Shocked into Silence: The Debate over Violence in Games

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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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I realize this sounds like sour-grapes, but in researching this article I found a disturbing trend that seems to bear itself out across most of the media: Game developers are so uncomfortable with the current situation that they aren’t even able to discuss how concerns over violence in video games affects their design philosophies. Originally I had hoped to engage a few of my developer contacts in a dialogue about how the mainstream media perception of their craft manipulates the process, but the moment I brought the question of violence to the table my contacts found themselves in positions where they would like to comment but simply felt compelled not to comment. It’s not that they have no opinion on the matter, but simply that by even commenting as developers of occasionally violent content they might expose themselves, their company, their partners and their shareholders to unnecessary risk.

At the risk of belaboring the point, we’ve reached a forced situation where discussion is no longer even considered an option.

I can hardly blame them. There’s not exactly overwhelming evidence that a reasonable discussion on how video games – violent or otherwise – should be seen within the context of popular culture. In a strange way video games have become like digital pornography, frowned upon from all corners in the light of day, yet something that it seems can be found in the vast majority of homes in one form or another. The comparison to pornography may seem ridiculous from the context of a gamer, particularly when we’ve enjoyed some stunning, artistic and creative games over just the past year, but the message that gaming is destructive, dangerous, immoral and menacing is so strong that it has compelled the drafting of legislation and the filing of dozens of lawsuits. Stepping into the line of fire to offer cogent and reasonable thoughts on the matter is probably not a priority for developers or publishers. Again, who can blame them?

But, while the developers may be remaining necessarily quiet on the matter, the games themselves continue to find their way onto store shelves, earning staggering amounts of money, driving the industry forward by the billions. It is a strange hypocrisy of western culture that we seem to condemn violent video games while buying them in record breaking quantities, and it’s a troubling mixed signal for publishers who see the demand but know that by filling it they are exposed to expensive lawsuits. The business of gaming is rocky and unreliable ground, and the smarter developers seem to have evolved the survival sense for keeping their heads down.

It’s hard to say at this point whether gaming will eventually make its way into enough homes to become a part of the mainstream like movies and television, or if it will be thought of more as a vice and something from which we should continue to be zealously protected. The only thing to be said with any confidence is that gaming is now so entrenched into the cultural economy and mindshare that lawsuits and moral hysteria aren’t likely to stunt the growing industry. It would be preferable if the environment became such that reasonable discussion of gaming’s place in the culture were safer ground, but that’s going to require that news outlets, both mainstream and otherwise, stop giving the zealots on both sides the lion’s share of the air time.

Sean Sands is a freelance writer, co-founder of, and owns a small graphic design company near Minneapolis. He does not miss his stint in retail even a little.

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