Article Title: Everything You Know About Video Game Violence is Wrong
Article Byline: A stunning Surgeon General's report puts new doubt into the media violence connection. Where do we go from here?
Article Body: Written by: Bruce Rolston

Published: February 26, 2001

"Cognitive dissonance" is a mental state produced by having two contradictory pieces of knowledge in one's brain at the same time. If you as a gamer are feeling a little dissonance these days, you're not alone: February was a confusing and contradictory month on the whole harmfulness-of-game-violence issue.

On the one hand, game industry executives were revealed to be working behind the Oz curtain to curtail the access of teenagers to violent computer and console entertainments. On the other, the American Office of the Surgeon General released a major report telling people that violent media aren't really that big a problem, after all. A game industry watchdog group told us that sales clerks were ignoring the game rating system; but still praised the industry for having the best entertainment system around. Those who follow these issues closely were left wondering: overall, did we gain or did we lose? Perhaps the answer is neither… but we did take a few steps forward.

Forward, that is, out of the shadow of Columbine. This month's surgeon general's report was only the latest indirect consequence of one of the most ghastly episodes of school violence in American history: the April 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.

In the media frenzy that immediately followed the mass murder-suicides of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, almost any negative influence that could have impacted on the killers' state of mind would be seized upon by a press and public trying to understand what happened. To some, the pair were after jocks, or Christians, or maybe blacks. They were frustrated homosexuals, Neo-Nazis commemorating Hitler, or perhaps Goths honoring Marilyn Manson; they were victims of prescription drugs, or maybe the children of bad parents... and, of course, victims of a violent culture, including the computer games they played.

At first, this didn't seem so far-fetched. Both Klebold and Harris were known to be fans of the first-person shooters Doom and Quake. Harris was an amateur Doom level-maker, as well. Similar attempts to make a connection with the four previous school shootings in the previous year-and-a-half had had less evidence to work with. (A lawsuit by the victims' families against computer-game makers following a 1997 school shooting in West Paducah, Kentucky was thrown out of court this past April.)

But a series of articles for by investigative reporter Dave Cullen, who has covered the case exhaustively for nearly two years, showed that the preconceptions about games playing a role in the Columbine violence were overstated, at best.

Cullen points to the trial of gun dealer Mark Manes, who received a six-year sentence for selling the two killers a firearm. During that trial, prosecutors made the case that it was the pair's training sessions with real firearms, not the computer equivalents, that stoked their lust for violence.

"The game Doom was specifically cited as the means for Harris and Klebold to develop both their shooting skills and their passion for blood," Cullen wrote. "But... prosecutors portrayed the practice sessions with Manes and [co-accused Phil] Duran as the breeding ground for their enthusiasm, allowing them to transform their fantasies into reality. It was the only known time they trained with weapons, according to prosecutors, and their success in those sessions fed their thrill."

(It was just one of the untruths or overstatements about the Columbine tragedy Cullen would uncover. The records the killers left behind showed the two to be confused teenagers, with none of the other motives ascribed to them. The killers weren't after any specific group, police would find (they appeared to hate just about everybody); nor were they gay, or Manson fans. They never wore trenchcoats except to hide their guns that one day, and they likely didn't a born-again Christian if she was religious before killing her.)

What they really wanted, police investigators concluded, was to become infamous, and they were simply willing to kill themselves and a lot of other people to do it.

"[Lead police investigator Kate] Battan actually believes fame was the single biggest reason Harris and Klebold ultimately went through with the plan," Cullen wrote shortly after the killings. "'That's my personal opinion,' she [Battan] said. 'And all the rest of the justifications are just smoke.' Other key investigators backed that assessment."

One of the killers, Harris, proudly claimed the massacre-to-come as a personal achievement, refusing to share any of the credit with either games or any of the other supposed negative influences on him. "It's my fault!" he wrote just before the killings. "Not my parents, not my brothers, not my friends, not my favorite bands, not computer games, not the media, it's mine."

