It has occurred to the staff at GameCritics.com that it is not enough to develop new ways for analyzing videogames within the context of a review. Rather, it is equally important to talk about farther-reaching issues concerning videogames in other forums, especially in a time when they are still largely perceived as children's toys and scapegoated for many of society's ills. If videogames are to evolve and be recognized as a culture and art form, it is important that we be able to talk about how videogames interact within the structure of society at large. This editorial column is devoted to going beyond the current tunnel vision that exists and discussing videogames in a variety of wider contexts.
The War On Gaming
Most gamers are familiar with the National Institute on Media and the Family. They're the folks who publish the annual report card on the videogame industry, evaluating how well it responds to issues of child welfare. The main criteria the organization looks at are how accurate the ESRB ratings are, how much the industry has done to educate consumers on the rating system, and whether these ratings are properly enforced at retail. In 2002, a failing grade was issued, and throughout the report card, one particular item was cited over and over: Grand Theft Auto (GTA).
Recently, The National Institute on Media and the Family partnered with the Campus Women's Centre at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in an online drive petition to stop sexual violence in videogames. The petition directly addressed Take Two Interactive, the publisher of the GTA games, and the demands were fairly short and to the point:
STOP KILLING WOMEN AS ENTERTAINMENT
You are making enormous profits from a video game that promotes a culture of disrespect and violence toward women. Your game, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, is insulting and harmful to girls, women, and individuals everywhere.
Rewarding players for killing women in a sexualized context should never be a source of entertainment. We respect the First Amendment and do not advocate censorship. Therefore, we are calling on you to do the only decent thing: Publicly apologize and stop the sexual violence in your games
Attached to the petition was a brief streaming video excerpting a scene from one of the GTA games where a player beats a prostitute to death after having sex with her. This particular scene is perhaps the most grievous out of many. Grand Theft Auto III (GTA3) is often described as a crime simulator, where players immerse themselves in a world largely comprised of carjacking, prostitution, gang wars, and other various forms of random violence. Its subject matter I imagine many will find offensive, and the Institute's stance towards the game is unsurprising.
Yet the GTA games will undoubtedly finish their run as the best-selling games of the PS2 generation. The latest set of unit sales I saw for Grand Theft Auto: Vice City showed it creeping up on the ten million mark. And this has happened in spite of the ruckus made over its predecessor, GTA3. No matter the efforts of the National Institute of Media and the Family or its close political affiliates (like Senator Joe Lieberman), the gaming public's appetite for the wanton debauchery delivered in the GTA3 and Vice City has not been abated. Of course, this hasn't discouraged the National Institute on Media and the Family, or many of its supporters. If anything, efforts have been stepped up to address what many consider is a growing crisis that will ultimately give way to a 'culture of disrespect' among youth, and perhaps even an epidemic of youth violence where events as severe as the Columbine massacre would become commonplace events.
The past few years have demonstrated a persistent if not relentless effort by many politicians and child and family welfare advocacy groups to regulate the distribution of videogame content deemed 'offensive' and 'harmful' to children. Proposed by Representative Mary Lou Dickerson, the most recent of these efforts is Washington State's Bill 1009, which restricts the sale of games depicting violence against law-enforcement officials to minors. A number of other states, including New York, Mississippi and Minnesota are also pursuing similar legislation at this time, and even earlier attempts to pass legislation was tabled in Michigan and California. Both the Michigan and California proposals never became law due to free speech provisions, but at least in California, the fight continues. Despite the set back in his state, Congressman Joe Baca has remained undeterred, and in February of this year offered yet another proposal restricting the sale of violent and sexually explicit videogames to minors.
Legislators so far have been careful to say that the legislation is not about censorship, and that they are not seeking bans. The issue apparently is about making sure that gratuitously violent or sexually explicit materials don't fall into the hands of helpless, impressionable children. In every instance, the safety and well being of little boys and girls has been cited as main reasons for criminalizing the sale of violent and sexually explicit games to minors. Senators like Joe Lieberman and State Representatives like Mary Lou Dickerson continue to say that they are working to empower parents, giving them the ability to decide what games their children should play, rather than retailers.
I'm sceptical of course-and not just because I play violent and sexually explicit games. In fact, in recent years I've been choosing to play games with less and less sex and violence. But the issue isn't simply one of limiting children's access to violent or sexually explicit media. It's also about morality, and legislating it. A moral imperative always seems to be invoked whenever someone speaks of the need to limit (or eliminate) sex and violence in the games that youth play now.
