The arguments about whether videogames can cause violent behaviour in minors has been raging on for many years, with sensationalist pundits and ropey researchers quick to cash in on many parents' fears. This has led to a Californian review of whether games should be legally withheld from younger people (which is still being fiercely debated in a Congress subcommittee as of January 2011)- and it's high time we took a look at the facts as both gamers and concerned citizens alike.
Can Videogames Cause Violence?
Today brings us headline news from the (utterly shameless) Fox Network... who assert that games don't just cause violence. They're responsible for rape as well.
The increase in rapes can be attributed in large part to the playing out of [sexual] scenes in video games. If a younger kid experiences Bulletstorm's explicit language and violence, the damage could be significant. - Dr Jerry Weichman on Fox News [via MCV]
Ugh. As Dealspwn's News Editor, I'm deeply saddened that biased news reporting of this calibre is allowed on mainstream outlets... but it's only the tip of an ignorant iceberg that has been bobbing around in our collective consciousness for many years. The fact remains that, since two thirds of young people now play videogames, it will always be possible to link our hobby to the tiny proportion of gamers who commit acts of violence. Tarantino films were criticized for doing the same. Hell, even the (frankly tame) Catcher In The Rye book was as well! At the end of the day, assertions of "damaging the youth of today" is a stumbling block that all forms high art must pass through in order to be accepted. God knows that Shakespeare probably had to.
But the biggest responsibility doesn't lie with games or gamers. Sorry, parents: but it lies with you.
It's unfair to criticise violent games for corrupting your brood when, in the vast majority of cases, it's only possible for them to acquire the offending articles from you. Don't want your kids playing violent games? Don't buy them Gears Of War or Call Of Duty, then.
This isn't even the most important responsibility that parents need to face up to. When I was a lad, my parents sat down and played games with me; explaining that what I was seeing on the screen was not an acceptable part of real life. And then my father would take me outside for a bike ride or a kickabout. Don't demonise videogames as an evil box in your child's bedroom; rather, get involved with their hobby and be a part of it! Not only will they understand that violence isn't a part of real life, but who knows, it might even be a great new way to spend time with your family. Games bring people together far more than they segregate them. I wish Rock Band had been around when I was growing up.
Are Videogames Addictive?
Last year, my colleague penned an article about videogame addiction that roundly rubbished the assertion that games can be chemically addictive. It's well worth a read, but there is a very important caveat that I need to bring to your attention. Videogames may not be technically addictive... but they can be habit-forming.
My neuroscience sources [yes, he really does have them- Ed] inform me that playing videogames releases similar brain chemistry to snorting cocaine- and whilst it isn't technically addictive in the dictionary definition, it can be difficult to break a gaming habit once it's formed. Just ask World Of Warcraft players who are always looking for the next DPS high. Like most habits, excessive gaming can leads to players becoming emotionally jaded, with the emotional highs and lows of real life dulled into shades of grey.
What am I basing this on? It's happened to me- and if you're honest, I'm sure that many readers will admit to the same phenomenon happening to them. But at the end of the day, it isn't down to the games themselves- it's down to us. I hate to say it, but it's up to gamers and their families to get away from the screens every once in a while. When it comes to minors, once again, it's the parents who need to take the hit. I appreciate that parenting is extremely difficult and an immensely important part of life (seriously, thanks to parents everywhere)- but parents need to find time to find something else for the kids to do beyond killing Locust.
So, Should We Tighten Age Restrictions?
Here's the thing. We've incinerated the link between videogames and real-world-violence, and firmly established that the positive effects of attentive parenting far outweigh any negative consequences of our favourite hobby. And we all love violent shooters. But in our view, videogames should be held to the same standards as Films and other media. That's right, folks: we think that gaming age controls should be stricter and legally enforced with greater diligence. Selling adult games to minors should be illegal.
The main argument for tightening age controls is that of equality. Gaming is blossoming into a genuine art form- and we're all quick to slap down anyone who says otherwise. But if we're to be taken seriously, our medium needs to be beholden to the same standards as other mainstream works of art... which in the UK, means mandatory BBFC age classifications. You know that games are growing faster than movies. I know it too. But to be accepted as art, we need to be treated the same as everyone else.
Secondly- and no less importantly- it will kill the "games cause violence" debate dead in the water. If minors literally can't play videogames, we'll be able to objectively judge each act of violence on a case by case basis; free from muddy waters of the media's favourite scapegoat.
Finally, at the end of the day, do kids really need to play overtly gory videogames? I'm not convinced that they do. Our medium caters for every age group, demographic and taste on the market- and there are any number of games out there that are perfectly suited for families or younger people without being patronising pieces of edutainment. Harsher enforcement would also make big publishers think seriously about making new forms of entertainment that are more inclusive and suitable for all age groups. Is Super Mario Galaxy somehow worse than an FPS just because it doesn't feature massive dollops of juicy ultraviolence? No - and make no mistake, this won't affect their bottom line anywhere near as heavily as you might imagine.
Right, you've made it this far- and it's time to have your say? Are games murdering and raping our children? Should parents face up to their responsibilities? And should age ratings be legally enforced to the full extent of the law? Have your say in the comments!