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Video Game Violence and Self-Regulation

Jonathan Dorfman

Mr. Jones

Senior Project

14 December 2006

Video Game Violence and Self-Regulation

Miami-based attorney and anti-video game activist, Jack Thompson once warned that "eventually there is going to be a Columbine to the factor of ten, a slaughter in a school by a crazed gamer. When that happens, Congress may ban the games altogether (Kushner)." Thompson was referring to the very video games that many youths and adults play. Many legislators have tried and failed at proposing an effective solution to the problem at hand. The problem is the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) is being attacked by politicians and parents alike. This is a problem because the ESRB does its best to rate video games based on content in order to inform parents about inappropriate material unsuitable to children. In order to appease everybody, the ESRB must play the games in their entirety to avoid unpleasant surprises and parents must be kept more up to date on content.

In the struggle over control of the video games industry, no crusader against violent and sexually explicit media is more notorious than attorney, Jack Thompson. During his "crusade," Thompson has picked up a few nicknames, the most famous of which is "Banman." This name derives from a homemade game, in which Jack Thompson explores his community as he kills people and destroys property around him (very much like his description of games such as Grand Theft Auto) (Kushner).

Jack Thompson made a bargain with the industry, saying he would donate $10,000 to a children’s charity if the industry would make a game following his parameters. When another homemade game was developed following Thompson’s instructions, Thompson reneged on his deal and was enraged to learn that a gaming organization called Penny Arcade donated the money to a games industry-funded charity in his name (Kushner).

In November, 2005, Supreme Court Justice, Devin Moore of Alabama revoked Thompson’s license to practice in the state due to violations of legal ethics rules in the courtroom. In addition, former ally, David Walsh (founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family) distanced himself from Thompson and asked that others do the same (Kushner).

Ironically, many of his opponents are grateful to have such an opponent as Jack Thompson, whom they view as impotent in his role as a crusader. The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) views the plight as merely generational. They believe the digital generation will soon take over Congress and strive to protect their video games (Kushner).

But what exactly started this controversy in the first place? On April 20, 1999, two teenagers entered Columbine High School in Colorado and wreaked violent, bloody havoc on teachers and other students. When it was discovered that the murderers played violent video games, a link between games and violence was established. Studies concluded that all youth violence was caused by media violence (Hatch).

The Department of Justice revealed the number of juvenile arrests in 1997 exceeded those in 1988 by forty-nine percent. Studies continued to show that by eighteen-years-old, children will have seen sixteen thousand simulated murders, and they will have seen two hundred thousand acts of violence in the media. Furthermore, they claimed that games do not only teach children to kill, but they teach children to like killing (Hatch).

Many parents simply pay no attention to the games their children are playing. Whereas parents watch television and movies with their children twenty-five percent of the time, they only play video games with their children three percent of the time (Dunnewind).

In 2000, retailers did not require identification to purchase an "M"-rated video game (as opposed to buying a ticket to an "R"-rated movie). Only two-thirds of polled stores required parental permission to sell "M"-rated games in 2000. This was a three-fold jump from 1998. The Seattle Times asked a twelve-year-old child to buy an "M"-rated game alone in five stores; only one of the stores required parental permission. Beyond this, parents are under pressure from peers, as they often buy violent video games uninformed of the rating simply because their child’s friends own the game (Dunnewind).

In 2000, seven percent of sold games were rated Mature, twenty percent were rated Teen, and seventy percent were deemed "okay for all". Seven out of ten children in third through twelfth grades owned at least one video game console. Forty-five percent of these children kept them in their bedrooms (Dunnewind). This is important because a child can play violent video games without his or her parents knowing if the child plays the games in his or her bedroom.

Several laws were passed to prevent unsuitable material from reaching children. In Illinois, Governor Rod Blagojevich stated that games desensitize children to violence, as children and teenagers were becoming more aggressive as they played more video games. The affected teenagers argued that television was indeed more violent than the video games. Blagojevich countered that the games let children commit crimes, not just watch them (Blagojevich).

Critics and parents agree that children can distinguish between video games and reality. Furthermore, they claim parents who play with their children can explain violence better than lawmakers. However, Iowa State University revealed two studies that showed more aggression in people who play violent video games (Blagojevich).