For example, in April, when Senators Joe Lieberman and Sam Brownback announced their intention to table legislation that would provide funding to research the effects of various media on children, Lieberman took the time to (yet again) bemoan GTA3. In a press release, the Senator said the content of GTA3 was "sick and indefensible" and "offensive to our values" before he got around to saying "we should know whether this is helping to nurture misogynistic views and behaviors among young boys."
Joe Baca was even bolder, naming his proposal the Protect the Children from Video Game Sex and Violence Act. The name itself sounded so formidable I was afraid to buy Teen and Mature rated games in the presence of women and children.
In yet another press release, Congresswoman Betty McCollum seemingly tried to suggest what the 'proper' parental response was to games like GTA3, by invoking her own role as a parent:
"As a mother, I find the escalating violence in video games, particularly violence toward women, deplorable," said Congresswoman McCollum. "These games are creating a culture of virtual victimizers. I am disturbed by makers of games like 'Grand Theft Auto: Vice City' and 'BMX XXX,' who pursue millions of dollars in profits by encouraging young adults and children to participate in the 'virtual' sexual exploitation and the beating and murder of women."
If the point is to keep kids from playing violent and sexually explicit videogames, then the reason for it is to ensure that they don't grow up with the wrong set of values. Certainly if Joe Lieberman and his supporters believe that media like videogames have the power to corrupt children and youth, they also believe that it can be used to teach what they feel are proper, moral values. This notion of children and media pervades every one of those quotes, and each of the speakers presumes children and youth to be nothing more than empty vessels, waiting to be filled with whatever is washed up from the media wave. At this time, it's not explicitly apparent what proper moral values might be, but often harsh words against games like GTA3 are often tempered with a comment about the potential for interactive media as a educational tool. There is, however, a clear communication of what is immoral, and much of the rhetoric is about creating anxiety, fear, and even shame about that 'immorality.'
What is perhaps the most distressing is that this moral shame is also being foisted upon adults who purchase or produce such games. Although much of the National Institute on Media and the Family's focus is on children, there is nothing in their drive petition that suggests the issue is only about children, and doesn't simply ask for a halt to marketing such games to children. Instead, the petition suggests a blanket solution where Take Two Interactive completely 'stop the sexual violence in [their] games' altogether. It isn't merely a request to regulate the sale of videogames to minors, but more a demand that adults modify their behaviour-in essence, giving up GTA3 for the kids. A better example might be Joe Baca's Protect the Children from Video Game Sex and Violence Act, which carries the not-so-subtle message that anyone who allows anyone under eighteen to play violent and sexually explicit videogames, including parents, is somehow endangering children.
Many have said the issue is not one of banning violent or sexually explicit games, but that's not entirely true. Many government officials, as well as child welfare advocacy groups, are looking to also affect the buying habits of responsible, adult gamers by trumpeting the welfare of children. In an interview with GameDaily, Mary Lou Dickerson said, "The well being of children always trumps the First Amendment. That's why we have prohibitions against retailers selling pornography, tobacco and alcohol to minors." Simply comparing videogames to something like pornography, or suggesting games are potentially addictive substances like nicotine and alcohol is offensive enough, but to use the welfare of children as leverage to get around the First Amendment is nauseating. Increasingly, it's feeling more and more like gamers are being held hostage by the welfare of children. While in some ways, legislation like Bill 1009 appears to be empowering parents on the surface, it is the opposite. Because the legislation is accompanied by such moral wrangling, there is an implication that parents who knowingly allow children to play Mature games are somehow irresponsible. When Lieberman said the GTA3 was 'sick and indefensible,' he was also indirectly referring to any adults who played the game as well. By association, gamers who purchased, played, and maybe even enjoyed GTA3 were also 'sick.' Maybe even helping to 'nurture misogynistic behaviours in young boys.'
Ultimately this entire issue comes down to whether or not games like GTA3 do in fact make their way into the hands of minors without parental consent, as well as whether playing such games actually causes any harm. Ironically enough, two reports done by government institutions (the Surgeon General and the Federal Trade Commission) seemingly fly in the face of claims by characters like Dickerson and Baca.
With respect to the former issue, it actually seems that parents are often present during the purchase of not just Mature-rated games, but are in fact present for most purchases in general. At this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the Interactive Digital Software Association's (IDSA) president Doug Lowenstein presented the IDSA's annual survey of videogame sales, demographics and usage data. The survey found that eighty-nine percent of the time parents were present whenever their children purchased games. Perhaps aware that some would criticise the survey's partiality Lowenstein also mentioned that the Federal Trade Commission's own statistical findings suggested that parents were present eighty-three percent of the time when their children purchased a game. The FTC's findings were also something Lowenstein cited in his response to Washington Governor Gary Locke signing Bill 1009 into law. Such findings are also reasonable to expect when the price of a game is considered. At an average of fifty dollars, price is a natural barrier that prevents most teenagers and children from purchasing games without first asking for money from a parent.
In fact, despite an incredibly negative report by the FTC in 2000, the FTC has seems to have warmed up to the videogame industry of late. The 2000 report found the videogame industry, as well as the music and movie industries, guilty, for lack of a better word, of marketing violent and sexually explicit materials to minors. In contrast, a prepared statement released in October of 2002 said the FTC 'found widespread compliance with video game industry self-regulatory standards.' There were still a few minor issues, but overall the FTC said 'there is much in the game industry's rating disclosure requirements that merits duplication by others.' Basically, besides infrequently selling games to minors without parental consent, the videogame industry has significantly reduced its marketing of violent games to youths. With such findings by a government agency like the FTC, it's baffling to see government officials like Joe Baca and Mary Lou Dickerson wishing to further regulate the distribution of certain game content via government legislation.
And what of the potential for violent games to affect the behaviour of the youth who play the games-the impetus behind all this government legislation? In 2001, the Surgeon General released a report on youth violence, and a section in the report tried to address the issue of the effect of violence in the media on the behaviour of youth. The report is often cited by many in the game industry whenever questions are raised about the effect of media violence on minors. Still, seeing as it was written by a government agency, it's worth repeating again.
Perhaps the most oft-cited passage in the report states:
…the preponderance of evidence indicates that violent behavior seldom results from a single cause; rather, multiple factors converging over time contribute to such behavior. Accordingly, the influence of the mass media, however strong or weak, is best viewed as one of the many potential factors that help to shape behavior, including violent behavior.
If violent behaviour is shaped by multiple factors, it almost seems a little irresponsible to suggest that by simply removing violence from the media diets of youth, that violent behaviour can be somehow contained. There's probably no one who would deny that exposure to excessive amounts of violent media has an impact on behaviour. However, by putting so much focus on videogames, legislators and child/family welfare groups are probably overlooking if not ignoring other important contributing factors. The possible benefits of regulating media content could be nullified if other contributing factors are not dealt with as well. Perhaps to reinforce this notion, towards the end of the media effects section of the report, it 'suggests that multilayered solutions are needed to address aggressive and violent behavior.'
Given the Surgeon General's report, along with the FTC report, there seems to be little reason as to why legislation such as Bill 1009 is even necessary. The videogame industry is no longer actively marketing violent and sexually explicit games to a young audience. Few Mature-rated games are sold to minors without parental consent. And according to a few passages in the Surgeon General's 2001 Report on Youth Violence, simply focusing on regulating media alone isn't going to be an effective method for reducing youth violence. In my own opinion, we aren't even likely to see any tangible results from legislation like Bill 1009. What both reports essentially amount to is that there is not an immediate and apparent danger posed by violent forms of media like GTA3.
Without a significant threat posed by violent videogames, it's difficult to imagine that the issue is about anything else other than a particular group of people are taking offense to some of the materials that other folks play. Especially with such strong rhetoric backing up each piece of legislation, it's hard not to be suspicious of all the moral posturing. Unfortunately, the last thing that the FTC and Surgeon General's reports have produced is calm in Washington. As mentioned earlier, every bit of regulatory legislation is accompanied by great rhetoric that no doubt will send anxious parents towards hysteria. Government legislators, along with child and family welfare advocacy groups, like to paint parents as hapless, unable to stop the flood of 'indecent' materials thrown at them. Worse, such legislation also implies that parents are unable to teach their children to understand and deal with 'indecent' materials. Meanwhile, the ten million (likely) healthy and well-adjusted gamers who purchased GTA3 probably will, in the future, have to buy their games from under counter like some form of contraband for fear of a child potentially even eyeballing a box cover.
I guess the children are protected. But who is protecting me from being called a misogynist or a 'virtual victimizer' by over-fifty, white-haired, lecturing blowhards?
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