Violent Video Game Controversy

Since the early 1990s, there has been public concern over violence in video games and their impact on children and society in general.  In 1972 the Magnavox Odyssey was released as the first commercial video game console.  The Odyssey was very primitive by todays standards and had a very short selection of cartridge-based games.  Within 20 years, video games evolved from basic puzzles and adventures to more violent fighting games and shooters.   People were becoming more aware that all games were not suitable for all audiences.  The fears were mounting concerning violent video games, which included the possibility of desensitization to violence and impressionable youths modeling violent behaviors after themes seen in video games.

A few violent games released in 1992 and 1993 sparked a controversy that changed the industry forever.  Two of the most notable controversial games were Mortal Kombat and Doom.  Mortal Kombat originated as a popular arcade game in 1992 which featured players fighting each other to the death.  Many fatalities showed graphic portrayals of blood and gore (quite realistic for the time) like one character tearing another character’s spine out of his body.  This game came from arcades into American homes in 1993 via the popular Sega Genesis with all of the blood and gore that made the game so popular.

Doom was a game originally made for the PC platform in 1993, and is credited to this day as the precedent setting first-person-shooter game.  The game focused on a space marine who was sent to investigate a demonic invasion on a facility located on one of the moons of Mars.  The game is filled with graphic blood and gore, demonic imagery, and level-upon-level of player-induced massacre.  The game became a huge success and was ported to many other gaming platforms.  The game became one of the most popular games of the day but it sparked a whole new level of controversy.

In response to increasingly violent video games of this time, controversy shrouded the industry.  Parents demanded that the government step in and prevent children from being exposed to highly graphic video game content.  Two Democratic Senators drafted the “Video Game Rating Act of 1994” which set up a commission to either force the video game industry to set up a voluntary ratings system or to let the commission take control of rating games. In response, the industry set up The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) which was approved by Congress and was entrusted as the sole regulator of video game ratings in the United States.  They were to rate every video game available for purchase.  The rating system was set up to be strictly voluntary, however, many stores refuse to carry games which do not bear an ESRB rating.  The ESRB rates game according to the content on a scale based on age.  “K-A” (Kids to Adults) was given to games with content friendly to people of all ages, this rating was later replaced by “E” (everyone).  The “T” (Teen) rating  was given to games with slightly violent content, these are marketed to people over 13-years old, as it is the video game equivalent to the PG-13 rating for films.  The “M” (Mature) rating is given to games with excessively violent or sexually explicit content, often both.  The games are marketed to older teens and adults although younger gamers often take a liking to them.  The “AO” (Adults Only) rating is given to games with excessively pornographic and or extremely brutally violent content.  These ratings are rarely given out as the market is very limited.  Most game developers refuse to release these adult-themed games and console developers in the United States will not let “AO” rated games release on their consoles.  Most AO games are Japanese PC games, which are released to the US market.

The rating system seemed to be adequate; it helped parents decide which games were suitable for their children and assisted older gamers in deciding which games had content which appealed to them.  Despite the practicality of the system, game developers would eventually release games which pushed the limits of the rating system.

One of the most controversial game series in recent times was a franchise called Grand Theft Auto.  The original game released in 1997 but featured crude graphics and non-graphic violence, it received an “M” rating but nobody would foresee the future of the franchise.  In 2001, the third installment of the franchise was introduced on the newly-released Sony Playstation 2.  The game featured 3-dimensional graphics, graphic blood and gore, and a storyline which forced the player to commit murders in order to progress in the storyline.

More controversy came with the fifth installment of the series, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas where a hidden sex scene was included with the disk, players soon learned how to unlock the content.  In response, the ESRB changed the games rating to  “AO” prohibiting sales for minors until the developers re-released the game with the content removed.

The Hot Coffee mod that got San Andreas pulled from the shelves:

Warning: Explicit!

Many murders have been connected to an obsession with violent video games, including the Columbine High School massacre (supposedly inspired by the Doom game series), a triple murder in Alabama in which two police officer and one dispatcher were shot (this was admittedly inspired by anti-authoritarian themes and police-killing tactics which were parts of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City), and many others.

While parents and the ESRB have tried their hardest to keep highly violent and explicit video games out of the hands of young children, many of these efforts have been futile.  This is partially due to the facts that many retailers need to sell more games to help profits and that selling violent games to minors is not illegal.

