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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Culture Feature: A history of violence


April 21, 2008: Chicago Transit Authority President Ron Huberman pulls all advertising for Grand Theft Auto 4 from city buses and buildings after Fox News Chicago blames the ads for a weekend of violent crime on the city’s South Side.

April 23, 2008: Florida lawyer Jack Thompson sends a letter berating the mother of Grand Theft Auto publisher Strauss Zelnick, writing, “Your son, this very moment, is doing everything he possibly can to sell as many copies of GTA IV to teen boys in the United States, a country in which your son claims you raised him to be ‘a Boy Scout.’ More like the Hitler Youth, I would say.”

April 25, 2008: A police spokesman in Calgary, Alberta, states games like GTA 4 “… may be training grounds for people to commit criminal activity.”

By the time you read this, Grand Theft Auto 4 will be available in stores, encouraging gangs of Nazi children to roam urban cityscapes, stab old ladies and put bullets into dozens of donut eaters.

The debate over whether violent video games corrupt the youth of America has been raging for nearly two decades, with politicians and researchers alike weighing in with no decisive conclusions. The turmoil began with 1992’s inane blood-and-guts fighter Mortal Kombat, which politicians like then-first lady Hillary Clinton said was leading to an increase in juvenile crime. After the Columbine massacre in 1999, politicians and the media blamed the game Doom for Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s sociopathic killings. In 2005 a mod was released that re-introduced an inaccessible sex mini-game to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, resulting in the recall of the game from stores after Sen. Clinton and other pols called for video game ratings reform.

Video games are an easy target for politicians in need of political capital, just as dime novels were ripe for censorship in the 1880s, Hollywood was nearly shut down by Congress due to concerns of cinematic impropriety in the 1920s, and angry mothers got the music industry to stick parental advisory stickers on albums in the 1980s. “Games are often a convenient scapegoat for irresponsible media with an agenda, and some of those people are not shy about telling you how little they research the games they persecute,” says Yanier ‘Niero’ Gonzalez, founder of the hardcore online gaming community Destructoid, via e-mail.

While the penetration of violent video games into the play habits of children has expanded since 1992, juvenile crime statistics have dropped steeply. “I can’t fault parents for thinking that shooting each other in the face isn’t a valid form of positive socializing (for their kids),” Gonzales says. “But I can fault them for not taking the time to see everything else that happens in that periphery.”

The video game industry has become a major money maker in the last two decades, earning over $18.8 billion in sales worldwide in 2007 and showing growth for the third year in a row. (The film industry’s global box office returns for 2007 reached just more than $26.7 billion.) It’s no wonder that a rapidly emerging form of media is the subject of such contentious dispute. Hell, even Barack Obama told a Texas crowd, “It’s time for you to turn off the TV and stop playing Game Boy.” But the question remains: Is there any evidence that video games actually contribute to violent crime?

“Most of the research in this area up to now has been done by a small group of experimental psychologists,” says Dr. Cheryl K. Olson, a member of the psychiatry faculty at Harvard Medical School and co-author of Grand Theft Childhood, a book based on a government-funded study of the effects of video games on children. “They are, in my opinion, a little too narrow in their focus. I don’t think they’ve gone enough outside of their discipline to look at other views.” Olson and Dr. Lawrence Kutner, her husband, were given a $1.5 million grant from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to investigate the role of video games in the lives of children from a neutral and empirical perspective. “You’d think if violent video games were turning our kids into killers, we’d have a lot of dead bodies out there,” Olson says. “And we don’t.”

The results of Olson and Kutner’s study (which included a survey of 1,200 middle-school students and 500 parents in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, as well as focus groups) are profound. Boys who play violent video games spend more hours per week playing games than others, but were also more likely to play with friends than by themselves. “If they are always playing alone, I would worry about that and have that checked out,” Olson says. Two-thirds of boys said video games help them relax, and many said they use video games to get their anger out in a virtual environment instead of lashing out in school or at home.

Perhaps the most provocative data produced by the study involves the gaming habits of girls: the Grand Theft Auto series is the second most played series by girls, surpassed only by The Sims. “We think that they probably play it a lot like The Sims, to take advantage of the open-world environment, but we don’t know,” Olson says.

