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

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