There is currently a huge dispute over whether banning games is an infraction upon developer’s first amendment rights.  Many states have attempted to ban minors  from purchasing excessively violent games.  California as well as 7 other states have enacted laws to restrict the sale of violent video games to minors, all of which have been rejected by federal courts.  Despite having no luck in the past to keep these laws in effect, California’s state government is persistent in trying to have the Supreme Court uphold the bans which makes the sale of violent video games to a minor punishable by law.

I have written a letter to the Supreme Court of the United States of America on my opinion on the California ban.

Dear Supreme Court State Representatives,

I am writing today on behalf of support to overturn California’s law to fine retailers for selling violent video games to minors.  This ban does nothing to prevent the industry from producing video games with excessive amounts of violent content, as it only punishes retailers.  Minors who want to play violent video games either already have them or have easy access to them.  In addition, the ban was deemed unconstitutional and there are many other ways to prevent minors from playing extraordinarily violent interactive games.

The law, as it was drafted by California state government is set up to fine retailers   up to $1000 dollars each time a banned game is sold to minors.  Specifically, the California definition of a violent game is one that includes killing, torturing, or dismembering human characters in a way that lacks serious, literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.  this definition is very close to the Supreme Court’s 1973 definition of obscenity in regards to televised or film, or print media. The one main difference between the 1973 definition and the 2005 California definition is that the original ruling pertained to pornographic content, and the new definition pertains strictly to violent content.  Explicitly pornographic content is frowned upon in the gaming industry, as console manufacturers refuse to carry pornographic games in the United States.  The law as it was drafted is set up to only punish retailers who sell violent games to minors, rather than punishing the companies that produce such games.  Retailers, especially privately owned video game stores rely on income from games sold.  Minors, especially teenagers have lots of disposable income and video games are among one of their favorite purchases.  As a large portion of the gaming market is comprised of these adolescents, limiting their buying options will severely hurt retailers’ profits, fining them will cause further damage.

Many large chain-retailers such as Walmart and Gamestop have a store policy of checking the ID’s of anyone attempting to buy M-rated games.  Despite this, young players who often find mature-themed games to their liking hardly ever have trouble getting their hands on them.  Often video games are purchased for children by their parents, who can never be restricted from purchasing age-restricted products.  If a parent doesn’t approve of a child playing violent games, they will likely not let them play it, regardless of how it was obtained.  On the other hand, many parents find no problem with their children playing violent video games and will either let them buy these game, give them the money to purchase them, or even go to the store and purchase the games themselves.  The responsibility should be in the hands of the parents, if they do not think children are mature enough to play games with excessively violent content, they should not allow those games in the house.  The ESRB rating system effectively informs parents what content a game contains: the violence, sexuality, and realism of both.

The fact is that even though some of California’s representatives and their governor believe this ban is helpful in protecting the innocence of children, the law was never passed.  The Supreme Court agreed with industry lobbyists whom said “video game content is protected by free speech…” and that “…free speech of any kind cannot be regulated, even to protect children, if there are reasonably effective private rating systems and parental control tools that don’t interfere with our First Amendment rights.”  the fact is that the voluntary ratings system gives parents a very clear idea about what video games contain, and it should be to their discretion whether or not to allow games with such content in their homes.  Concerned parents should educate themselves about the games their children play, instead of relying on state governments to do so.  If parents took the time to check out their child’s favorite games, not only will they spend more time with their children but they will learn about their son or daughter’s maturity  levels and find out for themselves which games are appropriate for them.

In conclusion, no state should have the authority to ban games for purchase, regardless of content.  Retailers cannot be responsible for keeping violent games out of the hands of children, their goal is to maximize profit, prohibiting sales to certain customers is simply counterproductive.  The proposed California law did nothing to pressure the industry to keep violence out of games, it merely was designed to victimize retailers.  The task of keeping violent games away from impressionable youths should be left to their parents, who are legally entrusted to raise them, not to state governments or business owners.  The proposed law violates the first amendment and hinders developer’s and programer’s creativity and art.

Sincerely,

Concerned Citizen

Sources

  1. Gregory Kenyota, Thinking of the Children: The Failure of Violent Video Game Laws,2/25/2008, http://iplj.net/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/Note-THINKING-OF-THE-CHILDREN-THE-FAILURE-OF-VIOLENT-VIDEO-GAME-LAWS.pdf
  2. Nina Totenberg, Calif. Pushes To Uphold Ban On Violent Video Games, www.npr.org, 11/2/2010, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130979773
  3. Lee Tien, California Ban on Violent Videogames Violates First Amendment, www.eff.org, 9/17/2010, http://www.eff.org/press/archives/2010/09/17
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