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Calm Down

Paul Waldman, in the midst of a no compromise with the electorate kind of post, does make one semi-concession:

And one more thing: you have a problem with "Grand Theft Auto"? Well so do I, but that's the free market in action. The people who have a religious belief in the perfection of the market are all on the Republican side, so talk to them.
This business coming from liberals puzzles me to no end. I haven't really been a big video game player in some years, so my familiarity is mostly with Grand Theft Auto 3 though I have spent some time playing Vice City and I assume San Andreas doesn't differ in any relevant way. So what's the problem with these games? They portray horrific acts of criminality and violence, true. But what's the problem with portrayals of horrific acts of criminality and violence?

I thought it was odd back in 1992 when many people were inclined to blame high crime rates on violent video games rather than, say, high rates of drug abuse, a dysfunctional parole/probation system, a law enforcement community that often has its priorities screwed up, a structural shift toward diminished earning potentials for low-skilled workers combined with an inadequate public school system, etc., etc., etc. But since the time I was eleven years old, video games have only gotten (much) more violent and (much, much) more vivid in their portrayals of violence. And guess what? Since that time the rate of violent crime in the United States has gone monotonically down. The video games are fine. If you don't like them, don't play them. If you don't want your kids playing them, then take a deep breath and think of all the things you and your friends liked to do when you were kids that your parents and their friends didn't approve of. Remember the great comic book scare?

December 8, 2004 | Permalink

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Comments

Matthew, this is one of those things that you are supposed to say if you want to be taken seriously by culture wars folks and not accused of lacking insight into real americans and their concerns.

Violent video games (like violent comic books a half century ago) must, by definition, be bad for society and culture. there is nothing more to discuss.

you will never advance in your chosen field if you choose to ignore such baseline rules about acceptable rhetoric - you too could be labelled a michael moore-sympathizing america-hater....

Posted by: howard | Dec 8, 2004 5:18:55 PM

"Remember the great comic book scare?"

No. What's the story there? Additionally, why do people read and collect comic books?

Posted by: praktike | Dec 8, 2004 5:25:53 PM

[For the sake of argument:]

But video games might pose a problem of a different kind. It's not that they cause violence, but that their representations of violence are coarse and childish.

There's an esthetic argument to be made here (if I understand these opponents of video games correctly), not an anti-violence argument. Thus the correct thing for a putative "family-values" Democratic politician to do would be to claim common cause with those opposing video games on these grounds.

I think that's what was behind the V-chip, no? Or am I wrong?

Aesthetic arguments against video games are stronger than anti-violence arguments because (a) there's no causality that needs to be proven; and (b) there's no free speech intervention claimed on the part of the opponents [at least the smart opponents I'm positing for the sake of argument]. It's merely, and perhaps oversimply, the statement: "I find video games cheapen the power and terror of violence necessary to a mature understanding of its causes and effects."

So you, MY, might like video games just fine, but, if you were a politician, it might be interesting for the electorate to know why you don't find such entertainment esthetically (morally?) problematic.

I think many people would like their politicians to be not just public-policy processing machines, but whole personalities who seem to represent an attractive and even inspiring universe of esthetic and perhaps moral choices.

Posted by: Zackary Sholem Berger | Dec 8, 2004 5:31:38 PM

Here's an interesting thought experiment. How would you feel about a video game where you play a white supremacist, and the point of the game is to find black people and shoot them? You walk into a Popeye's Fried Chicken, for example, with a rifle, and you take them out one by one. Maybe you can interact with the people a bit before you kill them, choosing among phrases like "you ready to die, nigger?" or perhaps "maybe this'll keep you away from our white women!"

I'm not asking if you think this game should be banned. I'm asking if you think it's a perfectly fine way for your kids, or other people's kids, or twenty-something-year-old men, to spend their afternoons.

If not, what's the difference? Presumably we all agree that white supremacists are bad, bad people and that violence aimed at white supremacist ends is sickening and abhorrent. But then, presumably we all agree that shooting cops and prostitutes to keep one's wallet thick is sickening and aborrent as well. The company who makes each game will say, like Matt: of course we don't support the actions of the characters in the game, but these are FICTIONAL worlds, so lighten up.

This is only partially a rhetorical question. Maybe there's a convincing distinction out there. Any suggestions?

Posted by: Chris | Dec 8, 2004 5:35:06 PM

"No. What's the story there"

Presuming MY was talking the Wertham 50s thing...

