2011, in a longitudinal study of youth in Germany, von Salisch found that aggressive children tend to select more violent video games. This study found no evidence that violent games caused aggression in minors. The author speculated that other studies may have been affected by "single responder bias" due to self-reporting of aggression rather than reporting by parents or teachers.
In 2012 a Swedish study examined the cooperative behavior of players in The Lord of the Rings Online. The authors argued that attempts to link collaborative or aggressive behavior within the game to real life behavior would rely on unwarranted assumptions regarding equivalencies of forms of cooperation and the material conditions of the environment in-game and out-of-game.
One study from Morgan Tear and Mark Nielsen in 2013 concluded that violent video games did not reduce or increase prosocial behavior, failing to replicated previous studies in this area.
In 2013, Isabela Granic and colleagues at Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands, argued that even violent video games may promote learning, health, and social skills, but that not enough games had been developed to treat mental health problems. Granic et al. noted that both camps have valid points, and a more balanced perspective and complex picture is necessary.
In 2014, Ferguson and Olson found no correlation between video game violence and bullying or delinquency in children with preexisting attention deficit disorder or depressive symptoms.
In 2014, Villanova professor, Patrick M. Markey, conducted a study with 118 teenagers suggesting that video games have no influence on increased aggression of users; however, he did find that when used for the right amount of time (roughly 1 hour) video games came make children nicer and more socially interactive. This information was provided by the teens teachers at their local schools.[unreliable source?]
A 2014 study by Andrew Przybylski at Oxford University examined the impact of violent content and frustration on hostility among video game players. In a series of experiments, Przybylski and colleagues demonstrated that frustration, but not violent content, increased player hostility. The authors also demonstrated that some previous "classic" violent video game experiments were difficult to replicate.
One longitudinal study from 2014 suggested that violent video games were associated with very small increases in risk taking behavior over time.
In 2015, the American Psychological Association released a review that found that violent video games caused aggressive behavior, with Mark Appelbaum, the chair of the task force that conducted the review, saying that "the link between violence in video games and increased aggression in players is one of the most studied and best established in the field." However, Appelbaum also characterized the size of the correlation as "not very big". The same review found insufficient evidence of a link between such video games and crime or delinquency. Critics, including Peter Gray and Christopher Ferguson, expressed concerns about methodological limitations of the review. Ferguson stated that "I think (the task force members) were selected because their opinions were pretty clear going in." At least four of the seven task force members had previously expressed opinions on the topic; critics argued this alone constitutes a conflict of interest, while a task force member defended that "If it were common practice to exclude all scientists after they render one conclusion, the field would be void of qualified experts".
A 2015 study examined the impact of violent video games on young adults players with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The study found no evidence for an impact of playing such games on aggression among ASD players. These results appeared to contradict concerns following the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, that individuals with ASD or other mental conditions might be particularly susceptible to violent video game effects.
In 2015 a new Angry Birds meta-analysis of video game effects suggested that video games including violent games, had minimal impact on children's behavior including violence, prosocial behavior and mental health. The journal included a debate section on this meta-analysis including scholars who were both supportive and critical of this meta-analysis. The original author also responded to these comments, suggesting few coherent methodological critiques had been raised. In 2016, Kanamori and Doi replicated the original Angry Birds meta in an article in the same journal, and concluded that critiques of the original meta were largely unwarranted.
One study from 2016 suggested that "sexist" games (using games from the Grand Theft Auto series as exemplars) may reduce empathy toward women. Although no direct game effect was found, the authors argued that an interaction between game condition, masculine role norms, gender and avatar identification produced enough evidence to claim causal effects. Comments by other scholars on this study reflect some concerns over the methodology including a possible failure of the randomization to game conditions (see comments tab).
In 2016, a preregistered study of violent video game effects concluded that violent video games did not influence aggression in players. The preregistered nature of the study removed the potential for the scholars to "nudge" the results of the study in favor of the hypothesis and suggests that preregistration of future studies may help clarify results in the field.
Some scholars worry there may be an effect of violent video games on brain activity, although such concerns are highly contentious. Some scientists have attempted to use functional magnetic resonance imaging to study this hypothesis. Some studies suggested that participants who engaged with VVGs displayed increases in the functioning of their amygdala and decreases in the functioning of their frontal lobe. Some scholars argue that the effect on the frontal lobe may be similar to the deactivation seen in disruptive behavior disorders. However, potential funding conflicts of interest have been noted for some of these studies. During the Brown Vs. EMA legal case, it was noted that the studies conducted by Kronenberger were openly funded by "The Center for Successful Parenting", which may mean a conflict of interest. Further, other studies have failed to find a link between violent games and diminished brain function. For example, an fMRI study by Regenbogen and colleagues suggested VVGs do not diminish the ability to differentiate between real and virtual violence. Another study from 2016 using fMRI found no evidence that VVGs led to a desensitization effect in players. In a recent BBC interview, Dr. Simone Kuhn explained that the brain effects seen in prior fMRI studies likely indicated that players were simply able to distinguish between reality and fiction and modulate their emotional reaction accordingly, not becoming desensitized.
Studies on the effect on crime
In 2008, records held by the US Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and Office of Justice Programs indicated that arrests for violent crime in the US had decreased since the early 1990s in both children and adults. This decrease occurred despite increasing sales of violent video games and increases in graphically violent content in those games.
Studies of violent video game playing and crime have generally not supported the existence of causal links. Evidence from studies of juveniles as well as criminal offenders has generally not uncovered evidence for links. Some studies have suggested that violent video game playing may be associated with reductions in some types of aggression, such as bullying.
Studies of mass shootings have, likewise, provided no evidence for links with violent video games. A 2002 report from the US Secret Service found that school shooters appeared to consume relatively low levels of violent media. Some criminologists have specifically referred to claims linking violent video games to mass shootings as a "myth".
Some studies have examined the consumption of violent video games in society and violent crime rates. Generally, it is acknowledged that societal violent video game consumption has been associated with over an 80% reduction in youth violence in the US during the corresponding period. However, scholars note that, while this data is problematic for arguments that violent video games increase crime, such data is correlational and can't be used to conclude video games have caused this decline in crime,
Other studies have examined data on violent video games and crime trends more closely and have come to the conclusion that the release of very popular violent video games are causally associated with corresponding declines in violent crime in the short term. A 2011 study by the Center for European Economic Research found that violent video games may be reducing crime. This is possibly because the time spent playing games reduces time spent engaged in more antisocial activities. Other recent studies by Patrick Markey and Scott Cunningham have come to similar conclusions.
Public debate in US
In the early 1980s, Ronnie Lamm, the president of the Long IslandPTA sought legislation to govern the proximity of video game arcades to schools. In the 1990s, Joe Lieberman, a US Senator, chaired a hearing about violent video games such as Mortal Kombat.David Grossman, a former West Point psychology professor and lieutenant commander, wrote books about violence in the media including: On Killing (1996) and Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill (1999). He described first-person shooter games as murder simulators, and argued that video game publishers unethically train children in the use of weapons and harden them emotionally towards commitments of murder by simulating the killing of hundreds or thousands of opponents in a single typical video game.
In 2003, Craig A. Anderson, a researcher who testified on the topic before the U.S. Senate, said,
- "[S]ome studies have yielded nonsignificant video game effects, just as some smoking studies failed to find a significant link to lung cancer. But when one combines all relevant empirical studies using meta-analytic techniques, it shows that violent video games are significantly associated with: increased aggressive behavior, thoughts, and affect; increased physiological arousal; and decreased pro-social (helping) behavior."
In 2005, Anderson was criticized in court for failing to give balanced expert evidence.
