Games and Violence

As I mentioned several months back, my friend Ethan Mollick and I are writing a book tentatively titled For Fun and Profit: How Games are Transforming the Business World. As our publisher’s deadline approaches, I’d like to occasionally bounce early draft excerpts off of you all in hopes of getting useful feedback. And, to be honest, I find it difficult to maintain this blog and write my book simultaneously, so I’m cheating a little bit. :-)

My first draft excerpt has nothing to do with business, per se. It tackles the thorny issue of games and violence. Ethan and I feel that we cannot ignore this issue if we want our book to be taken seriously by a broad range of readers. But we also don’t want to get mired in the issue — after all, there are so many other things we need to cover! So we’ve tried to be brief, clear, and to the point. Tell me: did we succeed in getting the point across?

Games and Violence

Games have been criticized as “excessively violent” for decades. Such criticism first reached fever pitch in 1992, when a popular game called Mortal Kombat enabled players to gruesomely slay an opponent by, for example, ripping off his head and holding it in the air while the spine dangled below. At the time of its release, Mortal Kombat was considered visually stunning, but its graphics pale in comparison to those of modern games. As the graphical fidelity of video games has improved, various social, professional, and governmental organizations, as well as high-profile politicians like Senators Hillary Clinton and Joe Lieberman, have expressed increasing concern over the potential impact of “realistic” interactive violence on children. These fears have been intensified by reports from organizations such as the American Psychological Association, which have claimed to link violent games to increased aggression inside and outside the laboratory1.

These criticisms have been rebutted by a variety of prominent independent academics and organizations. Most notably, the American Sociological Association (ASA) and British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) recently issued reports that seem highly supportive of the video game industry. The ASA noted that in the 10 years following the release of games such as Doom and Mortal Kombat, homicide arrest rates among juveniles fell by 77%2, an especially notable figure given that videogame usage skyrocketed during the same timeframe. More notably, the ASA found that much of the research employed against video games had decontextualized violence. In the words of the report, “Poverty, neighborhood instability, unemployment, and even family violence fall by the wayside in most of these studies. Ironically, even mental illness tends to be overlooked in this psychologically oriented research. Young people are seen as passive media consumers, uniquely and uniformly vulnerable to media messages.” Likewise, after performing its own extensive research study, the BBFC found that, “far from having a potentially negative impact on the reaction of the player, the very fact that they have to interact with the game seems to keep them more firmly rooted in reality. People who do not play games raise concerns about their engrossing nature, assuming that players are also emotionally engrossed. This research suggests the opposite; a range of factors seems to make them less emotionally involving than film or television.” This conclusion – that video games might actually exert less influence on aggression than film or television – is especially remarkable in light of the importance and charter of the organization that produced it.

But perhaps the most important argument against critics of violence in games is simply that games have a prominent rating system, much like movies do. That rating system can be used by parents to filter the games they are comfortable exposing their children to, an acceptable solution given that 90% of games are purchased by adults over the age of 18.3

1 http://www.apa.org/releases/videogames.html
2 http://www.asanet.org/galleries/default-file/Winter07ContextsFeature.pdf
3 http://www.theesa.ca/facts-gameviolence.html

11 Responses to Games and Violence

  1. Maybe its the lack of context, but do you have a thesis here? It seems like you are just regurgitating/summarizing as opposed to presenting an original point which would seem to be the point of writing a book.

  2. The purpose of the book is to explore the many interesting ways in which video games are now being used by businesses — for advertising, employee training, and crowdsourcing, for example. This draft excerpt is copied from our introduction, which is designed, in part, to help those readers who don’t know that much about the game industry (in fact, we advise more knowledgeable readers to skip ahead.) We cover a lot of ground in the introduction, and this is part of that. We’re trying to strike a balance between “not spending too much time off-topic” (and I’d contend this is “off-topic”) and “making sure to address the social and political issues that might concern our readers.” End of day, my impulse is to redirect readers to more information on topics like this one, rather than write more, but I was curious to hear what other people thought.

  3. It seems clear, so far, but if you are tackling the video game violence debate, I wonder if you are tackling the image of video games as well? After all, the debate would most likely be lessened if video games weren’t still seen as children’s toys, or at the very least, toys for a very distinct (and undesirable) male, anti-social portion of the population.

  4. Great question, Kristi. Yes we’re tackling the image of games as a whole, as well. We’re addressing all the ways that games have broadened beyond 18-34 males, i.e. casual games, i.e. Dance Dance Revolution, i.e. Wii Sports, i.e. mobile games, i.e. the Sims, i.e. Habbo Hotel, etc.

