When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that there was no proof that violent video games caused minors to act violently, the video game industry believed an age-old debate was finally over. But in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook killings, the video industry is once again under scrutiny. This time, President Obama’s gun control initiative includes funding a new, $10 million study on violence in entertainment, including video games.
And that’s not all. Since the Newtown, Conn., tragedy, lawmakers in Missouri and Utah have introduced bills that would levy a tax on violent video game sales and make it a crime to sell certain games to minors.
State Sen. Leland Yee, who authored the 2005 California bill to ban sales of ultra-violent video games only to have the Supreme Court rule it unconstitutional, still vehemently believes the issue is a “public health matter.”
“Gamers have got to just quiet down,” Yee, D-San Francisco, said in an interview Tuesday. “Gamers have no credibility in this argument. This is all about their lust for violence and the industry’s lust for money. This is a billion-dollar industry. This is about their self-interest.”
While those kinds of sentiments anger many game players, who believe their favorite pastime is once again being made a scapegoat for violent behavior, the industry may only have itself to blame for attracting critics. After all, some of the most profitable games in the $7 billion industry – the ones that developers most heavily promote and advertise – are violent first-person shooter/slasher games like “Call of Duty: Black Ops II” and “Assassin’s Creed III.”
“It’s not all about shooting people in the head and guts everywhere, but that’s what the public perception is, and probably rightfully so,” said Kris Graft, editor-in-chief of the San Francisco-based site Gamasutra, which along with its print magazine sibling, Game Developer, covers the video game industry. “There is plenty of diversity in video games, but I don’t think it’s being highlighted enough.”
Indeed, a list of last year’s top 10 best-selling games, according to the research firm NPD Group, shows an equal mix of first-person shooters – which traditionally cater to the industry’s most loyal audience of hard-core gamers – and the sports and dance games that can’t be considered violent.
The best-selling game was the latest installment of the war simulation “Call of Duty” franchise from Activision of Santa Monica. In third place was “Halo 3,” from a Microsoft subsidiary, 343 Industries of Kirkland, Wash., and in fourth place was “Assassin’s Creed III” from France-based Ubisoft Entertainment, which has its North American headquarters in San Francisco.
But No. 2 was the long-successful football game franchise “Madden NFL 13,” from Redwood City’s Electronic Arts, while Ubisoft’s “Just Dance 4” finished in the fifth spot. The top 10 also included the basketball game “NBA 2K13” from Novato’s 2K Sports.
“It’s important to point out that some of the most popular video games in history are all titles such as ‘Wii Sports,’ ‘The Sims,’ ‘Super Mario Brothers,’ the Pokemon series and ‘Tetris,’ ” said Kate Edwards, executive director of the trade group International Game Developers Association. “So while the games containing more violence get the attention, they’re not a reflection of the game industry as a whole, just as a single genre of film, TV or literature doesn’t represent that medium as a whole.”
Still, the Dec. 14 Newtown killings once again focused attention on the video game industry, which has a large presence in the Bay Area. The National Rifle Association fueled the fire by reacting to calls for an assault weapons ban by pointing to movies, television and video games such as “Mortal Kombat” as negative cultural influences. (That criticism didn’t prevent the NRA from releasing its own shooting video game a few weeks later, “NRA: Practice Range.”)
And then came published interviews with a plumber who worked on the home of Newtown shooter Adam Lanza, describing the 20-year-old man as a hard-core gamer who would hole up in a windowless basement den playing “Call of Duty.”
Game makers thought that the debate over violence in video games was over after the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning Yee’s law, which would have imposed $1,000 fines on stores that sold or rented ultra-violent video games to minors.
The court held that video games had First Amendment free speech protection. “Like protected books, plays, and movies, they communicate ideas through familiar literary devices and features distinctive to the medium,” the majority opinion said.
Moreover, the majority justices noted that various studies on whether violence in games caused violence in real life were inconclusive. “Any demonstrated effects are both small and indistinguishable from effects produced by other media,” the majority opinion held.
Yee, a former child psychologist, believes the court set the standard too high for any study to firmly link the cause and effect of violence.
“I’m hopeful that the president’s intervention on this particular matter will make a difference, but I’m not that hopeful,” Yee said.
Obama’s sweeping gun control proposal calls on Congress to appropriate $10 million for a study by the Centers for Disease Control on possible links between gun violence and violent images in the media and in video games. The idea is picking up support. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, for example, have endorsed the study.
Edwards of the game developer’s association also welcomed the study – believing, though, that it would add to the “large body of existing scientific literature that clearly shows no link between video game violence and real violence.”
Ian Bogost, professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said the game industry shouldn’t feel too complacent because the scope and methodology of the proposed CDC study aren’t known. What will the game industry do if the study concludes violent games cause violent behavior, Bogost asked.
“We have no idea what any of it means,” said Bogost, who is also founder of a small Atlanta video game developer and author of several books about games. Bogost believes game industry executives have already fallen into a “rhetorical trap” by going along with the study, because it adds “another message that reinforced the idea that there’s some problem here for us to find.”
Similarly, as part of the buildup to the Obama gun control proposal, Vice President Joe Biden invited key video game industry executives, including Electronic Arts Chief Executive Officer John Riccitiello, to one of a series of summits two weeks ago aimed at finding solutions to gun violence. Biden publicly assured Riccitiello that he wasn’t trying to single out the game industry, but Gamasutra’s Graft argued that the gaming industry was making a mistake by participating.
“It’s our gun culture that breeds this fascination with firearms and the popularity of violent, shooty video games,” Graft wrote in a recent editorial. “It’s not the other way around, and I think that people outside – and apparently inside – the game industry have lost sight of that.”
What can the game industry do to keep from being implicated every time there’s an episode of large-scale gun violence? Graft suggests industry leaders develop financial incentives for developers to “make games that are as big and beautiful as ‘Assassin’s Creed,’ but not solely focused on murder.”
That’s not to say the industry should eliminate hard-core shooter games that remain its lifeblood. “There’s always going to be a market for that, but there are so many other avenues for game developers who aren’t interested in making games with blood and guts,” Graft said.