In 2008, in Grand theft childhood: the surprising truth about violent video games and what parents can do., Kutner and Olsen refuted claims that violent video games cause an increase in violent behavior in children. They report there is a scientifically non-significant trend showing that adolescents who do not play video games at all are most at risk for violent behavior and video game play is part of an adolescent boy's normal social setting. However, the authors did not completely deny the negative influences of violent (M-rated) video games on pre-teens and teenagers: Kutner and Olson suggested the views of alarmists and those of representatives of the video game industry are often supported by flawed or misconstrued studies and that the factors leading to violence in children and adolescents were more subtle than whether or not they played violent video games.
Henry Jenkins, an academic in media studies, said,
- "According to federal crime statistics, the rate of juvenile violent crime in the United States is at a 30-year low. Researchers find that people serving time for violent crimes typically consume less media before committing their crimes than the average person in the general population. It's true that young offenders who have committed school shootings in America have also been game players. But young people in general are more likely to be gamers—90 percent of boys and 40 percent of girls play. The overwhelming majority of kids who play do not commit antisocial acts. According to a 2001 U.S. Surgeon General's report, the strongest risk factors for school shootings centered on mental stability and the quality of home life, not media exposure. The moral panic over violent video games is doubly harmful. It has led adult authorities to be more suspicious and hostile to many kids who already feel cut off from the system. It also misdirects energy away from eliminating the actual causes of youth violence and allows problems to continue to fester."
In 2013, Corey Mead, a professor of English at Baruch College, wrote about how the U.S. military financed the original development of video games, and has long used them for both training, recruitment purposes, and treatment of post traumatic stress disorder. He also argues that the two industries are currently intertwined into each other in a "military-entertainment complex". Writing in 2013, scholars James Ivory and Malte Elson noted that, although research on video game effects remained inconclusive, the culture of the academic field itself had become very contentious and that politicians had put pressure on scientists to produce specific research findings. The authors concluded it is improper for scholars or legislators to, at present, portray video games as a public health crisis. Research by Oxford psychologist Andrew Przybylski has shown that Americans are split in opinion on how video game violence links to gun violence. Przybylski found that older people, women rather than men, people who knew less about games and who were very conservative in ideology were most likely to think video games could cause gun violence.
Several groups address video game violence as a topic that they focus on. Groups such as Parents Against Violence, Parents Against Media Violence and One Million Moms take stances aimed at limiting the violence in video games and other media. Groups with opposite interests, such as the Entertainment Software Association seek to refute their claims.
Video games, particularly violent ones, are often mentioned as a cause for major gun crimes in the wake of school shooting by young adults. For example, Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old shooter at the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, was found to have numerous video games in his possession, leading for some people to blame video games for the shooting; however, the State Attorney did not link video game to the event in their final report of the incident, though identified that video game addiction may have been connected. In February 2018, following the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida, President Donald Trump, among others, said "the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people's thoughts". Rhode Island state representative Robert Nardolillo also proposed legislation to tax violent video games (those rated "Mature" or higher by the ESRB) to use funds for supporting mental health programs in the state.
Censorship and regulation
See also: List of regionally censored video games
Support for video game regulation has been linked to moral panic. Even so, governments have enacted, or have tried to enact, legislation that regulates distribution of video games through censorship based on content rating systems or banning. In 2005, David Gauntlett claimed that grant funding, news headlines, and professional prestige more commonly go to authors who, in good faith, promote anti-media beliefs. Tom Grimes, James A. Anderson, and Lori Bergen reiterated these claims in a 2008 book examining sociological effects on the production of media effects research.
In 2013, the Entertainment Software Association, the lobbying group for the video games industry, had enlisted over 500,000 members to the "Video Game Voters Network," a "grassroots" lobbying group to mobilize gamers to act against public policy that may negatively impact the gaming industry. The VGV was launched in 2006 by the ESA, and uses social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to inform members of allies and opponents. In 2013, the ESA spent over 3.9 Million USD on lobbying, including but not limited to against VVG legislation. This included opposing a bipartisan federal bill that would direct the National Academy of Sciences to study the effects of all forms of violent media. Such bills themselves had come under criticisms from some scholars for pressuring scientists to find specific outcomes rather than studying the issues neutrally
Video game consoles were banned in Mainland China in June 2000. This ban was finally lifted in January 2014. However, the Chinese would still police video games which would be "hostile to China or not in conformity with the outlook of China's government". Reported by Bloomberg, metaphorically speaking, Cai Wu, head of China's Ministry of Culture, said "We want to open the window a crack to get some fresh air, but we still need a screen to block the flies and mosquitoes.".
