Violence and video games

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Since their inception in the 1970s, video games have often been criticized for violent content. Politicians, parents, and other activists have claimed that violence in video games can be tied to violent behavior, particularly in children, and have sought ways to regulate the sale of video games. Numerous studies have shown no connection between video games and violent behavior, with the American Psychological Association stating there is little to no evidence connecting these.


Before video games[edit]

Elements of the type of moral panic that would come with video games after they gained popularity had been seen with comic books in the 1950s. Through the 1950s, comics were in their Golden Age, having become a popular form of media. As the media expanded, some artists and publishers took more risks with violent and otherwise questionable content. Fredric Wertham, a psychiatrist, wrote Seduction of the Innocent in 1954 that outlined his studies that asserted that violent comics were a negative form of literature and led to juvenile delinquency. While some of Wertham's claims were later found to be based on bad studies, the book created a moral panic that put pressure on the comic book industry to regulate their works. Later in 1954, the comic industry issued the Comics Code Authority which put strict regulations on content that could be in comic books sold at most stores, eliminating most violence and other mature content via self-censoring. The mainstream comic industries waned as comics had lost their edge, while an underground market for the more adult comics formed. The comic industry did not recover from the Comic Code Authority until the 1970s, where adherence to the Authority was weakened. By the 2000s, the Authority was generally no longer considered.[1] The trends of targeting violence in video games has been compared to these events in the comic industry, and video game industry leaders have specifically avoided the use of self-censorship that could impact the performance of the industry.[2][3]

1970s – 1980s[edit]

One of the first games to be criticized for its level of violence was the 1976 Death Race arcade game, which enabled the player to drive a car and run over simulated gremlins. The game caught the attention of an Associated Press writer, Wendy Walker, who had contacted the game's manufacturer, Exidy, with her concerns that the game was excessively violent.[4] Walker's concerns spread through other media organizations, including the National Safety Council who accused the game of glorying the act of making a game of running people over when at the time they were trying to educate drivers about safe driving practices. While some arcades subsequently returned the Death Race machines due to this panic, sales of the game continued to grow due to this media coverage.[5]

The United States Surgeon General C. Everett Koop was one of the first to raise concern about the potential connection of video games to youth behavior. In 1982, Koop stated as a personal observation that "more and more people are beginning to understand" the connection between video games and mental and physical health effects on youth, though that at that time, there was not sufficient evidence to make any conclusion.[6][7]


Mortal Kombat and congressional hearings (1993–94)[edit]

The fighting game Mortal Kombat was released into arcades in 1992. It was one of the first games to have a large amount of blood and gore as a result of the game's "Fatalities" to finish off the losing character. Numerous arcade games followed in Mortal Kombat's wake that used high amounts of violent content. However, as these were arcade machines, it was generally possible to segregate them away from games aimed for younger players.[8][9] There was high interest in home console manufacturers to license Mortal Kombat from Midway Games, particularly for Sega for its Sega Genesis platform, and Nintendo for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. At the time, Sega and Nintendo were in the midst of a console war to try to gain dominance in the United States market.[10] Sega's licensed version of Mortal Kombat retained all the gore from the arcade version, while Nintendo had a version developed that removed most of the gore, recoloring the blood as green, otherwise toning down the game. Sega's version drastically outsold Nintendo's version and intensified the competition between the two companies.[9]

The popularity of Mortal Kombat, along with the full-motion video game Night Trap, drew the attention of Senators Joe Lieberman and Herb Kohl. This resulted in two congressional hearings in 1993 and 1994 to discuss the issues of violence and video games with both concerned advocacy groups, academics and the video game industry.[9] Sega, Nintendo, and others were criticized for lacking a standardized rating systems, and Liberman threatened to have Congress pass legislation requiring a system that would have government oversight if the industry did not take its own steps.[11] By the time of the second hearing, Sega, Nintendo, and others had outlined their agreed-upon approach for a voluntary rating system through its own Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), which was subsequent in place by the end of 1984.[12][13] This also led to the establishment of the Interactive Digital Software Association, later known as the Entertainment Software Association, a trade group for the video game industry that managed the ESRB and further supported trade-wide aspects such as government affairs.[13][14]

Jack Thomspon lawsuits (1997)[edit]

Jack Thompson has criticized a number of video games and campaigned against their producers and distributors. He argues that violent video games have repeatedly been used by teenagers as "murder simulators" to rehearse violent plans. He has pointed to alleged connections between such games and a number of school massacres.

