Shocked into Silence: The Debate over Violence in Games

Sean Sands | 12 Oct 2007 17:00
Op-Ed - RSS 2.0

There are familiar names in positions of power and authority who deal in the business of vilifying video games; media seeking vultures who subvert informed discussion with the intention of converting their own extreme and ill-informed crusades into public policy. They swoop into tragedy and create simple answers to explain evil, manipulating the wounded and the weak-minded into swallowing easily digestible pills of placebo truth, and as the villains of modern media, we gamers are judged guilty in a court of public opinion that makes the Salem Witch Trials look rational. It is an unpleasant environment if you're in the uncertain public minefield of developing mature video games.

We enter a rare season of gaming, where the flavor of the month is first person shooters, among them: Halo 3, Team Fortress 2, Quake Wars, Bioshock, Unreal Tournament 3, Call of Duty 4 and others. It is an unexpected return for a genre that has suffered serious criticism in the face of public outrage about violence and the supposed connection it has with these kinds of games. Despite evidence that violence in young-people is actually on the decline, and the lack of serious evidence linking gaming to violent behavior, video games have become the social pariah and poster child for everything from underage obesity to tragic shootings. The result has been endless negative press and frequent lawsuits for developers of mature content. It is a different environment for developers to work in, and the potential public response - reasonable or otherwise - to a game must increasingly be taken into account.

Let me be more clear: Companies are going to try not to get sued.

From a business perspective, I think we can all agree that philosophy just makes fundamental sense. Aside from a few companies whose entire advertising budgets seem to revolve around paying court costs in the hopes that the old adage about there being no bad press is true, most developers, and more importantly, publishers, want to avoid being branded as culpable for the death of anyone no matter how ridiculous such an accusation might be. The problem is not precisely that we have lawyers and psychologists parading around on all manner of often misnamed news programs telling us that Halo is the reason people go crazy and take guns to school, but rather that there are millions of people on the other end listening and nodding their head in comfortable agreement. Game companies find themselves up against a mindset of remarkable tenacity, if not clarity, and in the modern age of the lowest common denominators defining the terms of the debate, the political climate is one where public perception trumps rational debate.

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