Voluntary rating systems adopted by the video game industry, such as the ESRB rating system in the United States and Canada (established in 1994), and the Pan European Game Information (PEGI) rating system in Europe (established in 2003), are aimed at informing parents about the types of games their children are playing (or are asking to play). Some ratings of controversial games indicate they are not targeted at young children ("Mature" (M) or "Adults Only" (AO) in the US, or 15 or 18 in the UK). The packaging warns such games should not be sold to children. In the US, ESRB ratings are not legally binding, but many retailers take it upon themselves to refuse the sale of these games to minors. In the United Kingdom (UK), the BBFC ratings are legally binding. UK retailers also enforce the PEGI ratings, which are not legally binding.
US government legislation
No video game console manufacturer has allowed any game marked AO to be published in North America; however, the PC gaming service Steam has allowed AO titles such as Hatred to be published on its platform. No major retailers are willing to sell AO-rated games. However, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was rated AO after the presence of the Hot Coffee add-on became evident. The add-on was later removed and the game rated M. In the 109th Congress and 110th Congress, the Video Games Enforcement Act was introduced to the US House of Representatives. The act required an identification check for the purchase of M and AO rated games. The bill and others like it did not succeed because of likely First Amendment violations. Although no law mandates identification checking for games with adult content, a 2008 survey by the Federal Trade Commission showed that video game retailers have voluntarily increased ID verification for M- and AO-rated games, and sales of those games to underage potential buyers decreased from 83% in 2000 to 20% in 2008. A further survey in April 2011, found that video game retailers continued to enforce the ratings by allowing only 13% of underage teenage shoppers to buy M-rated video games, a statistically significant decrease from the 20% purchase rate in 2009.
On 7 January 2009, Joe Baca, representative of California's 43rd District, introduced H.R. 231, the Video game health labelling act. This bill called for a label to be placed in a "clear and conspicuous location on the packaging" on all video games with an ESRB rating of T (Teen) or higher stating, "WARNING: Excessive exposure to violent video games and other violent media has been linked to aggressive behavior." The proposed legislation was referred to the Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection. On 24 January 2011, Joe Baca reintroduced the Video game health labelling act as H.R. 400 of the 112th Congress. The bill was once again passed onto the subcommittee.
On 27 June 2011, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled on Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association. Video games were protected speech under the First Amendment. The case centered on a California law that sought to restrict sales of violent video games to minors. The video game industry, led by the Entertainment Merchants Association and the Entertainment Software Association, successfully obtained an injunction on the bill, believing that the definition of violence as stated in the California law was too vague and would not treat video games as protected speech. This opinion was upheld in lower courts, and supported by the Supreme Court's decision. The majority of the justices did not consider the studies brought to their attention as convincing evidence of harm, and stated that they could not create a new class of restricted speech that was not applied to other forms of media. However, Justice Breyer's minority decision found the evidence more convincing.
Deana Pollard Sacks, Brad Bushman, and Craig A. Anderson objected to the ruling, claiming that the thirteen experts who authored the Statement on Video Game Violence on the Brown side were considerably more academically merited, and had on average authored over 28 times as many peer-reviewed journal articles about aggression/violence based on original empirical research as the signatories supporting the EMA, whereas the over 100 signatories supporting Brown had on average authored over 14 times as many. Richard Hall, Ryan Hall, and Terri Day replied: "It is not surprising that Anderson and Bushman found their own qualifications and the qualifications of those who agree with them to be superior to the qualifications of those who disagree with them", and claimed that they might have used methodology which have undercounted contributions of some scholars. On 3 April 2013, Dianne Feinstein, a Californian senator and Democrat, spoke in San Francisco to a group of 500 constituents about gun violence. She said video games have "a very negative role for young people, and the industry ought to take note of that" and that Congress might have to step in if the video games industry did not cease to glorify guns.