Horror Comics

Wertham, Kefauver, Gaines, and the Code are near the bottom

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Dec 8, 2004 5:39:13 PM

So what's the problem with these games? They portray horrific acts of criminality and violence, true. But what's the problem with portrayals of horrific acts of criminality and violence?

I don't know. How about they increase the agression of those who play them:

http://www.apa.org/journals/psp/psp784772.html

Maybe parents don't want their children to have easy access to such games.

To continue Chris' thought experiment, would you have a problem with your kids playing games like Nazi Death Camp Guard, Exterminate the Tutsis, or Gas the Kurds?

Posted by: blah | Dec 8, 2004 5:40:29 PM

The link posted by Bob McManus references the book published around 1950 about the effect "horror comics" had on children. I have two personal stories. (1) In the 1950s, when you entered Great Britain, the customs agent showed a card listing contraband and asked "do you have any of these items?" The items were the usual narcotics, guns, explosives, pornography and ... Horror Comics. (2) I lived in London in the late 1950's as my father was at the American embassy. We shopped at a USAF PX (i.e. a military food and variety store) near the embassy (on South Audley St., I think). I (then about 10) used my allowance to buy American comics sold at the PX. Riding home on the bus, my mother would not sit with me if I read the comics. She felt she was clearly American and if I sat next her, my reading comics would embarass America. However, so long as I did not talk, I looked like any English school boy (shorts, knee socks, gray shirt, school cap) and so my sitting and reading alone I would not embarass America.

Of course they ley me buy comics, and I have nonetheless failed to become a crazed killer. Mother got her revenge (as I see it) by throwing away my extensive collection when they moved house and I was at college, which is why I work rather than live off capital.

Posted by: David Margolies | Dec 8, 2004 5:51:14 PM

It's all too stupid for words, but sadly the left has its own puritans who look to the temple of social science rather than the bible or religious conventional wisdom to support their own censorious agenda. There are studies out there correlating aggressive behavior and media consumption (including video game use) but the trouble is that they're either interview based (how many hours of video games do you play a week?) and inherently subject to manipulation by dishonest subjects wishing to please researchers, or observational, laboratory studies that measure only short-term "effects" of media consumption (note to social sciencists: just because some seven year-old appears to be perhaps be vaguely more aggressive after they played Grand Theft Auto doesn't mean they will go on to become serial killers.) I have friends in the social science community who have been a part of these types of studies, and the implicit message by the lead researchers is always that the results must be skewed towards the idea that popular culture has a dramatic and harmful effect on children or else they won't receive future funding from their foundational masters.

Even more fundamentally though, real scientists (that is biologists, chemists, physicists, etc) rather tired several decades ago of pointing out that the vast majority of social science (behaviorism, and a few other fields excepted) doesn't really deserve to be called science. We can blame this on Freud and other early social scientists who deliberately wrapped their often elegant-seeming theories in scientific-sounding language to gain legitimacy for them, and by the middle of the twentieth what had previously been considered sins were now considered pathologies. It was by and large a pseudo-scientific effort to find some empirical basis for moral conventional wisdom. Homosexuality, for instance, ceased to be a theological abomination and became a "disease" to be "cured" by the talk therapy industry. Pop culture that had previously been morally "indecent" became "unhealthy" - especially for "vulnerable children" (think of the children!)

As Matthew points out, crime has been falling in America even as video games have become more violent. Furthermore, our neighbors to the north (and their children) are about as fond of video games, including violent video games, as we are, and yet Canada has a violent crime rate that is a fraction of America's. Ditto for western Europe.

Posted by: Green Democrat | Dec 8, 2004 5:54:59 PM

So lock your favorite fucking game in the liquor cabinet so those well-supervised kids can't get at it! Matt's entirely right about the real causes of social violence being much broader - political, economic and social forces - than comix or gaming (or TV, or movies...). I personally take more offense from the slop that is dished out as being Good for You - when I see the phrases "Feel Good Movie" or "Triumph of the Human Spirit", I know I'm being sold a sack of shit, sweetened. That kind of sugar-coated lie (to borrow Pauline Kael's description of "The Sound of Music", which description got her fired) sticks all too well to the brains and hearts of the innocent, and takes years of reality-based experience to wash off.

