Game Violence: Good Business or Bad?

The video game industry turned 30 last year.  The first commercial video game -- Pong -- appeared in 1972.  The first era, ending about 1985, was dominated by Atari console video games, which contained little violence, and what violence there was, was largely abstract, such as shooting spaceships.  Atari then had an internal rule that didn't allow violence against people in their games.

A lot has changed since then.  Today, graphically violent games are available and very prevalent in most gamerooms.  Many of these games are 3rd person fighting games with the goal of maiming, wounding or killing opponents, many of whom are representations of humans.  They are called 3rd person games because the player can see the character he or she is controlling.  Additionally, the entertainment industry has developed 1st person fighting games -- laser tag and paintball -- where participants role play as the fighters by shooting at other participants. 

Over the past few years, at least three governmental jurisdictions have passed legislation to prohibit children from having access to violent video games in arcades and gamerooms or from purchasing or renting violent video games.  Whenever these laws are enacted, the coin-op and video game industries send in their lawyers to overturn the laws on the grounds of First Amendment protection of freedom of speech. Laws in both St. Louis and Indianapolis have been overturned.  A new law banning the sale or rental to children of video games that depict violence against "a human form who is depicted, by dress or other recognizable symbols, as a public law enforcement officer," recently was enacted in Washington state and is now on appeal.  During the past two years, "The Protect Children from Video Game Sex and Violence Act" has been introduced in the U.S. Congress, but has failed to pass at committee level.

Several years ago, AMOA and AAMA, trade associations that represent game manufacturers and distributors, and IALEI, which represents entertainment venue operators, joined forces to create the Coin-Operated Video Game Parental Advisory System of ratings on coin-operated games to advise parents of sexual, language and violent content.  They created the system in hopes of heading off legislation, not out of any socially responsible concerns for the well-being of children.  The system uses a color-coded traffic-light approach so, according to the System's creators, "even young children are able, following instructions from their parent(s), to make responsible game-playing decisions."

Come on Industry, get real!  Do you think parents accompany their children throughout gamerooms?  Many times when the children are with friends or at parties, their parents aren't even with them.  What about the term we use for facilities: family entertainment or family fun centers?  That implies they are appropriate for families, yet inside are many games inappropriate for children. That is nothing short of deceptive marketing.  Haven't you ever noticed how children will seek out whatever is forbidden?  Ever been a parent trying to tell your children they can't do something when your children argue all their friends do it?   And the idea under the System of labeling games "yellow" that contain life-like mild violence, mild sexual content and/or mild language is only a clever guise to make them appear appropriate.  Additionally, the labels are very small and difficult to spot and read among all the graphics and clutter on many games, especially in darker gamerooms.

It's no wonder laws are being enacted to ban violent games.  Parents are trying to take charge of their children's upbringing and emotional well-being.  Parents aren't naive.   They instinctively know violence is bad for their children.  Putting a label on a game that says it contains violence while still serving it up to their children is not acceptable to many parents.

Often the coin-op and video game industries argue in their PR and legal appeals that there is no scientific evidence violent games are harmful to children.  That argument sure sounds convincing, so we decided to take a look at the research for ourselves, and we learned, once again, that you can't always believe well-orchestrated PR campaigns.  The scientific research shows just the opposite, the relationship is causal: playing violent video games increases both short-term and long-term aggressive behavior and actually changes a person's personality.

More specifically, here's what we found: In 2001, Craig Anderson and Brad Bushman, psychologists at Iowa State University, conducted a meta-analysis of 32 individual studies of video games and violence.  More recently, Anderson conducted another meta-analysis that incorporated new studies and also looked specifically at studies that involved children only.  A meta-analysis is a set of scientific statistical procedures used to combine results across studies in order to more accurately test specific hypotheses.  Their analysis found that exposure to violent games significantly increases aggressive behavior and decreases pro-social behavior. The effects of playing violent games did not significantly differ for adults versus children or males versus females. The effects were found not only for realistic violence, but fantasy and cartoon violence, as well.

Further, their analysis of the research found that the effect exposure to violent games has on children's subsequent aggressive behavior is larger than

  1. the effect of exposure to second-hand smoke on lung cancer
  2. the effect of calcium intake on bone mass
  3. the effect of homework on academic achievement

Their findings support what is called the General Aggression Model (GAM), which is a framework used to understand the effects of violent media.  Basically, what GAM explains is that playing violent games increases aggressive behavior by increasing aggressive thoughts and general physiological arousal.  Each exposure is essentially one more learning trial.  The effects accumulate over time with repeated exposure through learning processes, no different than learning how to perceive, interpret, judge and respond to other events in the physical and social environment.   The learning becomes more complex over time and difficult to change. The individual becomes more aggressive in outlook and tendency -- undergoing a change in their personality.  An individual's personality is determined to a large extent by learning experiences.  When people play violent video games, they rehearse aggressive scripts that teach and reinforce vigilance for enemies, aggressive action against others, expectations that others will behave aggressively, positive attitudes towards the use of violence and beliefs that violent solutions are effective and appropriate.

Furthermore, repeated exposure to graphic scenes of violence is desensitizing.  With repeated exposure to violent games and media, people learn to have more positive attitudes, beliefs and expectations regarding aggressive solutions to interpersonal problems.   They develop aggressive thinking scripts about how the social world works.  Once learned, these scripts influence how people interpret events and make behavior decisions.  They view the world in a more hostile fashion, with a tendency to respond to situations with more aggressive behaviors.  The ability to handle conflict in nonviolent ways is decreased, and as a result, a more aggressive personality develops.  Put simply, repetition increases learning, including learning how to think and act aggressively by playing all types of violent games, whether video, redemption, PC-based, laser tag or paintball.   

It's unlikely that game manufacturers will change anytime soon, despite what the research shows.  They have gotten themselves into a rut of thinking that games have to contain violence to sell.  However, for venue operators there is no excuse.  They control what games go into their facilities.  Yes, historically violent games have done well, but that doesn't necessarily mean including them in a facility increases profitability.  What most operators may not realize is they are sacrificing a portion of the family market by including violent games in their mix. 

Today, parents are beginning to reestablish their roles as gatekeepers for their children.  Sept. 11 and the subsequent refocus on family, along with the desire of first generation latch-key children to have a different family structure for their own offspring, have driven today's parents towards taking a stronger role in monitoring their children's activities and friends.  Additionally, consumers and parents today are becoming more discriminating in their choices by selecting companies that practice good corporate citizenship.  Companies that demonstrate a sense of social responsibility stand out from the crowd.  Research shows that parents alone make the decision 60% of time concerning which centers they take their children to.  And the other 40% of the time, they make the decision along with their children.

If location-based leisure (LBL) facilities want to attract families, they need to become more focused on the values of families and incorporate those values into their offerings.  Parents aren't dumb.  You can't in one breath say you offer a great destination for families to visit, while at the same time offering their children violent games, whether they are video games, laser tag or paintball.  In other words, walk your talk.  If you want a strong family brand, then offer what parents find appropriate for their children, not something that turns off many parents.  Offering violent games is neither socially responsible behavior nor good for business.  It's time for the LBL industry, and especially FECs and children's entertainment centers, to start acting as good corporate citizens.  More importantly, it's good for business.

If you are interested in checking out the research on the effects of playing violent video games, there's a lot of information and research links available on Craig Anderson's web site: