Violent Videogames, Crime, and the Law: Looking for Proof of a Causal Connection

By Chananie, Jonathan | Developments in Mental Health Law, January 2007 | Go to article overview

Violent Videogames, Crime, and the Law: Looking for Proof of a Causal Connection


Chananie, Jonathan, Developments in Mental Health Law


I. Introduction

Someone, usually an adolescent boy or a young man, commits a brutal murder, or series of murders. It is discovered that he had a penchant for, if not obsession with, extremely graphic, violent videogames. Headlines read, "How to Raise a Trained Killer" (1) and "Children and Violent Videogames: A Warning." (2) Psychological experts offer contradictory opinions on whether gaming leads to violence, and lawyers develop arguments linking gaming with violence as they prepare to prosecute or defend the shooter, or to sue the manufacturer of his favorite game.

This has been the scenario numerous times in the last five to ten years. This article will examine violent videogames and purported links to crime from a legal perspective. It will begin by noting the public's perception of a connection between violent videogames and violence, driven by a handful of high-profile cases that linked the two. It will then explore recent changes in the games themselves, describing the violent acts committed therein. Next, it will compare and contrast several scholarly publications that assert or deny a connection between gaming and actual violence. It will conclude with an examination of the impact of this debate on legal disputes, both in civil and criminal contexts.

Throughout this paper masculine pronouns are used to refer to gamers and the characters they play. This is partly for grammatical convenience, but also because social science literature suggests that most gamers are male and that males are more likely to be moved to violence by gaming. (3) Indeed, every violent offender whose crime was allegedly connected to gaming discovered in research for this article was male. This is not to suggest that there are no female gamers or female videogame characters (Lara Croft of Lara Croft. Tomb Raider and Chun-Li of Streetfighter II, for example), nor that the psychological arguments discussed below that focus on male gamers may not also apply to females.

II. The Public's Perception

Videogames have been around for at least thirty years, (4) and they have been controversial for most of this time. Especially criticized was the 1976 game Death Race, in which players attempted to hit "gremlins" with a car, both portrayed by white stick figures on a solid black screen. Games in the 1980s like Pac-Man drew less scrutiny, but 1990s fighting games like Streetfighter 11 and Mortal Kombat, discussed in greater detail below, caused significant public outcry. (5) Public concern about violent videogames may have reached its height with the discovery after the April 20, 1999 massacre at Columbine High School that the assailants, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were avid fans of the videogame Doom. (6) Doom is a first-person shooter game, meaning the player sees events unfold through the eyes of a character in the game, adopts that character's perspective, and directs the character's response. A version of the game is licensed to the United States military to train soldiers to kill effectively. (7) In the commercial version, gamers play as an unnamed space Marine, the last survivor of an invasion by creatures from Hell, whose mission is to kill all of the invaders. He obtains ever more devastating weapons as the game advances, including shotguns, rocket launchers, and ultimately the BFG 9000 (BFG is an acronym for "Big Fucking Gun"). (8) The controversy escalated upon the discovery that Harris customized a version of Doom that could be played with two shooters, each with extra weapons and unlimited ammunition, and unarmed victims who could not fight back. (9) This version of the game is chillingly similar to the actual massacre, which left thirteen victims dead and twenty-three wounded before the shooters committed suicide. (10)

Media attention returned to violent videogames with the 2003 trial of Washington, D.C.-area sniper Lee Boyd Malvo, whose defense team attempted to build an insanity defense based on Malvo's psychological indoctrination and conditioning by his stepfather, John Mohammad.

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