Is Video Game Violence a Problem?

Video Game Violence Argument

Unfortunately, here in America, we have fallen victim to another wave of deadly mass shootings, this time two happening in the same weekend; El Paso, TX, and Dayton, OH, leaving 32 people dead and over 50 wounded. A senseless tragedy that did not need to happen. 

In the wake of every large mass shooting event, the country grieves and then begins to ask why. Unfortunately this becomes a political debate as opposed to a “humanity” debate, as we continually disagree with ways we can combat gun violence in this country. 

Ever since the early 1990s, violence in video games has become a hot topic in our society. On December 7th 1993, members of the United States Senate Committees on Governmental Affairs, and the Judiciary, held congressional hearings with quite a few video game industry spokepersons, which included Nintendo and Sega, the two titans of the industry at that time. They discussed violence in video games, and their impacts on children. These issues came to light after the release of Mortal Kombat to a wide audience, and other games like Night Trap, and Lethal Enforcers. These games were released to home consoles, which made access to them much easier for children. At the time, there was no ratings system in place, so the hearings that were led by Senator Joseph Liebermann and Senator Herb Kohl, put the video game industry in charge of placing a self-regulated ratings system for video games. If they would not, Congress would step in themselves, and regulate it. No one wanted that. 

It’s worth noting that Joseph Liebermann wanted to ban all violent video games, but it would conflict with First Amendment rights, so he opted not to push the issue further. 

At this hearing, there were many experts that presented, and they included; 

It’s also worth noting that, conveniently the Senate was on recess during this time, and the only ones present at this hearing besides those listed previously were Senator Joe Liebermann, Senator Herb Kohl and Senator Byron Dorgan. 

The first half of the hearing was led by the experts in psychology, most notably in children and teenagers. Robert Chase, who was from the National Education Association, said, quote, “Electronic games, because they are active rather than passive, can do more than desensitize impressionable children to violence. They actually encourage violence as the resolution of first resort by rewarding participants for killing one’s opponents in the most grisly ways imaginable.” Marilyn Droz, who was from the National Coalition on Television Violence, said that children “need action, but they do not need to find murder as a form of entertainment.” 

The second half was led by industry representatives Bill White, the VP of Sega of America, and Howard Lincoln, the VP of Nintendo of America. Sega and Nintendo’s rivalry at this point in history was at a high point, and the hearing between the two was anything but civil. Nintendo won some points in the hearing because their catalogue lacked any video games that had excess violence, and if they did, they edited it for content (most notably, taking out the fatalities, and adding sweat instead of blood in Mortal Kombat for the SNES) Bill White of Sega argued that many of their video games, especially the game Night Trap, was designed ONLY for adults. White further added that, according to the warranty cards that many consumers filled out at the time they purchased new games, they found MANY of the games were purchased for adult gamers. Howard Lincoln of Nintendo argued this point by saying, “I can’t just sit here and allow you to be told that the video-game industry has been transformed from children [as primary consumers] to adults.” The industry at the time was changing, and the consumers were getting older and wiser, hence the growing popularity of more “mature” video games. Nintendo was behind the curve in this trend for many years. 

At the end of this hearing, Senator Herb Kohl gave a stern warning to the video game industry. “If you don’t do something about content ratings in video games, we will.” 

Following the December 1993 hearing, Joseph Lieberman, co-sponsored by Herb Kohl and Byron Dorgan, introduced the Video Games Rating Act of 1994 on February 3, 1994 to the Senate, the equivalent bill was introduced to the House of Representatives by Tom Lantos. The Act, if passed, would have established an Interactive Entertainment Rating Commission, a five-member panel appointed by the President. This would only be enacted if the video game industry representatives could not come up with an agreement on a self-regulated video game ratings system. 

Both Sega and Nintendo, leading up to this hearing, had also indicated that they would come up with a ratings system for their games, to help ease negative publicity. Also leading up to the hearing, in June of 1993 Sega created the Videogame Rating Council before the release of Mortal Kombat onto the Sega Genesis. The ratings went from GA (General Audience), MA-13 (games for 13 years old and up) and MA-17 (17 years old and older). Nintendo didn’t have this, because they more strictly controlled what games were released onto their consoles.  

