Digital Games and Violence: are games really that bad?

In the 1980s the U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop made the following comments to the Western Psychiatric Institution and Clinic about digital games and the nature of young players. “Children… are into the games body and soul–everything is zapping the enemy. Children get to a point where they see another child being molested by a third child, they just sit back.”

Koop also claimed that video games were addictive and were “aberrations in childhood behavior.” Since the early 1980s, digital games have come under attack from all sides by battalions of concerned parents, politicians, educators and other moral watchdog-types. Even academic researchers have eyed video games with trepidation and concern.

Psychologists, medical researchers, moral philosophers and others have blamed video games for an assortment of physical maladies and social ailments including aggression, addiction, poor school performance, drug use, tendinitis, shoulder slouch, asocial behavior, reduced bladder control, social entropy, moral character flaws and photosensitive epilepsy. The most adamant and hostile attack against the video game industry came in the early 1990s and has held up until this very second. That is the crusade against video game violence.

In December of 1993, Senator Herbet Kohl of Wisconsin took the lead in the crusade against video game violence. Referring to those who produce video games, Kohl said, “Shame on the people who produce that trash… It is child abuse in my judgment.” Around the same time, Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut held a press conference with Bob Keeshan (the beloved Captain Kangaroo). Captain Kangaroo had some choice words to describe video games.

“The lessons learned by a child as an active participant in violence-oriented video games will be the lessons the thinking parent would shun like a plague,” he said. “Indeed, it could become a plague upon their house.”

This attitude has carried over up to present day. The argument against games like Grand Theft Auto, in its most extreme form, is that violent video games transform children and teenagers in amoral psychopaths. Indeed, aspects of the tragic shootings at Santee and Littleton were blamed on violent first-person shooter games.

But aside from members of the “Trench Coat Mafia,” do any of us actually know someone whose video game playing has been a contributing force to a deviant life of drugs, sex, and massacres?

Yes, video games contain representations of violence, sometimes repetitive, excessive, pathological violence. However, critics of adult-themed video games ought to realize that the average game player is 29 years old. Most digital games are not intended for children or even teens, but for adults who have “adult” tastes. Aside from this important fact, it can be argued digital games are not really different from other media. TV and film are full of questionable representations of an assortment of things. How about books?

Books can be just as violent and offensive as digital games. Surely few would argue that Homer’s Iliad, part of the cultural and historical foundation of Western civilization, is morally corrupting and likely to increase real life aggression. It’s filled with blood and disembowelments, looting and pillaging. And what about Shakespeare? Not only was I encouraged to read Shakespeare as a teenager, but he was part of the high school English curriculum. In order to receive a high school diploma I had to read about Macbeth putting a hit on his best friend and his best friend’s son, and I seem to remember plenty of poisoning and stabbing taking place throughout Hamlet. I am not saying that Shakespeare is of the same calibre as Mortal Kombat, just that video games have comparable levels of violence to respectable media, like pieces of great literature.

So why are digital games especially problematic? Is it because they are more engaging and realistic than books? No. A good book can be just as “real” and engaging as a good game. So what’s the the problem? Why are people so down on interactive digital games?

The main reason is taste. Critics of digital games do not like digital games. Their criticism represents an attempt to enforce their own sense of what is good, what is productive, what is proper on other people.

It is good, productive and proper to read a book. It is not good, not productive and not proper to play digital games, especially digital games that disagree with the refined sensibilities of people like Joe Lieberman and Captain Kangaroo. New mass media often have this type of taste-related criticism tied to them.

Film, comic books, television, computers, the Internet and even early mass-produced novels (by folks like Charles Dickens) have all come under fire by moral watchdogs concerned about the effects of new media on the individual and society. Digital games are another example of this type of taste-bound criticism.

Of course, not all is doom and gloom for the digital game player.

As more and more people begin to play games, attitudes are changing. Academic research is moving in less moralizing directions, spokespeople are speaking out in favour of games and game players are standing up for their right to choose what they do in their own free time.

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