Correcting the violent video game rhetoric

Don Reisinger sets the record straight on anti-video game rhetoric. Where do you stand on this issue?

Don Reisinger
CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Don Reisinger
6 min read

Now that GTA IV has hit store shelves, it's time for the world's anti-video game fanatics to crawl out from under their rocks and tell us all how this game and so many others ruin our children and turn them into Jack the Ripper wannabes. Of course, all those self-righteous zealots won't tell you the truth -- nothing they say is rooted in reality.

Stop beating up video games Rockstar Games

Earlier today, a colleague of mine at CNET wrote a well-written article that discusses how critics have already attacked GTA IV without even playing it yet.

Much of the discussion centered around foolhardy demagogues who have yet to actually play the game, but somehow know that it will lead to child violence: "We've seen a number of clips of the game," said Yee spokesperson Adam Keigwin. "From the clips alone, and based on GTA and Rockstar's history, (Yee) thought it very appropriate to issue a statement urging parents not to purchase the game for their children."


And I guess a discussion on video game violence is never complete without mentioning Jack Thompson. According to Softpedia, Thompson wrote a letter to Take-Two CEO, Strauss Zelnick's mother to discuss her son.

"Your son last week was reported to have said the following about Grand Theft Auto IV," the letter allegedly began. "'We've already received numerous reviews, and to a one, they are perfect scores. My mom couldn't write better reviews...' Taking your son's thought, I would encourage you either to play this game or have an adroit video gamer play it for you. Some of the latter gamers are on death row, so try to find one out in the civilian population who hasn't killed someone yet."

Thompson later said in an email to CNET that he did not send it to Strauss' mother, but his lawyer.

"I sent it to Strauss' attorney to make the point that if you drag your mother into your porn business pimping," Thompson told me by e-mail, "you had better be prepared for blowback."

Wow. And this is the guy who's leading the charge against violent video games? Perhaps those that despise attacks on innocent civilians shouldn't engage in similar acts.

If you notice, the list of anti-video game idiocy seems to grow with each waking minute. Whether it's the result of people trying to get into the limelight or maybe that their son was beaten up at school and video games were the easy culprit, more individuals are jumping on the anti-video game bandwagon with no knowledge about what's going on.

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman is a retired Army Ranger, West Point psychology professor, and an expert on the psychology of killing. He is undoubtedly an American hero and someone who should be respected for his service to his country. But after retiring, Lt. Col. Grossman started writing books about the psychology of killing and the impact violent video games can have on children. In one of his most popular books, On Killing, Grossman contends that "murder simulators" are teaching our children to kill and desensitize them to the thought of eliminating another human being.

To further his research, Grossman formed a group called Killology, which "examines how culture and society change when one human being kills another."

By and large, Grossman's argument is rooted in his belief that violent video games create role models and glorify violence on-screen. He argues that this is the same tactic being used by the military to "desensitize" soldiers when they're asked to kill the enemy. Simply put, Grossman has used his research group to come to the conclusion that violent video games should be eliminated entirely.

"We need to work toward "legislation" which outlaws violent video games for children," Grossman writes on Killology.com. "In July, 2000, the city of Indianapolis passed just such an ordinance, and every other city, country or state in America has the right to do the same. There is no Constitutional "right" to teach children to blow people's heads off at the local video arcade. And we are very close to being able to do to the media, through "litigation," what is being done to the tobacco industry, hitting them in the only place they understand--their wallets."

Throughout his discussion, Grossman delves into the impact role models and entertainment can have on children. He believes that glorifying violence has caused the numerous school shootings over the past few years and contends that video games (among other forms of entertainment) are to blame. But due to the participatory nature of video games, they can be worse.

"The result is ever more homemade pseudo-sociopaths who kill reflexively and show no remorse," Grossman writes. "Our kids are learning to kill and learning to like it. The most remarkable example is in Paducah, Kentucky the school killer fired eight shots, getting eight hits, on eight different milling, scrambling, screaming kids. Five of them were head shots (Grossman & DeGaetano, 1999)."

"Where did he get this phenomenal skill? Well, there is a $130-million law suit against the video game manufacturers in that case, working itself through the appeals system, claiming that the violent video games, the murder simulators, gave that mass murderer the skill and the will to kill.

And while Grossman's logic is faulty at best, don't take my word for it -- take it from a well-known sociologist at the University of Souther California, Karen Sternheimer. According to Sternheimer's article in Contexts, a quarterly journal released by the American Sociological Association, video games do not help individuals commit real violence.

"The biggest problem with media-effects research is that it attempts to decontextualize violence," she writes. "Poverty, neighborhood instability, unemployment, and even family violence fall by the wayside... Ironically, even mental illness tends to be overlooked in this psychologically oriented research."

"Blaming video games meant that the shooters were set aside from other violent youth...at whom our get-tough legislation has been targeted. The video game explanation constructs the middle-class shooters as victims of the power of video games, rather than fully culpable criminals. When boys from "good" neighborhoods are violent, they seem to be...created by video games rather than by their social circumstances. Middle-class killers retain their status as children easily influenced by a game, victims of an allegedly dangerous product. The same can't be said for those in "bad" neighborhoods."

According to Dmitri Williams, the lead author of a study that asserts that violent video games do not cause children to become more violent, it's looking more and more like video games really don't cause violence.

"I'm not saying some games don't lead to aggression, but I am saying the data are not there yet," Williams said. "Until we have more long-term studies, I don't think we should make strong predictions about long-term effects, especially given this finding."

Lastly, Grossman and Thompson have contended that violent crimes cannot be an indicator of whether or not children are being influenced by video games.

According to Lt. Col. Grossman, murder rates are only down today because of advances in health practices that save more lives, but did he somehow miss that teen violence is down 77 percent since 1993, which just so happens to be the year Doom was released? Or perhaps he missed the fact that although school shootings are awful when they happen, the average student has less than a 7 to 10 in a million chance of being gunned down at school and even then the number is high not because of video games, but because many inner-city schools have children who bring guns to class for protection.

In a recent interview with Real Sports, Torii Hunter, the well-known centerfielder for the Los Angeles Angels, said that he carried a gun for protection in his inner-city neighborhood as a child. Every day, he said, he would wonder if we would die. Ironically, he didn't mention video games.

The question of violence in video games is not an easy one to answer. And while some provide faulty logic to "prove" video games can actually cause violence, no study has ever proven that fact. And to make matters worse, those that claim to come close tend to forget environmental factors like poverty, domestic abuse, genetic predisposition and child treatment that can be correlated to violence.

Instead of blaming violent video games for all of the world's problems, I think it's time for individuals that espouse these faulty beliefs to realize that no one action can prove that theory. Are video games violent? Some are. Do they definitely cause violence in children? No.

Violent video games have become the scapegoat for those who wish to sweep the real problems under the rug. Instead of looking at the TV, maybe we should all look in the mirror and realize that a artistic figure on-screen is the least of our troubles.