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Opinion: Changing the terms of the violent video game debate
Opinion: Changing the terms of the violent video game debate Exclusive GDMag Exclusive
January 31, 2013 | By Patrick Miller




Game Developer magazine editor Patrick Miller examines the renewed debate surrounding violence and video games, in this reprint from the February issue.

As our industry is dragged into yet another round of scapegoating, I am discovering that the conversation about violent video games is rigged against us from the start, and that we collectively need to change the terms of the conversation before we sit down to talk with anyone.

The question is the problem

If someone asked you, "Do violent video games cause people to be more violent?", how would you answer? Well, science is a good first bet, but it's difficult to draw a scientifically valid chain of causality behind the act of playing a violent video game, an individual's corresponding physical response (increased heart rate, higher blood pressure, and so on) and psychological response, and then use the results to connect all those factors to something like an overall uptick in mass shootings.

When it comes down to it, we simply don't understand enough about the psychology of individual people, or the sociology of people in the aggregate, to answer this question definitively. So, instead, we rely on our intuitions and our past experience to guide us. Have you ever consumed a media work that made you feel something? Probably. Did those feelings incite you to do something bad to other people? Probably not--but perhaps you might imagine it could incite other people (children, mentally ill, and so on) to do so.

"Gamers" are other people

In general, we don't think of ourselves as "Book-Readers" or "Movie-Watchers" or "Music-Listeners." But playing games is marketed as an identity; if you play games, you are a Gamer. This is likely left over from the days before everyone carried around smartphones, but it persists because people still make plenty of money selling to Gamers.

I'm not a businessperson, but I imagine that creating a dedicated audience that defines themselves primarily as "people who buy what you're selling" is pretty amazing (even if that means energy-drink vendors show up to professional conferences and sling tall-boys around).

But when you've defined your consumers as "different from everyone else because they consume your product," it's easier to blame them (and you) for things that go wrong, because you've conveniently defined them as "different." (This is one reason why we generally don't use the word "Gamer" in Game Developer, by the way; it is exclusive, not inclusive, and it paints a picture of a person that many people who play games simply cannot relate to in order to sell stuff to people, which does the medium as a whole a disservice.)

Games are defined by violence

What is a violent video game? The tautological answer is "a video game with violence in it." But Angry Birds is basically about avian suicide bombers, and no one calls it a violent video game, so the answer must be something else. Video games suffer from an unfortunate rhetorical shift because our genres typically describe what we do, and that kind of makes us look bad when our most popular genre has (first) "person shooter" right there like it's an aisle at Blockbuster. Sure, as a consumer, it makes sense to group games that are similar in action, just like how movies group by what viewers feel (movie genres are typically defined by emotions and setting themes; "science fiction comedy," for example). Unfortunately, that means we have a big shelf of games about shooting people in the face.

If we broke down the NPD Group's list of 2012's top-10 best-selling retail games in terms of violent games vs. non-violent games, then it doesn't look great; there are five games out of the top 10 that would be violent games. But if we described that top 10 in terms of movie genres, we'd have two war movies (Call of Duty games), a historical action movie (Assassin's Creed 3), a sci-fi action movie (Halo 4), a post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller (Borderlands 2), and a kiddie superhero cartoon (Lego Batman 2) up there with three sports documentaries (NBA 2K, FIFA Soccer, Madden) and a dance movie (Just Dance 4).

We should be talking about controversial games, and discuss their messages and merits--including their questionable, gratuitous, or excessive uses of violence--but that shouldn't hold the medium hostage any more than Django Unchained should be able to hold film hostage. We should talk about how the companies that sell games which involve shooting people in countries that the U.S. is currently at war with to secure its access to oil are forging cross-promotions with the ones that sell guns and Hummers, but that shouldn't require industry reps across the spectrum of games to meet with a government task force.

Great (power, responsibility)

So how do we recast the conversation about violent video games? We can refuse to participate in conversations that insist on pigeonholing the medium, but only if we're also advancing other conversations in its place; first, by ditching the word "Gamer" and all of its respective marketing connotations; second, by defining our games in terms of content and theme; third, by making games that use violence with purpose and calling out games and creators that don't. Game developers have in their hands the power to simulate experiences that no other medium has ever had before, and that power should not be dismissed with "Oh, they're just video games."

This article was originally published in the February 2013 issue of Game Developer Magazine. This issue also features a Mark of the Ninja postmortem, an in-depth look at building better touchscreen controls, and more. You can subscribe to the magazine here, download our iOS app here, or buy individual issues here.


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Comments


Axel Cholewa
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"We should talk about how the companies that sell games which involve shooting people in countries that the U.S. is currently at war with to secure its access to oil are forging cross-promotions with the ones that sell guns and Hummers [...]"

