Video Games: A Modern Moral Panic

Llowell Williams (Oct 2008)

Since the creation of mass media entertainment there have been efforts by moral activists and politicians to control the cultural values being portrayed in mediums like film and television, often as a measure they claim is to protect impressionable youth from learning negative morals or destructive behaviors. In modern times, it is often video games that have gotten much of the heat for indecency and corrupting the nation's youth. Many detractors claim video games desensitize the player to extreme violence or sexuality; others go so far as to say such popular games as Grand Theft Auto III are simulators training teens to be arsonists and murderers. This article aims at dissecting these claims and looking at the claims of those making such allegations about video games' negative behavioral impact justify a moral panic. The first notable instance of a public outcry concerning violent video games came in 1976 with “Death Race,” a game that required players to race on a track filled with “gremlins” which the player was encouraged to hit with his or her vehicle. This lead to the game's removal from stores and much media attention, including a profile on 60 Minutes that attempted to investigate the psychology of gamers. In the early 1980s noted anti-arcade and gaming activist Ronnie Lamm joined a group of advocates who pushed for legislation to restrict the placing of arcades in proximity to schools, claiming that arcades increased fighting among children. Lamm and her group also condemned the video game industry in general, herself stating that “within our community, there was a tremendous push on for the downtrodden, unemployed person to open up--make a quick buck, open up an arcade--quarters upon quarters dropping into their pockets tax free, no limitations, no investment necessary, no skills needed to work with young people." In 1982, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop said games lacked any form of merit and offered little that was constructive for young people. Statements like these began a publicly held stereotype of the “average” gamer: young, male, antisocial, unhealthy (either grossly obese or thin and gangly)

with shooting and killing three members of his family) to “act out. This lead to the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) in 1994 by the Interactive Digital Software Association. with 59% of gamers playing video games socially in-person). underachieving male teens. lead by Senators Lieberman and Kohl. the case for the plea being the massive influence video game Grand Theft Auto III apparently had on Lynch. This lead to a renewed concern in video game violence in the '90s. Despite recent studies that show this stereotype to be untrue (according to Electronic Software Association the average gamer is 35 years old.” causing Posey (a minor being charged. 40% of which are female. copycat. an 18-year old who was convicted in the murder of two policemen and a dispatcher) and would file lawsuits of his own against video game companies. the late '90s and early 2000s became a time when much media attention was directed at incidents of youth violence being connected to video game violence. at the time. who claimed to be “obsessed” with it. which has since maintained a standardized video game content rating system in the United States. which required the video game industry to institute a standardized content rating system within a year or otherwise have the federal government step in and create a system of its own. The result of these hearings was the introduction of the Video Game Rating Act in 1994.and Rockstar Games stating that playing the game makes violence “pleasurable and attractive. Although a major victory for those seeking to regulate video game content. the games and their graphics became more realistic and began to explore a more adult-themed direction. Take Two.and emotionally immature.” Law suites like these combined with his anti-video game lobbying . Congressional hearings on such matters were held in 1992 and 1993 to address these concerns. 2003 saw one of the first well publicized incidents of video game violence being used as a defense plea during a homicide trial. replicate and emulate the violence. In one instance. 16-year old Dustin Lynch was charged with aggravated murder and under the advice of attorney Jack Thompson plead insanity. he filed a suit against Sony. The media's oversimplification of such connections lead to the issue becoming a larger focus for moral activists and politicians. the average gamers are still viewed to be antisocial. As technology became more advanced. Although Lynch later withdrew his insanity plea. Thompson would go on to represent more cases where his client claims violent inspiration from video games (such as the case of Devin Moore.

but that parents moderate the negative effects. they’re a different color or they’re from a different place. Clinton along with Senator Lieberman introduced the Family Entertainment Protection Act in late 2005. Insisting that if the game's ESRB rating was not changed from Mature 17+ to Adults Only 18+ she would introduce strict legislation to regulate video games federally. many studies have found the correlation to be weak at best. One study by The American Psychological Association states that “psychological research confirms that violent video games can increase children's aggression. The act intended to institute federal mandate enforcement of the ESRB. “Children are playing a game that encourages them to have sex with prostitutes and then murder them. Since much attention has been given to the possible connection between playing violent video games and real world acts of violence." On the other hand. and to hold video game retailers responsible for selling games rated Mature or Adult Only to minors via fines.” Clinton says of GTA: SA. Despite the ESRB's compliance (which lead to the game being removed from distribution by several major retailers). In 2005 Senator Hillary Clinton cited popular video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas as being a “major threat” to our nation's moral values. What does this mean? Couple this statistic with the fact that with the growing popularity of video games since the 90s has also coincided with a . Violence hasn't been the only object of controversy when it comes to video games however. The Electronic Software Association's recent report of video gamers has revealed that parents are actually present at the time their child purchases or rents a video game 94% of the time.helped to give his cause publicity and bring it to the public's attention. but since then other acts with similar purposes have been proposed both on the state level and in D. The bill did not become law. Many critics of video game censorship proponents state that it is the parents' responsibility to monitor what media and video games their children view. many studies have been conducted to determine whether or not these claims have any scientific credence. and some go so far as to say that video games may actually have a positive effect on youth social development (as stated in a recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project).C. This is a silent epidemic of media desensitization that teaches kids it’s OK to diss people because they are a woman.

whose ratings server only to advise parents. Studies are starting to show that the link between video game violence and real world violence is tenuous at best. their distributers'. Video game developers cannot be told what they can and cannot make (thanks to First Amendment rights). Rather. that they are (or should be) regulating what types of games are being played. . Sources: “Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry. Even if there is no correlation between video game and a decrease in violence. and no amount of regulation or lawmaking will change this. It is the responsibility of the parents to decide what is and is not appropriate for their children. it can be said that since almost all parents are somehow directly involved with their children's game acquisition (according to the ESA). it can probably be safely said that video games have not caused an increase.” Entertainment Software Association. it’s safe to say that it seems that video game violence is almost a non-issue. some saying games may even have positive effects on youth. not moral activists like Jack Thompson or politicians like Hillary Clinton. and that the responsibility lays at the feet of the parents. Based on the data available and after looking at the history. nor the ESRB's. Parents appear to be much more involved with their children's video game purchases than politicians wish to admit. it is an attempt by politicians and moral activists to advance an agenda which is inconsistent with the rest of society. Similarly. and their content is regulated and rated by the ESRB. not the game manufactures'.dramatic decrease in violent crime (especially among minors). 2006.

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