Thursday, March 27, 2008

Video Games, Violence, Rating Systems, and Warning Labels

A couple of years ago I bought the game The Suffering: The Ties That Bind for my wife. She's a big fan of the survival horror genre, and especially likes to watch all the gory, violent details animated on screen. Unlike the first game in the series, this one failed to hold my interest long. I still haven't finished it. I relay this information because of the circumstances around which I was subjected to when I bought the game at Best Buy -- I was carded.

"Whaaaa??" you may be thinking. That's right -- I was carded to buy a video game. It was strange, and the clerk even said that he thought it stupid but had to ask because of an overzealous, hovering boss. With its "M" rating, Best Buy needed to be sure that I was at least 17 to sell me the game. I didn't bother to protest it because I was in a hurry, but I still cannot think of any legal basis that Best Buy could deny someone the sale of a game based on the buyer's age. Unless...

Video games will be forced to carry cigarette-style health warnings under proposals to protect children from unsuitable digital material.

The report, commissioned by the Prime Minister in response to a growing moral panic about video games, will conclude that they can harm the development of children’s beliefs and value systems and desensitise them to violence. It will also recommend that retailers who sell video games to anyone under the age rating on the box should face a hefty fine or up to five years in prison. [emphasis mine]
I read the above in The London Times today. What the hell is this crap? I realize this is being proposed for the UK, and I'll admit that I'm not entirely sure exactly how the UK operates regarding the policing of its cultural content. Despite this, I'm going to argue from an American point of view.

Last I checked, there's no such warning on movies, books, or other content. What makes video games so special that they need to be singled out? Cultural conservatives have been claiming for decades that violent and sexual content is harmful to children; however, they are yet to provide any supporting evidence. To the contrary, there is little-to-no evidence linking violence in video games to violent behavior:
Perhaps most tellingly, video game critics fail to show where, exactly, the real-world evidence of harm lies. Assuming that teens are being exposed to bad language and animated violence, so what? Daily teen life involves some profanity, adult themes, and violent entertainment. Has the sexual material resulted in an increase in teen sex? No; the National Center for Health Statistics reported last year that fewer teens are engaging in sexual activity than in the past, and the rate dropped significantly between 1995 and 2002.

Has the video violence resulted in an increase in violent crime? No; on Oct. 17, 2005, the FBI released figures showing that the U.S. violent crime rate declined again last year. In fact, violent crime has dropped significantly over the past twenty years— just as video games have become more violent. The NIMF and Senator Lieberman even decried "graphic scenes of cannibalism" in video games.

Should America brace itself for a rise in teen cannibalism? Violent video games have been around since 1991, yet clear evidence of any harm has yet to emerge.

This line within the Times article is revealing about the true motives of the report's author, Tanya Byron, "[video games] can harm the development of children’s beliefs and value systems and desensitise them to violence" [emphasis mine].

Just exactly what "beliefs" and "value systems" are being harmed, and in what way? I'll hedge a bet that Byron never examines this question, and it's likely that her report is based on assumptions about what are the "proper" "beliefs" and "value systems" that children should be developing. In the end, the report appears to be endorsing censorship of ideas that the author does not like. This report's premise has also been brought into question before the study even began.

Finally, I'll just add that adding a "cigarette-style health warning" is a seriously bad idea. There's no evidence that there's any health risk to playing video games (and there's even evidence that some types of games are actually good for your health), while the evidence that there's a health risk associated with tobacco products is overwhelming. Drawing a comparison like this only serves to raise pseudoscience up while devaluing real science at the same time.

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