This article was nominated for a Write Stuff Award 2007 in the College Entertainment category.
Videogames have, once again, become the subject of scrutiny by groups intent on stamping out violence and immoral conduct in entertainment. This time the pressure is coming from local government. In Germany the states of Lower Saxony and Bavaria are pushing for new legislation that would impose a 12 month custodial sentence on developers found to be producing games that feature “cruel violence”.
The law in Germany is already extremely strict as regards videogame violence. Games that do not meet the standards of the Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle, Germany’s videogame equivalent of the BBFC are refused certification and are effectively banned. Gears of War and Dead Rising have already met this fate and are now only available through import. Furthermore bans in place on the displaying of heraldry of the Nazi Party have prevented the release of titles such as Call of Duty and Return to Castle Wolfenstein. Raven produced an altered version of the Wolfenstein 3D sequel without the Swastikas specifically for the German market.
The advent of the new legislation could have a grave impact on the European games industry. German developers may be forced to re-locate in order to continue to operate. This is particularly evident in the case of Crytek. Their forthcoming title, Crysis, would most certainly breach the new legislation and result in sentences being handed down. The legislation would also set a dangerous precedent for other countries to follow.
The games industry is no stranger to controversy. Rockstar, the makers of Canis Canem Edit, the Grand Theft Auto series and Manhunt, has received a vast amount of flak for the violent content of their games. In Britain though, Rockstar submit all their games to the BBFC for rating and the GTA series and Manhunt all carry 18 certificates as a result.
Conservative individuals like attorney Jack Thomson and pressure groups such as the National Institute on Media and the Family in America insist that violence in videogames causes desensitisation and can stimulate unstable personalities. Games have been implicated as contributing to the Erfurt shooting in Germany in which 18 people died, the Columbine Massacre in the US and the murder of 14 year-old Stefan Pakeerah with a hammer by his 17 year-old friend Warren Leblanc in Britain. The perpetrators of each crime were disturbed and marginalised teenage males that seemed to have been pushed to commit these acts by other factors. Many blamed heavy metal music, violent movies and games such as DOOM and Counter-Strike for these incidents.
The truth is somewhat different though. The police in the case of Stefan Pakeerah dismissed the possibility of the his murderer’s obsession with Manhunt being a motive, citing instead that robbery was the likely motive. In Columbine, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were bullied and marginalised and in Erfurt the teenager in question was distraught at being expelled and prevented from sitting his university entrance exams. It would be interesting to see a correlation of sales figures and violent crimes that have been connected to them.
Studies have been inconclusive in determining a link between violent behaviour and violent videogames. A study by the Indiana University School of Medicine did show a mild increase in brain activity in the parts of the brain that control emotional arousal and a small decrease in activity in the areas related to self-control. When asked if these results indicated that violent games could cause violent behaviour, the principle investigator, Vince Mathews was reluctant to make that link. His suggestion was that parents be more aware of content of the games that their children were playing. “Based on our results, I think parents should be aware of the relationship between violent videogame playing and brain function.” This study used advanced brain imaging techniques to compare two groups of 22 teenagers, with one group playing Medal of Honour: Frontline and the other playing Need for Speed: Underground. Each group was scanned after 30 minutes of play and the results did demonstrate that the effects of the violent game (Medal of Honour) were different to that of the non-violent game (Need for Speed).
The scientific community is reluctant to confirm any sort of concrete link between violence in games and violent behaviour. Indeed with incidents like Columbine and Erfurt there are many other factors that contributed to the state of mind of the individuals involved. Too many other potential causes are present for such a link to be established conclusively.
The main suggestion that comes from studies such as the one at Indiana University is for greater parental control over what games children play. This is made very easy as there are rating systems in place which, not only impose an age limit on games but also advise on the content of easy game. PEGI in Europe and ESRB in the US are industry standard across the board and provide plenty of indication for parents as to the content and suitability of games. In the UK more and more publishers are submitting their games to the BBFC especially if there is any doubt as to their game’s content. Gears of War and Dead Rising, games that have been banned in Germany, carry an 18 certificate in the UK. This should be a sufficient indicator for parents that these games are not suitable for their 12 year-olds.
In the criticism of violent games we should not be asking whether we should ban them. The correct question should be: “who are these games for?”