Parental controls and resources
According to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) and the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), parents believe that parental controls on gaming consoles are useful. Parents have resources they can use to gain more knowledge about the media that their children are consuming. Researchers of video game violence, Dr. Cheryl Olson and Dr. Lawrence Kutner, have compiled a list of advice for parents who want to better monitor their children. The Entertainment Software Rating Board provides easy access to the ratings of a large database of video games. Common Sense Media is database which shows the ratings of movies, games, TV shows, and other media. For each piece of media, it lists a suggested age rating, and scales that measure positive messages, language, violence, drug use, and consumerism. It also provides a summary of the content of the media from a fellow-parent's perspective.
Main article: Sex and nudity in video games
Tolerance of sexual themes and content in video game content varies between nations. Controversy over sexual themes has occurred in the US. For instance, in June 2005, an entire portion of unused code was found within the main script of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, allowing the player to simulate sexual intercourse with the main character's girlfriends. This mode, entitled Hot Coffee, could be accessed in the PC version via mod, and through Action Replay codes in the PS2 and Xbox versions. The scene was left on the disc and could be accessed by altering a few bytes of the game's code via hex editor. This feature prompted the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) to change the rating of San Andreas on 20 July 2005 to "adults only". Furthermore, the game was withdrawn from sale in many stores. Rockstar Games posted a loss of $28.8 million in that financial quarter. This event was dubbed the Hot Coffee mod controversy.
The game, RapeLay, a Japanese eroge with a storyline centering on the player's character stalking and raping a mother and her two daughters also caused controversy. Campaigns against the sale of the game resulted in its being banned in many countries. RapeLay's publisher, which intended the game only to be available in Japan, withdrew it from distribution.
Portrayal of gender
Main article: Gender representation in video games
Some scholars have expressed the concern that video games may have the effect of reinforcing sexist stereotypes. In 1998, a study by Dietz, conducted at the University of Central Florida, found that of thirty-three games sampled, 41% did not feature female characters, 28% sexually objectified women, 21% depicted violence against women, and 30% did not represent the female population at all. Furthermore, characterizations of women tended to be stereotypical: highly sexualized ("visions of beauty with large breasts and hips"), dependent ("victim or as the proverbial Damsel in Distress"), opponents ("evil or as obstacles to the goal of the game"), and trivial ("females depicted in fairly non-significant roles"). However, the study is criticized for not including a wide range of video games for study and for including old games published up to twenty years ago which do not represent current industry standards, for example, an increased presence of strong female characters.
In 2002, Kennedy considered the characteristics of the character, Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider video game series. She is presented as a beautiful, clever, athletic, and brave English archaeologist-adventurer. Lara Croft has achieved popularity with both males and females as an action heroine, although depending on what perspective is applied she can either represent 'a positive role model for young girls' or a 'combination of eye and thumb candy for the boys'. Dietz's findings are supported by a survey commissioned in 2003 by Children Now. The survey found that gender stereotypes pervade most video games: male characters (52%) were more likely than females (32%) to engage in physical aggression; nearly 20% of female characters were hyper-sexualized in some way, while 35% of male characters were extremely muscular.
In 2004, the game developer, Eidos, remodeled Lara Croft for Tomb Raider: Legend. The character was modified to have a more believable figure with less revealing clothing. In 2005, Terry Flew, academic, expressed a similar opinion: gender bias and stereotyping exists in many games. Male characters are portrayed as hard bodied, muscled men while female characters are portrayed as soft bodied, nearly naked women with large breasts, portrayed in a narrowly stereotypical manner. Females are usually constructed as visual objects in need of protection who wait for male rescue, whereas men are portrayed with more power. According to Flew, such depiction of females in games reflects underlying social ideas of male dominance and themes of masculinity. Although not all video games contain such stereotypes, Flew suggests that there are enough to make it a general trait and that "...different genders have different gaming."
