The Decay of Society: Videogames in America

(By Guest Author ‘Chaos’)
Videogames have vastly changed over the period of time that they have existed, since the days of the Atari 2600 and the arcades. Technology has vastly improved the performance of the games as well as the graphical realism and quality. Technology isn’t the only thing that has changed videogames, however. Some say the changing of content in videogames is analogous to the maturing of those who played the Atari and arcade games in the past, having grown up with time, and video games having grown up with them. And thus, video games have become more mature in terms of its presentation, appearance, and content.

Some critics would argue, however, that this is a very negative change, and that today’s videogames are targeted to today’s youth, who in turn are negatively affected by the violence and mature content of videogames. It is the purpose of this paper to analyze the arguments these critics have made and respond in a fashion that will defend the side of the mature videogames. Throughout the paper the term “mature” will be used to refer to content in videogames that include violence, sexual content, vulgarity, and overall mature themes as defined by the ESRB ratings that are now required on every videogame title that is released. I will cover these areas of discussion: I. That those who are influenced by videogames are not stable mentally or in their personal lives. II. That the media has portrayed videogames in a negative light and misrepresented many aspects of videogames, specifically the Grand Theft Auto series. First, we will observe the affect of videogames on their players; or, more specifically, their addictive nature.

Shawn Wooley, a 21 year old addicted player of the PC game Everquest, commited suicide on Thanksgiving Day 2001, supposedly as a result of the game. Elizabeth Wooley, his mother, is attempting to sue the makers of the game and put labels on the game stating it is addictive. She stated, “It’s like any other addiction, either you die, go insane or you quit. My son died.” She also noted, “Shawn was playing 12 hours a day, and he wasn’t supposed to because he was epileptic, and the game would cause seizures,”. (jsonline.com) This cites that Shawn Wooley had some medical problems. In another article, courtesy of rivertowns.com, the following is stated:

Woolley contacted a St. Croix County mental health care program and tried to get Shawn to reside in a group home….Woolley feared Shawn was becoming suicidal, but officials told Woolley that without an actual threat by Shawn, who was now an adult, they couldn’t take protective action.

It also states that Shawn was given pills and diagnosed with his mental disabilities including, according to an article at jsonline.com, “depression and schizoid personality disorder, symptoms of which include a lack of desire for social relationships, little or no sex drive and a limited range of emotions in social settings” as part of the process to get Shawn in the home; but Shawn wouldn’t take them. The jsonline.com article also cites that Jay Parker, a chemical dependency counselor, “said Woolley’s mental health problems put him in a category of people more likely to be at risk of getting addicted to online games”.

Shouldn’t Shawn’s mental conditions and refusals to take his prescribed medication for obvious mental problems be justification enough for the officials to take that “protective action”? Certainly someone with so many confirmed mental disorders should be put in an institution, as they can be a danger to themselves or others. I think the case here is not with the video game, but the actions that were taken to try to prevent Shawn’s mental problems and addiction. There should have been some law that would allow for Shawn to be forced into a mental institution based on his instability, not simply because he is old enough to be considered an adult. As we all know adults can be just as irresponsible and unstable as anyone else. It was Shawn’s personal life and personal problems that caused him to be influenced by these videogames, and thus his real life was the issue, not his virtual one.

Now we can’t possibly consider all of this without looking at the opposing views, and first we’ll delve into the counter considerations of my comments on how video games affect people. One opposing view against my claim that only those mentally unstable are seriously affected is that this may be true, but also that normal people are affected by this as well. There are several groups based around the same Everquest game in the Shawn Wooley case where people there claim to have friends or close loved ones addicted to the game and spending more time on it than with their real lives. This proves there is an addiction factor for a great majority, with the cost being social relationships.

Further studies that have been made according to various sources have found that boys who play games with aggressive content do in fact tend to feel more aggressive after playing the games. This would eventually lead to violence due to the increase in aggressive mood and behavior exhibited by boys, and if given a proper reason to, could cause them to become violent to others as a result of this increase in aggression. This has been a primary point in the discussion of video games’ affect on the boys responsible for the Columbine shootings, who were said to have played Doom (a gory first person shooter). An article on TechTV.com cites a study conducted at Iowa State University and Lenoir-Rhyne College in North Carolina which found that:

In a study of 227 college students that those who more frequently played violent video games during junior high and high school were more likely to have engaged in “aggressive delinquent behavior”…..The researchers speculate that video-game violence influences behavior not by inciting aggressive feelings, but by teaching players to find “aggressive solutions” to problems.

