Grand Theft Scapegoat: The Ridiculous Jihad against Video Games

By Koffler, Daniel | Reason, October 2005 | Go to article overview

Grand Theft Scapegoat: The Ridiculous Jihad against Video Games


Koffler, Daniel, Reason


In May, By a vote of 106 to 6, the Illinois legislature passed a measure banning the sale of "violent" and "sexually explicit" video games to minors. The California Assembly is considering its own version of a prohibition on game sales to the underaged, and Washington, Indiana, and Missouri already have enacted similar laws, only to see them struck down on First Amendment grounds.

Video games are an appealing target for a public figure in search of a crusade. Movies and music have energetic advocates, but it's hard to find anyone who will defend games for their artistic value, or even on the on the grounds of freedom of expression. Usually the strongest argument made for games is that they are harmless fun. That's not the most effective response when the governor of Illinois is claiming "too many of the video games marketed to our children teach them all of the wrong lessons and all of the wrong values."

Ominously, the Illinois proposal pays no heed to the existing range of voluntary content ratings, which run from EC ("Early Childhood") to AO ("Adults Only") and ostensibly allow game merchants to decide for themselves what constitutes "violent" or "sexually explicit" material. In a message "to the parents of Illinois," Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich asserts that "ninety-eight percent of the games considered suitable by the industry for teenagers contain graphic violence." Blagojevich is surely abusing language and statistics--if you stretch the phrase far enough, even the mild-mannered Super Mario Bros. includes what could be described as "graphic violence" but the implication is that the proposed legislation's content restrictions could apply to games the ratings board approved for teens.

It would not be fair to say that the arguments for video game criminalization are completely uncontaminated by evidence. But prohibitionists are highly selective about the evidence they present and are careless once they've presented it, hoping to substitute raw emotional appeal for a plausible explanatory framework. Blagojevich, for example, claims "experts have found that exposure to violent video games increases aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors" as if no more need be said about the causal relationship between playing video games and engaging in anti-social behavior. Such rhetoric implies that video game players are empty, infinitely corruptible ciphers.

There is no shortage of readily available literature on the relationship between media exposure and behavior, and the evidence does not support the prohibitionists' case. A 2004 study of "Short-Term Psychological and Cardiovascular Effects on Habitual Players," conducted by researchers at the University of Bologna, concluded that "owning videogames does not in fact seem to have negative effects on aggressive human behavior." A 2004 report in The Journal of the American Medical Association noted: "If video games do increase violent tendencies outside the laboratory, the explosion of gaming over the past decade from $3.2 billion in sales in 1995 to $7 billion in 2003, according to industry figures, would suggest a parallel trend in youth violence. Instead, youth violence has been decreasing."

Likewise, criminologist Joanne Savage contends in a 2004 issue of Aggression and Violent Behavior that "there is little evidence in favor of focusing on media violence as a means of remedying our violent crime problem.

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