Further information: LGBT themes in video games and List of LGBT characters in video games
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) characters have been depicted in some video games since the 1980s. LGBT content has been subject to changing rules and regulations by game companies. These rules are generally examples of heterosexism in that heterosexuality is normalized while homosexuality is subject to additional censorship or ridicule.Sexual orientation and gender identity were significant in some console and PC games, with the trend being toward greater visibility of LGBT identities, particularly in Japanese popular culture and games marketed to LGBT consumers.
Portrayal of race
See also: Race and video games
Video games may influence the learning of young players about race and urban culture. The portrayal of race in some video games such as the Grand Theft Auto series, Custer's Revenge, 50 Cent: Bulletproof, and Def Jam: Fight for NY has been controversial. The 2002 game, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was criticized as promoting racisthate crime. The game takes place in 1986, in "Vice City", a fictionalized Miami. It involves a gang war between Haitian and Cuban refugees which involves the player's character. However, it is possible to play the game without excessive killing. The 2009 game Resident Evil 5 is set in Africa, and as such has the player kill numerous African antagonists. In response to criticism, promoters of Resident Evil 5 argued that to censor the portrayal of black antagonists was discrimination in itself.
Portrayal of countries
War-themed video games such as Medal of Honor: Warfighter and Call of Duty: Black Ops II have been criticized for how they portray Arab people and predominantly Islamic countries like Pakistan.
Main article: Video game addiction
Video game addiction is the excessive or compulsive use of computer and video games that interferes with daily life. Instances have been reported in which users play compulsively, isolating themselves from family and friends or from other forms of social contact, and focus almost entirely on in-game achievements rather than broader life events. The first video game to attract political controversy for its "addictive properties" was the 1978 arcade gameSpace Invaders. One study from Chung Ang University observed that other structures affected by the use of video games include the anterior cingulate cortex and orbitofrontal cortex. The results from this experiment suggest an increase in stimulation of these areas, resembling a pattern similar to those with substance dependence. Researchers interpreted their results of this increase in activity of the anterior cingulate and orbitofrontal cortices to be an indication of an early stage of video game addiction.
In the 2000s, China introduced boot camps combining forced physical exercise and various forms of shock torture to try and cure kids who have been addicted to internet use and videogames. Most of the kids did not come there voluntary and were either forced to go either by parents or by police. This has come under great criticism by industry giants and other countries. In 2009, officials reported plans to discontinue use of electroshock therapy, though the camps still remain open.
Main article: Video game-related health problems
Digital rights management
Main article: Digital rights management
Digital rights management (DRM) is a type of technology that is intended to control the use of digital content and devices after purchase. Many companies make use of DRM to prevent copyright infringement and to protect an entity's intellectual property from public access. Opponents of DRM argue that it only inconveniences legitimate customers and allows big business to stifle innovation and competition. In the US, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998 increased the strength of DRM. Objection to DRM caused Microsoft to change its DRM policy for Xbox One. Always-on digital rights management (DRM), also known as persistent online authentication, is a type of controversial technology relating to video games. This technology requires a consumer to maintain a connection to a host server in order to use a particular product or play a game. Those against Always-on DRM focus on server connection difficulties, single player offline preferences, and game playability once companies shut down a server.
See also: Cyberbullying § In gaming, and Sexism in video gaming
A further issue that can occur through gaming is online harassment or bullying behaviors. A specific example of harassing behavior occurring within a game can be found in Xbox Live
The effect violent video games have on real-world behavior has long been a hotly debated topic. Some argue there is assuredly a link between playing violent video games and increased levels of aggressive behavior, while others maintain that games themselves don't cause violence, but are rather one prominent risk factor for violent real-world behavior. Now, another study has been published, this one claiming that there is no evidence to support the notion that violent video games lead to increases in real-world violent crimes.
