Dr. Geek: Treating Video Games like Cigarettes

Every so often, it seems another politician seeks to spend his or her political capital on an endeavor aimed at curtailing video games.  In the 1990s, such endeavors led to the formation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) and the rating labels for video and computer games.  After the formation of such a self-regulatory system, companies and states have sought to restrict the sales of what are considered the most violent games — usually those rated as M by the ESRB — to minors, fearing that minors are purchasing such titles on their own (even if sales figures do not back up such claims).  Last year, the United States Supreme Court ruled that such restrictions violated First Amendment rights, ruling that video games are a form of expression just as any other type of media.

With March 20, 2012, members of the United States House of Representatives are seeking a new tactic in this history of regulation and restriction.  They are introducing new legislation to add to video game boxes a type of warning label that is analogous to those mandated by the federal government to be placed on cigarette packages.

The bipartisan bill, H.R. 4204 or Violence in Video Games Labeling Act, is being sponsored by Joe Baca (D-Calif.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.).  According to GamePolitics.com, the intent of the bill is to require video game manufacturers to attach to games a label with language such as:  “WARNING: Exposure to violent video games has been linked to aggressive behavior.”  The warning label would be required for any type of game, even those rated by the ESRB as suited for children.  This bill is not the first attempt by these Congressmen to enact such regulation.  A less restrictive version — only geared at video games intended for teenagers and older players — was itself reintroduced in January of 2011 by the same representatives, without results.

Surgeon General Warning: Too much Kratos is bad for an Olympian's health.

As reported by GamePolitics.com, Congressman Wolf argues that such information is needed in addition to the ERSB ratings so as to provide parents with the information that could better inform their purchasing decisions.  Wolf’s argument has been an oft-repeated one in previous attempts to regulate the presence of violent video games in the market.  The formation of the ESRB’s rating system — along with the MPAA’s (Motion Picture Association of America) rating system for movies or the TVPGMB’s ( TV Parental Guidelines Monitoring Board) rating system for television — was constructed from this primary argument.  This argument is essentially the only argument proponents of such regulation can take after the US Supreme Court passed their ruling on video game producers’ First Amendment rights.  However, the bill’s proposed warning label illustrates that its supporters are slyly referencing another argument.

In the new bill, this argument regarding parents is coupled with the argument often offered for promoting restriction of the manufacturing and/or sale of more violent video games: the idea that playing violent video games leads to increased aggression in the players, with the potential for that aggression to become violent behavior.  This argument is founded on years of social scientific studies that support a link between exposure to this content and increased aggression and violence.  In the social sciences field, Craig Anderson of Iowa State University has conducted numerous studies that are used to support this argument, and he himself is a constant proponent for increased regulation and restriction on violent video games.

The research of Anderson and others has found results to support their claims from experimental studies, designed to determine causal links in artificial settings, and from longitudinal studies, designed to follow people over time in their real lives.  Research in laboratory experiments has shown short term effects from exposure to realistically graphic and even fantastical violence on such indicators of violent behaviors as aggressive thoughts, desensitization to violence, and elevated arousal levels.  Research in longitudinal studies has found links over time between video game use and later reported aggression.

Those researchers who make this argument are not without their detractors.  Among them is Henry Jenkins of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has argued that those who support this argument focus on studies that are largely driven by the field of psychology, which is only one specific way of understanding people and their behaviors.  While the findings from experiments are consistent,they are not necessarily large effects; this means that the exposure may have some effect, especially within the controlled conditions of the laboratory, but the impact is not large, is usually short-lived, and may not translate to the individual’s life outside of the lab.  For the longitudinal studies that show a relationship, the small effect issue is again involved, as video game use is but one factor of a person’s life that could contribute to his or her aggressive or violent behavior.

Considering the current status of this research, in their decision to overturn states’ restrictions on the sales of violent video games, the Supreme Court ruled that this argument was not strong enough — that the scientific evidence was inconclusive on the link between exposure and effect.  Because of their ruling, individuals such as Wolf have to rely on the argument of supporting parents’ consumer choices: it is the only legally feasible argument currently available to them.

Video games are not alone for undergoing this type of scrutiny.  Especially in the United States, we have a history of scrutinizing the introduction of new communication technologies for possible deleterious effects on vulnerable populations — especially young people.  According to Carolyn Marvin, every new communication technology has been introduced into a society in which the people had more or less figured out how to interact with one another.  Before printed books, few could read and write, and knowledge was largely transported orally.  Before telegraph, messages between people could take days, weeks, even months.  Before the photograph, we had no way to see a faraway land without actually traveling there.  Throughout time, the introduction of a possible new way of interacting with people and the world upsets the ideas for how things are done.  Until the dust of this innovation period settles, and the new way of interacting becomes commonplace and mainstream, there is great uncertainty and anxiety.  Such uncertainty and anxiety can prompt people to want to take action to regulate and/or restrict the new communication technology in an attempt to control the innovation period along lines that suit their liking, i.e. return more to the normalcy of before the introduction.

Frederic Wertham's critique of comic books nearly killed the industry.

Now, this is not to say that there is no impact on people, especially vulnerable children, from playing graphically violent games like God of War or Grand Theft Auto or Mortal Kombat.  But the key there is the focus on truly vulnerable children: children who are perhaps stressed by low income, familial conflict, crime ridden neighborhoods, etc.  Some claimed that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the boys of the Columbine school massacre, were violent video game addicts, but no game  made them plan to bomb their school.  It does little to further our understanding of a horrific situation if we reduce its complexity to simplistic, scapegoat links.  And yet we continually see such attempts in our media, such as after the Virginia Tech massacre.  Such manifestations in our public discourse, along with legislative bills like those supported by Baca and Wolf, are evidence of this unsettled period of innovation, dealing with new communication technologies that threaten to change how we interact with each other.  An event happens that we cannot easily explain, so we look for an easy explanation, and too often the media becomes the scapegoat bandied about in our conversation because it has already become a focal point for our social and cultural anxieties.

As a researcher and an educator, I am all for educating people about the facts.  We should have in our discussion about video games the results from researchers such as Anderson, as well as from research that appears to counter the argument he purports.  We should be working to help parents make decisions that affect their children’s lives.  However, while we should support giving parents’ information, the information should not be hyperbole masquerading as scientific fact.  A warning label, such as advocated in this bill, appears more intended to scare than to inform.  As it reflects this scapegoating of new media, such communication is not helpful to producing a conversation about the role of video games in all of our lives.

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About CarrieLynn Reinhard

I've been a scifi fan all my life, so I figured I should actually make money being so. And since I've always wanted to be a scientist -- at one point I was convinced I knew how to clone dinosaurs from their hollow bones -- the career path of being a scientist who studies fans and their media obsessions made the most sense for a woman obviously way too influenced by Jurassic Park. I've been all around the world studying fans, superheroes, virtual worlds, digital games, the media industry, and various media technologies. Now I'm an assistant professor in new media studies and audience reception studies at Dominican University just outside of Chicago, and discuss my research and other issues in the world of geekdom at my blog, www.playingwithresearch.com.