Virtual Violence, Real Virtue

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by Robert de los Reyes, Esq.


Two regulatory issues steal the lion's share of gaming industry focus these days: software piracy and video game violence. The piracy issue gets well-rounded treatment from a variety of interested parties. Game makers rightfully defend their work, and consumers rightfully resist draconian and overbroad intrusions into innocent fair use. Both sides are represented by dedicated advocacy groups. Treatment of the violence issue, by contrast, is actually much less developed than you might think. Here, too, gamers rightfully resist overbroad measures designed to "protect" children, but that resistance fights only the overbreadth, not the central premise of the argument. Where is the defense of violence itself?

Too many gamers casually accept the premise of a ratings system. Namely, that depictions of violence are "bad" for children and that a child's ability to withstand the assumed harm strengthens with age. The center of gravity among gamers seems to be that further regulation of games ought to be resisted in favor of enforcing a rating system that includes prohibitions on purchases by children. (As a side note, such purchases are relatively few. According to the IDSA, a trade group, people over age 18 make 98% of actual game purchases.) Put another way, most gamers are comfortable with the idea that a clerk at a retail store should refuse to sell an M-rated ("Mature") game to an unaccompanied minor, much as movie theaters are meant to turn minors away from R-rated movies. This is the new middle ground, the position of today's reasoned gamer.


It goes further. Recently, the television news program Nightline, Ted Koppel's show, dedicated half an hour to video game violence generally, and Grand Theft Auto 3, in particular. A seventeen-year-old young man was saddled with the unenviable task of defending the entire gaming industry while a policeman sat over his right shoulder and an anti-game Cornell professor sat over his left. Yeesh. The teen generally acquitted himself with dignity and intelligence. But he let himself get baited a bit after watching a heavily manipulated report from a Nightline staffer. In that story, the reporter coaxed a thirteen-year-old into the lurid statement that playing GTA3 was as close as he could come to killing someone without actually doing it. It isn't, of course. He could go hunting and participate in the deaths of creatures palpably more human than video game NPCs. But why let that ruin a good story?

Having watched the report, the seventeen-year-old's eyes went wide, and he earnestly urged the mother of the thirteen-year-old to reconsider her errant parenting and take the game away from her child. What else could he have done? The young boy in the report had declared joy in killing. Moreover, the Nightline report painted the child's mother as an absolute villain, notwithstanding the fact that the level of care she displayed in learning about the game her son was playing puts her comfortably in the top quintile of "involved parenting."

The teen's view, and that of most anti-game violence gurus for that matter, was that the mother's decision to allow her son to play GTA3 was demonstrably poor. To wit, violence is objectively bad for children, and the mother somehow missed out on this inarguable truth. This view is mainstream even among the gaming community. It lies at the heart of a prohibitional (as opposed to informational) ratings system. This view is also – and this is what we gamers must recognize – a near rock-solid foundation upon which to build ever broader attacks on the gaming industry. Fortunately for us gamers, this view is also a mistake.

When It's Good to Be Bad


The odd part is that most gamers I encounter know that there really hasn't been a study demonstrating a causal link between video game violence and real world violence. In fact, statistics show that even as the popularity of games has risen, the incidence of youth violence has fallen. Some studies purport to show increased aggression in the period immediately after kids play violent video games, but, even if true, such results are a far cry from demonstrating long-term sociopathy. Anecdotally, you could make a far better case against football teams and fraternities when it comes to the supply of real world criminal violence. Of course, violence "linked" to video games makes better news in part because of the lingering stereotype of the meek, nerdy gamer.

But even the above defense of violent video games only attempts to suggest that gaming does no real harm. If violent video games were simply "not harmful," curtailing the ability of young people, even older teens, might not be such a big deal. It would simply be another instance of an overreaching government substituting its judgment for that of individuals. Nothing terribly unusual, and not the sort of cause likely to inspire protest marches. The problem is that absent some actual virtue in video game violence, it will never arouse an activist constituency. A mere willingness to tolerate video game violence doesn't even inspire a fraction of the activism of the passionate anti-game lobby. Perhaps that would change if video game violence were shown to have some virtue instead of merely being a non-vice. And so we're back to the question I posed earlier – Is there an argument to be made in defense of violence itself?

One such defense comes from an unlikely source: Judge Richard Posner, a federal appeals court judge and icon of the law and economics movement. In a case called American Amusement Association v. Kendrick, Judge Posner and the other members of the appeals court were asked to evaluate an Indianapolis regulation that would have required certain types of violent games to be kept behind curtains in arcades so that minors could not see or play them. The court rejected that ordinance on a number of grounds, which you'll find detailed in a separate article here. For purposes of this article, here's the interesting part of Posner's decision:

This is not merely a matter of pressing the First Amendment to a dryly logical extreme. The murderous fanaticism displayed by young German soldiers in World War II, alumni of the Hitler Jugend, illustrates the danger of allowing government to control the access of children to information and opinion. Now that eighteen-year-olds have the right to vote, it is obvious that they must be allowed the freedom to form their political views on the basis of uncensored speech before they turn eighteen, so that their minds are not a blank when they first exercise the franchise. And since an eighteen-year-old's right to vote is a right personal to him rather than a right to be exercised on his behalf by his parents, the right of parents to enlist the aid of the state to shield their children from ideas of which the parents disapprove cannot be plenary either. People are unlikely to become well-functioning, independent-minded adults and responsible citizens if they are raised in an intellectual bubble. . . . To shield children right up to the age of 18 from exposure to violent descriptions and images would not only be quixotic, but deforming; it would leave them unequipped to cope with the world as we know it.
This is a step beyond the usual defense of violence as merely "not harmful." Here, Posner describes depictions of violence both as a social virtue serving the democratic process and as an essential element of personal development. Descriptive TextPosner is not advocating that children spend 12 hours a day watching violent movies in some kind of Clockwork Orange treatment center. Neither does he say that there is no line at all to be drawn in terms of the realistic portrayal of violence. The American Amusement decision leaves open the possibility that a game might be so devoid of expressive or literary content and so realistically and graphically violent that it could indeed be the subject of regulation. But none of that is inconsistent with the broader point. It's possible to overdose on vitamin A or be bookish to the point of failing to learn social skills. Most, if not all, virtues can be vices in excess of degree or kind. The point is that depictions of violence play a useful, healthy and even necessary role in childhood development. To try to scour the world of such depictions until a child reaches age 18 is both "quixotic" and "deforming."


An even more comprehensive look at the virtue of fantasy violence can be found in a book published this year called Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence by Gerard Jones. His book is a thoroughgoing but accessible examination of the role of fantasy violence – be it in comic books, TV shows, video games or other media – in childhood development. Like Posner, Jones doesn't argue that all fantasy violence, at all times, for all people is an unfettered good. Nevertheless, he neatly pokes a hole in some anti-gaming mythology and makes a solid case for a dose of fantasy violence:

It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that young people emulate literally what they see in entertainment. That if they like a rapper who insults gays, then they must be learning hostility to gays, and if they love a movie hero who defeats villainy with a gun, then they must be learning to solve problems with violence. There is some truth in that. One of the functions of stories and games is to help children rehearse for what they'll be in later life. Anthropologists and psychologists who study play, however, have shown that there are many other functions as well—one of which is to enable children to pretend to be just what they know they'll never be. Exploring, in a safe and controlled context, what is impossible or too dangerous or forbidden to them is a crucial tool in accepting the limits of reality. Playing with rage is a valuable way to reduce its power. Being evil and destructive in imagination is a vital compensation for the wildness we all have to surrender on our way to being good people.
Other objections are offered by the anti-game lobby, but the monkey-see, monkey-do argument is most prevalent, even if dressed up in various other guises. The truth is that children are generally not as literal about the "messages" of media as adults imagine. Likely some children are. Likely so are some adults. For the rest, however, much of the attraction of fantasy violence specifically lies in the explicit knowledge that the pretend actions will never be performed in real life.

Play On?


The question, in light of all the above, is what ought to be done. As unsatisfying as it is to say so, mostly what we need is more research. The trouble is that while there is an organized lobby seeking to test the hypothesis that video games harm children, there is no constituency pushing to test the hypothesis that video games, and video game violence in particular, offer some benefit to children. For now, we are reliant on the personal curiosity of a handful of people like Gerard Jones to break the stranglehold anti-game groups have on popular press sound bites. From a regulatory point of view, gamers (in the U.S., anyway) are protected by the Constitution. Notwithstanding the occasional step backward (viz. Judge Limbaugh's ruling this year), the clear trend is to protect the expressive content of video games and the right of gamers to access that content.

But that protection only matters if someone tries to fight the regulation. Picking its battles, wisely or unwisely, the games industry has largely acquiesced to a prohibitional rating system for games. Perhaps a child denied a game purchase would have legal standing to challenge the rating system in court, but that would mean some family would have to be willing to lie down in front of the bulldozer of public opinion. I'm not surprised there haven't been volunteers. And anyway, perhaps as the industry has concluded, it may be cheaper and more effective over the long term to wait for the gaming generation to age enough to become public office holders than to fight a bunch of legislators who might not recognize a computer at 20 paces. The risk in the meantime is that the adoption of a prohibitional rating system concedes the point that violence is "bad" and ought to be kept away from children. If the industry itself concedes this point, we shouldn't be surprised that the rest of the public isn't inclined to look for the other side of the argument.

Of course, a rejection of a prohibitional rating system need not mean the abandonment of ratings altogether. It is difficult to argue against the idea that there is some good to be had from letting people (children and parents alike) know at a glance what sort of game is inside the box. Then parents can decide for themselves, whether they first see the box on shelves or in their children's rooms. Maybe now, though, we are able to form the beginnings of an argument to convince parents that they would be unwise to forego a game just because it contains depictions of violence. Then again, perhaps some parents will never be convinced no matter how "quixotic" or "deforming" their refusal. Of course, as many an adult in therapy can attest, parents in this country are given wide latitude to screw up their children.



Did You Know?

So I finally got around to asking Blizzard to settle a bet and give me the definitive spellings for its "-craft" games. The answer is that there is no internal capitalization for any of the games with Warcraft in the title. Only StarCraft takes internal capitalization. The reason for capitalizing the "C" is because there was already a brand of boat called "Starcraft." Rather than risk a fight with the rights holder, Blizzard opted for the internal capitalization.

Tip of the Day

If you're looking for a substitute for the annoying audio that is part of Magic: The Gathering Online, try putting in the CD with the Warcraft III soundtrack (available in the Collector's Edition). Warcraft's soundtrack fits as perfectly with a session of Magic as it does with Warcraft itself.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on September 9, 2002 7:16 AM.

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