The study, Violent Video Games and Real-World Violence: Rhetoric Versus Data, was conducted by researchers at Villanova University and Rutgers University, and was published recently in the Psychology of Popular Media Culture. Through four unique data analyses, the researchers looked at how popular video game trends, like annual and monthly video game sales, as well as Google Trends keyword search volume, compared to real-world crime rates.
"Finding that a young man who committed a violent crime also played a popular video game, such as Call of Duty, Halo, or Grand Theft Auto, is as pointless as pointing out that the criminal also wore socks"
What the researchers found surprised them. If it's true what some researchers are saying, that playing violent video games might lead to increases in real-world violence, you would expect this new study to bear that out. But it was not the case. In fact, the research showed that there is no evidence that violent video games are positively correlated to real-world crime rates in the United States.
Need the short version? The research is summed up thusly:
"Annual trends in video game sales for the past 33 years were unrelated to violent crime both concurrently and up to four years later. Unexpectedly, monthly sales of video games were related to concurrent decreases in aggravated assaults and were unrelated to homicides. Searches for violent video game walkthroughs and guides were also related to decreases in aggravated assaults and homicides two months later. Finally, homicides tended to decrease in the months following the release of popular M-rated violent video games."
"Finding that a young man who committed a violent crime also played a popular video game, such as Call of Duty, Halo, or Grand Theft Auto, is as pointless as pointing out that the criminal also wore socks."
It's a fascinating finding, even if it does have some limitations (like most major studies). I recently had the chance to speak with one of its authors, Patrick Markey, an associate professor of psychology at Villanova. You can read the study for yourself here, and see my full conversation with Markey below.
What inspired you to launch into this research in the first place?
Many people in the media and even my fellow researchers have linked violent video games and other forms of media to real acts of horrific violence. For example, in testimony before the U.S. Senate Dr. Craig Anderson argued that '... high exposure to media violence is a major contributing cause of the high rate of violence in modern U.S. society.' More recently, in the pages of Pediatrics Dr. Strasburger claimed that '.. an estimated 10% to 30% of violence in society can be attributed to the impact of media violence.' However, these statements are based on research that has not actually examined serious acts of violence--most previous studies either examined proxy assessments of aggression--giving a person spicy hot sauce, exposing a person to an irritating noise--or self-reports of hostility. We wanted to see whether such findings generalize to homicide and aggravated assault rates.
Your research shows there is no evidence to support a link between violent video games and real-world violent crime in the US--do you think you'd find similar results in other regions?
There is no reason to believe the effects would be any different. However, this is an empirical question and we hope future researchers might consider examining it.
What were some of the most surprising findings of your research?
By far the most surprising finding was that violent video games were negatively related to aggravated assault and homicides. This really surprised me. However, after this discovery we replicated this finding examining violent movies. It turns out, like violent video games, the popularity of violent films is inversely related to violent crime.
It seems to me like a major limitation of this study is that it only accounts for one risk factor for violent behavior--violent video games. What's your response to this?
Obviously correlation does not imply causation so one needs to always be cautious when interpreting ecological data--this same issue applies to whether we are examining links between autism and vaccines or smoking and lung cancer. However, in this study we did not simply look at the relations between violent video games and crime. We also accounted for various trends in the data which might explain this relationship. For example, we eliminated seasonal trends which remove any extraneous results which might have occurred because video game sales tend to be high in the winter and crime tends to be high in the summer. We also removed linear trends which might occur if violent crime is generally going down and video game sales are generally increasing. We also examined various predictors (video game sales, searches for violent video games, release dates of violent video games) both annually and monthly. Even with all these issues considered the same result emerged--violent video games were negatively related to violent crime.
"I think the biggest 'take home' of this study is that violent video games were not related to increases in violent crime--not even a little" -- Professor Markey
Why did you decide to conduct your study using the methods that you did? What other possibilities were considered?
Ecological studies, like this one, are probably the best way to examine events like homicides. Such a--fortunately--rare behavior cannot really be studied in the laboratory.
