Grand Theft Scapegoat

The ridiculous jihad against video games.


In May, by a vote of 106 to 6, the Illinois legislature passed a measure banning the sale of "violent" and "sexually explicit" video games to minors. The California Assembly is considering its own version of a prohibition on game sales to the underaged, and Washington, Indiana, and Missouri already have enacted similar laws, only to see them struck down on First Amendment grounds.

Video games are an appealing target for a public figure in search of a crusade. Movies and music have energetic advocates, but it's hard to find anyone who will defend games for their artistic value, or even on the on the grounds of freedom of expression. Usually the strongest argument made for games is that they are harmless fun. That's not the most effective response when the governor of Illinois is claiming "too many of the video games marketed to our children teach them all of the wrong lessons and all of the wrong values."

Ominously, the Illinois proposal pays no heed to the existing range of voluntary content ratings, which run from EC ("Early Childhood") to AO ("Adults Only") and ostensibly allow game merchants to decide for themselves what constitutes "violent" or "sexually explicit" material. In a message "to the parents of Illinois," Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich asserts that "ninety-eight percent of the games considered suitable by the industry for teenagers contain graphic violence." Blagojevich is surely abusing language and statistics–if you stretch the phrase far enough, even the mild-mannered Super Mario Bros. includes what could be described as "graphic violence"–but the implication is that the proposed legislation's content restrictions could apply to games the ratings board approved for teens.

It would not be fair to say that the arguments for video game criminalization are completely uncontaminated by evidence. But prohibitionists are highly selective about the evidence they present and are careless once they've presented it, hoping to substitute raw emotional appeal for a plausible explanatory framework. Blagojevich, for example, claims "experts have found that exposure to violent video games increases aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors"–as if no more need be said about the causal relationship between playing video games and engaging in anti-social behavior. Such rhetoric implies that video game players are empty, infinitely corruptible ciphers.

There is no shortage of readily available literature on the relationship between media exposure and behavior, and the evidence does not support the prohibitionists' case. A 2004 study of "Short-Term Psychological and Cardiovascular Effects on Habitual Players," conducted by researchers at the University of Bologna, concluded that "owning videogames does not in fact seem to have negative effects on aggressive human behavior." A 2004 report in The Journal of the American Medical Association noted: "If video games do increase violent tendencies outside the laboratory, the explosion of gaming over the past decade from $3.2 billion in sales in 1995 to $7 billion in 2003, according to industry figures, would suggest a parallel trend in youth violence. Instead, youth violence has been decreasing."

Likewise, criminologist Joanne Savage contends in a 2004 issue of Aggression and Violent Behavior that "there is little evidence in favor of focusing on media violence as a means of remedying our violent crime problem." In the absence of a wave of real-life, game-inspired carnage, Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor Cheryl Olson, writing in the journal Academic Psychiatry in the summer of 2004, advised that "it's time to move beyond blanket condemnations and frightening anecdotes and focus on developing targeted educational and policy interventions based on solid data."

Unfortunately, blanket condemnations and frightening anecdotes are likely to be with us as long as they prove electorally profitable. In March, Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), and Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) jointly proposed a $90 million appropriation to study the effects of games and other media on children. Apparently, no one on any of the senators' staffs could be bothered to point out that there already is plenty of credible research on precisely that question. Either that, or a bipartisan coalition of presidential aspirants calculated that bashing game designers could be a cheap way to endear themselves to family-values voters.

This is hardly the first time politicians have attempted to bludgeon popular culture into submission. (Recall the political grandstanding that followed past moral panics over movies, comic books, and rock music.) What separates efforts to curb children's exposure to video games from older, parallel campaigns is how profoundly out of touch they are with the realities of the entertainment choices available to children.

For example, Hillary Clinton –fresh from her collaboration with Santorum and Brownback, and consistent with her advertised principle of "fighting the culture of sex and violence in the media"–decided in mid-July to intervene in the controversy over the "Hot Coffee" mod for the game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Hot Coffee is a hidden component of the game's coding that, if unlocked via a program that can be freely downloaded from the Internet, will treat a player to scenes of grainy, polygonal sex. Outraged, Clinton wrote a letter to the Federal Trade Commission urging it to investigate whether Rockstar (the company that produces GTA) created the Hot Coffee content. She seemed oblivious to one of the first lessons a new Web surfer learns: There is a universe of free Internet pornography that anyone looking online for explicit sex can see without bothering to download and install a video game modification.

The sheer scope of media choices renders futile any effort to rein in content through regulations. Occasional pixilated displays of violence and sex can be found in some games that are sometimes sold to children. (Sixteen percent of games are rated "Mature," and 16 percent of game buyers are under 18, according to the Entertainment Software Association.) These comprise a tiny part of the total array of media content freely available to anyone.

Legislators nevertheless are drafting self-righteous bills that practically beg to be overturned in court. With any luck, that will keep the prohibitionists occupied until they discover the next dire threat to our children.?