Yes. Absolutely yes.

Laura Stewart
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The US is awash with people wearing purple and black. At Starbucks this morning I met a man in a business suit... wearing flip-flops to show off his purple toenails. For that alone, the Ravens must loose on Sunday, but I digress. Avoiding referencing people who play games as Gamers is likely to be as successful and useful as refusing to call people who follow a professional sports team fans.

Thom Q
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I feel that it's also an age thing. For the generation in their late 20's / early 30's the term gamers is far more applicable then people in their early 20's. For kids under 15 there is no distinction anymore, nearly everyone plays games.

jin choung
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inasmuch as the recent discussions concerning this topic centers around events in the USA - a more statistical study can be used-

- how wide spread violent games (violent cartoons, movies, etc) are in countries other than the usa
- how wide spread is gun violence in countries other than the usa

now compare those results with numbers from the usa.

if you find that violent video games (violent cartoons, movies, etc) are as and/or more pervasive in other countries and the gun related violence is much much less... you kinda have your answer.

-----------------------------

but i think that games do play a part in building the gun enthusiast community ala call of duty, medal of honor. hell, EA tried to run cross promotions with real world weapons manufacturers. if you fetishize something, people are gonna want it. even though those people don't hunt or otherwise have much use for such things.

it's really interesting to me that when lapierre (of nra) talked about the problem of games, he mentioned all kinds of games but none of them featured prominently labeled real world weapons. he didn't mention the biggest shooter in the world.

anyone think that's coincidence?

follow the money.

games play a part. it doesn't create murderers but it contributes to the culture. and if your culture allows you to easily get your hands on real world weapons (unlike, say, japan)... there will be repercussions.

it seems like people who talk about this issue just abstract the living shit out of it but it's all pretty simple.

Thom Q
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I was just about to post the same thing

EU & Canada, same games & movies, way less murders / gundeaths / violent crimes. 2 possible conclusions: It's not the games & movies, or Americans are way more susceptible to them..

Thom Q
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Wow, Spain & Belgium both have twice as much robberies then Mexico??
Scotland having the most assaults does not surprise me that much though ;)

Thanks for the info, I stand corrected. The US still has a alarmingly high murder rate still though. 3rd after Mexico & Estonia.

Thom Q
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I'd like to add though that the US's size makes it hard to compare scores to the UK for example. Population density is much higher in the latter. The US's score is being lowered by the people that don't live in highly populated areas.
Maybe it would be a more fair comparison to average all European countries, or use the results from smaller parts of the US.

jin choung
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" it won't make violent crimes go away."

that's probably true but LETHALITY makes a huuuuuuuge difference to the society. i keep coming back to the day of the sandy hook attack. the very same day, there was some nut jub who went on a rampage in china and knifed up a scores of children at a school.

dead children at sandy hook: 20

dead children in china attack: 0

-----------------------------

but in regards to the general level of violence - that may just be the baseline for humanity anyway.

in regards to the topic at hand, the trick would be to compare the violence rate between free democracies inundated with violent media vs. such societies that have no (or lesser) access to such media.

that's a much harder study to pull off because "free democracies" kinda means you have access to the same media. would be hard to find countries that meet the one criteria and not the other.

i guess we can compare with when media was far more restrictive and tame (or in our case, before video games) but i believe that when that comparison is made, violent crime rates are going down.

at the end of the day, i'm sure that there's some nut job that will be inspired by modern warfare to go wipeout a small community in real life. but such a person would probably be set off by an episode of the a-team too.

i.e. games will not prove to be the lynchpin.

E Zachary Knight
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I would like to point out that we do have special categorical names for people who immerse themselves into certain kinds of media. For instance, we have book worms for people who read a lot, audiophiles for those who want the best sounds systems, and videophiles for those who want the best viewing experience. However, those are usually outliers in the overall community of people who read, listen to music or watch movies. They are special classes within those groups. When it comes to games, game playing is becoming more widespread every year and eventually, it will be as commonplace as people watching tv, listening to music or reading. We will continue to have a special classification for those people who immerse themselves in gaming by keeping up with latest technologies and games. However, those people will be the minority. The Special class.

Bob Johnson
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Waste of time since we had plenty of violence, really more violence, before videogames. And because violent crimes haven't increased since the dawn of videogames. The numbers are there. No need to discuss further.

Malte Kosian
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Is this just a non validated opinion or do you have numbers?
I remember Columbine High School, and the rise of many more, do you?
Statistics proof that USA has more murder and much more executions compared the the EU.
The last one is not a wonder, the first one is really shocking - USA has 5 times more homicide compared to the EU, and USA violent crimes is 27 per 1000(thousand) - the EU has 95 per 10.000 (ten thousand).

Probably you have a problem?

