Don't pretend video games are as bad as cigarettes

If a new bill is passed, all video games with ratings of Teen or higher will have a warning affixed, much like those found on cigarettes. Are video games really as bad as cigarettes?

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
5 min read

Last week, Democrat Rep. Joe Baca introduced "The Video Game Health Labeling Act of 2009." If passed, the bill would create a new rule in the Consumer Product Safety Commission forcing developers to affix a warning on any game rated Teen or higher.

The label would read, "WARNING: Excessive exposure to violent video games and other violent media has been linked to aggressive behavior."

In a press release sent out by the Congressman's office, Baca defended his position and explained that the video game industry must be held accountable for violence.

"The video game industry has a responsibility to parents, families, and to consumers--to inform them of the potentially damaging content that is often found in their products," he wrote. "They have repeatedly failed to live up to this responsibility. Meanwhile, research continues to show a proven link between playing violent games and increased aggression in young people. American families deserve to know the truth about these potentially dangerous products."

He continued: "We must hold the video game industry accountable and do everything in our power to ensure parents are aware of the detrimental effects that violent games can have before making decisions on which games are appropriate for their children to play."

While video games entertain people, cigarettes quietly kill them. Medical University of South Carolina

Let me get this straight: lawmakers now want to affix a warning label, much like those already placed on cigarette packs, to warn the world about the possible danger violent video games can create? What a joke.

First off, video games should not be treated the same as cigarettes at any time. One entertains people, and the other quietly kills them. Secondly, there is no solid evidence to support the claim that violent video games cause children to be more aggressive.

No matter what anyone says about violent video games, and no matter what links may be found, no one can prove that playing them actually causes children to be violent. In fact, numerous studies have found that there is no link between violent video games and aggressive behavior.

A well-known sociologist at the University of Southern California, Karen Sternheimer, for instance, discussed her findings about violent video games in a recent release of Contexts, a quarterly journal released by the American Sociological Association. She found that there is absolutely no link between violent video games and aggressive behavior.

"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."

And yet, Rep. Baca and the rest of his misinformed buddies in Congress are doing just that. Instead of considering the fact that multiple studies from real experts (including Harvard researchers) have found no link between violence and video games, they continue their push to "protect" our children, no matter the consequence.

Undoubtedly, Baca supporters will use the recent story of a 17-year old boy who was convicted of murdering his mother because she took away his copy of Halo 3 as proof of some link between violence and video games. In his ruling, Judge James Burge said he believes the boy "had no idea at the time he hatched this plot that if he killed his parents, they would be dead forever" due to his unhealthy addiction to the game.

I won't debate that the boy had an 'unhealthy' obsession with Halo 3, but I think that we can all agree that we can't blame the murder on the game itself. Master Chief didn't kill the boy's parents, and it's absolutely ludicrous to believe that playing the game made his willingness to attack his parents greater. Suffice it to say that there are probably a number of psychological explanations for the attack.

And yet lawmakers and those who believe that video games really do cause violence won't believe that logic. Instead, they see a child who allegedly committed a heinous act, and their immediate reaction is to blame video games.

What about all the other factors that may have gone into that attack? Should we totally forget about mental-health issues, problems in the home, or psychological considerations? To do so would be irresponsible, in my estimation.

But as we sit here and wait to hear if this ridiculous bill will make its way to the president's desk, I can't help but wonder how we reached this point. When did it become acceptable for lawmakers to place unsubstantiated warnings on packaging? And when did it become acceptable to treat an entertainment vehicle the same way as cigarettes, a real killer?

It's a sad day for the world, and it will be even worse if this "warning" bill is passed. Under the guise of "protecting our children," Baca and the rest are doing their part to keep common misconceptions about gaming in place while more than 99 percent of the gamers around the world have never, ever, committed an act of violence because of a video game.

And that's a shame.

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