Monday, October 17, 2005

Videogames: A Scapegoat in Pop Culture

[Editor's Note: the following is an edited version of a term paper I had to write in college 3 years ago. It is fully researched, but some of the references are no longer on the web (FTC documents in particular have been moved), and the statistics are, naturally, a bit out of date but are valid nonetheless. I've added some parenthetical notes along the way; hopefully they'll seem obvious as I would not actually have turned them in to a college professor. duh. Oh, I got an A on it, in case you were wondering. ]

[Video games are] turning too many kids into killers. I hope [the video game industry] will take it as a stern warning that we will not tolerate the marketing of murder and mayhem to our children."
– Senator Joseph Lieberman

Attacks on the entertainment industry by Congress and extremist parent organizations litter American history; it is a history of bandwagons, scare tactics and misinformation. In the sixties, the sexual themes of James Bond films and blossoming “rock and roll” music created parental uproars. In the seventies, communities banned the music of Black Sabbath and Deep Purple due to rumored demonic and suicidal subliminal messages. The subjects of the debates may change with time, but the fundamental question -- and problem -- remains the same:

What influence is this having on children? This question’s problem lies in its collective nature -- the absense of a possesive modifier (e.g. my children); each family is different, and each child is an individual. A universal answer is simply impossible.

In the early nineties and even moreso in the current generation, a new subject -- a new scapegoat -- presented itself: Video games were now the corruptors of youth. Now, after a decade of debate -- a decade of threats of banishment and censorship -- the inquisition continues devoid of merit: The wrong questions are still being asked. Yes, perhaps video games have gotten more realistic. Yes, perhaps video games have gotten more violent. But are video games corrupting the collective youth of America -- turning our “kids into killers”? Much like the movies and the music of the past, in a word: No.

There is a common misconception that video games are mostly played by introverted teenage males and little children. What is not understood by Congress and concerned parent organizations is that, although this myth was once fact, in 2002 the scope of video games has changed. Doug Lowenstein, President of the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA, now The Entertainment Software Association), in his testimony before the Senate Committee on Entertainment Rating Systems, explicitly explained that the “average age [of video game players in 2001 was] 28 years old [and] 61 percent [were] over 18.” (If I am not mistaken, this is a trend that is growing.) Clearly, teenagers and children do not even represent a majority of gamers. Additionally, Mr. Lowenstein conservatively estimated that “parents and adults, not kids, actually purchase at least eight out of ten games." Other documents go as far to willingly raise the ratio to nine out of ten games. In either case, the statistics show the minimal involvement of children in the purchasing of video games. Since at lease 80 percent of games are purchased by adults -- by parents -- violent content in games should really not be a problem that would invoke governmental censorship. One could argue that many parents do not understand video games and end up buying violent games for their children, but parents have the potential to be very much aware of what their children are playing. Ignorance is not an excuse.

In an effort to help parents (and consumers in general) choose their games and their children’s games wisely, the video game industry created the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). The ESRB is the first and last viable product of the violent-video-game debate. Much like the popular movie rating system, the ESRB uses distinguishing symbols to represent recommended age groups for games. As the video game industry is a self-regulatory industry, ESRB ratings are not required by law, but they have become standard and appear on every game available at retail.

Although the ESRB rating system has been described by Senator Lieberman as the “most comprehensive . . . of any entertainment medium in this country," it does present a certain amount of confusion due to its infancy. The problem inherent in the ESRB rating system is the false parallels that parents and other consumers draw to the popular movie rating system. In the minds of consumers, journalists, Congressmen, parental organizations, etc., a “Mature” rating signifies that the game is only suitable for ages 17 and older. This, however, is not the case. The ESRB defines a “Mature” rating as having “content suitable for persons 17 and older,” but not restricting the audience to such. This is not a mere technicality of words; the open-endedness of the phrase is completely intentional. Note that the only rating that restricts the sales of a game is “Adults Only” (which most retail outlets will not even stock, coincidentally). The ESRB means to objectively present the game content and let the consumer ultimately decide its appropriateness in his/her home.

Furthermore, a very small percentage of video games contain “murder and mayhem” as described by Senator Lieberman. As Mr. Lowenstein confirms, only eight to nine percent of video games in 2001 were given a mature rating. Should such a small percentage of games garner such uproar, especially considering the fact that parents and adults are the primary video game consumers -- by far? It is understandable that one may question the validity of such statistics due to the lack of parental awareness of the ratings and what they mean, but the IDSA has acknowledged this problem and has undertaken several public educational campaigns in recent years to increase such awareness (I know this -- first hand -- having worked for a video game store, and having had to see the same 2 minute infomercial staring baseball's most homosexual superstar). The Federal Trade Administration also, in its Report on the Marketing of Violent Entertainment to Children, found that the “electronic game industr[y has] made . . . [significant] progress . . . in providing rating information in advertising."

During the last decade, the video game industry has unequivocally become the most popular entertainment medium, having surpassed the movie industry by more than a billion dollars in 2001. (I believe the two industries are still battling it out in recent years). Historically, new entertainment mediums have been met by the assuming, critical eyes of concerned parents and their representatives (not to mention bible-whipped attention whores). In the case of video games, the assumptions are that they are violent and that the violence is corrupting and numbing our youth -- turning our “kids into killers.” Nonetheless, statistics show that the likelihood of a child playing a violent game without parental consent is very small. Rather than censoring or banning violent games, perhaps Congress and parent organizations should focus on what the video game industry has accomplished in the last decade: the video game industry has nearly tripled; its technology has progressed exponentially (of late, even going as far as to inspire technical, consumer, innovation surpassing that of personal computers); and it has not only created the best rating system of any entertainment industry (so says its greatest opponent Senator Lieberman), but it has responsibly undertaken public awareness campaigns as well. The video game industry allows parents to ask the question “What influence will this have on my children?” Video games do not create killers, but negligent and ignorant parenting can.


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