Posted by: grishaxxx | Dec 8, 2004 6:03:55 PM

their representations of violence are coarse and childish

wabbit season
duck season
fire!
**BANG**
[twists bill around]
you're despicable.
wabbit season
duck season
etc.

Posted by: cleek | Dec 8, 2004 6:16:02 PM

I'm convinced that politicians focus on video game violence in order to avoid any meaningful public discourse on important issues, such as the widening gulf between rich and poor (the disappearing middle class), deteriorating public education, systemic racism, etc. Violence is overwhelmingly related to class, which is a forbidden topic in America, so best blame it on comic books, action films, rock n roll, rap music, or (sigh) video games.

On edit: I make video games for a living.

Posted by: ScrewyRabbit | Dec 8, 2004 6:21:40 PM

cleek:

Point taken. I guess "childish" is the wrong word for video games for an opponent of them to use. (I'm talking this way because I don't know what I think of them myself.) Perhaps "immature."

Another important and obvious difference between cartoons and video games is the level of realism. Again, these are aesthetic judgments.

Posted by: Zackary Sholem Berger | Dec 8, 2004 6:44:42 PM

"I'm convinced that politicians focus on video game violence in order to avoid any meaningful public discourse on important issues, such as the widening gulf between rich and poor (the disappearing middle class), deteriorating public education, systemic racism, etc."

Yes and its particularly reprehensible when it comes from the mouths of Democrats (note to Joe Lieberman and Hillary Clinton.) Michael Moore closed in on this point in Bowling for Columbine, but then walked away from it, which is to say that his initial impulse was right in so far as Canada is a place whose low rates of violent crime refuted both conservative and liberal orthodoxies. Canada does have a rich and pervasive gun culture, just like America (note to gun control fundamentalists, if there are any of you left), and its children are hardly shielded from constant exposure to American popular culture, including violent video games.

So what's the difference? Moore was right to point out that Canada has a higher rate of unemployment, but employment per se is not the only economic measure relevant here. With respect to violent crime rates, poverty is what matters, and Canada's generous cradle to grave social safety net and rates of economic mobility (your chances of going from poor to middle class are better there and in Scandanavia than anywhere in the world) prevents rates of poverty becoming what they are in the US, which has the highest rates of poverty (particularly among children) in the developed world. Too bad the Democrats stopped for the most part stopped caring about these things years ago.

Posted by: Green Democrat | Dec 8, 2004 6:45:23 PM

A play a lot of video games, and there are worse problems we can deal with, and violent crime is going down, etc etc.

But comparing this to the "comic book scare" is a poor analogy.

blah's APA link is a good one; you might also try this one, in Science:

"The Effects of Media Violence on Society"
Craig A. Anderson and Brad J. Bushman
http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/295/5564/2377

A relevant paragraph:

"Despite the consensus among experts, lay people do not seem to be getting the message from the popular press that media violence contributes to a more violent society. We recently demonstrated that even as the scientific evidence linking media violence to aggression has accumulated, news reports about the effects of media violence have shifted to weaker statements, implying that there is little evidence for such effects (4). This inaccurate reporting in the popular press may account for continuing controversy long after the debate should have been over, much as the cigarette smoking/cancer controversy persisted long after the scientific community knew that smoking causes cancer."

Just because some of us who play games think there are larger problems to deal with, doesn't mean this isn't a problem, too....

Sad, but true.

Posted by: foo | Dec 8, 2004 6:52:28 PM

Another important and obvious difference between cartoons and video games is the level of realism. Again, these are aesthetic judgments.

just FYI, i don't disagree with this or with your earlier point. just wanted to point out that violence in popular culture is often simply a vehicle for other things: humor, a way to score points in games, a way to build drama (Murder, She Wrote), etc..

Posted by: cleek | Dec 8, 2004 6:59:12 PM

"Despite the consensus among experts, lay people do not seem to be getting the message from the popular press that media violence contributes to a more violent society. We recently demonstrated that even as the scientific evidence linking media violence to aggression has accumulated, news reports about the effects of media violence have shifted to weaker statements, implying that there is little evidence for such effects."

See my post above. The studies done on this subject are pseudo-science, and in addition to using poor and easily refuted methodologies they fly in the face of the fact that a) violent crime is going down in America and b) other western countries, who are as fond of violent movies and video games as we are, have had and continue to have much lower rates of violent crime than we do. What's different (most notably) netween America and other western countries are rates of poverty. And the notion that the news media doesn't eat this nonsense up is so stunning I'm left speechless. Don't believe the hype.