Some of your results suggest that there is actually a decrease in violent crime in response to violent video games; are you saying here that playing violent games might potentially make the world a safer place?
This is where we need to be careful--otherwise, we run the risk of being sensationalistic. I think the biggest 'take home' of this study is that violent video games were not related to increases in violent crime--not even a little. However, if we assume that violent video games are actually related to decreases in violent crime, we can speculate about why this might have occurred. It is possible that violent media might reduce severe acts of violence because it effectively removes violent individuals from other social venues where they might have otherwise committed a violent act. In other words, violent individuals might attend a movie, watch television, or play a video game instead of engaging in other activities--going to a bar, socializing on the streets---that are more likely to result in a violent altercation.
"There is no evidence that, even in the laboratory, violent video games have a different effect on mundane acts of aggression than other forms of violent media" -- Prof. Markey
Was it difficult for you when conducting this study to separate, as you say, scientific results from scientific conjecture? How did you overcome that?
As scientists--and reporters--we need to use caution when generalizing results from laboratories and questionnaires to things like violent crime rates. In a similar manner, restraint is warranted when research collected in university laboratories is used to explain the idiosyncratic behavior of a specific individual--e.g., the Aurora, Colorado shooter, James Holmes. Given that the public, media, and lawmakers tend to be concerned about trends in violent behavior and specific acts of violence, it is understandable why some researchers might be tempted to make sensationalistic claims based only on laboratory and questionnaire research. However, it is important for us, as researchers, to be aware of the tentative nature of such claims and consistently acknowledge these limitations.
Your study is not the first to reach this conclusion, yet video games continue to be singled out as movies, books, and other mediums are often overlooked in the popular discussion on the role violent video games might have on behavior. Why do you think this is?
There is no evidence that, even in the laboratory, violent video games have a different effect on mundane acts of aggression than other forms of violent media--the 'effect sizes' found in studies are similar regardless of the media examined. However, you are correct that violent video games are always the focus. Probably the best explanation for this is what Dr. Chris Ferguson calls a 'Moral Panic.' That is, people who are the leaders of a society often blame things which they do not value for societal ills.
In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, many lawmakers proposed new measures against violent video games, though none have really panned out. What effect do you think your research could have on future legislative action?
As a researcher my job is to present the science and let others figure out what should be done with it. My hope is simply that others consider these data whenever a person suggests violent video games are 'a major contributing cause of the high rate of violence in modern U.S. society,' or that 'an estimated 10% to 30% of violence in society can be attributed to the impact of media violence.'
"I do hope results from studies like ours will cause researchers to reevaluate their previously held beliefs about violent video games" -- Prof. Markey
As I understand it, your study was conducted prior to the arrival of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, new consoles from Microsoft and Sony that offer better graphics than their predecessors. Do you think that as time goes on and games become far more life-like and fully realized, we could see a different trend than the one you observed?
During each new generation of game consoles there has not been a noticeable change in violence. Additionally, research in laboratories has not found that more 'realistic' graphics have bigger effects of even mundane acts of aggression. So it is unlikely the next generation will alter the trends observed in the study.
What are you looking at for further research on this topic?
No idea--maybe your suggestion about looking at different countries.
You have been studying games and violence for a long time now. Over the course of those years, how has your perception of the video game industry shifted?
I don't really have a strong opinion about the game industry itself. They make a product and my job is basically to figure out if that product might be harmful. However, I do hope results from studies like ours will cause researchers to reevaluate their previously held beliefs about violent video games. After all, we all want pretty much the same thing. We want to uncover the 'truth.' We want science, not sensationalism, to inform policies concerning violent video games. We want to protect others from any threats posed by violent video games, but we do not want violent video games to distract from the more important causes of horrific acts of violence.
Analyses featured in this study included data from GameFAQs, which is owned by CBS Interactive, the parent company of GameSpot.
Eddie Makuch is a news editor at GameSpot, and you can follow him on Twitter @EddieMakuch
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