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Video games have been a part of my life for nearly my entire life. I was four years old when I received my first video game console. Subsequently my life has probably changed in ways that I cannot imagine. As a child I never played extremely violent games, but as I matured I have played notorious titles like Mortal Kombat, Doom, and Grand Theft Auto. These games all have one thing in common: gore and violence. At times I wonder if my personality has in some way been affected by playing such games. Of course, it’s impossible to know for sure what effect long term exposure to violent games has had on me. But with the exponential growth of the video game industry, the subject of video game violence remains one of the hottest topics of the 21 st century. As the graphics in video games become more realistic, many have questioned whether the most damaging effects of exposure to video game violence are yet to come.
The first mainstream video game, Pong, was released in 1972. While this harmless game had players hitting a pixel from one end of the screen to the other, it did not take long for game designers to create experiences which lead some to question their morality. In 1979 an arcade racing title called Death Race had players drive around in a car running over gremlins. Controversy struck when the game was first released under the title Pedestrian. Even in the days of blocky black and white graphics one could easily pass judgment that the developer was teaching players to take pleasure in running over ordinary people, not monsters. The National Safety Council called the game ‘sick’ and ‘morbid’. Violent and sexually themed video games continued to be released throughout the 1980s, but nothing came close to the commotion that a fighting game caused in 1992. In Mortal Kombat, players competed in a tournament to the death. This game featured realistic looking characters that each had a specific fatal move, such as ripping out the spinal cords of opponents, or causing opponents to fall to their deaths on a bed of spikes. Despite an uproar that included Congressional hearings, the violent games did not stop here. Wolfenstein 3D was the world’s first first-person shooter and its success paved the way for one of the most popular games of all time: Doom, where players get to play as a space marine who must shoot at any Hellish creature that crosses his path.
To address mounting concerns from Congress and parents, in 1994 the video game industry formed the Entertainment Software Regulation Board. The ESRB is a self-regulatory organization that rates games based on an age rating system. This system is meant to help consumers chose what games are right for them. Despite this, in many states a retailer can still sell M (Mature, 17+) games to minors. However, most retailers do not carry the highest rating, AO (Adults Only). If the ESRB had not been formed, Congress would have taken it upon themselves to regulate games, possibly forever changing this unique industry.
When Columbine High School students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went on a deadly shooting rampage in 1999, parents and school officials searched hard for reasons to explain the tragedy. One of the most popular theories involved the influence of first-person shooters on the teens. On behalf of the teacher killed in the attack, one group claimed that, â€œ absent the combination of extremely violent video games and these boys incredibly deep involvement…these murders and this massacre would not have occurred.” Both Eric and Dylan were enthusiastic fans of first-person shooter games like Doom and Wolfenstein 3D. FPS’s engross the player in a world of fantasy violence, where many gamers feels like they become the avatar. Ironically in 2005, a filmmaker named Danny Ledonne created a video game based on this tragedy titled Super Columbine Massacre RPG and set off a whole new wave of controversy.
Even though the video game industry has tried to solve its content issues on its own, the problem still persists. Most recently in 2005, the game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has brought even more criticism of the practices of the ESRB. In what became known as the Hot Coffee mod, players unlocked hidden sex mini-games contained within the commercial title. This ignited the anti-video game activist movement. Lawyers like Jack Thompson slammed both the ESRB and GTA publisher Rockstar Games for allowing a game like this to get out into the publicâ€™s hands. â€œ How lovely that GTA weds sex and violence in the same game. We are training a generation of teens to combine sex with violence, just what America needs. â€As many parents became angered at the video game industry, politicians have jumped into the fray. Senators Hillary Clinton and Joe Lieberman have suggested government regulation of video games. The 10th Annual MediaWise Video and Computer Game Report Card, issued by the National Institute on Media and the Family, gave the video game industry a “D+” and said the ESRB was “beyond repair.” On the other side of the argument, pro-video game activists declare that any government regulation would be censorship and a violation of the First Amendment. Just this week, the Electronic Software Association sued the state of Minnesota to try to overturn recently passed legislation regulating the sale of video games to minors.
Many research studies have been conducted to determine whether or not violent video games effect one’s behavior. According to Craig A. Anderson and Brad J. Bushman â€œViolent media increases aggression by teaching observers how to aggress, by priming aggressive conditions, by increasing arousal, or by creating an aggressive affect state.â€ On the opposite side of the spectrum, according to Jeffrey Goldstein â€œVideo games cannot â€˜reinforceâ€™ aggressive behavior since players do not engage in any aggressive behavior in the first place.â€ The bottom line is that the research is inconclusive; video games may or may not cause violent behavior. What is clear is that violence affects everyone differently.
What happens in the next few years will determine the future of the video game industry. With the business reaching higher revenues than the film industry, a total of $9.9 billion in 2004, video games have a major impact on the economy. Any new rules and regulations could have a chilling effect for the industry at large. In the meantime, new technological advances result in violent and graphic images that are becoming nearly lifelike. As the next-generation of consoles loom on the horizon, the line between freedom of speech and expression and the need to protect children and society from over exposure to violence will continue to be tested.
1. Death Race. 2006. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_Race
2. Video Game Censorship. 2006. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Video_game_censorship
3. Real-life death makes sick choice for video game . Leonard Pitts JR. 2006. http://www.freep.com/
4. Video Game Rating Act of 1994 . The Library of Congress. 1994.
5. GameSpeak: Jack Thompson. 2005. http://www.cbsnews.com/
6. Clinton Introducing Federal Game Regulation. Tor Thorsen. 2006. http://videogames.aol.com/
7. ESA sues Minnesota over new bill. Jesse Hiestand. 2006.http://msnbc.msn.com
8. Effects of Violent Video Games On Aggressive Behavior, Aggressive Cognition, Aggressive Affect, Physiological Arousal, and Prosocial Behavior. Craig A. Anderson and Brad J. Bushman. http://www.psychology.iastate.edu/
9. Does Playing Violent Video Games Cause Aggressive Behavior? Jeffrey Goldstein. 2001. http://culturalpolicy.uchicago.edu/
10. NPD GROUP REPORTS ANNUAL 2004 U.S. VIDEO GAME INDUSTRY RETAIL SALES. 2005. http://www.npdfunworld.com/
11. ESRB. 2006. http://www.esrb.org
12. Columbine High School Massacre. 2006. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columbine_High