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Why The Violent Game Debate Actually Isn't Over

Ninja Metrics CEO Dmitri Williams offers a counterpoint on the violent games topic - the issue runs much deeper in our society, he says

Editor's note: The following editorial was submitted as a direct counterpoint to this week's article from Brendan Sinclair.

The video game debate isn't over yet, and there's a good chance it never will be. It's definitely down from the hysteria of times past, but the forces that keep it in play aren't going away. Let's walk through this from a couple of angles: legal/political and cultural. Proviso: This is purely from the American experience.

The Legal Front

On the legal side, the Supreme Court decision really did change things, but it was also more or less inevitable. Every court battle had started with a state law being challenged on free speech grounds and struck down. I played a role in some of these events and I think I can actually pinpoint the exact moment when things changed. It certainly wasn't in Congress. As a wet-behind-the-ears young professor, I testified before the US Senate. I was there to explain the science to the committee (TLDR version: we have three good data points, people, and we don't know squat), and my experience there taught me that the science was largely irrelevant. Senators blasted into the committee room, grandstanded, then left, ignoring the testimony. A few listened, but most had their axe to grind and our testimony was pro forma.

No, things changed in the courts, and specifically in Chicago. I was an expert witness in the case of Blagojevich v. ESA. Rod Blagojevich, for any who've forgotten, was the later-disgraced Gov. of Illinois. His anti-game law was challenged, as they all were, and the case was in federal court. I was hired by the ESA, ostensibly to "defend" the industry, although in my view my job was to explain the science to date, including my own. I'd just published the first long-term study on gaming and violence and found no link. This was an intellectual hand grenade that severely annoyed many of my colleagues, but the data tells the story, not me.

"And right there, poof, went the case against violent games. The rest--the California law, the Supreme Court case, etc.--was just the long, slow death rattle"

In any case, I was testifying across from Craig Anderson, possibly one of the nicest people in academia, and also an ardent opponent of games. Prof. Anderson believed, and still does, that exposure to games makes players more likely to commit violent acts. And whether you like his science or logic or not, he has a lot of people in mainstream academia who agree with him. Pooh pooh this camp at your peril.

That day I offered my testimony (which didn't matter much), and then Prof. Anderson took the stand. He explained the theories of mere exposure and schema activation. Non-nerd translation: if you see something, you'll think about it. If you think about it, you're more likely to do it. Now that's not an insane theory at all. It's quite reasonable, actually. It's just a question of degree. And on the stand Prof. Anderson explained that seeing a picture of a gun would in fact make anyone more likely to commit gun violence.

I was watching the judge in the case during this and he gave the slightest of double takes at this. Why? Because he knew in a flash that what Prof. Anderson was saying could lead to government control of any objectionable imagery. If seeing a gun is bad, then you have to ban all gun images, right? Thought police. And right there, poof, went the case against violent games. The rest--the California law, the Supreme Court case, etc.--was just the long, slow death rattle.

So it's over, right? No, not really.

Culture Wars

Culture Wars are perpetual because the forces that cause them are almost entirely unavoidable in society. Although the technology has changed, the socioeconomics aren't radically different today than in ancient Rome, where they had their own cultural battles. Then, like now, they were driven by race and class tensions more than by the particulars of the debate. This is an important moment to recognize the difference between the symptom and the disease. We may argue over the impact of video games or TV or Google Glass, but what we're really arguing over are our roles, inequality, poverty, and a host of other things. The tech is just a proxy for a larger issue, and the trick is to understand why.

Here's an example: What should we worry about and make policy around to make our lives safer? Chances are, the things that occur to you will not be scientifically driven. Instead, we tend to pick the things that make us feel good, or reinforce our opinions. For example, I read a slew of comments after Brendan's original article about gun control. Well, although I happen to agree with many of them, guns kill far fewer children than swimming pools. Where's the outrage over pool safety? Where's the legislation? If you want to line up what the risks are in society, there should be outrage over driver's education and salt in foods. But since those don't push any cultural buttons, they get no press or attention--unlike say guns or games.

OK, so why games? First, it's not about games at all. It's about women, and their roles in society. Take a look at the households and household incomes in the U.S. over the past 40 years. We Americans have less and less free time, more work, and really no economic gains to show for it. What's happened is that women have been "able" to enter the workforce, but that's slowly become "have to enter the workforce" to maintain the same standard of living within a family. As a result, women spend more and more time outside of the home, and correspondingly less and less time in it. This means less time with their own children, and it often unfairly puts them in the crosshairs of cultural conservatives.