Bob Johnson
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? all you have to do is look at murder rates and see they have only gone down the past 30 years.

And read history. People were killing people long before videogames.

Look at the millions killed in WW2. No games to blame those deaths on.

Just because a few school shootings have been sensationalized over the past decade or two doesn't mean much in the bigger picture except that the media and its sound bites are much more prevalent and school shootings equal ratings.

Consumers in Europe play the same games as we do in the US so comparing violent crime rates says nothing about the relationship between violence and games except there is none. I mean you only proved my point.

No one said anything about the US being less violent than Europe or Japan so I think you misunderstood the topic.



Michael DeFazio
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Here are the numbers:
Homicide Rates per 100,000 citizens in the United States 1976-2010 (any considered Death Race the first "violent video game"... running over "gremlins" with a car)

1976 - 8.8 (Death Race)
8.8
9
9.7
10.2
9.8
9.1
8.3
7.9
7.9
8.6
8.3
8.4
8.7
9.4
9.8
9.3
1993 - 9.5 (Doom)
9.0
8.2
7.4
6.8
6.3
5.7
5.5
5.6
5.6
5.7
5.5
5.6
5.7
5.6
5.4
5.0
2010 - 4.8

But if we want to look at some other numbers (and we want to consider violent video games to be more in line with "modern" first person shooters we would probably look at the years 1993(9.5) to 2010 (4.8)

so, draw your own conclusions, but if we were to look at correlations of the numbers, one COULD argue that since the advent of the modern first person shooter/violent video games violence (specifically homicides) has decreased.

Some other tidbits:
Murders committed in 1993 with firearms 17,075
Murders committed in 1995 with firearms 13,673
Murders committed in 2005 with firearms 11,346
Murders committed in 2010 with firearms 11,078

population increased from 1993 to 2010 by 16% (there are more people)
number of murders with firearms from 1993 to 2010 DECREASED 35% (less people have been murdered by guns)

sources:
http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/H-Research_Notes/SA
S-Research-Note-9.pdf
http://big.assets.huffingtonpost.com/transparency.jpeg
http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbse&sid=31
http://www.nij.gov/nij/topics/crime/gun-violence/welcome.htm
http://factcheck.org/2012/12/gun-rhetoric-vs-gun-facts/

Thom Q
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I recently read somewhere that NY had it's first day with 0 murders in a long, long time!

And Michael: Doom saved America! ;)

Mark DeLoura
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Anyone interested in the video games and violence discussion would do themselves well to pick up a copy of Cheryl Olson's "Grand Theft Childhood", to read through some of Chris Ferguson's papers (http://www.tamiu.edu/~cferguson/pubs.html), and to catch up with the debate through Henry Jenkins' 1999 testimony (http://web.mit.edu/comm-forum/papers/jenkins_ct.html).

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Jared Pace
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While I think that a lot of points in this article have merit, I find it hard to believe that reclassifying ourselves and the genres we enjoy playing that we enjoy playing are going to have much of an effect, especially on the people who already look down on video games.

I'm only 23, but I imagine there was a time when not everyone read fiction, when few people valued music, and when only the bold went to the picture shows. While not everyone reads perhaps as much as they should, most everyone listens to music and watches movies. Video games are the new kids on the block, so it's only natural they they become the first source of blame.

I don't think there is an immediate solution to the problem. Maybe damage control like Mr. Miller suggest would help alleviate some of the pressure, but the value of video games lies in play. More people need to play video games; more people need to become gamers, not less. The more that people understand video games then the less heat video games will receive from cultural implications.

Simon Ludgate
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I just thought of something. In order to determine whether guns or video games are a more significant cause of violent crimes with guns that are linked to video games, one must merely look at the number of violent crimes committed with guns that aren't linked to video games and the number of violent crimes committed without guns that are linked to video games.

Christian Nutt
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Well that, and the oft-cited statistic that crime in general has gone down significantly during the video game era (late 70s - present.)

Vicki Smith
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I agree that the gamer label is a problem, but only because it carries so much baggage. When an outsider thinks of a gamer, their automatic associations are: male, unemployed, overweight, socially inept, nerd-rage, etc, etc. The larger issue is that when WE think of gamers, when we think of ourselves as a community, we embrace a lot of those same stereotypes to define ourselves. A lot of us think in terms of gamer 'cred', and we look with suspicion on "normals' who play games. Even more of us look with contempt on "soft core" gamers and social gamers. And yeah, I'll go there AGAIN: a lot of gamers simply don't accept women as gamers, unless they are booth babes or extreme tomboys.

If we want to be an exclusive subculture, we're free to do that. It's a big group, after all, and there's a lot of money to mine from it. But if the greater culture misunderstands us and distrusts us, that'll be no one's fault but our own.

