LIVING YOUR TRUTH: The influence of video games vs. media in violence and representation
“Have an argument with me,” I texted to my friend Jason McLain.
McLain is a fellow video game nerd, and we tend to have pretty deep philosophical discussions on feminism, politics, and various other topics. He’s often served as a sounding-board for when I’ve found myself in moral/ethical quandaries in the past, and I really needed his input now.
I was reading “Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture” by David Kushner, and I had just gotten to the part where Senator Joe Lieberman became every gamer’s worst nightmare.
In a past life, I was “The Gamer,” writing a column on video games for a local tabloid. A few of the topics I touched on often were violence in video games, federal regulation of video games, and the First Amendment. The First Amendment, as it related to video games, was important because it gave developers and writers the freedom to express ideas through video games as a means of communication.
A watershed moment came in 2011 in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association. The Supreme Court of the United States struck down a 2005 California law banning the sale of certain violent video games to children without parental supervision. Ruling that video games were protected under free speech, basically, it meant that, yeah, kids could buy “Doom” and “Mortal Kombat” without asking their parents first.
To the best of my knowledge, I’ve been writing about video games since 8th grade, when my English class assignment was to write an essay on a topic of our own choosing. Because the essay had to be well-researched, some friends and I went to the library to do some digging. Walking through the library, not really sure what to write about, I came across a book that piqued my interest – a book from at least a decade prior that talked about this emerging electronic art form known as “video games.” I slid it off the shelf and sat down to read. Several hours later, I had my essay topic.
At the time, the Entertainment Software Rating Board had yet to be formed, but it was soon coming, as Democratic Senators Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Herb Kohl of Wisconsin led hearings on video game violence and the corruption of society, beginning in 1992. With roots reaching as far back as arcades in the 1970s, this recent battle against video games was a viable threat to the industry. “Clean up your act, or we’ll do it for you!” the Senators said. They wanted to regulate video games, to put ratings on them, and make sure there was nothing too grotesque, violent, subversive, sexual, or criminal occurring in the games. They wanted the ability to ban games they didn’t like all together. As a result (although, it could be argued that ratings were already on the way and being voluntarily issued by several publishers, meaning that the hearings were moot), by the end of 1994, the ESRB was ensuring that “Rated M for Mature” was a warning we’d hear and see on TV commercials and in magazine advertisements promoting games with “adult themes” from then on.
Personally, I thought it was patently ridiculous to imagine that video games were corrupting society. Being all of about 14 years old, I’d already lived through the “Dungeons & Dragons” scare that people were dreaming up, the scourge of heavy metal music, and the newest scapegoat for violence in America, “gangster rap.” Video games corrupting the youth of America? I argued well against it and got an A for my efforts. On that day, a career was born.
20-something years later, I’m still writing about the effects of media on children. Albeit, for a much different reason.
In last week’s column, I wrote about the effects of media on the LGBT community and ethnic minorities. I wrote about the Hays Code – the Motion Picture Production Code – which was implemented as a way for the industry to regulate itself. It was meant to ensure more “wholesome” thematic elements in movies, including the ways in which homosexuality was portrayed, usually by erasing it all together or depicting it as a criminal or moral violation. The bottom line of that column was that misrepresentation of the LGBT community is harmful, and it was something we still see a lot of. But how does that relate to video games?
The dilemma I found myself in was that I had spent most of my life arguing that video games do not influence violence in children while, seemingly, doing an about-face and arguing that negative depictions of minorities in movies can. What was I saying? Had I become Senator Lieberman? Am I a hypocrite?
“I can see what you’re saying,” McLain responded after I gave him the details. “There are similarities, but it’s apples and oranges.”
On one hand, as McLain explains, you have people who want to “ban all violent media because it makes kids violent,” versus my argument, which is, “to promote ethical and positive representation of marginalized people in media because negative representation or the promotion of stereotypes is harmful and validates harmful cultural norms.”
To date, almost every major study has failed to find a link between video games and violence in children. In fact, very recently, two credible studies have been retracted, leaving the argument with even fewer legs to stand on. As I’d said all along, video games don’t cause violence. But if that’s true, then how can depictions of LGBT people influence behavior?
It goes back to what McLain said about apples and oranges. Depictions in media that are meant to exploit marginalized people through negative representation aren’t the same as depictions of violence.
To get an idea of what this is about, look past the blazing gun barrels and explosions and look at, instead, the people and things being targeted. Are you being asked to shoot “bad guys” such as Nazis and terrorists, aliens and monsters, or are you being asked to shoot at stereotypes of minorities? The contrast doesn’t have to be as bold as, say, “Custer’s Revenge” versus “Space Invaders;” it can be something much more subtle, such as killing sex workers for money in “Grand Theft Auto.” The depictions of violence aren’t the harmful parts of the video games – it’s the subtle message that some lives are worth less than others and the basis by which that value is determined. Are they targets because they represent enemy combatants who are trying to kill you or are they targets because they represent a certain group or ethnicity?
When you strip away the facade of the game and begin to ask, “Why am I doing what I’m doing? What’s my motivation here?” then you begin to see the underlying message of the game. It’s not about the violence. It was never about the violence.
Mental health, abuse, lack of resources, and poverty can all be cited as reasons for violence. But to admit this would mean a radical restructuring of society. It would require admitting that things like systemic racism, homophobia/transphobia, marginalization and privilege, and “rape culture” and “toxic masculinity” actually exist. Therefore, it becomes far easier to simply say, “Video games made them do it,” rather than admit that help for those people was either out of reach or never offered. And that has been at the core of my message all along.
To be clear, my message has never been to ban or outlaw media for racist or homophobic/transphobic imagery – except, however, in clear-cut cases of hate speech and defamation. I don’t believe violent video games make one violent, but sending a message that killing or harming a certain group is “OK” in order to incite violence against them definitely does lead to violence, especially against that group. Video games are hardly alone in that respect, as movies and books have been used to influence and sway politics and society as forms of propaganda for decades. What we have always needed is more education – more freedom of speech, not less.