But by the time reporters had begun to dismantle the myths that had sprung up around Columbine, their political force had already been felt. In Washington, anti-violence crusader Senator Joe Lieberman was saying only two weeks after the shootings that the Littleton killings were more evidence of what he called the mass media's "culture of carnage."

"Even some of the most reluctant of skeptics are beginning to focus on the culture of carnage surrounding our children, particularly the hyperviolent movies, music, and video games that have apparently mesmerized these child killers," he told the Senate's commerce committee, chaired by Republican Senator John McCain.

"None of us wants to resort to regulation, but if the entertainment industry continues to move in this direction, and continues to market death and degradation to our children, and continues to pay no heed to the real bloodshed staining our communities, then the government will act."

At the time, Lieberman's statements almost seemed moderate. That summer of 1999 saw a flurry of activity in Congress, with the House of Representatives considering no less than 44 amendments on cultural issues. Judiciary committee chairman Henry Hyde was pushing for a ban on all "obscenely violent" content. Another bill called for the Federal Trade Commission to assume responsibility for the rating of all media. (Both bills were defeated in the House.) That August, the Senate judiciary committee issued a brutal report homing in on Hollywood and the computer game industry as dark forces behind the killers of American youth. If there was any doubt about the significance of their role, it wasn't apparent. "To argue against it," said one psychiatric association spokesperson at the time, " is like arguing against gravity."

President Clinton also weighed in with his views shortly after the Littleton shootings. In an online forum with high school students that week, he questioned whether games could be a factor. "There's been a lot of talk about… whether the Internet plus having very young people play very violent video games where they learn to shoot people and stuff, that those two things have added an extra element to an otherwise already pretty violent culture. And I think we're going to have to take another look at it."

It would be Clinton who would commission two separate fact-finding efforts in the weeks that followed the Colorado shootings, under pressure from Congressional leaders who wanted to be seen to be doing something. Surgeon General David Satcher was instructed to undertake a broad look at the causes of youth violence, while the Federal Trade Commission was told to look at the industries some saw as the culprit: movies, music, and computer games.

The FTC would come back first. Its thorough and mostly sensible report, calling for greater efforts at industry self-regulation over marketing practices and rejecting government involvement, was released last September. This last month, it was Satcher's turn. Hollywood was already bracing for the impact: if Satcher's report had been strongly negative, it might have been a hammerblow to the mass entertainment industries' steadfast defence of their own freedom to create what they wanted. Claiming they had seen a leaked draft of the report, the Los Angeles Times stoked expectations by saying the report would establish that games and other entertainment have an "important causal role" in crime today.

"Repeated exposure to violent entertainment during early childhood causes more aggressive behaviour throughout the child's life," the Times paraphrased the still-to-be-issued report as saying. The report would also say the statistical evidence on the connection of real violence to media violence was as strong as lung cancer's connection to smoking, the newspaper added.

But the real Satcher report (released in late January, but only made widely available this month) defied all those predictions. While saying that media violence was not innocuous, it summarized all the existing scientific research to date as supporting the belief that the actual effect of exposure to movie violence on long-term criminal behaviour was minor, and confined to the relatively young. As far as games went, there was no good research yet, at all.

"Theoretically, the influence of these interactive media might well be greater than that of television and films, which present a passive form of exposure, but there are no studies to date of the effects of exposure to these types of media violence and violent behavior."

Basing their conclusions solely on the scientific literature, Satcher's team said they simply could not find statistically significant evidence of any more than a weak indirect tie between the movies children watched and their behaviour. "Some studies suggest that long-term effects exist, and there are strong theoretical reasons that this is the case. But many questions remain." Parents and educators should by trying to help children become more critical consumers of games and TV, the report says.

If legislators really want to help, they should provide proper funding for the research needed to conclusively establish the media's role first, it concludes.

Just based on the limited research done to date, Satcher concluded, media violence apparently plays no role at all in the causing of late-onset violence (children whose record of violent crime begins in adolescence). It plays a minor role in early-onset cases (children whose start engaging in violent behaviour toward others before the age of 11). But even in those cases, exposure to media violence is only rated the tenth most significant risk factor by the report, behind poor parenting and parents who are themselves violent, and far behind poverty, substance use and natural aggressive tendencies in determining which children eventually commit crimes. If violent media has any impact, in other words, it has its effect before a child reaches puberty.

The report was uplifting news for people who had protested what they saw as a rush to judgment on the media-violence issue. Canadian psychologist Jonathan Freedman, long a dissenting voice on this issue, said the report was "a mixed bag but generally reasonable," although typically he said it did not go far enough.

"Inside the report they say that the evidence shows short-term effects, and in one place, even that there may be long-term effects. And they are certainly wrong on both of those. But the conclusions do not list media violence as one of the risk factors in violence, which is a big step forward."

Minh "Gooseman" Le, creator of the massively popular Half-Life:Counter-Strike mod, was somewhat more succinct: "I knew it all along."

It is apparent Satcher was not just mincing words, either. This was not in any other respect a wishy-washy scientific report. In other chapters, the surgeon general uses extremely critical language to describe some of the most popular youth intervention programs in America today, which scientific analysis has said are totally ineffective in reducing youth crime. DARE, "midnight basketball", and boot camps are among those that get slammed as being wastes of public expenditure. If the research had supported strong opinions about Hollywood as well, one doubts this author would have held back. "Some may not be happy with that, but that's where the science is," he would say, almost abashedly at the press conference announcing the report's release.

What is truly stunning, however, is how little media play Satcher has received. Widely anticipated beforehand as a nail in the entertainment industry's coffin, the report has dropped from the public radar since its release like a pebble in a pond. The game critics weren't at loss for words: in its wake, longtime violent-media critics like University of Wisconsin professor Leonard Berkowitz scrambled to downplay the need for more scientific evidence at all. "It's a question of what kind of society we want to live in, and I think that these movies and this television programming just make society a little nastier," said Berkowitz, who contributed to the report himself. A spokesman for Sen. Lieberman told newspapers that even if Satcher was saying playing videogames only increased children's aggressiveness, as opposed to actual acts of violence, that heightened aggression still constituted "real harm." Like the FTC report before it (which had taken pains to distinguish what it saw as relatively innocuous computer game marketing practices from more suspect console game practices, for instance), the subtleties and overall neutral assessment of the influence of computer games on children was lost in the rhetoric and the too-sparse sound bites.

The report certainly received less attention than it would had the conclusions been the other way around: since Columbine, even the weakest pro-media violence study has proven capable of garnering headlines. The apparent cognitive dissonance that has buried it shows how far the media-violence link has come to being the conventional wisdom on the subject. After all, when the American Medical Association and a host of other medical organizations are saying "more than 1,000" studies point to a tobacco-like link between depicting violence and actually committing it, what does one do with a surgeon general's report that says all that none of that, even the number of studies, is true? That there has been almost no study so far, and that the evidence so far derived is inconclusive? And what does one then do with previous documents likeSenate judiciary committee's conclusions, made at the height of post-Columbine rhetoric, which stated so authoritatively that "the effect of media violence on our children is no longer open to debate?"

If Satcher's report has put any damper on the plans of anti-game industry legislators like Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, it hasn't been readily apparent. Shortly after the report came out, he and Lieberman were present for the "fifth annual report card" by the National Institute on Media and the Family: headed by psychologist David Walsh, it is perhaps the best-known computer game watchdog group today. This year's evaluation savaged game retailers again for selling mature-rated games to underage consumers, sent by NIMF on "sting"-type operations. The two senators used the opportunity to repeat their threat, oft-made since Columbine, to impose harsh measures on the entertainment industries if stronger self-regulatory efforts were not undertaken.

What Walsh and the senators did praise the game industry for was its willingness to listen. Like the FTC report before it, NIMF admits that game industry representatives do work to address the problems its critics identify, unlike the film or record industries, which tend to respond with more defiance.

"We think it is important to acknowledge the industry's responsiveness to our calls for reform," Walsh said. "In fact, we believe that the video and computer game industry's responses to public concerns have been more responsible than the other major media industries'."

Just how compliant the industry really is was shown dramatically only two weeks later, as the game news site Gamecenter, in its parting shot before closing down, printed a leaked memo from the Interactive Digital Software Association, which organizes and lobbies for the computer game industry.

According to the Gamecenter document, the IDSA, through one of its arms, the Advertising Review Council, is ready to impose a new self-regulatory regime on the industry to prevent any marketing or advertisement of "M" rated games on websites, television, or in magazines whose predominant audience is young people. Beta tests for games that could end up being M-rated would also be restricted to those 17 and older. (The IDSA will neither confirm nor deny the document's veracity.)

"I understand that some of these guidelines will change how Mature-rated games are marketed," the unsigned cover memo states, "and this is a profoundly significant step. At the same time, it is a step we must take."

"Since 1994 we have had a provision in the ad code which prohibits the marketing of games to persons for whom they are not rated as appropriate. We have been publicly praised by the FTC and lawmakers for this provision, but it is clear that enforcement of this guideline has been difficult due to the lack of definition as to what constitutes target marketing. It is also clear that in the past, companies have developed marketing plans that flaunt this guideline. We simply cannot have a credible self-regulatory regime that does not create some objective standards governing what constitutes improper target marketing.

It concludes: "Failure to proceed will make IDSA very vulnerable, both politically and from a regulatory standpoint."

The regulatory big stick that the document evidently refers to here is the proposed Media Violence Labelling Act. Cosponsored by Senators McCain and Lieberman, the MVLA has been floating around in one form or another at least since Columbine. If passed, it would compel all the major media industries to come up with a common age-rating system, or have the FTC do it for them: with harsh penalties for those selling rated games, music, or movie tickets to underage minors. Constitutional scholars like Ron Rotunda, as well as the FTC itself, have said the bill as it is proposed would have little chance of withstanding a serious First Amendment court challenge, but that would be a costly suit to litigate, and a devastating one for the entertainment industries should happen to lose. In that light, the IDSA's continued efforts to appear compliant seem rather prudent.

So, yes, computer games may not be as harmful as we feared. But yes, we need to be more careful in who plays them. Isn't that a paradox? If it is, it may only mirror a larger dilemma in those simulations themselves: our love affair with the violence they contain, and symbolically represent. As with all violent entertainment (the Oscar-nominated film Gladiator comes to mind), it seems our human nature to seek out situations where simultaneously appall and gladden us. Our attraction to virtual death no doubt stems from our almost-instinctual fascination with its real life equivalent: the best games, the ones we come back to, allow us in one form or another to re-enact the archaic human roles of predator, and prey; state-builder, and barbarian. (Whether they make us more barbaric in real life, even slightly, is still, whatever the media reports say, an open question.)

Or it could be the paradox more reflects our conflicted feelings about that tragic event that started it all: wanting to move on, while at the same time never forgetting.. As with all great tragedies, we needed to both "get over" Columbine, before we could discuss it intelligently, while at the same time undertake to remember what it told us. If the Satcher report indicates anything on this issue, it's that the anti-game mass hysteria that emerged after Columbine may finally be petering out. If the continued efforts of the IDSA to keep on the good side of the legislators shows that there is still fence-mending work to be done, it is on problems that long predated the school shooting issue. Problems such as how to promote a powerful new form of entertainment, one growing more powerful every day… but also encourage responsible parenting and gameplay. By putting Littleton safely behind us, we are enabled to finally discuss these issues responsibly, and without regret.

"It wasn't you," the surgeon general effectively told gamers this month. Games aren't what's causing youth crime -- although some of them could still be, as one critic suggests, helping to make society "nastier." The question now is, will hearing games were exonerated in this particular instance make us redouble our efforts to be more responsible game makers, sellers, and consumers, putting limits on our own enjoyment and earnings in order to win over reasonable parents and the greater public? Or will thistaste of victory only serve to make us all the more defiant?

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