Another famous anti-gaming bill (California State Assembly Bill 1179) was signed in 2005 by the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Any violations carried fines up to one thousand dollars. Schwarzenegger reasoned that video games were intended for adults, as most were rated "M" or "AO". The law was designed to "protect children and strengthen families" and was to be part of a series of measures to do so. Studies again showed aggression toward females from impressionable teenagers and preteens (Broder). The law prohibited the sale of "ultra-violent video games" to anyone less than eighteen years of age. The video games industry sued the state of California, claiming the law was unconstitutional and violated parental rights. The definition of "ultra-violent video games" is any game, which "depicts serious injury to human beings in a manner that is especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel" (Mortal). The law was eventually ruled to be unconstitutional.

Some people believe that video games are only intended for young children and teenagers. However, this is a mistaken belief because the average gamer is about thirty-years-old. Moreover, video games are becoming one of the fastest-growing pastimes in America with seventy-five percent of households playing games, and fifty percent of all Americans playing. Somehow, people came to the conclusion that playing video games is something that only boys do. This, too, is false because statistics are consistently showing that only sixty percent of online gamers are male, and the other forty percent of online gamers are female (Video Game Voters Network).

Even some beliefs about the sales of video games are being challenged. More statistics show that the average buyer is thirty-seven-years-old. Furthermore, the large majority of customers are over eighteen years of age. Critics still underestimate the popularity of video games. In reality, nineteen percent of Americans over fifty-years-old played video games in 2004, and almost two games per household in America were sold in 2005 (Video).

Critics think the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) fails comprehensively and is not enforced. This, again, is misinformed. When the developers Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas were revealed to have hidden a sex mini-game from the ESRB, the game was immediately removed from store shelves as the developers were given a new rating of "Adults Only" (or "AO"). Politicians seem to think restrictions of sales will be deemed constitutional in court. However, every law to date has been declared unconstitutional in the Supreme Court. Critics continue to argue that federal regulation will build on the ESRB, not replace it (Video). Many times, their legislation holds the ESRB accountable for the industry’s problems; some legislation has even proposed government reviews of the ESRB, itself.

The ESRB was established in 1994 after Congress threatened to dismantle the industry in 1993. Games are rated by a consensus of three professionally trained raters, who look for violence, sex, language, and substance abuse. Even though the ratings are not required, but strictly voluntary, the ESRB does its best to enforce the ratings they assign. The Advertising Review Council (ARC) is assigned the duty of reviewing advertisements for video games (Entertainment Software Ratings Board). The ratings system included a rating symbol and its corresponding content descriptors. There are currently six symbols and thirty-two descriptors (Federal).

An "Adults Only (AO)" rating indicated that the game included intense violence and graphic sexual content or nudity. A "Mature (M)" rating meant that the game included intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content, and strong language (Federal). Four factors were considered when rating a game that received a "Mature" rating: violence, language, sexual innuendo, and drug abuse (Churnin). The "Teen (T)" rating indicated that the game included violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood, and use of strong language. In 2005, at the request of parents and politicians, a new rating was added to the system. "Everyone Ten and Older (E10+)" meant the game contained cartoon, fantasy, or mild violence, mild language, and minimal suggestive themes (Federal). "Everyone (E)" indicated the game contained cartoon, fantasy, or mild violence and mild language. Nothing offensive could be found at all in a game rated "Early Childhood (EC)". Games that are still awaiting a final rating are rated as "Rating Pending (RP)" (Federal).

In 1999, the Clinton Administration proposed a study to be conducted by the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice to examine whether or not encouraging media violence creates real violence. The objectives President Clinton outlined for the study were to avoid judging the content of the products directly, work without embarking on a campaign for law enforcement, and work with the entertainment industry instead of against it. The study was only intended to examine the industry’s self-regulatory and marketing practices toward youth demographics. Clinton further explained that the study would provide meaningful contributions to the industry and update parents who want to prevent inappropriate material from reaching their children (Pitofsky).