Malte Kosian
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As video games are mostly influenced by the popular American culture, violence seems to be a necessary part of video game. But this is a feedback loop. Popular American culture glorifies violence as patriotism and freedom, heros are solving their problems with brutality instead of love or help.
As I said it is a feedback loop: Evan Solnik explains story to game writers and designers with the words
'story is conflict'. Encyclopedia Britannica's definition "conflict, in psychology, the arousal of two or more strong motives that cannot be solved together. [...]" Conflict always indicates a win/lose state. Stories and games with a win/win state or a 'you can not win' story/game are not part of this story definition.
What about 'just by happy' state? Those games are fun, too.
There are other stories and games out there. Stories, that are not conflict based.
Game do not have to be competitive - they can focus on flow or emotions instead.
You may call such games a 'not a game'-game, but rather I like to play such a game, than another violent shit.
We can solve all that 'violence in games discussion' easily.
By -> Make better games
And this will improve (American) global popular culture.
It is your decision, your turn now to make the change.

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Thom Q
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"Not a game"-game, like they say about The Walking Dead? Beautiful, intense, original game, with lots and lots of violence.

Violence does not mean bad game, like in any art form.

jeff grant
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What I find interesting is that during the debate of "violent video games" and a call to discuss the matter with industry leaders, TV continues to put out one violent show after another.

I've never been sickened by playing a video game, but the new show The Follower has done just that to me. We're talking self-inflicted ice pick through the eye into the brain, skinned and tortured dogs, some still alive, all being shown graphically. Never mind the running contests that a lot of the cop/forensic TV shows (Bones, CSI ____, etc) have to show the most realistic corpse possible. They look realistic.

At least when I sit down to play a video game, I know it's fake. With TV these days, they're so "good" that it's damn hard to tell.

And yet, where is the call to discuss violence on TV? Am I just not seeing it, or is it really not there?

Thom Q
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The shows you name are all for a mature audience though. And they watch those shows in Canada & Europe too..

If you look at children's programming, books & movies, they all became a Lot less violent then they were in the 80's & 90's.

Andy Dillbeck
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Most violent video games are rated MA, and stores will card you to make sure that you are old enough to buy them.

I've never, ever had a tv show check my age before it will play. And while we won't watch CSI, Criminal Minds, etc. while the kids are around, not all parents do, or care enough to pay attention to what their kids are seeing.

Also, most video games are less realistic than TV shows/movies depict. Even shows that are less intense than The Following show a lot more than what video games do. (most shows on broadcast TV are less violent than The Following, even Criminal Minds pulls punches and leaves a lot to the imagination when actual violence is done).
Take your average war scenario. The soldier lines up the cross hairs, pulls the trigger. In a video game the target might yell and fall over. In TV/Movies blood sprays and pools on the ground.

I agree that TV violence probably has a lot more influence than video game violence, with the one caveat that with TV violence you are just an observer, standing by while other people do violence, and in games you have to make the choice to do the violence your self.
However, this also points out that video game violence is a pressure release valve, allowing people to purge off tension, while TV violence doesn't.
So, in a way, TV violence is like watching porn, and video game violence is like masturbating. One only just builds pressure, and one releases it... So, video games are better than television.

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Joe McIntosh
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Very well written article, and it's certainly sparked some conversation here. Well done!

John Trauger
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The premise of un-defining ourselves seems shallow on the face of it, like calling oneself a "progressive" instead of a "liberal" and expecting people to react differently to the same policy statements.

the simplest argument is reality vs. fantasy. We most certainly process the two differently. Can we tell we're in a fantasy playing a game? Yes. I don't think this is in doubt. Maybe young children and some mentally ill can't.

Does it have some subtle corrosive effect on the human psyche? Not according to Michael DeFazio's stats. We've worried over the power of various media since we started inventing them. I remember when self-appointed defenders of virtue got Bugs Bunny cartoons hacked up because of concerns over the violence in them. All that did was tick off a generation of kids.

This isn't any different. Same song, new target: Us.

jin choung
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when all is said and done, i think everyone will agree that the prevalence of all violent crime can be chalked up to a society's inability to provide plentiful and attractive girlfriends.

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Dave Hoskins
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How does this graph of gun homicides correlate to to people playing 'duck shoot' (COD) games at home?

http://www.gun-control-network.org/Gun%20homicide%20rates.jpg

It doesn't.

If there's a gun lying around the house somewhere in full and open view of your children, then something went wrong with your parenting.
And gangs will always be there, especially around poor areas, and have done since records began.

Andrew Dtv
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You wrote "Do violent video games cause people to be more violent?" ... When it comes down to it, we simply don't understand enough about the psychology of individual people, or the sociology of people in the aggregate, to answer this question definitively." How do you know this? What is your authority? I am a psychotherapist and I hold the opposite opinion.


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