In the last five years, video games have risen to prominence as the whipping boy of choice in the culture wars.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was Hollywood. At that time, the movie industry was under increasing scrutiny due to violence on the big screen. Concerned politicians, at the behest of clamoring constituents, issued reprimands from the highest levels of government, castigating what they perceived to be irresponsible messages targeted at America’s youth.
Around the mid-1990s, the explosive rise of rap and grunge–two music scenes mirroring the malcontent of youth from two completely different socio-economic backgrounds–stole the limelight, and it seemed that no matter what the new generation consumed by way of entertainment, nothing was safe.
A reactive message disseminated by conservative, religious authorities such as James Dobson, founder of the Christian fundamentalist group, Focus On The Family, was clear: The American way of life was under attack by irresponsible artists spewing messages of apathy, violence and anti-establishment rebellion.
With the exception of a troubling movement within the religious community, wherein some moderate sects gravitated towards more radical leaders, the attempts to bring the country as a whole back to what they saw as a more modest, sheltered, and morally upright lifestyle did little good.
Rock acts like Marilyn Manson, with in-your-face album titles like the divisive 1996, “Antichrist Superstar,” were banned from performing in some cities, but to no effect; in many cases, it simply increased their notoriety and popularity. Rap icons like Dr. Dre, who pounded out tales of guns, drugs, money, and the hard-knock life of discrimination and poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth, were demonized. Some went so far as to call him a latter day Lucifer. In the meantime, his albums smashed sales records, cementing his position in the celebrity firmament.
And Middle America worried.
When the Columbine shootings exploded across the national consciousness like a hollow point round, it seemed that the jury was out. Rock music like Manson and rap stars like Dre rapidly went from contemptible–if harmless–diversions for middle class white kids, to the harbingers of ruin in a corrupt society on its last legs.
The mainstream press did little to quiet the post-Columbine media panic, highlighting the shooter’s fixation with a new video game, radically different than its predecessors, Doom. The game, which today is rudimentary, for the first time incorporated stunning graphics, mass-market appeal and mind-boggling gore. Though it wasn’t the first of its kind–the pioneering first-person shooter was arguably Wolfenstein 3D–suddenly, desperate parents had a fresh battleground from which to crusade against impropriety and misconduct, using the terrifying new medium as a rallying cry. Overnight, Doom–and video games as a whole–went from harmless entertainment to the missing link between otherwise ‘well-adjusted’ suburban youth, and acts of inexplicable, horrific violence.
At the time, little emphasis was placed on the shooter’s underlying sociopathic tendencies, and in large part, that issue is still ignored. Those who found fault with video games rationalized that despite the mental unbalances present in the two shooters, without Doom, they would never have learned to commit such acts of cold-blooded homicide.
Almost seven years later, the verdict is still out. Violence, if anything, has increased in video games.
In less than five minutes, for example, I can turn on my television, stop a police car in the middle of the street, yank the officer out of his cruiser, and beat him to death with a golf club in front of unconcerned pedestrians.
The basic plot I just outlined is Grand Theft Auto, and it’s far more advanced—both graphically and technologically—than Doom. And, since its release in 1998, has drawn its own hefty share of criticism not only from conservatives, but from liberals as well.
The debate centers around a vital question: Do violent video games create violent youth, or is violence in society–from isolated acts in the suburbs, to gang shootings at the decaying heart of a city–a problem that is far too complex to simply chalk up to an electronic sliver of the media machine?
According to the standard coffee shop rationale, an increase in violent video games does indeed prompt more violent youth. So it would stand to reason then that with the leaps in technology that have greased the skids on increasingly lifelike portrayals of gruesome death, our youth would be growing more violent statistically.
However, the opposite is true.
Sociologist Karen Sternheimer, specializing in pop culture and youth at the University of Southern California, and author of “It’s Not the Media,” and a recent article for the American Sociological Association, “Do Video Games Kill?,” argues that blaming youth violence–suburban or urban–on video games is a gross over simplification of an incredibly tangled cultural skein.
Further, that based on numerous studies and statistical analysis’s, violent video games don’t turn children into emotionless, trained killers.
“There are a lot of other issues that go on beyond the media explanation,” said Sternheimer. “We’re for some reason more interested in violence when it’s committed by young people. But we didn’t ask what kind of music and video games Tim McVeigh was into. We kind accepted this guy had some other issues going on, to say the least.”