As a society, we feel pretty crappy about how we treat our kids, and women often take the flak. Children are farmed out to teachers and daycare, and over the past 30 years, increasingly to electronic media. TVs, cable, VCRs, video games, phones, iPads, etc., etc. are seen--often rightly so--as electronic babysitters. This gives parents and pundits three choices: 1) Decry the economic disparity and support working families (especially working and single mothers) through policy. So far, that hasn't happened, and it doesn't seem likely in the US any time soon. 2) Make a choice to have a lower standard of living and have a parent spend more time with the children. This is pretty tough, too, especially for those at lower incomes. Or 3) Use any means at our disposal to entertain and occupy our kids, but resent the situation. In this case, the electronic media become our objects of hate rather than the system, or ourselves. For cultural conservatives who think that women should be in the home, electronic media are a particularly easy target.

"The games industry has gone from being edited by people suspicious of it or hostile to it to those who grew up with it. But that doesn't mean games are going to get a free pass"

If you think this is a bit crazy, consider that video games didn't start out as a cultural hot potato. Originally, pre-1981, they were cool, hip and even in nightclubs and bars. I did research on this once, looking at all of the press coverage on gaming, and it makes a hard 180-degree turn in 1981. Suddenly games articles are about kids, shame, guilt and even imputed crime. Articles in 1980 talked about lawyers playing on their lunch breaks, and in 1982 the interviewees said "please don't use my name." Adult game play essentially went into the closet.

What happened? Reagan happened, and brought with him a huge cultural shift to conservatism, family values and a tragically unfair vilification of single female parents. Welfare queens were the villains of the day, and women who didn't fit their traditional roles were bad news. Those who stuck their kids in front of the boob tube or a 2600 were more irresponsible still. So games, along with the VCR, were merely chess pieces in this larger cultural battle. They became tightly associated with irresponsibility. Then, when Nintendo made games a phoenix from the ashes of Atari in the late 80s, they made their marketing 100% child-oriented. There's the cultural nail in the coffin. From that point on, games were infantilized, and it's taken us an entire generation to grow up past that baggage

30 years later and those Nintendo kids (oh, this Atari kid feels old. Where's my C-64? Get off my lawn!) are now parents. More importantly, the gatekeepers of culture have all had a generational passing of the torch. News editors are some of the most powerful people in the world at setting the cultural agenda. And the games industry has gone from being edited by people suspicious of it or hostile to it to those who grew up with it.

But that doesn't mean games are going to get a free pass. What it means (as Brendan Sinclair rightly points out) is that games aren't going to be the first target any longer. Reporters don't take Jack Thompson seriously. Well, most of them don't. Still, let's take a look at the cultural climate. The US may have become a more multiethnic and interesting place since the '80s, but gay tolerance aside, it's not as if cultural conservatives have disappeared. If anything, the conservative movement today is as robust and loud as it was in the 1980s.

Fox News is consistently the highest-rated broadcast news network. Tea Party candidates now have national policy-making positions. The Republican Party has been taken over by its loud and angry minority, and a culturally conservative wave is underway. If you're a left-leaning, educated developer and you think this cultural war is over, think again. Conservatives are celebrating Duck Dynasty as a return to morality. Bill O'Reilly sells books like hotcakes. Sarah Palin is a serious candidate for office.

Newtown was an important moment in the national consciousness. It was too horrible to pin down on gaming, and the reporters have all now played enough Call of Duty (and not killed anyone) to know better. But America's deeply ambivalent reactions to technology aren't going anywhere. The larger forces that drive it--massive economic disparity, deep class tensions, thick guilt over parenting--are as present as ever, and getting worse.

All that remains to be seen is how it'll manifest itself next. Maybe games will get lucky and pass the whipping-boy job on to a new technology.

I offer this prediction: When Oculus launches, it'll be greeted with a mix of nerd enthusiasm and distrust. And that distrust will come in the form of three predictable fears: how is it going to medically harm us, what good thing is it going to replace, and what bad cultural impact is it going to have? It was this way for Nickelodeon movie technology, movies, jazz, radio, rock, rap, games and the Internet. Same as it ever was, people.

If you want to defuse these things, think ahead and be proactive. Otherwise, brace yourself. The fundamentals haven't changed.

Dmitri Williams (PhD, University of Michigan) is the CEO, Sensei, and Co-Founder of Ninja Metrics, Inc. Dmitri is a 15-year veteran of games and community research, has authored more than 40 peer-reviewed articles on gamer psychology and large-scale data analysis, has been featured on CNN, Fox, the Economist, the New York Times, and most major news outlets, and he has testified as an expert on video games and gamers before the U.S. Senate.

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