Last Wednesday, in one of 23 proposals on gun control, US President Barack Obama pledged 10 million dollars to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to examine the roll of violence in entertainment and its correlation to acts of violence. “Congress should fund research into the effects that violent video games have on young minds,” the president said. “We don’t benefit from ignorance. We don’t benefit from not knowing the science of this epidemic of violence.”
As someone who enjoys both film and video games, I can’t help but internalize some of this debate. Issues of this nature are complicated and sensitive and they are hard to examine without emotions also playing a role. Countless studies have been conducted which show that little correlation exists between the consumption of video games and other media and acts of violence (see Christopher J. Ferguson, Chair of Texas A&M International University’s Department of Psychology & Communication). Countries such as The Netherlands, South Korea, Canada, France, and the UK spend per capita as much or more than the United States on video games and yet host a mere fraction of the levels of violence. So the problem is uniquely American, while the consumption of violent media on the other hand is not.
Nevertheless, there is a high level of violence that permeates both film and video games. The same could be said for books, comics, visual art and other entertainment media. Video games, however, seem to receive the lion’s share of the blame. The industry on a whole has a massive PR image problem. Video games are seen as the product of mal-adjusted, socially aggressive young men, when in fact the truth is quite the opposite. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average age of a game player is 30 years old, and that person has played for approximately 12 years. Forty-seven percent of all players are women, and women over 18 years of age are one of the industry’s fastest growing demographics. In fact, according to the ESA, adult women represent a greater portion of the game-playing population (30 percent) than boys age 17 or younger (18 percent).
Games too are as diverse as the people who play them. As the medium and industry continues to mature, game designers are creating more pensive, thought-provoking affairs which counter the violent stereotypes that flood the public consciousness. IGN for example, a giant in terms of video game media outlets, gave its vaunted game of the year award to Journey, a game which includes no dialogue, no enemies, and no violence whatsoever.
Now one would only need to play Call of Duty on Xbox Live for five minutes before they were disgusted by some of the bigotry, sexism and homophobic slurs that are thrown around with ease. Sadly this is a reality of multiplayer competition within video games, and certainly a social issue that needs to be combated Sexism in general is far too prevalent in video game culture, as evidenced by the Anita Sarkeesian hate campaign (one of the most despicable moments in geek culture in the past year, if not ever).
So what can the industry do? This is the big question going forward. In terms of working with politicians on the issues of violence in video games, the industry has shown itself to be more than ready to take part in the debate, as demonstrated in their communications with Joe Biden not long after the Newtown Connecticut shooting. There are those within the industry who feel that involvement will only set the industry up for greater blame. As the editor-in-chief of Gamasutra, an industry blog, wrote: “If you’re meeting with Joe Biden about gun control, you’re stating that you are part of the problem, and therefore, you are part of the problem.” However, seeing the great PR battle that the video game industry has before it, I can only hope that we remain part of the debate rather than the subject. As Obama said at the beginning of this article: “We don’t benefit from ignorance. We don’t benefit from not knowing the science of this epidemic of violence.”
Update: Check out a follow-up post with a video from respected video game commentator Adam Sessler here.