Her big picture stance flies in the face of what has, in the past few years, become pop culture dogma. In certain circles, when the subject of violence in the media and its impact on youth arises, it’s taken at face value that the media is primarily to blame for what appears to be a disturbing trend.
However, the perception that youth are more violent today than they were ten years ago using high profile school shootings as a barometer, is not sound social science.
“High profile shootings allowed people to say see, violence is everywhere,” said Sternheimer. “But something coverage of those shootings missed is that youth violence, in the same year that Columbine happened, was in decline. No one really noticed though, because those shootings are an emotional issue.”
As stated in a report from the Surgeon General’s office, “Youth Violence: A Report by the Surgeon General,” in 2001, starting in the mid-1990s, “overall arrest rates began to decline, returning by 1999 to rates only slightly higher than those in 1983.”
There is no disagreement among experts on both sides of the fence that the types of violence serious enough to garner police attention–with the exception of unreported rapes, which are resistant to statistical analysis–plummeted across the board, including school shootings.
Indeed, even in 1999, the year the Columbine shootings occurred, the trend in decreasing violent crime still experienced an overall statistical downturn.
And those were the prime years that violent video games came to the fore as a dominant form of entertainment.
It is interesting to note that despite the decline, the Surgeon General’s report is of the stance that youth violence is still an endemic problem with much cause for worry, and that the arrest rate numbers are misleading.
Using broad, confidential, face-to-face surveys of youth and asking which acts of violence they had committed in a given time period, the Surgeon General’s report claims that though there was a downturn in arrestable violent crime starting in the mid-1990s, using the survey results, youth violence is still at an all time high.
But the Surgeon General’s combination of two sets of data to reach the report’s conclusion is somewhat disingenuous, and fails to tell the whole story.
First, using the survey results as a statistical sounding board for youth violence lacks the cumulative historical well that makes arrest rates effective. It’s impossible to say what the survey might have turned up in the 1950s, 1960s, or 1970s. The trend might very well have been exactly the same with no statistical increase, so combining survey results with arrest records to make the claim that youth violence is still at an all time high isn’t necessarily accurate.
Secondly, the confidential surveys don’t gauge the kinds of high profile, high body count violence that the cultural debate swirls around when it comes to video games.
“Self-report studies are good for minor kinds of violence,” said Sternheimer. “But for the major indicators of violence, it’s still arrest rates. School shootings are very rare anyway. Even in a bad year, it’s still a good year. Schools are among least likely place where a minor is likely to get injured or killed. Something like two percent.”
And here the issue arrives at something of an impasse. The numbers don’t lie. Violent crime is down, but violence in video games is up. What role, then, do video games play in shaping the way we interact with the world? With enough focused exposure to violence in video games and other media, will our culture grow more violent despite the present statistical downturn?
Going from the solid foundation of numbers and scientific analysis to the philosophy of entertainment, video game historian Keith Feinstein, founder of Videotopia, the world’s first comprehensive video game museum, having tracked the evolution of games from the first Pong console to the Playstation 3, doesn’t think so.
“There are worse culprits than video games, and animated films are a great example,” said Feinstein. “If it wasn’t made by Pixar, you’re hurting an animal for a laugh, or hurting someone for a laugh. There’s a general crudeness, a general meanness that creeps into culture, and that has nothing to do with video games.”
Elaborating further, Feinstein said that it’s not so much the video game, or the violence itself, that is the issue at play in the culture wars. Moreover, it’s the underlying technology that frightens older generations who can’t comprehend the fast changing mechanics shaping the way the world interacts.
“People who were brought up on the Atari, a lot of them have dropped out of video game scene,” said Feinstein. “They don’t understand the modern language. They become frightened of what they don’t understand.”
And when people are frightened, oversimplifying a complex problem becomes attractive as a quick, easy fix to an otherwise imposing cultural barrier. In order to break the barrier down to its most basic building blocks, a few questions must be asked. Are video games an art form?
Feinstein says yes, unequivocally, they are. The story lines, graphical skill, and interaction of many different elements to make a product that is entertaining, beautiful, and meaningful classifies them as art.
Since video games are an art form, then does art influence culture, or does culture influence art?
The answer to that question, as in all things, can be found in moderation. According to Feinstein and Sternheimer, art forms are primarily a reflection of the world around us. However, art can influence culture.
Many times, it acts as a cultural catalyst, expressing ideas in a way that connects to an unrealized sub-current that ultimately rises to prominence due to the artists giving voice to a generation’s issues and needs.
“It brings a lens to things, and Picasso’s work is great because of what it turned society onto,” said Feinstein. “They were, frankly, a bunch of very elitist, super-educated, unsuccessful people. But they talked and they made a big difference in the world. It started an entire movement. Pieces of art can do that, and they can reflect culture in the same way.”
Video games had the same impact in the 1980s. A small, ground breaking game known as Missile Command was released on the Atari in the Regan era of nuclear proliferation. Armament was a paramount issue at the time, uniting the country across cultural divides. No one knew when, how, or why, but a significant portion of the population thought that on some scale, nuclear war was inevitable.
In Missile Command, nuclear missiles fell out of the sky. It was the job of the missile commander holding the controller to shoot the bombs from the air before they ruined the city. It started slow and picked up the pace with each new level, quickly reaching impossible speed.
“I was frightened to death back then, and Missile Command was a perfect reflection of that. It turned everyone’s attention to the issue,” said Feinstein. “[Missile Command] was featured in a whole bunch of movies and news programs. And the big lesson with the game? No matter what happens, you lose. Even with the highest score, you get the big blast because you can’t keep up.”
And while not all video games ultimately give voice to a generation–PacMan is today merely an iconic reference point–games do have the ability to influence culture and ideas. On that basis, video games say something about our culture; they don’t make culture.
Grand Theft Auto, another popular game generations removed from Missile Command, reflects this sentiment.
“It’s brilliantly designed, and completely morally reprehensible. That’s what it is. So if you’re looking to games to teach your children, you’re making a very big mistake,” said Feinstein. “If you don’t want Grand Theft Auto in your house, don’t have it in your house. Sure, your kids are probably going to go play it somewhere else: But it’s not the medium or the message. It’s how you’re taught to interpret the message.”
The problem is one of context and personal responsibility, more than video games creating killer kids. “Yeah,” said Feinstein, “the Columbine shooters played with pipe bombs in their basement and no one stopped them from playing Doom. But no one stopped them from building pipe bombs in their basement, either.”
Like it or not, soon people will be getting the majority of their entertainment needs from video games. For example, today, more people play NBA basketball games on console systems than attend live NBA basketball games. And that means, more than anything, it’s a matter of choice. What will you consume, and how will you interpret the message?
Today, I find myself a ruthless mob boss after recently beating Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. I’ve sniped innocent pedestrians from rooftops and blown up exactly 160 stolen vehicles. Because I never drove a tank through the middle of the city and survived, I’m only at 80% completion for the game, according to handy statistics provided in order to gauge my criminality.
Yet I understand that going out onto the street and punching someone in the face will land me in prison, not to mention the penalties for hijacking an attack helicopter and strafing a police station. The consequences of such actions aren’t savory, and I know that it is not a good way to live my life.
Still, I greatly enjoy the game, and this is because we all have violent tendencies, according to Feinstein. Video games reflect an inherent biological impulse. In our society, violence in any form is often seen as unhealthy; it is a thing to be suppressed, ignored, and ultimately, little talked about on a personal level.
But that sets a dangerous precedent.
“Who’s to say violence is an unhealthy impulse? We wouldn’t be alive and we couldn’t feed ourselves. We wouldn’t have the culture we live in,” said Feinstein. “We all have violent tendencies. If only a few people had violent tendencies, we’d all be enslaved. So I don’t think violence is necessarily an evil thing. We are in a lot of ways animals that are ill adapted to the culture we’ve created for ourselves. So there are impulses that no longer fit into the society we have today, but that doesn’t make them negative.”
And in a society wherein real acts of violence don’t fit into the going paradigm, video games may indeed help channel and redirect those self-same impulses, though there is much debate on that issue, and there is no conclusive scientific proof one way or the other.
Perhaps, when it’s all said and done, eminent rap artist Marshall Mathers, on his eponymous album Marshall Mathers LP, put it best regarding the impact of media on violence, and the personal responsibility that comes with consumption: “When a dude’s gettin bullied and shoots up his school and they blame it on Marilyn and the heroin, where were the parents at? And look where it’s at: Middle America. Now it’s a tragedy.”