Albert Bandura, a well-renowned analyst, once developed a "Social Learning Theory," which states that people learn vicariously through others. It was inevitable that his theory would be applied to violent video games. In 2000, critics of the Social Learning Theory claimed that television and movies were more realistic than video games, and therefore, more impressionable on young children. To say that Bandura’s theory is correct or incorrect would be implausible since numerous studies in the past have shown very mixed results. There are about just as many studies that show a link between violence in video games and violence in real life as studies that show no link at all. Moreover, according to such studies, crime decreased twenty percent between 1991 and 1997 while violence decreased forty percent during this period, when video games were gaining massive sales. The Australian government has even conceded that its own results were not substantial enough to conclude anything (Saltzman).

That is not to say that all critics did not try to solve the problem. In an attempt to inform parents of content in 2000, critics of the industry put together a list of games for parents to watch out for when choosing appropriate games for their children. Among the list of most notoriously violent games was Soldier of Fortune, in which one becomes a mercenary with the ability to behead, disembowel, and blow limbs off of enemies. In Perfect Dark, the player assumes the role of a female spy who must infiltrate an evil organization with a number of various weapons. The objective of Nightmare Creatures 2 was to kill zombies and other undead beasts in a gory manner. The main character of Daikatana was a time traveler who must destroy enemies by any means necessary. Perhaps one of the most violent and gory games of all time, Postal Plus was a game, in which an overworked postal carrier "goes postal" and kills every person in his entire town, including the police, dogs, innocent bystanders, and anybody else who crosses his path (Saltzman). As one might imagine, some parents were appalled.

In 2002, a new type of game ushered in what is perhaps the industry’s darkest hour. The average gamer (age twenty-eight) enjoyed the thrill of being malicious in the latest installment of the Grand Theft Auto series, even though he would never do what he did in the game in reality. Gamers enjoyed participating in fictional wars, regardless of whether or not they actually had a military record. To them, playing a video game was like being on television or in a movie. Despite these devious deeds, their spouses, partners, etc. simply viewed the habit as slightly annoying (St. John).

By 2004, studies still had not made any progress in establishing a link between violence and violent video games. Lawmakers could not decide how the subject should be handled. As previously mentioned, all attempts at restricting the sales of violent video games had failed. Furthermore, even the parents were divided over the issue, straddling the fine line between protecting their children from harmful influences and isolating them from their peers. While some parents did not want their children playing video games at all, others felt their children should feel they could be honest about anything, including playing violent games. However, the parents do agree that adults can distinguish between virtual violence and reality; meanwhile, young children have trouble distinguishing the two. Some youths have testified that video games have not desensitized them, since real life violence did affect them emotionally. They added that if they wanted to commit acts of violence, they would be doing it in real life and not in a video game (Churnin).

Some of the critics’ blame stems from a misunderstanding as to how the games are rated in the first place. To those who wonder how games are rated to begin with, the ESRB functions somewhat like a bureaucracy. First, developers send footage and an accurate representation of the context and the product as a whole. Secondly, raters recommend a rating and reach a consensus. The final product is then sent in for final review to ensure the product is in accordance with ESRB standards. Next, the game is played to ensure an accurate rating (though this does not mean the game is played in its entirety). After all this, the finished video game goes on store shelves (Entertainment Software Ratings).

What could have possibly gone wrong with such a rating system? In July, 2005, a hacker discovered a hidden sex mini-game in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and word soon spread of the developer’s secret "indiscretions". This discovery could not have come at a worse time. The entire industry was in trouble with angry parents and politicians alike. The scandal was dubbed the "Hot Coffee Scandal" because of a line uttered by one of the characters right before the mini-game started. Around the time the mini-game was uncovered, nobody was sure of what they were buying thanks to modification software. Modification software, or "mods" as they are more commonly known, is software that is used to hack and modify video games. "Cheat codes" can also be found in some games. These codes are used to unlock new material previously hidden from the player. Little gag items randomly placed within a video game called "Easter eggs" are also used by some developers when programming or designing a game. About ninety-nine percent of mods are intended to be benign, although there was nothing benign about "Hot Coffee". Analysts are increasingly recommending that parents be as involved in choosing appropriate games for their child as they would be in choosing television programs or movies (Goodale).

So far, it would seem that the industry is winning its legal battles for self regulation. In 2006, studies showed that gamers who are minors get parental permission before buying a video game eighty-three percent of the time. A law in Michigan restricting the sales of games to minors was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor of California, was also unable to prove that a link between video games and violence existed as the Supreme Court overturned his law; a Washington state law was overturned as well. Studies in St. Louis have yielded unfounded results when trying to prove that this link existed (Entertainment Software Association). Critics of video games have yet to decide on a reasonable solution to their problem with the industry.