Columbine High School massacre (1999)[edit]

The Columbine High School massacre on April 20, 1999, reignited the debate about violence in video games. Among other factors, the students behind the massacre were found to be avid players of violent games like Doom. The public created a perception between the connection of video games to the shooting, leading to a Congressional hearing and President Bill Clinton to order an investigation into school shootings and how video games were being marketed to youth.[15] The report, released in 2004 by the United States Secret Service and the United States Department of Education, found only 12% of perpetrators in school shootings had shown interest in video games.[15][16]


Grand Theft Auto III and further lawsuits (2003)[edit]

Rockstar Games released the PlayStation 2 game Grand Theft Auto III in 2001. The game gave the player control of an unnamed protagonist in a contemporary urban setting taking on missions within the city's criminal underworld. The game was one of the first open world games and allowed the player to have nearly free control of how they completed missions, which included gunplay, melee combat, and reckless driving. The game was widely successful, selling over two million units within six months.[17] Its popularity led to several groups to criticize the violence in the game, among other factors.[18][19] Rockstar subsequently released two followup games, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City in 2003, and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas in 2004, the latter becoming a controversy over the sexually-explicit Hot Coffee mod.

In the years that followed, a number of fatal murders and other crimes committed by young adults and youth were found to have ties to Grand Theft Auto III and later games that followed. Jack Thompson became involved to try to sue Rockstar, its publisher Take-Two Interactive, and Sony on behalf of the victims for large amounts of damages, asserting that the violence in these games led directly to these crimes and thus these companies were responsible. These cases did not lead to any action against Rockstar as either they were voluntarily withdrawn or dismissed before judgment. Ultimately, Thompson agreed to no longer seek legal action against Take-Two's games, and ultimately became an activist to highlight the issues of violence in video games.[20] Events of this period were made into a BBC docudrama, The Gamechangers, first broadcast in September 2015.

Winnenden school shooting (2009)[edit]

The shooter in the Winnenden school shooting on March 11, 2009 in Winnenden, Germany was found to have had interest in video games like Counter-Strike and Far Cry 2.[21][22] In the weeks that followed, politicians and concerned citizens tried to pressure the government into passing legislation to ban the sale of violent video games in the country, though this never came to pass.[23][24][25]

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2's "No Russian" (2009)[edit]

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 included a mission in its story mode called "No Russian". In this mission the player takes on the role of a CIA agent that has embedded themselves among a Russian ultranationalist terrorist group. The mission starts as the group arrives at a Moscow airport and wildly firing on civilians and security alike, with their leader warning them to speak "no Russian" to give away their origins. The player is not required to participate in this mission, warned about the violent content and option to skip the level, and if they do play the level, they are not required to participate in the shooting. The levels ends when the group's leader kills the player-character, as they wanted the attack to be attributed to the United States and lead to a world war.

The existence of the level leaked before the game's release, forcing Activision and developer Infinity Ward to respond to journalists and activists that were critical of the concept of this mission, emphasizing it was not representative of the rest of the game and initial assessments were taking the level out of context.[26][27] Even with the full game's release, "No Russian" was still criticized, with some stating that video games had yet to mature.[28] The mission is considered a watershed moment for the video game industry, in how certain depictions of violence can be seen as acceptable while others, like "No Russian", are considered unacceptable.[29][30]


Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association (2011)[edit]

To address violent video games, several U.S. states had passed laws that would restrict the sales of mature video games, particularly those with violent or sexual content, to children. Video game industry groups fought these laws in courts and won.[31][32] The most significant case came out of a challenge to a California law passed in 2005 that banned sales of mature games to minors as well as requiring an enhanced rating system beyond the ESRB. Industry groups fought this and won, but the case ultimately made it to the Supreme Court of the United States. In Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, the Supreme Court ruled that video games were a protected form of speech, qualifying for First Amendment protections, and laws like California's that block sales on a basis outside of the Miller test were unconstitutional.[33] Justice Antonin Scalia, who had written the majority opinion, had considered that violence in many video games was no different from that presented in other children's media, such as Grimm's Fairy Tales.[34]

Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting (2012)[edit]

The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting occurred on December 14, 2012. The perputator, Adam Lanza, was found to have a "trove" of video games, as described by investigating officials, including several games considered to be violent.[35] This discovery started a fresh round of calls against violent video games in politicial and media circles.[36][37][38] The National Rifle Association accused the video game industry for the shooting, identifying games that focused on shooting people in schools.[39]

Parkland school shooting (2018)[edit]

The Stoneman Douglas High School shooting occurred on February 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida. In the aftermath, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin declared that the country should re-evaluate "the things being put in the hands of our young people",[40] specifically "quote-unquote video games" that "have desensitized people to the value of human life".[41] A month later, President Donald Trump called for several industry representatives and advocates to meet in Washington D.C. to discuss the impact of violent video games with him and his advisors. Industry leaders included Michael Gallagher, ESA president; Patricia Vance, ESRB president; Robert Altman, CEO of ZeniMax Media; and Strauss Zelnick, CEO of Take-Two, while advocates included Brent Bozell, of the Media Research Center and Melissa Henson of the Parents Television Council. While the video game industry asserted the lack of connection between violent video games and violent acts, their critics asserted that the industry should take steps to limit youth access and marketing to violent violent video games similar to approaches taken for alcohol and tobacco use.[42]

August 2019 shootings[edit]

Two mass shootings occurring within a day of each other in August 2019, one in El Paso, Texas and another in Dayton, Ohio, renewed politic claims that video games were partially to blame for these. U.S. President Donald Trump stated days after the shootings, "We must stop the glorification of violence in our society. This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace".[43] House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy also blamed video games for these events, stating "I've always felt that it’s a problem for future generations and others. We've watched from studies, shown before, what it does to individuals, and you look at these photos of how it took place, you can see the actions within video games and others."[15] News organizations and the video game industry reiterated the findings of the past, that there was no link between video games and violent behavior, and criticized politicians for putting video games to task when the issues lied within proper gun control.[43][15]


Broadly, researchers have not found any connection between violent video games and violent behavior. The policy statement of the American Psychological Association (APA) related to video games states "Scant evidence has emerged that makes any causal or correlational connection between playing violent video games and actually committing violent activities."[43] The APA has acknowledged that video games may lead to aggressive behavior, as well as anti-social behavior, but clarifies that not all aggressive behavior is necessarily violent. In a 2015 Resolution on Violent Video Games, has vowed towards furthering research to better understand the connection between violent video games to aggression, and how aggressive activities may lead to violent actions, as well as to promote education towards politicians and media with their findings.[44] Further, the APA issued a policy statement in 2017 aimed at politicians and media to urge them to avoid linking violent video games with violent crimes, reiterating the subject of their findings over the years.[45]

Christopher Ferguson, a professor at Stetson University and a member of the APA, has researched the connection between violent video games and violent behavior for years. Through longitudinal studies, he has concluded that "[t]here’s not evidence of a correlation, let alone a causation" between video games and violence.[46] Ferguson's more recent studies have shown that there is no predictive behavior that can be inferred from the playing of violent video games.[47][48]

Nation-specific factors[edit]


Video games are rated in Australia by the Australian Classification Board (ACB), run out of the federal Attorney-General's Department. ACB also oversees ratings on films and applies the same ratings system as to video games. Broadly, the ratings system is based on a number of factors including violence. The ACB can refuse to classify a film or game if they felt the content was beyond allowable guidelines for the strictest ratings. Titles refused classification by ACB are thus illegal to sell within Australia and assess fines fort those that attempted to import such games, while allowing titles with more mature ratings to be sold under regulated practices. Prior to 2011, video games could only qualify up to a "MA15+" rating, and not the next highest tier of "R18+" which were allowed for film. Several high profile games thus were banned in Australia. The ACB agreed to allow video games to have R18+ ratings in 2011, and some of these games that were previously banned were subsequently allowed under R18+.


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