The article also cites another study that concluded “of 210 college students who played either a violent or benign video game revealed that the violence-packed games increased subjects’ aggression immediately afterward”. This supports the claim that video games do in fact affect people, even if they are mentally stable.

However, what the studies do not take into account is the factor of the real world. From what I have collected from the Columbine case, the two killers involved were cast as outsiders and ridiculed by their fellow students. As we all know teenagers can be incredibly heartless and unfair, and we’ve all seen what bullying is like. No scientific facts are needed to prove that constant bullying and being outcast by a social environment you must be around every day (school for example) can test one’s mental capacities, especially if you can do little about it. The two Columbine shooters from what I have seen on the news and read were very depressed individuals who became so frustrated with the way they were treated that their minds finally gave way and they retaliated the only way they knew how, by killing. I have known plenty of people who have been mentally scarred by such harsh bullying and likely have considered suicide or murder of those who hurt them. It’s easy to understand the hatred these two felt and how it grew out of control until it exploded in a school shooting. Was their influence to kill the people in that school a result of the unfair treatment and the harsh attacks they faced by their fellow students they experienced, or because of a simple video game? It is true that perhaps the video game fed into their desire and allowed them to day dream about the shooting, but would they have done it if their fellow students were not so harsh and disrespectful to them? I sincerely doubt it. We have all faced hardships in our lives, and those who experience worse hardships and feel hatred and anger often are the ones who turn to violence, not because a video game encouraged them to, but because they must respond to the conflicts that they face in the only solution they feel they have. In this case for the Columbine shooters it was to retaliate by killing in a blind rage, not because Doom was on their computer. Since these critics are so concerned about what’s on people’s computer or television screens, lets see just what they have to say about it.

This brings me to the news media, a prime source of these critics (as well as a source of information for critics) and its take on videogames. In an article on ABC News’s site, abcnews.go.com, it observes several 13 year old boys playing GTA3, a violent video game, describing them as “masters” of the game as they “yell at the screen and make macabre jokes as they carry out a killing, carjacking, murder spree on screen that would place them on the nation’s most-wanted list in real life.” The article goes on to quote James Oppenheim, a video game reviewer, as stating “When you see that you get extra points for shooting somebody in the head, as opposed to shooting them in the body  you have to wonder exactly what the values are that we are teaching our children.”

Seeing as the article is so focused on the details of the game, I thought about some of the details it observed. I cannot deny that “killing” and “carjacking” are not elements of the GTA series, because it is. However, the presentation of the game exhibited by this article and numerous others like it simply do not go beyond that. They give no mention as to what the true “purpose” of the game is, or if there is even a purpose. Anybody who has actually played the game can tell you that it is a free roaming game that allows you to do what you want, when you want. This means you can do everything the article suggests, or not. You can simply walk or drive around the world that the game provides and explore, looking for the secrets the game makers have put into the game. In no way does the game ever force the player to participate in violent gameplay. There are instances where violence does occur, but just as in real life you do not have to behave violently in the game if you don’t want to. My niece, who enjoys the latest addition to the series (Grand Theft Auto: Vice City) is content with simply driving around in a vehicle listening to the music. I seriously doubt that she is learning about carjacking or murdering, or anything for that matter while doing this. She’s simply enjoying another side of the game that is never appreciated by the media, the audio and visual beauty of the large environments. I seriously doubt she is learning the value of how many points she gets for “shooting someone in the head” as Oppenheim suggests. I personally have never looked at how many points you get for anything while playing the game, because I’m not concerned about that aspect. As a mother who bought the game for her son stated in this article, “I see Lawrence playing with it and he’s not caught up in the quandary of moral issues over it. It’s just a game.”

More importantly, the media focuses way too much attention on the details and often fails to see the truly important details that they miss. They focus on the violence in the game, then state that the actions displayed by the 13 year olds would land them in the prison. This implies that in the game there is no punishment for your actions. Several other opponents of violence in videogames focus on this, believing that violence is rewarded in GTA, as Oppenheimer observes through points awarded in the game. What no news report that I have seen about the game take notice of, though, is the actual response the game presents to the violence. In the game, when you commit a crime, if a police officer is around or if the crime is bad enough (such as murder of several people) the police force comes after you in an attempt to stop you. Several stars are lit up on the screen to show the level of “authority” figures, six stars being the highest level of law enforcement that will try to take you down. As your crimes worsen and increase in number you get more stars and the authorities become more aggressive, moving from the police department, to the FBI, and eventually to the Army. Even at just a few stars it becomes very difficult to escape these opposing forces and nearly impossible once you reach the last two levels. To say that the game does not punish you for your actions is completely ignorant and shows that those who observed the game did not even “play” the game. Anyone who has played the game can tell you how difficult and ruthless the law enforcement figures become in the game once you commit so many crimes, and to ignore this or look past it (as the media tends to do) only shows how the media unfairly portrays games like GTA by not showing this “punishment” system that is implemented in the game and thus balancing out the immorality of the violence.