The second hearing was held months later, on March 5th 1994. It featured the same senators, as well as a few others;

  • Congressman Tom Lantos
  • Jack Heistand, Senior Vice President for Electronic Arts
  • Mary Evan, Vice President of Store Operations, Babbages
  • Chuck Kerby, Divisional Merchandise Manager, Wal-Mart
  • Steve Loenigsberg, President, American Amusement Machine Association
  • R.A. Green, III, Amusements & Music Operator Association

During these few months in between hearings, a couple things happened. First off, Sega pulled the game Night Trap from store shelves in January of 1994, pending the imminent release of a universal ratings system. Fun fact, ever since the December hearing, Night Trap sold 50,000 copies a week later. Also, the Interactive Entertainment Industry Rating Commission was formed, comprising of seven companies; Electronic Arts, Sega, Nintendo, Atari, Acclaim, Philips and 3DO, committed to forming a universal ratings system. These companies represented 60% of the video game industry at the time, and Heistand presented at the hearing that the success of their endeavor may not take off if the other 40% do not sign on. The IEIRC committed to developing a ratings system by June of 1994, and that by November of that same year every new game published would feature a rating on the box. Representatives from Babbages, Wal-Mart, Toys R Us, and others agreed to ONLY stock video games with ratings on them. 

In April of that year, the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA) was formed, with the co-founder of Acclaim Greg Fischbach as its’ initial CEO. this coalition led to the creation of the ESRB, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. It was modeled after the motion pictures ratings board, but was more descriptive. The age ratings were eC for Early Childhood, E for Everyone, E10 for anyone over 10 years of age, T for Teen (13 years and older), M for Mature (17 years and older), and AO for Adults only. The only outlier rating is the E10 rating, which was developed in 2005. There are over 33 “content descriptors” that detail what type of content is featured in the game, and they are labeled right next to the ratings themselves, on the back of the case. The ESRB was formally introduced to Congress on July of 1994, and subsequently became active on September 13th 1994. This met the goals Liebermann and Kohl set out, and the initial proposed bill never came to pass. 

Years later, Joseph Liebermann commented that he felt the ratings system for video games was “much better than the movies.” He also noted that he was hopeful that the video games rating system would help curb and deter the development of violence in video games, but it didn’t whatsoever. 

Violence in video games continued to be a hot topic, as the development of new technology became faster, and graphic detail became better. This topic would not be brought up again in big fashion, until April 20th 1999. 

On that fateful day, 13 people were killed in the deadliest school shooting to date at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, up until that date. 12 students and 1 teacher died by gunfire from two senior students. 21 people were also injured from gunfire, and attempting to escape. Adding to this, many home-made bombs were laid out around the school, but all failed to detonate. The two shooters committed suicide at the end. 

When the media tried to make sense of the tragedy, they started digging and found many manifestos and journal entries. Both shooters played video games like Doom, Duke Nukem, Quake and Postal, and were quoted saying that their pending massacre will “be like the LA riots, the Oklahoma bombing, WWII, Vietnam, Duke and Doom all mixed together.” They were also writing quotes like wanting to “get a few extra frags on the scoreboard,” “It’s going to be like fucking Doom,” “I must not be sidetracked by my feelings of sympathy…so I will force myself to believe that everyone is just another monster from Doom,” and “I find a similarity between people and Doom zombies,” It is also worth noting that many other fingers were pointed, namely toward music bands like Marilyn Manson, KMFDM and Rammstein, movies like Natural Born Killers, Lost Highway and Apocalypse Now, anti-depressants, bullying, and social isolation. The guns used in the shootings were purchased by friends, from gun shows. 

Families of many of the victims tried, unsuccessfully, to sue various video game publishers that depict violence in video games. 