Posted by: Green Dem | Dec 8, 2004 7:03:06 PM

hmm, I bet those experts have never been to a LAN party; probably because they think their theories are correct and they fear getting hit over the head with baseball bats...

Posted by: novakant | Dec 8, 2004 7:06:16 PM

just FYI, i don't disagree with this or with your earlier point. just wanted to point out that violence in popular culture is often simply a vehicle for other things: humor, a way to score points in games, a way to build drama (Murder, She Wrote), etc..

Of course. (Murder, She Wrote? Is that still on?)

That's why I'm not sure myself what I think of video games. On the one hand, I'm sure that somewhere on the internet, easily Googleable, is a (pseudo-?) learned excursus on how a spurt of blood can be depicted in the Zen or Anime school of violence art. And I know precious little about them.

On the other hand, aesthetics is bound up with morality, so a pornographic literature could perhaps never become plain-ol' unmodified literature. (Yes, I know this presupposes conservative distinctions between High and Low Art. I await pillorying.)

Posted by: Zackary Sholem Berger | Dec 8, 2004 7:12:28 PM

There is one big change in GTA:San Andreas over the previous two versions: It's very black. In place of the itallian mob, you get a Thug Life ghetto world, complete with NWA in the sound track.

Also, if you don't want young children playing these games - don't buy them for them. These games cost upwards of 50 bucks. Something like 90% of video game purchases for kids under 16 are made by parents. The games have ratings on the cover, it's not that hard. Hell, they card if you buy M rated games at the local Best Buy (I'm in my mid twenties, and I've been carded twice now)

Posted by: JoeF | Dec 8, 2004 7:15:24 PM

The problem is glorification of immoral activity. Now obviously kids aren't idiots, and they tend to know the difference between reality and fantasy, and even if they didn't it wouldn't be the fault of the game designers. That doesn't quite address the point. The point of the games is anti-social. So I say, "Those games suck", and I won't buy them, and hope people don't buy them.

Posted by: Ben Nelson | Dec 8, 2004 7:15:38 PM

The video games are fine. If you don't like them, don't play them. If you don't want your kids playing them, then take a deep breath and think of all the things you and your friends liked to do when you were kids that your parents and their friends didn't approve of. Remember the great comic book scare?


No, if you don't like your kids playing them, then don't let your kids play them; just don't expect the state to do your work for you. Its perfectly legitimate for parents to make decisions like that for their children (my did with the very oddly and narrowly constructed category of "toy guns"). In fact, deciding what is appropriate for their children is an important part of parenting.

But its important for parents to decide what to ban and what lengths to go to enforce such a ban themselves, for the most part; which means that the fact that some people don't like their kids playing certain kinds of video games does not justify a government-supported jihad against those games.

Posted by: cmdicely | Dec 8, 2004 7:17:29 PM

It's arrogance really. They don't believe games can tell better stories and be entertainment for more than little children so if you think they do there is obviously something wrong with you.

As for "I don't know. How about they increase the agression of those who play them" Total FUCKING bullshit. You can't prove that it is the game causing an increase in aggression or the types of people whose aggression levels increase play violent games.

Posted by: Mimiru | Dec 8, 2004 7:18:15 PM

Maybe parents don't want their children to have easy access to such games.

Then maybe they ought to engage in active parenting rather than expecting the state to do their job while they are passive, and if there are policies that need changed to enable them to do that, should work for policy change in those fields rather than trying to get the government to do their parenting for them.

Posted by: cmdicely | Dec 8, 2004 7:19:08 PM

The problem with GTA:San Andreas isn’t the violence, it’s that the actual game is just a tool for white teenagers to live out their Boyz in Da Hood fantasy. It’s the Fiddy Cent CD of videogames. There is something wrong and off kilter when pampered white children pay 50 bucks for the privilege of artificially becoming a poor Negro drug dealer.

Posted by: Mr Star | Dec 8, 2004 7:25:21 PM

Just to clarify, I haven't advocated any governmental intervention, which is the topic of the post. Matt purports not to understand why some people are concerned with violent video games, which he disingenuously compares to 1950s comic books. I am simply trying to explain why people are legitimately concerned with the effects of violent video games on their children (or other people's children, who may harm them).

Posted by: blah | Dec 8, 2004 7:30:23 PM

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