  5. I think it is pretty solid looking. I like the fact that it is backed by someone’s research rather than an opinion.

    IMO, this statement:
    “This conclusion – that video games might actually exert less influence on aggression than film or television – is especially remarkable in light of the importance and charter of the organization that produced it.”

    It seems to ring in my head after reading that part. The paragraph under it I have trouble remembering because I’m still thinking about the last sentence from the previous paragraph. You convinced me, made the point. Could you perhaps reorganize it so that you mention the rating system before the “These criticisms have been rebutted by a variety of prominent independent academics and organizations…” paragraph.

    I got that lightbulb going off in my head feeling after reading the “This conclusion” statement.

  6. I think the two points I would like to see
    – The majority of games are not violent. Everyone focuses on the GTAs and Manhunts, but look at the literally the thousands of games on sites like BigFish, MSN Games and RealArcade (not the mention many of the XBLA games). These are about as G-rated as you can get
    – Are games more violent than other media. Not only the R-rated films that people always mention, but the bulk of television. 24, Numbers, the Unit, etc., etc., have more death and violence than virtually any game. Although these shows are on prime time, they almost always make it to syndication, when the kids are up.

    Just two points I feel worth making when discussing games in the overall entertainment ecosystem.

  7. I agree with Martin’s comment about the general high level of effectiveness of the second paragraph.

    The only suggestion I have is on this sentence: “The ASA noted that in the 10 years following the release of games such as Doom and Mortal Kombat, homicide arrest rates among juveniles fell by 77%, an especially notable figure given that videogame usage skyrocketed during the same timeframe.”

    To me (and I’ll admit I haven’t read all the literature on the subject), the statement that youth violence decreased in the same timeframe that video game playing increased is, at best a coincidental one. That fact you mention it, out of the context of other data, sounds like you’re trying to pull a fast one with statistics. Maybe it’s just that I think the rest of that paragraph is so strong, or that any connection between video games and violence (positive or negative) seems sorta silly to me.

    I would rather see the second paragraph have more direct rebuttal to the APA fears. Right now, the APA and ASA facts speak across each other, rather than to the same issue (APA says there’s a individual short-term increase in aggression, ASA says there’s a societal long-term decrease in violence). After that, launching into the longer ASA quote is great. Or maybe I just want some more words and data put into footnote 2.

    Also: huh. I guess only Democrats are against violence in video games?

  8. Martin, Tim, Lloyd — thanks very much for your comments. I’ll see what I can do about making the third paragraph match the strength of the second. Lloyd — I actually address the percentage of M-rated games elsewhere in the book; maybe I’ll pull that information into here instead.

  9. Hi Dave,

    First time post, long time troll:-P

    I’m curious why you don’t focus more on the business side of this dialog. Yes, you say right up front that this bit doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with business, but why? This is a social issue but in America and really most of the world now, social issues are business issues. The reality that bloody games are in demand games is pretty clearly a result of market forces and the games industry is old enough that you can draw some decisive conclusions. For example…

    You say that games are criticized as too violent and reference Mortal Kombat, but your tone and position is kind of bland cable news/psyc 101. If I’m interested in a business critique of this debate, I’d find it more interesting to hear about how Mortal Kombat was actually Midway’s response to the success of Capcoms Street Fighter 2 and how clear consumer demand was pushing the developers to go bigger and bloodier. I also want to hear my news/opinions from somebody who I think knows better than me. The way I recognize that person who knows better is if they sound like an expert or insider. Insiders don’t talk in calm academic platitudes, they cuss and use slang and say things that you would only know if you sat in that meeting. This is a pretty broad critique but really something I think you should keep in mind for your book. You are a total insider after all:-)

    I’m pushing the boundaries of polite web post length but I want to say one last thing. Your title, “…Transforming the Business World”, suggests that you’ll be discussing video games in relation to existing creative content/distribution paradigms. I think there are some fascinating parallels that are ripe for exploration (particularly in terms cultural impact of violent content) in hip hop and sports culture. Those two major industries are just as relevant as film and much less played out as a mirror for games.

  10. > I think there are some fascinating parallels that are ripe
    > for exploration (particularly in terms cultural impact of
    > violent content) in hip hop and sports culture.

    Interesting! Don’t know if I’ll be able to sufficiently acquaint myself with these parallels you mention before the book is due to the publisher, but I’ll definitely look into it.

  11. Just finding time to pop back in and had another thought about your reply re: gaming image. Isn’t the attribution of casual games as bringing in more robust demographics also fueling an equally dreadful stereotype (at least concerning female players)?

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