The same can be said of other games, which will often punish the gamer that kills an innocent civilian by ending their game or detracting points from their score. An example is the video game Splinter Cell, in which civilian casualties are fiercly punished by either a game over or a verbal thrashing from a character in the game. To say that these games, while containing violence, don’t teach some form of ethics is not only incorrect but ignorant, as often those who claim it don’t ever seem to actually play the games themselves.

One example is a statement made by Congressman Joe Boca in the May 2003 issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly concerning the recently released Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball. He said on his website in a description of the game that it “Allows players to create female characters, with full control over breast size and the option to have the character appear topless”. I wish I was able to play the same game he was playing, because from my experience with the game it allows you to do absolutely none of these things. The supposed topless mode Boca suggests was a hoax, an April Fool’s Day joke played by EGM in the April issue, which would explain Boca’s misinformation, but the other two observations including a character creation mode and ability to manipulate the “breast size” of the characters are nowhere to be seen in the actual game. Anyone who has played the game knows this, so why doesn’t Boca? Could he have been misinformed by the media, or a victim of the same ignorance? If critics of video games would just play them (or as it’s said, “do their homework”) before making such accusations perhaps their criticisms would be more respectable. Of course, that’s not to suggest there are no respectable and sensible arguments against mature video games, and we’ll look into that now.

To look at my position on the media in another light, one may claim that despite the media’s portrayal of video games that in the end what should matter is whether the video games end up in the hands of children who are not old enough for them. Therefore the parents of the children should be more responsible and evaluate what their children play, whether by reading articles or watching television programs that cover the content of the games. It can be attested that it doesn’t matter if the media portrays games unfairly, but the fact that they point out the negative and more violent or mature content of the game that parents don’t want their children exposed to that is important. Because they emphasize on this content and children generally don’t consider the ethics or what they’re learning about the game, it doesn’t matter if the media’s methods of journalism are flawed but simply the fact they expose the sort of content in the game. Overall then this argument revolves on the basis that these reports do right in showing parents the content of the game.

I can say in response to this stance that I agree entirely. Though the media does often portray video games unfairly, they still show parents (although in a biased fashion) the sort of content in the game. And it is my firm belief that parents should be the ones who decide whether or not their child plays the game.

But do parents know enough about the video games to make a judgement? They certainly don’t have much time to research. To solve this the Entertainment Software Ratings Board has placed ratings on the front of video games that designate what age level the game is suitable for, and summarizes the sort of content in the game. In addition to this, there are measures instilled in video game distributors that makes it policy not to sell video games to minors, and even possible laws that are running through the lawmaking process to make it a crime to sell these mature games to those who don’t qualify age wise to own the title, keeping minors from purchasing them themselves. I do believe that those not old enough to own the game due to their content should respect the wishes of their parents and either try to convince them through intellectual and mature persuasion to prove they are mature enough; but in the end it should be the parents’ call on this.

However, there are several problems with this consideration. Many parents nowadays do not take the time to think too much about this issue and simply buy the games for the children, not considering whether their child is mature enough. Many children also can gain access to the games from friends or get an older friend to buy the games for them. Another issue is that several people have questioned the ESRB’s definitions of what really makes a “mature” title. The definition of mature content can differ among parents, and obviously don’t have the time to read video game reviews that go in depth on the content.

These are all reasonable objections and I do agree with most of them. The solutions, however, are easy to consider. Parents who are concerned with the way the ESRB rates video games should form interest groups and attempt to analyze what they consider to be mature content and give these suggestions to the board. As far as children eventually gaining access to the mature games, the best I believe parents can do in this situation is realize this can and will happen, and explain to their children that video games, no matter how realistic they appear, are simply not real, and that in real life there are no continues or health recovery items. Parents need to teach children to enjoy the video games for what they are, entertainment peripherals that allow them to escape the real world, even if the world they are immersed in is a lot like reality. Parents should always be teachers and supporters of their offspring throughout their lives, and if they do this right they won’t have to worry about their children whether they’re playing Super Mario Brothers or Grand Theft Auto.

2 thoughts on “The Decay of Society: Videogames in America”

  1. Really solid, but really long i’m thinking i almost should have held this back for the features thing we’re implementing soon enough.

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