Over the last decade, video games have become an integral part of American culture. Violence is a prevalent factor in many of these games. An increasing number of people are becoming concerned with this violence, and its possible effects. However, many other people feel that video violence does not have harmful side effects, and is instead a healthy outlet for aggression. As we enter an age made from computers and filled with video realities, determining the effects of violence in video games is becoming increasingly important.
Who is Affected?
In 1990, Nintendo alone sold over 7.2 million Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) control decks, 60 million game packs, 3.2 million Game Boy portable hand-held units, and over 9 million Game Boy game packs. Today (1992), over 33.3 million people own a NES. The mainstream gaming market also includes several other companies, including Sega, SNK, Turbo Technologies, and Atari. These companies have sold millions of their own control decks and games. As a whole, the video game industry will take in over 5.7 billion dollars in sales this year alone. It is estimated that one in three American households owns either a home video game control deck or a home computer system. In addition, there are countless coin-ops scattered through malls, movie theaters, and grocery stores across the United States.
How Violent Are Video Games?
A majority of games include punching, kicking, whipping, shooting, or otherwise killing the opponent in order to win the game. Such violence may be directed against inanimate objects, imaginary creatures, or, even, other humans. Even many of the sports titles include fight scenes, such as Blades of Steel (NES), Skate or Die (NES), NHL Hockey (Genesis), and Combat Basketball (SNES).
One parent's group, the National Coalition on TV Violence, recently did a study on NES games. They found that 70% of the 150 games they surveyed contained high levels of violence.
As we enter the era of 16-bit machines, increased graphic capabilities are allowing for more gory and realistic violence. Titles such as Splatterhouse (Turbografx-16, Genesis), Slaughtersport (Genesis), and Technocop (Genesis) exemplify this type of violence. Technocop even includes corpses with twitching hands left on the screen after the player defeats the enemy. With the added development of full motion video on CD-ROM, we may soon see laser disc quality gore in some titles.
Why Is There So Much Violence?
The answer appears to be simple. Violence sells. According to Ken Wirt, assistant vice-president of NEC, "Violent games are the most popular because the people who spend the most money on games are boys ages 10-16." People enjoy the action in violent games.
In fact, the American audience in general craves violence. Between 1952 and 1964, television saw a 90% increase in violent programming. Advertisers and producers created more violent shows because it quickly became apparent that Americans would sooner watch something violent than something non-violent. Video game marketers use the same strategy.
What Are the Effects?
With so many games that reward children for killing their opponent, it is no wonder that people are concerned. Many parents worry that such games may not only cause tension and restlessness in their children, but even violent and aggressive behavior. Professor Eugene F. Provenzo states "People do not realize that the computer is not neutral, but in fact channels us and frames our view of the world. There are no conscientious objectors in the world of video games."
Most mental health experts, however, do not feel that video games encourage violence or criminal behavior. Steven Silvern of Auburn University has done two in-depth studies and has found no link between video game play and aggression.
Scott Dagenfield, MA, CCDC3, of Columbus, Ohio, also feels that video games do not encourage aggression. A game player himself, Dagenfield sees many adolescents who are avid video gamers. He states that these individuals are no more violent than any other adolescent that visits him. These individuals are, however, often less engaged in activities and the world. The problem, Dagenfield believes, is when players become too involved in the game and the video fantasy becomes a replacement for the real world. When video games become an exclusive source of emotional gratification and personal self-esteem, they become an addiction. This is not healthy. In certain cases where an immature person has become involved in this type of "fantasy living", Dagenfield believes that the "rewards for death" could be translated to real life. But, for a normal individual who plays games in moderation, this is not a problem. Dagenfield states that playing Splatterhouse clearly is not going to make anyone into a mass murderer.
A few people even believe that violence in video games can be used in positive ways. It can spur discussion, or allow children to understand war better. David Surrey of St. Peter's College, New Jersey, feels that video games are representative of certain parts of the American psyche--xenophobia, competition over cooperation, and so forth--to such a degree that he is studying how video games can help immigrants assimilate into American culture.
How Are Manufacturers Responding?
Nonetheless, many people are still very concerned. Video game manufacturers are not unaware of these concerns. Nintendo is careful to use softer words such as "defeat" or "destroy" versus "kill" in its instruction manuals.
Sega places warning labels on some titles, such as Technocop. These labels give some indication of the content of the game and age groups for which it may not be appropriate.
In addition, many companies censor their home titles. NARC on the NES is far less violent than its arcade counterpart. The Japanese release of Castlevania IV on the Super Nintendo requires the main character, Simon, at a certain level to cross pools of dripping blood. In the American release, the blood has been changed into dripping green liquid. Even the blood on the title screen has been removed.
Violence, at this point in time, is definitely an intrinsic part of video games. Many of the newer games are becoming even more violent and more realistic. As the violence increases, so does the concern of parents whose children can more readily recognize Mario than Mickey Mouse.
However, video games may not be the evil that some people believe them to be. As Frank McConnell of the University of California English Department puts it, "Could a generation trained to fight the screen, to figure out ways of beating the screen--could such a generation, one wonders, have been quite so complacent, for quite so long, about the nightly reports of our obscene game in Vietnam?"
WHERE TO FIND OUT MORE...
There are numerous books available that discuss video games and a majority of these do address the issue of violence in video games. Steven Schwartz's Guide to Nintendo Games (Compute! Books, 1989) is an excellent resource for an in depth discussion of violence in games, as well as a discussion of varying perspectives on the topic. In addition, Schwartz reviews and rates the violence level in most NES games released before 1989.
This book and many others are available at your public library.
Originally appeared Vol 1, Iss 3 (08-09/92)