Videogames and Legal Controversy

During the past few years there have been several court rulings stating that videogames are protected by first amendment rights, and rightfully so. Even though many videogames follow Juul’s definition of ‘game’ and are, indeed, purely games in the sense that they are a system of rules which the player must follow in order to solve a problem (examples such as Tetris, Bejeweled, any sports videogame, racing videogames, etc), one must remember that just as many videogames have a point to make. Through storytelling and the interactive principles that govern this new medium, many videogames are, indeed, a means of artistic, cultural, and even political expression. Anyone who has played Fallout 3 is familiar with the strong criticism to war, specifically nuclear war, to big government, and to propaganda. Similarly, anyone who has played Ar Tonelico will remember the heavy sexual connotations of the plot. We may agree or disagree, for example, that Dante’s Inferno’s representations of Hell are accurate when compared to those in the epic poem, and we may agree or disagree on whether Prey’s purpose was to have you, as a human, go through a similar experience as we as humans put animals through in animal farms. However, the fact that we are having the discussion is proof enough that videogames, indeed, make “a point” (and I use the term loosely) and as such deserve protection of the first amendment.

Last week the state of California went to the Supreme Court with a certain piece of legislation that would make it illegal to sell violent videogames to minors. Videogame and news outlets were ablaze with commentary on the issue – most of them were misinformed or misguided.

A lot of the “anti videogame articles” printed or posted on the internet gave a brief history or videogame legislation and talked about previous videogame related killings, like the notorious Virginia Tech Shooting of 2007 where Seung-Hui Cho, a deeply antisocial individual who never played videogames, killed 33 people. How this relates to videogames I have no idea. The articles then went on to mention “prominent” articles published in academic / scientific journals which “give proof” that videogames cause negative / violent reactions, and based on this videogames should be banned, or at least not sold to minors.

I believe that it is parents, not governments, who decide what their kids can or cannot be exposed to, and having been one of the few people growing up with videogames in my neighborhood I can safely say that if you play the right videogames, violent or not, you are more likely to end up a doctor, lawyer, U.S. Army Forces Captain, or scholar than if you don’t play videogames. In fact, most of the non-gamers I grew up with are now dead, in jail, or in dead-end jobs. But that’s personal story and not evidence, and what I would like to address regarding the “anti videogame stance” is the “research” they support. Indeed, several published articles, some of them with sound research methodology, have proven that there is a very high correlation between violent individuals and violent videogames. However, one must remember that correlation does not mean causation. I recall reading in a book a few years ago (unless my memory fails me it was either How Everything Bad is Good for You by Johnson or Good Videogames + Good Learning by Gee) that an investigator carried out an experiment using a somewhat sound methodology. In it he discovered that people who were prone to violence (people accused of assault, people who got into fights often, etc) liked violent videogames more than non-violent people. In this same investigation the researcher discovered that people who play “a violent videogame” (which turned out to be Doom) for extended periods of time will “blast someone with noise” for a fraction longer of a second than someone who played Myst, a non-violent game, for the same amount of time. His conclusions (not sound conclusions, mind you) were that “videogames make you violent”. Anyone with any common sense will see the amazing leaps of faith taken to arrive at these conclusions, so I will not talk about them. I will simply make the statement that “violent people like violent videogames”, which is a fact proven by several investigations, is NOT the same as “violent videogames make people violent”, which is something that has NOT been proven. Furthermore, there are several items that have been identified to make individuals more prone to violence than videogames. Some of these are bad parenting, poverty, stress, and being exposed to televised wars on the news.

Indeed, watching O’Riley or listening to Rush Limbaugh will make you behave in a more violent manner than videogames. At least after the ten-minute adrenaline rush provided by videogames fades out you will go back to your normal self. The same can’t be said after being exposed to, say, Glenn Beck’s messages of fear, hate. and bigotry.

This does not mean that the pro videogame side is free of sin. Many posts have eloquently argued that parents should be concerned about what the kids are exposed to, not the government, videogames don’t make you violent, and so on. However, one must take into consideration one thing: while videogames in themselves are not inherently evil, when mixed with bad parenting the consequences can be devastating. I recall when I was a kid in elementary school we used to play pretend street fighter. I was always Honda. We used to fight during lunch, someone would keep fictional score of our fictional life bar, and it was all fun. But in 6th grade a kid with some sort of mental condition came and joined the group and he wanted to fight for real. Instead of “I throw a hadoken at you” he would pick up a rock and throw it, and instead of throwing fake punches he would actually try to pile drive someone like Zangief. It turns out this kid was not raised by his parents AND played videogames. This kid had been raised by the TV and videogames. This is the one factor that “videogames are great” people fail to mention. When you don’t tell your kid that you don’t re-spawn when you get shot and the kid runs off to do something stupid “knowing” that he will re-spawn, I can’t see it as the game’s fault, I see it as the parent’s fault.

This actually takes me back to the 80’s when the Superman craze took over. Superman flew. Many parents told their kids something like “he can fly because he’s Superman, but you can’t fly, you will fall down and die if you try it”. Parents who didn’t would soon find their kids splattered on the floor with a towel tied around their necks. Does this mean that Superman is evil because he is influencing children and telling them to jump off buildings? Of course not. It just means that parents should be aware of what their kids are doing and teach them accordingly.

And that is why videogames have ratings.

Parents should be informed, know the ratings, and teach their kids according to what they think.

In my experience, indeed, there are few things better than seeing your 3 year old kid fail miserably at playing Tales of Vesperia while you try to tell them what’s going on. I’m sure one of those “better” things will be when he’s ten and thinks he can beat me in Street Fighter 5.

For a more informative take check out Kotaku’s report


About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on June 5, 2010, in Video Game Commentary and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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