Video Games and Crime

By Ward, Michael R. | Contemporary Economic Policy, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Video Games and Crime


Ward, Michael R., Contemporary Economic Policy


I. INTRODUCTION

Regulating the content and marketing of video games so as to curb crime and violence has received growing interest among policymakers. Substantial evidence from psychological studies indicates a potential link between violent video game play and tendencies toward violent and possibly criminal activities. If so, these represent the sort of negative externality often addressed by public policy. To date, proposals to regulate the content of games have not been adopted because of both the difficulty in defining and implementing rules regarding the content appropriateness and the possible infringement of free speech protections.

In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission has made six reports to the U.S. Congress on the broader topic of violence in media between 2000 and 2007 (Federal Trade Commission 2000, 2007). As of June 2006, there were seven bills in Congress addressing violence in video games (CNET News 2006). So far, the U.S. regulatory intervention has focused on placing limits on marketing to minors. Legislation aimed at video game violence is also proposed in many U.S. states. Many broader state-level restrictions have been struck down by the courts because they were found to infringe on constitutional rights (Theirer 2006). More interventionist policies are under consideration in the European Union (MacWorld 2007), Britain (Reuters 2007), and China (Peoples Daily Online 2007).

The concern presupposes that violence in the video game context induces gamers into violent behaviors beyond the gaming context. Although the evidence indicates that these games heighten physical and emotional reactions related to violent, criminal, and antisocial attitudes, so far as I know, there have been no studies linking video game usage to observed behaviors in gamers. Besides the psychological theories, economic theory also suggests that it is plausible that one develops a proclivity for actual violence through virtual violent behavior. This might result from the accumulation of a specific stock of human capital that increases the consumption level required to generate a given level of utility as with rational addiction models (Becker and Murphy 1988). Gamers without immediate access to a game console required to "consume" virtual violence may instead choose to engage in violent behaviors outside the virtual environment.

Alternatively, it is also plausible that virtual violence tends to diminish one's marginal utility from further violent activities. If virtual and actual violence are substitutes, increased consumption of violence through virtual gaming would reduce the demand for actual violence. If so, immediately after engaging in violent video game play, we might expect a gamer to display the enhanced emotional and physical responses normally associated with these activities. However, this experience would serve to partially sate the gamer's demand for violence, whether it is virtual or actual. That is, the psychological evidence is consistent with either virtual violence leading to an increase or a decrease in actual violence. More to the point, it is impossible to tell a priori if violent video game play and violent or antisocial behaviors appear as complements or substitutes. While evidence of a complementary effect would lend support to a more interventionist policy, evidence of a substitution effect could undermine such support.

Relatedly, it is possible that violent games are particularly attractive to otherwise violent individuals. Independent of whether violent video game play causes a behavioral change in which individuals become more violent, it could substitute for the time spent in violent activities thereby decreasing the total amount of violence. Dahl and DellaVigna (2009) found evidence that the voluntary incapacitation around the time of the showing of violent movies is associated with short-run reductions in crime rates. Kendall's (2007) findings suggest that rapes decline with the availability of online pornography, especially among offenders for whom the internet induced a relatively larger decline in the non-pecuniary price of pornography--male teenagers. …

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