Violence and Controversy in Video Games

Posted on November 16, 2011 by


This week saw the release of the highly-anticipated Modern Warfare 3. A bit before the release there was a “leaked” video of the game. “So what?” you ask, big deal, some of the game may be ruined if you watch it. The only problem with this video is that, it depicts a little girl being killed by a car-bomb in London.

WARNING: This video contains graphic violence and may upset some viewers. Watch at your own discretion.

So, whether you watched or not, it is pretty clear how much controversy is surrounding the video and the game. So, what, you may wonder, is my point in bringing this up? Well, I would like to explore the topic of video game controversy.

While all the topics related to video game controversy, violence, sex, crime, racism, nudity et cetera, have been around for a long time, however, it really went full-steam during the 90s with Sen. Joe Lieberman and his hearings on violent video games. The debate raged on from all sides, but it really got parents worried about violent games impacting their kids. Now, when people think of video game violence, most people’s first thought is the Grand Theft Auto series. Of course, this is no accident as it has been one of the most targeted games. If you’re unfamiliar with the series, the games (there are multiple iterations) all focus on the protagonist becoming some sort of crime-lord within the fictional cities. The player achieves this through, you guessed it, performing crimes, many involving outright slaying of other NPCs (Non-Player Characters). Often times, the criticism of the games involves the influence they may/do have on children. This makes sense as no one wants their kid growing up wanting to be a drug Kingpin, presumably.

One of the most recent studies focusing on the link between virtual and real-life violence of those future Kingpins was conducted by long-time persecutor and researcher of violence in games, Dr. Craig Anderson. The study posited that violent video-games do in fact increase aggression or aggressive behavior in children; though it certainly wasn’t the first, nor will it be the last. The part that makes all that complex theoretical talk interesting though, is that it quickly had holes poked in it by another study. One of the key points made was that “aggression” is a subjective term, with a subjective scale of measurement, thus opening up the floodgates to a wave of potential bias from both researchers, funders and journals. That was one of the more simple ones, as I don’t pretend to be an expert in reading psychological research papers. So, we are left then, with a paper being published saying bad things come from controversial video-games, and another saying that the paper, ultimately, was biased, which isn’t too hard to believe as it came from an opponent of said games. So where does that leave us? Should we just say, well the violence, sex, and drugs has no effect on anybody ever because all the studies are just biased and hate gamers? I don’t think we should go quite that far. Though I don’t think we should do the reverse either and say all video games with violence, sex and drugs are going to turn kids into murdering, drug-dealing rapists.

What the arguments tend to neglect is that there is a rating system for video games, much like for movies. The ESRB issues ratings for games ranging from Early Childhood through Adult Only. Between those two extremes are E for Everyone, E 10+ Everyone 10 years or older, T for Teen, and M for Mature. The ratings are, in essence, the same as movies, G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17, and X (which isn’t an actual MPAA rating, but we all know what it means). Games like Grand Theft Auto tend to receive the M rating, i.e. 17+ or for the most part adults. So, why is it that there is outrage over violent games when the rating, which is more often than not, enforced by stores, is there to prevent children from obtaining it? Doesn’t it ultimately mean that it is the parents’ job to choose what games their kids are playing? I’d argue Yes. Not only does the ESRB give out a blanket rating for a game indicating who they believe it is appropriate for, but buyers can speak to store employees, or if they’re afraid of strangers, the advent of the internet means you’re a few clicks away from reviews of games. Ignorance is no longer an excuse, nor is outright media-induced fear. So, why rage against the industry when parents are the ones allowing the product into their home?

I think, partly, the problem has, or more likely had, to do with the differences in technological literacy between kids and parents. A great deal of the debate happened during the 90s and early 2000s, when many parents weren’t used to games outside of Pac-Man or Super Mario. That may be a bit overgeneralized, but you get the point. They weren’t inundated with the tech culture like we are today, and that showed in their fear of this new media, and what it was capable of portraying. This gap is closing recently as more parents are part of the generations used to what is contained in video games. That is, parents nowadays are much more used to video game and a media filled culture, and that influences how their kids grow up as well. My parents wouldn’t let me play Mortal Kombat on our Super Nintendo because of the violence involved. But now, I have friends with kids who are just as much into video games as I am, and I can’t imagine that their kids won’t grow up being encouraged to play games, even violent ones. Of course, I think, or at least hope, that parents will be much more forward and frank about explaining that the violence and other “improper” parts aren’t real. But, I may be wrong.

So, let’s go back to that video. A little girl being killed by a car-bomb. Pretty violent and controversial. Of course, it’s a game about “modern warfare,” and unfortunately that is a realistic idea, even if it seems to be more for shock value than anything else. However, the games have become synonymous with controversy with Modern Warfare 2 containing a level called “No Russian” (WARNING: Graphic Violence again) in which the player is able to slay innocent, however, it should be noted that the level was done in a way that was supposed to “convince” the Russian NPCs that the protagonist was on their side.  But, in the end the question is whether or not the violence is out of place. I would argue that video games are becoming the new books. And hasn’t there been violence in books for nearly as long as the genre has been around? The experience of pain, war, sex, violence, drugs,death, loss have all been present in novels for quite a while, yet rarely, unless it is taken to the extreme (See: The 120 Days of Sodom). It was often seen as being an attempt at authenticity, or someone taking a stab at explaining the human condition. Perhaps the controversy with games is that you’re the one perpetrating the acts, or at least being immersed in it. Though I would also argue that books and films have always engrossed the audience in their plot, placing them shoulder-to-shoulder with the protagonist(s) and, essentially, forcing them to live the experience. So is it really amazing that there are such “terrible” occurrences in video games when other mediums have been doing so for centuries, or is it just another wave of technophobia?