Violent Video Games Face Renewed Scrutiny

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Violent Video Games

Washington, D.C., once again turned its gaze to violent video games this week. Vice President Joe Biden, who’s leading an investigation into gun violence, met with video game industry officials Friday to discuss violent video games and their impact on the real world.

Politicians have been going after violent video games for decades. In the 1990s, congressional leaders held multiple hearings on violent video games, partly in response to the release of Mortal Kombat. After the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, lawmakers and the national media honed in on violent video games, pointing to mentions of Doom and Duke Nukem in the shooters’ diaries.

Similarly, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has been trying to pin the blame on violent video games in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut. In their first press conference following the tragedy, the NRA said violent video games are part of “a callous, corrupt, and corrupting shadow industry that sells and sows violence against its own people.” The statements once again reeled violent video games into a national conversation about gun violence.

The focus on violent video games causes an uneasy clash between entertainment and politics with little justification. It forces normally apolitical outlets like IGN and Gamasutra to give the touchy issue attention, even though research on violent video games and real violence has been fairly inconclusive.

But with Biden set to make recommendations to the president Tuesday, that coverage and inconclusiveness may be more important than ever to the video game industry.

Public Discourse on Violent Video Games

On Friday, White House officials met with video game industry leaders to discuss violent video games and ways to curb gun violence in America. The meeting, which was met with some controversy from video game news outlets earlier in the week, seemed to go better than expected.

On the White House side, the meeting was headed by Vice President Biden, who was joined by Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. On the game industry side, executives from the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), GameStop, Activision Blizzard, Electronic Arts, and Take-Two Interactive attended the meeting.

The meeting left Chris Ferguson “cautiously optimistic,” according to The Wall Street Journal. Ferguson, a psychology professor at Texas A&M who’s studied violent video games, attended the meeting as a researcher. He said Biden went to the meeting to find facts, not engage in a witch hunt.

For his part, Biden seemed fairly impartial during his remarks: “We know that there is no silver bullet.” He added, “Frankly, we don’t even know whether some of things people think impact [violence] actually impact on it or not.”

For once, it’s nice to see a public official not make an impulsive judgment about violent video games. It’s a strong contrast to politicians quickly condemning games following the tragedy in Columbine. But whether Biden actually listened to video game industry leaders will be known Tuesday, when Biden will make his full policy recommendations to the president.

Prior to the meeting, there was some infighting between video game news outlets about whether the industry should attend the meeting at all. In an editorial following the meeting’s announcement, Kris Graft, editor-in-chief of Gamasutra, wrote, “If you’re meeting with Joe Biden about gun control, you’re stating that you are part of the problem, and therefore, you are part of the problem.”

That prompted a response from Casey Lynch, editor-in-chief of IGN. He wrote, “Do you really believe the topic of violence and gun control as it relates to video games is better left to people who have no interest in appreciating video games, no deep personal experience or understanding of the medium, and no motivation to help communicate the complexities of these issues to the most powerful office in the nation?

“There’s nobody else, Kris. There’s just us.

“Make no mistake, this conversation will happen, whether we’re a part of it or not.”

With the current situation, Lynch’s argument seems more practical. After decades of the national media and politicians bouncing impulsive thoughts in an echo chamber, the video game industry was finally given a real opportunity to defend itself. Not taking the chance would have only made it easier for the NRA to scapegoat violent video games, even though the research is not on the NRA’s side.

Research on Violent Video Games

The video game industry should have the objective advantage in the national conversation. Research on violent video games has produced no solid link between violence in video games and violence in real life. In all the studies looked at for this article, the only common conclusion was that more research is necessary.

In 2008, a study from Ferguson, the researcher who attended the meeting with Biden, found no connection between violent video games and aggression. The study was based on an experimental study and a correlational study, and neither connected violent video games and aggressive behavior.

In 2011, another study from researchers in Texas did link violent video games and increased aggression. But it also found video games decrease the occurrence of violent crime by keeping would-be offenders off the streets, creating what the study describes as a “voluntary incapacitation effect.” The study concluded, “Overall, violent video games lead to decreases in violent crime.”

In two studies, Brock University looked into the relationship between violent video games and aggression. In the first study published on Oct. 2011, researchers concluded competitiveness, not violence, is related to increased aggression. In a more in-depth study published on July 2012, the same researchers walked back their previous findings, concluding violent video games do seem to cause more aggression. But they also wrote more research is necessary to sort through possible culprits, including levels of violence, pace of action, and competitiveness.

The calls for more research shows findings are still too mixed to justify regulations on the video game industry. Besides, even if violent video games do generally make people more aggressive, that does not necessarily lead to real violent acts. That’s especially true if an increase in aggression is being overshadowed by the incapacitation effect found in other research. So far, the only safe conclusion is more research is necessary.

Free Speech and Violent Video Games

In a letter to Biden, the Entertainment Consumers Association brought up another side of the issue: the First Amendment. They argued the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly decided regulating media violates free speech rights and is unconstitutional.

The claim checks out. In a 7-2 ruling in 2011, the Supreme Court affirmed video games have First Amendment protections. The Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association decision told governments that violent video games do not meet the definition of obscenity.

It’s an important angle that is often ignored. Regardless of whether Roger Ebert agrees video games are art, they are protected under the First Amendment, just like other media. So if state governments and the federal government wants to regulate video games, they better prepare for expensive court challenges that could cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Glimpse of Hope and Change

Biden’s even-handed comments could present a promising change in the national conversation about violent video games. If politicians begin looking at violent video games more objectively, there’s a good chance the inconclusive research and constitutional concerns will show there’s more important issues to look into. For now, gamers and the industry have small signs to remain optimistic.

What do you guys think? Should industry officials have attended the meeting with Biden? Did Biden’s comments ease your concerns? Are violent video games just a scapegoat? Make sure to comment below.