Sen. Brownback Turns Up the Heat on the Video Game Industry

by on March 29, 2006 · 4 comments

Unfortunately, as I predicted would be the case in my National Review editorial earlier this morning, today’s hearing on video games in the Senate Judiciary Committee turned out to be quite a one-sided show trial.

Senator Sam Brownback called the hearing to blast the game industry for what he called “graphic,” “horrific,” and even “barbaric” level of violence we supposedly see in games today. Violent video games, he argued, are becoming “simulators” that train kids to behave violently and even kill cops.

And his proof? As I suspected would be the case (and, again, predicted in my editorial) it largely came down to two key games: “Grand Theft Auto” and “25 to Life.” Sen. Brownback decided to show a few clips from these games and one other title (“Postal”) to supposedly illustrate just how violent games are today. Now make no doubt about it, these games do contain some truly sickening, despicable acts of simulated violence. I don’t know why a game developer feels compelled to show thugs beating prostitutes with a baseball bat, or a criminal shooting cops with a sniper rifle, or someone torching a dead corpse and then urinating on it to put out the fire. It’s all very sick and it’s quite sad that someone is squandering their creative talents on the depiction of such disgusting, disrespectful acts of violence.

But let’s get back to the key point and ask a question that ABSOLUTELY NO ONE EVEN BOTHERED DISCUSSING AT THE HEARING. Namely: Are these games indicative of all video games out there today?

Answer: Not by a long shot. In reality, games like “Grand Theft Auto” and “25 to Life” are not representative of what most kids are playing.

As I showed in my recent paper on “Fact and Fiction in the Debate over Video Game Regulation,” of all the games that Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB)–the self-regulatory ratings board for the gaming industry–reviewed in 2005, less than 13 percent were rated “Mature” (M) or “Adults Only” (AO), the categories that contain the sort of violence critics are concerned about. In fact, less than 1 percent were rated Adults Only. Thus, around 86 percent of all games sold in 2004 were rated either “Early Childhood” (EC), “Everyone” (E), “Everyone 10 and older” (E10+), or “Teen” (T). Moreover, in my study I also compiled the ratings for all of the Top-20 video and computer games between 2001-2005 and found that over 80 percent of the most popular games were rated either “E” or “T.” If one removes from the count the various “Grand Theft Auto” and “Halo” titles (there have been multiple best-selling versions of each game), the percentage of “M” rated games drops even further. So, it’s not the case that all games are as “barbaric” as the ones Sen. Brownback singled out.

Of course, the video game industry didn’t get a chance to make this point at the hearing since no one from the industry was invited to sit on either panel. Patricia Vance, President of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board was there, but she doesn’t represent the industry. She just runs the voluntary organization that rates all the games.

Brownback grilled Ms. Vance and tried to make her atone for the sins of a few developers out there that make the games like “25 to Life.” Of course, as she noted in response, the ESRB has no power to keep such games off the market, it just rates those games and gives parents to information they need to make informed judgments about the games they allow in their homes.

Brownback and a few others on the two panels, which mostly consisted of psychologists, also questioned whether the industry could even be trusted to rate its own games. That led to suggestions of a federal ratings system. Alternatively, if the private ratings system is retained, Brownback asked some of the panelists what they thought about his idea to require that before new “M”-rated games could be released, they should be reviewed by an independent panel of experts or psychologists to gauge what impact it might have on players. A couple of people muttered their approval of such a proposal. Luckily, however, one brave soul, Dr. Dmitri Williams of the Univ. of Illinois, pointed out that psychologists don’t exactly crank out their work in a matter or minutes. Indeed, it takes many months, even years, to conduct a serious study on the impact of media on individuals. Thus, Brownback’s idea would likely bring game releases to a standstill. Moreover, such a proposal, if imposed by law, would likely represent an impermissible form of prior restraint and found unconstitutional. But hey, never mind that little thing called the First Amendment!

Regarding those psychologists on the panel… they couldn’t come to any definitive conclusion regarding the impact of games on children’s behavior. For example, Dr. Elizabeth Carll of the American Psychological Association and Dr. David Bickham of the Harvard Medical School both said that games “may” or “might” cause feelings of aggression, but they also pointed out that there really hasn’t been substantial long-term evidence to confirm that belief. Despite this, both Carll and Bickman argued that government should just go ahead and regulate anyway!

But Dr. Williams of the Univ. of Illinois, who has authored several studies on these issues, pointed to the many problems with current research, including that fact that there are no long-term, longitudinal studies and that the current short-term experiments are typically conducted in very unnatural laboratory settings. (Those settings also are devoid of the sort of group or community play that increasingly typifies gaming). Moreover, many of these studies do not account for other “environmental” factors that might have a bearing on actual aggression, such as broken homes, parental abuse, drugs, bad neighborhoods, or medical or mental conditions.

More specifically, Dr. Williams brought up what I think is the most important issue related to all “media effects” research. That is, does arousal equal aggression? Just because a particular study reveals that watching simulated violence in a movie, TV show or video game leads to feelings of “arousal” (heightened brain or heart waves, punching a Bobo doll, etc.), does that mean that actual aggression or violence will follow out in a real-world environment? You would think an important question like that would get a lot more attention in the media effects literature or in the public debate over regulating media. But it doesn’t. I actually read a lot of these studies and some of them raise this issue, but many just continue to rely on some sort of proxy as an indication of real-world aggression. But humans can get “aroused” from many things and not turn into violent monsters. Reading a riveting book, watching a scary movie, watching a bruising boxing match, listening to a loud rock concert… those are just a few things that millions of people have been doing for the past few decades without turning around and harming others afterwards. Did the media in question “arouse” them? You bet. Your heart and head can really get pumping when you enjoy powerful media images or sounds. But it doesn’t follow that you become aggressive thug just because you get aroused by those media.

Indeed, if it was that case that such a clear link existed, it should be showing up in the numbers. Cultural and social indicators, that is. But it’s not. As I also pointed out in my recent paper, while the laboratory studies have been largely inconclusive, it is possible to at least analyze the claim that there is a correlation between general exposure to video games and declining cultural indicators. Data is readily available on many cultural indicators of concern and can be plotted against increasing childhood exposure to media and video games. And all those numbers–juvenile violence, kids carrying weapons in schools, high school drop-out rates, teen pregnancy, etc–are all going down. In particular, according to the FBI, aggregate violent crime by juveniles fell 43 percent from 1995-2004. This evidence was also completely ignored at today’s hearing.

So, the picture politicians are painting about video games is being based on half-truths, myths, and misperceptions. I guess I should have expected as much going into today’s Senate hearing. But I keep hoping that policymakers will be willing to listen to reason and the facts in debates about media policy. Silly me. When will I ever learn?

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