The Missing Link
I am proud to report that I did indeed survive the week. I hope you weren’t too bored by
Though it was a good while ago (well, everything in the past few weeks seems so far ago given my schedule), a discussion unexpectedly broke out regarding the subject of the supposed link between video games and violence. For those of you who haven’t been watching the evening news with your parents, it’s definitely a hot topic in the US these days (can’t honestly say about Europe or elsewhere). I was given a polite request to voice out my thoughts on the issue, to transform that discussion into a full-fledged blog posting. Now I’ll be completely honest with you all before I begin: I am definitely not the biggest expert on this kind of stuff, and this topic has likely been beaten to death on other websites ad nauseum. However, considering the importance of the issue, who am I to deny the pleas of my readers? Thus, it begins.
The exact date I began gaming is no longer a clear figure in my head, lost due to the many years of history that is so much more recent and pertinent. (I doubt my life will ever depend upon my knowledge of what my first word ever was or the exact day I was toilet trained.) All I can say is that I discovered my parents’ Atari 2600 sometime around 1987 or so, thus making me a gamer of roughly 20 years, give or take a few. I assure you, the only rampage I ever went on in my life was a lyrical rampage. Seriously, years of stomping on Goombas, slashing my sword into castle guards, and occasionally single-handedly slicing through enemy armies with guns blazing has contributed a big fat nothing to my police record. (That is, unless somehow Mario Kart 64 somehow caused my single speeding ticket. “But officer, Toad had to be going at least 100 miles an hour on Toad’s Turnpike, and you never arrested him!”) Out of the past twenty-ish years, I’ve committed no murders, no violent maimings of others, no nothing. Zilch. Nada. And to my knowledge, this trend is repeated amongst all my gamer friends… and I know a lot of gamer friends. I’m certain you’re thinking the same thing.
Of course, this is hardly a disproof of the claim. I think it does, however, provoke some doubt into my mind as to the veracity of it.
The evidence that is always conveyed in the media as to the linkage between video games and criminal violence always sounds tempting. Every time, they say that Person X which killed so-and-so was an avid player of violent video games, that they were trying to emulate the experiences they learned within them. Thus, they conclude that there is some corrolation between the two subjects at hand. (It’s always funny how they never consider any other aspects about these people either, only gaming. Maybe if they dug deeper, they’d find out that one of them liked to knit sweaters for a hobby. Maybe there’s a corrolation there.) The evidence, however, is only convincing if you’re a non-gamer; we gamers, to a large extent, know full well the silliness of the claim that playing video games will make you kill someone or become some mean lean bullying machine. I would bet five rupees that no one who ever reads this blog has ever seriously–and I mean seriously–been tempted and subsequently plotted to kill or brutally injure someone.
Granted, people who come here in general have more an affinity to adventure RPGs rather than FPSes, but the point in reality still stands. To the politicians, we are faceless gamers. The whole concept of video game genres doesn’t even click with them. You think they know that we have Brain Age and Tetris DS? Think again. They only see GTA, Halo, Hitman, the list goes on. As far as I know, they probably believe we all will one day be playing those if we aren’t already. Despite our gaming tendencies, we are easily lumped in with the worst of them.
But none of this truly answers the main question, whether or not video games are capable of inspiring real-world violence in people.
As much as I hate to say it, the answer could very well be yes, but before you persecute me for my belief, bare with me for just a few moments of time to explain myself. I have no doubt in my mind that violent gaming could inspire one to commit a crime… but this possibility is akin to the very possibility that a violent movie could inspire one to commit the very same crime. Look at the movie industry today. There have been countless R-rated movies these days such as Sin City, V for Vendetta, and just about every horror flick ever made. According to Box Office Mojo, eight of the top 20 films so far this year are R-rated movies. Even this is right on the heels of the general trend of the ratings system gradually being loosened such that a movie can get away with a lot more and still only have a PG-13 rating rather than an R.
Of course, the return argument will always be that movies don’t actually allow the viewer to simulate murders and other crimes to the extent that a video game does since video games are, by definition, interactive. Okay, fine, sure. But then explain this titbit: Why were homicides in New York City the lowest ever since 1963, a year in which there were no video games? You can’t honestly expect me to believe that no one in NYC doesn’t own and play a PS2 or an Xbox. Even grand theft auto was down despite being on the heels of… Grand Theft Auto. Sure, it could be an isolated case, but then do we call this a statistical outlier? Considering that the 2006 numbers so far report a 74% decrease in homicides and greatly reduced crime across the board compared to 1993, colour me a disbeliever.
But then why is everyone and their cousin all talking about this supposed connection? The truth will actually shock you.
Quick fact: Did you know that it is completely voluntary for a movie to go through the MPAA to get an actual rating? It’s completely true; it’s why several DVDs of movies that were rated in the theatres aren’t actually given ratings (usually because they added scenes into the DVD that were dropped from the film to achieve that rating); American Pie is the first one off the top of my head, although there are many more. Another fact: Did you know that there aren’t governmental laws that keep underage children from seeing R-rated movies? Also true. The whole system of movie ratings is completely optional, not mandated by anyone anywhere in any goverment. In short, you can’t go to jail if you manage to sneak into an R-rated flick when you’re only 16.
