Monday, July 5, 2004
New York In video games these days, you can strangle someone with a garrote ("Manhunt"), pop an enemy's head off in a shower of gore with a sniper shot ("Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy") and direct a teenager to shotgun a demon dog ("Silent Hill 3").
And you can beat up prostitutes, run down pedestrians, bathe in the blood of your enemies and curse like a lobster boat captain with a stubbed toe.
The video game industry seems to delight in pushing the envelope -- and the bounds of good taste -- with ever-gorier content. That has put it under renewed attack from legislators and advocates who claim some titles must be kept out of kids' hands, though courts have repeatedly granted games First Amendment protections.
The opponents cite new research that they say suggests strong links between violent games and aggressive behavior. They are disturbed by games' cultural ubiquity and the always-improving technology that makes virtual gore more realistic than ever.
"Pediatricians and psychologists have been warning us that violent video games are harmful to children," said Mary Lou Dickerson, a Democratic legislator in Washington state who wrote a law now being challenged in federal court -- banning the sale of some violent games to kids. "I'm optimistic that the courts will heed their warnings."
Lawmakers in at least seven states proposed bills during the most recent legislative session that would restrict the sale of games, part of a wave that began when the 1999 Columbine High School shootings sparked an outcry about games and violence. None that passed has survived legal challenges.
The game industry says legislating ultra-violent games out of the hands of children will deal a severe blow to free speech. Game companies point to the industry-imposed ratings system that gives detailed descriptions of violence in a game and labels some titles as "mature" or "adults only."
"Does it make any rational sense to you that we're going to pass a law someplace that says we're not going to prevent minors from buying 'Passion of the Christ' or 'Kill Bill' or 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' in a local store, but you can't buy 'Resident Evil?"' said Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Assn.
Consequences matter of debate
The debate reflects a divide in the way people perceive games. Are games harmless, perhaps even cathartic, as many people who grew up playing them believe? Or are they teaching kids to be more aggressive, and in extreme cases, to kill?
To game opponents, many of whom admit they don't play video game, it's the latter. They point to new studies that purport to show a stronger link between violent games and aggressive behavior than ever.
"On average, there is a significant tendency for the studies to yield an increase in aggression by those who have played the violent games," said Craig Anderson, an Iowa State University professor and leading researcher on the effects of media violence.
The next 12 months could see a flurry of new scrutiny of violent games because three controversial franchises are due to release sequels. They include "Doom," notorious as a favorite of the Columbine killers; "Mortal Kombat," with its calls for a player to "finish" opponents in myriad gruesome ways; and "Grand Theft Auto," which exhorted players in its latest iteration to start a Cuban-Haitian race war.
For some legislators, that's a call to arms. Some want the violence in some games declared obscene.
"You can carve out some exceptions to the First Amendment when it is determined that these things we are talking about -- like pornography, like alcohol, like tobacco, and so on -- have harmful effects to children," Leland Yee, a Democrat in the California Assembly.
Past efforts have failed, often because of challenges from the Entertainment Software Assn.
A St. Louis County law that would have limited children's access to video games was rejected in the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Nationally, proposed legislation by Rep. Joe Baca, D-Calif., would penalize retailers who rent or sell games with violent, sexual or other "harmful" content to minors. A version was killed in 2002, but a revised draft is making its way through the Judiciary Committee, with 43 co-sponsors.
Among games' most vocal critics is Jack Thompson, a Florida lawyer who has tried, so far without success, to argue for acquittal of defendants in violent crime cases in which he believed that games made them do it.
"There's a culpability here that should be shared by those who are training kids to kill," Thompson said.