There is some evidence that kids who play violent video games are more likely to be involved in violence themselves. Boys who play Mature-rated games were two times as likely to get into physical fights, steal, get poor grades or get into trouble at school. Girls were four times as likely. This, however, doesn’t mean that video games cause violence. “For middle school kids, playing violent video games is typical, and that suggests then that most kids aren’t being harmed by video games,” Olson says.

And the Electronic Software Ratings Board, Olson discovered, wasn’t fully effective in informing parents of a game’s content. The ESRB was created in 1994 by the video game industry to create a self-regulated content rating system for video games, much like the system used to rate films by the Motion Picture Association of America. Just 6 percent of the video games released in 2007 were Mature-rated, while 74 percent were rated for Everyone or Everyone-10+. To put this into context, 59 percent of the films released in 2007 were R-rated, roughly the equivalent of a Mature-rated game.

“I think the ESRB system is basically a good system given the constraints they are under,” Olson says. While the current system runs from E, for everyone, to Adults Only, 18+, it isn’t illegal for a kid to play a game rated for an older player. And on store shelves, games of all ratings are mixed together, which can confuse parents and kids alike. “When you go to Target, you don’t have the R-rated movies mixed up with the My Little Pony movies,” Olson says.

So video games may not really be bad for kids, but do they have any positive effect? Olson notes that games can increase a child’s creativity, problem solving skills and health. Boys who play realistic sports games, for instance, spend more hours per week doing physical activities than their peers. Video games are also essential to the social lives of children, being one of the few topics upon which kids from different areas and upbringings can connect. “Kids we talked to said, ‘If I didn’t have video games, I didn’t know what I would talk about,'” Olson says of her study. Video games function for the modern child much like schoolyard games did in the past, creating a common ground where anyone with skills or knowledge can play and be accepted.

Now excuse me while I get back to sniping gangbangers and decapitating my friends.



Brutal video games have long been a staple of the industry, but not all games are created equal; here are three of the bloodiest, sickest and most depraved games that helped to create the stigma against vio
lent video gaming.

MORTAL KOMBAT (Arcade, 1992)

The one that started it all, Mortal Kombat birthed a generation of inane bloody fighting games. Lawmakers and parents alike were incensed by the game’s near-photorealistic depiction of violent and over-the-top fatalities. It didn’t seem to matter that the game was patently ridiculous, pitting ninjas and gods against other kung-fu fighters in a strange fantasy world; parents were concerned their kids were going to start ripping each others’ spines out and Congress nearly passed legislation to regulate who could play video games. But they didn’t, and the Mortal Kombat series is still one of the most popular with gamers around the world. The next entry, slated for release later this year, even does away with fatalities. Talk about progress.

THRILL KILL (Playstation, 1998)

Ah, the bloodiest game never released to the public. In Thrill Kill, four combatants battle each other for the ultimate prize: the chance to murder their opponents in gruesome, depraved ways. Instead of giving fighters a life bar, like in almost every other game, developers Paradox Development introduced a ‘Kill Bar.’ Clever! The game’s publisher, Electronic Arts, officially cancelled Thrill Kill a few weeks before its scheduled release because the game was given a formerly unprecedented rating of Adults Only by the ESRB. The game’s technology was used to produce Wu Tang: Shaolin Style, a shitty but unintentionally funny rap battler.

POSTAL 2 (PC, 2003)

This game actually has a ‘pee’ button. No, seriously. Developer Running with Scissors made every effort to ensure Postal 2 was the most violent, gross and offensive game ever released; you can knock a Taliban terrorist’s head off with a shovel, pee on his corpse and then flip him the bird after lighting his corpse on fire. Postal 2 also includes some homophobic and patently racist elements, since killing innocent people just isn’t enough. The game’s story revolves around completing banal everyday tasks, such as picking up milk, around a town named Paradise. If you want to blow the milkman’s head off with a shotgun, of course, that is your prerogative.

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
Culture Feature: A history of violence