So why is it done? Why does the movie industry rate their movies? Because it keeps the politicians off their backs. The movie rating system is an extremely effective way of self-policing the movie industry. Every movie that is made opts to obtain a rating so that the consumers will know which movies are safe for kids to see; the theatres then take these recommendations from the MPAA and enforce them at the local theatre… but completely at their own perrogative. Let’s then say, for instance that some movie doesn’t do this. They immediately ship it to theatres without getting rated whatsoever. What happens then? Many theatres wouldn’t show it because, all of a sudden, they open themselves to the risk of lawsuits. Granted, there’s no law that can be enforced, but all that’s necessary is finding the right judge to try a case, and given that several judges have become judicial activists, they could conceivably “create” a law based solely upon judicial precendent, even when it’s not their job. The theatres won’t run that risk, so they won’t show it. In turn, the movie company would lose out on a lot of money, not only from theatres not showing the film, but also from the fact that the government will then get involved with making laws that will hinder their own creative expression and freedom to police themselves.
The movie industry wouldn’t collapse by any means, but that means that–instead of being thrown out of the theatre–you’d owe a hefty fine to the government for breaking the law when you sneak into an R-rated film.
The video game industry, as you probably know, has a very similar organisation in America: the ESRB. Their job is to review games and place one of several ratings on them: EC (early childhood), E (everyone), E10+ (kids 10 and up), T (13 and up), M (17 and up), or AO (adults only, 18 and up). And as far as I know, every game on the market goes through this ESRB process. So this should be the here-all and the end-all of it, right? Unfortunately, that’s not the case. No one, it seems, takes the ESRB seriously (I know I don’t), most especially in the wake of the re-rating of the games GTA: San Andreas from M to AO and Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion from T to M. (The differences between all their ratings is about as thin as a single hair, so the ratings are virtually meaningless anyhow.) You’d think that the rating on the side of the box would mean something to parents, but to my knowledge, in general parents are completely oblivious to gaming. My parents, Farore bless them, know just about zero; whenever I wanted a game for Christmas, I actually had to write it down to make sure they’d get the right one, but I’m not at all convinced that they really knew what type of games I was really getting. (Granted, I never asked for Mortal Kombat or GTA, but I did ask for and Street Fighter II Turbo for my SNES when I was 13 or so.)
It’s because of this little unfortunate fact that the gaming industry appears that it isn’t doing anything to police itself when in fact it’s going to great lengths to do so. And because this magical correlation between video games and violence keeps getting pushed on us… the appareance that the gaming industry isn’t policing itself is enough to spur the government into making silly laws to try to curb the “inherent violence in videogaming.” Granted, I completely agree that 10-year-olds shouldn’t be playing M-rated games; I am, nevertheless, against the government trying to control that. (Call me a libertarian in that department.) If the government need not control movies, why then need they control the gaming industry? Frankly, if there’s a way that the industry can keep itself in line without the government mucking stuff up, I’d say that’s the best way to do it.
So where do we place the blame? Where is the critical flaw in this process? I hate to sound disrespectful or anything, but I do believe that the majority of the blame goes straight to our parents. Granted, most of your parents are probably decent people, and I don’t want to suggest that any of them out there aren’t worth half a shilling. But fair is fair; parents are legally responsible for children until the age of 18 (at least in the US), and it’s their job to care for us to make sure that we grow up to be decent human beings. While the movie industry polices itself in the selling of tickets to violent films to children, the gaming industry is much harder to police. Games and consoles are expensive, and kids… don’t have the cash to buy them themselves nine times out of ten. It’s the parents who are the ones who buy the games, and the sales clerks have no idea to whom the game will actually be going. As such, the ESRB’s task is to try to assist parents in the purchasing of games, to tell them which games are appropriate for their little Timmy or sweet Susie.
What needs to happen is that, when Timmy or Susie ask their parents for a game, the parents need to do their homework on whether or not the game is appropriate for their son or daughter. Parents tend to do their homework with movies rather well. My parents refused to let me see the movie Super Mario Bros. when I was 12 because “it looked too violent.” (This is a decision of which I’m very thankful for now.) After seeing the movie Titanic, my parents wouldn’t let me take friends younger than me to the movie because… well… that one “artsy scene”. But video games? When parents buy M-rated games for their younger kids… well… I have to believe that it’s not a surprise at all why everyone’s talking about how horrible video games are… about how violent the younger generations are because of video games.
The controversy is already pulled up to the station, and despite the fact that both you and I know that Master Swords don’t really kill people, elder generations are convinced that they know what’s best for us. The time is here, I think, where we have to start policing ourselves. If you want this debate to go away, maybe it’s time you had a talk with your parents instead of the other way around. It may seem like such a tiny and silly step, but we all know (at least we do in the north) that when a billion fragile snowflakes band together, all traffic will come to a halt. And I believe that that’s about the only thing that will save the us from frivolous legislation now.
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