What is known so far from research is that games do not cause aggression, nor is there a link to aggression; positive benefits were found instead. Whether there is a link between virtual violence and real life violence has yet to be resolved, however. No increase in hostility has been clearly indicated, as the St. Louis Case managed to overturn a law. In fact, some studies have shown video games to have a therapeutic effect on gamers (Entertainment Software Association). Studies seem to indicate a greater potential to learn from something that is more fun than the potential to learn from school.

To summarize, concern is growing over how to handle the subject of inappropriate material reaching impressionable, young minds. All forms of government have yet to resolve this issue. The ESRB is doing its best to ensure all video games are rated appropriately, but ultimately, it is up to the parent to decide which games are right for his or her children.

In 2005, as previously mentioned in this paper, Rockstar Games and its parent company, Take-Two Interactive, released a game called Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The game was a commercial success, but only until a hacker discovered hidden code within the game’s programming that allowed players to engage in a sex mini-game. The resulting scandal was referred to by the gaming community as the "Hot Coffee Scandal". Unfortunately for the industry, this merely proved that flaws exist in the ESRB’s ratings system in that the code went completely unnoticed by the ESRB because the raters who rate the games do not play the games in their entirety when rating a video game (Oldenburg).

"Hot Coffee" sparked a flurry of legal hearings, debates, and lawsuits shortly after it was discovered. The ESRB conducted an investigation of both the developer (Rockstar Games) and the publisher (Take-Two Interactive) as to how the code went unnoticed during the entire rating process of the game. Furthermore, the ESRB, itself, was investigated as to how the ratings system managed to overlook the code during the rating process. Almost immediately, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was pulled off store shelves and re-rated as an "AO" video game, thus preventing any more minors from purchasing the inappropriate content. As mentioned, several lawsuits were filed against Take-Two and Rockstar, most notably by Miami-based attorney, Jack Thompson.

What upset critics of the industry the most was the fact that minors were able to bypass the game’s age recommendation and have full access to such inappropriate material. The age recommendation for an "EC"-rated game is three years of age or older. Games rated "E for Everyone" are intended for children at least six years of age. Children ten years of age or older are recommended to play games rated "E10+". Teenagers thirteen and older are recommended for games rated "T". It is recommended that only adolescents who are at least seventeen-years-old play games rated "M for Mature". Only legal adults over the age of eighteen are allowed to purchase games rated "Adults Only" or more simply, "AO". Most stores do not carry "AO"-rated video games in plain view of minors.

But when one sits down to consider who really was to blame for the scandal, there is a disagreement. Some critics say it happened because the industry is a mess and because there is too much inconsistency between the different ratings systems for the different types of media (Oldenburg). The other side is that Rockstar Games and Take-Two Interactive are the sources of the problems plaguing the industry as a whole. However, the angry parents and politicians seem to forget that "Hot Coffee" is merely an isolated incident which cannot and does not represent the industry as a whole (Oldenburg).

Various solutions have been suggested by those taking the proactive approach. Lawmakers have suggested a universal ratings system for all forms of the media (Oldenburg). If this measure were to pass, the government would have the ultimate control over the content of video games, thus giving the government too much say as to what goes into the media. This would not be an effective solution because it would violate the First Amendment rights to freedom of speech. Furthermore, developers would be afraid to push the boundaries of inspiration and would not feel able to express themselves for fear that the government would prosecute them.

One existing theory is that if the government controls the ratings and imposes penalties on violations, developers would exclude the content they want to include, fearing the consequences. Doing this would leave the games they create with a lack of creativity and, in essence, a lack of free expression. It is this lack of free expression that would violate the First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Therefore, it would make much more sense keep the current self-regulation of the industry instead of imposing federal regulation.

Despite this backlash against video games, some people feel the ESRB is not to blame for the "Hot Coffee Scandal". A retail manager at Gamestop, one of the nation’s largest retail outlets for video games, Ed Kelly, tries his hardest to uphold ESRB policies. Ed feels the ratings are very effective, in which case they would just need to be enforced more. He never sells violent media to minors and only recommends child-oriented games with cartoon characters for small children. When asked about the "Hot Coffee Scandal", Mr. Kelly said Rockstar Games and Take-Two Interactive "made a very bad mistake and did a very bad thing because ["Hot Coffee"] gives every game a bad name." Ed seems to agree with the industry that the developers, not the current ratings system, were responsible for the scandal (Kelly).

Jonathon Wisniewski, who would seem to fit Jack Thompson’s idea of the average gamer, is a teenager who plays violent video games often. Unlike Thompson’s "average gamer", he never has, nor does he ever intend to reenact anything from a video game. It would seem that critics’ major claim that violent media encourages violent behavior is unfounded. Jonathon does not recommend violent games to small children, and in fact, recommends some games like "the more cartoony platformers" to small children (Wisniewski).

Simple as they are, these solutions, if implemented, could be very effective. He believes that the government should be involved with the industry, but "not so much in how games are made." Jonathon believes the government should not restrict the content of video games, but simply legally enforce the ESRB ratings. Ultimately, he believes that it is the parents’ place to make the final decision on whether or not the game in question is appropriate and acceptable for their children (Wisniewski).

One way for this system of enforcement to work is to impose a new series of policies on video games that would give it the same protections as the rest of the media. Under this policy, the government would require that parents be informed of the ratings, content, and age recommendations for each game. The retailers would then be legally obligated to refuse sales of violent and/or sexually explicit games to minors who do not correspond to these criteria (just like with cigarettes or alcohol). However, the parents would have the power to make the final choice to buy the game. This would be the most important factor of the system because the government would overextend its powers if it were to dictate what games parents are allowed to introduce to their home environments. That authority is outside the federal government’s jurisdiction.

So far the suggested options are to allow total governmental domination of the industry, keep the ratings system as it is now, or enforce governmental protection of the video games industry with the ratings legally enforced and parents making the final decisions. While some of these solutions are more feasible than others, more action must be taken to ensure there is not a repeat incident of the "Hot Coffee Scandal".

In order for there to be an effective solution, the ESRB must, whether it likes it or not, play every game it rates in its entirety if only to ensure there are no more hidden surprises. That being said, it would seem the ESRB is starting to learn from its mistakes. In 2006, another video game called The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was released by Microsoft. Similarly, a hacker altered the game’s programming in order to allow players to design topless, female characters. The ESRB immediately picked up on this activity and repeated its procedure it utilized for "Hot Coffee" (investigations, pulling the game off store shelves, re-rating the game, etc.). Of course, some politicians were upset that the incident, however minor it was, occurred at all.

The fact of the matter remains that all of this could have been avoided if the ESRB played the games in their entirety. In addition, the ESRB should also bring in hackers and the developers, themselves, to better identify what content is already embedded in the programming, what content can be made available through use of cheat codes, and how to block against malicious hackers altering the game to include material that is unsuitable for minors. This way, the possibility of another "Hot Coffee Scandal" occurring would be drastically decreased. The use of hackers to prevent hacking is not uncommon. Microsoft has hired hackers to better secure its products and programs for years.

Secondly, parents absolutely must be informed of both any given game’s content and its rating in order to make sound decisions on which games are appropriate for their children. It is equally important to inform parents to keep aware of the "modding community" which tends to alter game content into content that is unsuitable for young, impressionable minds. Many parents whose children obtained a copy of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas before "Hot Coffee" could have avoided buying the game in the first place if they knew what type of content was already in the game.

Lastly, if a universal ratings system must be utilized, it is only possible if the suggested ratings system is self-regulated in order to protect the First Amendment rights to freedom of speech. Otherwise, it is best to better enforce the current ratings and age recommendations.

This vicious cycle of legal battle after legal battle could continue forever. It probably will unless some changes are made to the current ESRB procedures. There will always be another "Hot Coffee Scandal" as long as the ESRB does not play the games it rates in their entirety, as well as hire hackers and bring in the game’s developers to help prevent another "Hot Coffee Scandal". Not only must the games be completely played during the rating process, but parents simply must be more aware of the content of the games they buy for their children. Prosecution is not what the ESRB needs. Instead, politicians should be trying to help the ESRB improve upon its procedures so that the "Hot Coffee Scandal" does not happen again. Perhaps the Columbine, of which, Jack Thompson warned has already occurred, and perhaps, this time, the video games industry was the victim.

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