Violent games have parallels to porn

by Alan Zisman (c) 1998. First published in Computer Player, January 1998

Now that holiday gift-giving has come to end, how many of you, dear readers, gave or received computer or video games as presents? And what percentage of those were violent?

Well, you might wonder, what counts as a violent game? Presumably, we?ll all agree that games like Doom, or Duke Nukem 3D, where a muscle-bound hero shoots at everything that moves, splattering the walls with gore, are violent.

How about Carmegeddon, where drivers use their vehicles to wreck havoc on the roads? Is a game violent if, as Joey, my 13 year-old used to ask, there?s no gore? How about the air combat or Star Wars-like games, where you?re shooting down enemy fliers?

Clearly, there are different levels of violence offered in computer and video games; just as clearly, games with violent themes are popular with many game-players. And this is a cause for concern among many parents and teachers.

As both a parent and a teacher of teenagers, I?ve heard the response ?Well, I?ve been playing violent games for years, and I?m not a psycho-killer?. And they?re right?few game-players are homicidal maniacs. There has been research suggesting a link between violent video-game playing and later aggressive behaviour?a 1990 review of studies conducted by the US-based National Coalition on Television Violence, for example, claimed that nine out of twelve studies reported harmful effects on normal children and adolescents. Similar to the effect of violent TV, it seems, as Funk reported in 1993, that there is a clear ?short-term relationship between playing violent games and increased aggressive behaviour in younger children?.

In many ways, the debate about violence in games reminds me of the debate about pornography. In both cases, you get an industry that claims to be simply giving the market what buyers want. You have critics concerned about social effects, but unable to point to strong cause and effect relationships between games/viewing and later actions.

Violent video and computer games seem like pornography to me in other ways as well. For example, both let the consumer fantasize being a sort of all-conquering hero.

Research about pornography may be instructive, as well. There is no evidence that viewing pornography turns most viewers into rapists. However, there is evidence that viewing violent pornography makes viewers more accepting of violent sex?less sympathetic to victims, and more likely to view sexual violence as a joke.

Similarly, I suspect that there is a relationship between a tolerance for violent video and computer games and a tolerance for actual violence as a way to solve problems?an acceptance that school yard bullying and worse, for example, is simply ?the way the world is?.

Computer and video games are not the only or even the main cause of this attitude, of course. They?re simply a symptom, along with violent TV shows and movies aimed at pre-teen and adolescent audiences. As these themes become more and more widely expressed, it?s easy to become used to them?to not even notice them. Not long ago, computer publisher Ziff-Davis?s AnchorDesk web site promised a look at a group of driving games, with demos available for download. Four out of the five games listed used cars as a way to kill, wound, or maim. When I e-mailed them that this wasn?t about driving but more about killing, the site?s authors? didn?t seem to get the point?to them, violence and game-playing seemed synonymous.

As with movies and TV, the game producers are responding to threats of censorship with self-regulation. Sega, for example, rates its games as suitable for general, mature, or adult audiences. Nintendo models its ratings on those of the Motion Picture Association of America. When Electronic Arts? NHL 98 added fights on ice, this was noted in the small-print on the box.

Scandinavian societies have been notably tolerant of sexually-oriented movies and games; they, however, believe that North American-styled violent media are much more dangerous, and have been willing to censor and ban such material.

Vancouver?s schools have a policy of not allowing violent games on computers in schools; many parents aim for similar rules at homes. Of course, they have less control over what their children play at friends? houses, or in the arcades. My Joey admits to going to friends to play games that were banned at home. But now, he?s decided that most such games are ?boring?; he prefers, he says, games with less gore and more plot.

For research on violence and video games, check
In far-away Finland (just a click away on the Internet, Roberto Bianchi has posted a site devoted to downloadable, certified non-violent games?in your choice of English, Italian, or Finnish:

As always, I welcome your feedback.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan