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The Ghost of Video Game Violence
Posted on Thursday, February 7 2013 @ 07:54:19 PST

October 7th, 2005. In the throes of the Autumn weather, then Governor of California, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, signed two bills into law. The bills in question were California Assembly Bills 1792 and 1793--more commonly known as the video game ban bills. The two bills, pushed forth by then California State Assemblyman, Democrat Leland Yee, would explicitly place the sale of violent video games as a criminal offense in California, as well as require M-rated titles to be segregated from E-T titles, according to the ESRB labeling system.
The bills passed, but were never implemented, as in December 2005, California Judge Ronald Whyte deemed them unconstitutional, which forced the legislation to reach the United Stated Supreme Court. There, in 2011, The U.S Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision, would grant first amendment freedoms to video games, guaranteeing the same protections as film, music, and other forms of media against unconstitutional practices. This has not stopped many from attempting to counter the legal progress the gaming media now enjoys. Time and again the specter of video game violence is raised by the buffoonish necromancers that read the tea leaves too closely, the Jack Thompsons of the world that give no credibility to their cause. And yet, the ghost lingers still, thanks to the tragic events of Newtown, Connecticut.
The tragedy at Newtown saw a gunman, whose name is unimportant, murder 26 human beings, including 20 children. Since then, the political boiling pot has reached a fever pitch, inciting a fervor for or against the curtailing of gun control unlike any the U.S has seen before. Once again, video games have come under fire as a possible reason why the gunman decided to murder the likes of victims Noah Pozner, Dylan Hockley, and Rachel D’Avino.
Recently, Vice President Joe Biden met with industry leaders regarding gun control, an action that some criticized as admitting we are part of the problem. Biden was quick to state that they are not trying to single out anyone specifically, as other groups, such as the National Rifle Association, were also contacted to discuss ways to promote gun control. In the interum, President Barack Obama has proposed that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) investigate the psychological effects of violence, effectively lifting a ban on studying gun violence that was in place for nearly a generation.
What the CDC will find is anyone’s guess, but that has not stopped this ghost from returning. The NRA has criticized the medium as the root cause for gun violence and having too much violent content, shrilling that the industry is a “callous, corrupting shadow industry that sells and sows violence against its own people.” House Representative Diane Franklin (R-Mo) of Missouri has recently proposed a “violent video game tax” based on their ESRB ratings, which would cause all games rated T-AO from the ESRB to be taxed for violent content. And let’s not forget Leland Yee, the man who proposed the video game ban bills back in 2005. Yee, a former Child Psychologist, recently stated that “Gamers have no credibility in this argument. This is all about their lust for violence and the industry’s lust for money. This is a billion-dollar industry. This is about their self-interest.”
Since then, Yee has of course apologized for his comments, stating he has respect for gamers but "the industry has profited at the expanse of children." The stark and direct language, often condescending towards those within the industry, no doubt will invoke the wrath of many. In fact, numerous critics have already responded with their typical disdain, replying back with myopic, passive-aggressive language to convey their own frustrations for retreading old ground. Yet, we don’t have to say anything in the end, thanks to the U.S Supreme Court giving games the same protections under fire.
The spirit of these arguments will never die, of course. That is expected. But with legal precedent set and psychological studies showing inconclusive evidence towards the claims made by video game violence critics, the fight is much easier to weather. It also helps that the video game industry is just as reactive. One could even argue that the influx of violent games and first-person shooters is itself due to an already present culture of violence glorification. Kate Edwards, president of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), puts it more succinctly:
"Developers consider many complex social issues that may arise in their games. On the issue of violence, I think most game designers are cognizant of the role that violent actions serve in their games' stories, very similar to how a film's scriptwriter or a book's author leverages such acts to serve the stories they wish to tell. Having worked on many major game titles over the years, I can attest firsthand that the writers, designers and developers are usually very conscientious of their craft and how certain actions — violent or not — serve the purpose of their games.
I think in the broader context most people would agree that they have to be true to their artistic vision as part of a broader creative expression of our culture. The decision to accept or reject that artistic content is at the discretion of a consumer's own preferences, or if they're young, at the discretion of their parents to decide what is appropriate."
Excess is obvious all over the gaming industry, where wanton, random acts of violence paint the whole art form in a negative light. Slaughtering waves of colored bad guys in Uncharted is given a pass because it becomes a game conceit, despite the somewhat audacious notion that so many bad guys would exist in such an impossible scenario. Manhunt also comes to mind as a game that adheres to this decadence as being excessively violent, and downright exploitative, because of its primary design directive. And yet, for every Manhunt, there is a Spec Ops: The Line, a game that utilizes its “violent nature” to not only service its story arc, but to examine the “fun” of violence in a video game, and communicate the fact that it shouldn’t be fun at all.
We have seen many positive examples of violence, despite their content, on the surface, being negative. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’s famous “No Russian” mission can be seen as how cold and troubling violence is, callously shooting bystanders in an airport to keep up appearances with Russian nationalists. In 2009 it was a harrowing scene, one that even Infinity Ward was cautious about to the point of making the scene skippable if the player wished it. It was a calculated risk, a moment to show how terrible violence can be, and it was done tastefully in one of the very same games where many detractors would cry out against its excessive content.
Not to mention the plethora of games that are without violent content, but immensely popular with the gaming audience. Nintendo’s entire catalog is devoid of bloodshed, yet many of their games are predominantly among the top-selling games each year. Sports titles and other simulators abhor violence and favor the realistic representation of our favorite pastimes. And many role-playing games can have you bypass violent behavior all-together. Fallout: New Vegas is a recent example, where your words and wits can be effective weapons over guns and grenades.
Many of those titles above are the unsung heroes of the gaming industry, due to the stigma of being too casual or a pure simulation. Yet, many of them offer the chance to unwind in ways that Call of Duty does not. They can be as fun as the latest Modern Warfare, without the bloodshed required. In fact, in 2012 the top ten video games sold across each platform contained equal representation of non-violent titles. Just Dance 4, Madden, even Lego Batman 2 were in the mix, all of them perfectly viable titles that detract from the generalization that gaming culture is too violent.
It would be easy to lambaste people such as Leland Yee or Diane Franklin for “not getting it.” But their concerns, correct or not, are just as valid as ours. Many people are afraid of what they see as a scandalous cultural issue, but whether they are right or not is not the question we should be asking. If Yee and Franklin were to look at the whole picture, to examine the issue with a wider lens, then they would see that this ghost of video game violence is truly transparent. That there is no solid evidence that supports it, no preceding case that defines it, and ultimately, no legal power to convict it.
This is, of course, a two-way street, one where we, as a community, must respect people such as Mr. Yee and Ms. Franklin, who should in turn respect the rights that video games have finally earned from the Supreme Court. Politicians and psychologists should work with the artists, game makers, and the community at large to uncover a deeper meaning to these violent tendencies. If a mutual understanding between the two groups can be found, perhaps the idea of video games as inherently violent will be exorcised for good.
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