Violence in video games became a hot topic again, this time in the state of California in 2005. The California State Legislature passed AB 1179, which banned the sale of violent video games to minors, and required that additional labeling be put on video game cases that are not for minors. It also required video game retailers to be stocked separately from other titles, to be treated like it’s pornography. This proposition was sponsored by then-Senator Leland Yee, who was previously a child psychologist. Yee believed there was a connection between video games and violent behavior in children. The workaround to this, for those that cried its’ violation of First Amendment Rights, was to employ a VARIATION of the Miller Test. It is a three-pronged obscenity test which determines whether speech or expression can be labeled obscene, in which case it is not protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and can be prohibited. 

The three parts, or “prongs” are: 

  • Whether “the average person, applying contemporary community standards“, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest. (prurient defined as having or encouraging an excessive interest in sexual matters)
  • Whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions[3] specifically defined by applicable state law,
  • Whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value (according to American societal values). 

If all three prongs are met, then the Supreme Court can deem anything as “offensive” and not be protected under the First Amendment. 

What the Miller Test does overall is asking for the interpretation of what the “AVERAGE” person finds offensive, NOT what more sensitive persons in the community are offended by. This is contrary to our current social community, where outrage and offensiveness is common amongst the more sensitive population, who are the most vocal and boisterous. They are often times successful in their endeavors to let their voices be heard over others. 

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the act on October of 2005, and would have been placed into law in January 2006. 

The Entertainment Software Association, and the Video Software Dealers Association (VSDA), now referred to as the Entertainment Merchants Association (EMA), began preparing a lawsuit to overturn the law.  They feared that what their definition of “violent video games” entailed would affect games normally acceptable for players of all ages. They filed suit to the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, and was able to receive a preliminary injunction to block the passage of the bill until a resolution was obtained. U.S. District Judge Ronald M. Whyte, who presided over the case stated, quote : “The plaintiffs have shown at least that serious questions are raised concerning the States’ ability to restrict minors’ First Amendment rights in connection with exposure to violent video games, including the question of whether there is a causal connection between access to such games and psychological or other harm to children.” In August 2007, the case was ruled in favor of the ESA and VSDA, stating that the law violated the First Amendment, and that there was an INSUFFICIENT SHOWING OF PROOF that either video games differed from other media or that there was established causality between violent video games and violent behavior.

Governor Schwartzenegger filed an appeal shortly after with the Ninth Circuit Court. They sided with Judge Whyte in 2009. They referred to the law as an “act,” and ruled that:

  1. The Act is a presumptively invalid content-based restriction on speech, so it is subject to strict scrutiny and not the “variable obscenity” standard from Ginsberg v. New York (which was a case in 1968 that stated that material that is not obscene MAY nonetheless be harmful for children, and its marketing may be regulated)
  2. The Act violates rights protected by the First Amendment because the state has not demonstrated a compelling interest, has not tailored the restriction to its alleged compelling interest, and there exists a less-restrictive means that would further the State’s expressed interest.[25]
  3. The Act’s labeling requirement is unconstitutionally compelled speech under the First Amendment because it does not require the disclosure of purely factual information, but compels the carrying of the State’s controversial Opinion

Not giving up, Governor Schwartzenegger filed a writ of certiorari (a court process to seek judicial review of a decision of a lower court or administrative agency) to the Supreme Court in May 2009. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, which was then filed as Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association

As a result, the Entertainment Consumers Association launched an online petition to provide the Supreme Court with additional information regarding violence in video games. The Progress & Freedom Foundation and the Electronic Frontier Foundation together submitted an amicus brief citing social research that declared Super Mario Bros. to be a violent video game, obviously because it depicted an Italian plumber stomping and killing his enemies. Also joining the battle were many MANY other industry associations; the National Association of Broadcasters, the Motion Picture Association of America, Recording Industry Association of America, National Cable & Telecommunications Association, and the Future of Music Coalition. The American Civil Liberties Union, the National Coalition Against Censorship, and the National Youth Rights Association filed civil liberty rights violations, and a coalition of other states like Rhode Island, Arkansas, Georgia, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah and Washington, as well as Puerto Rico, which stated the law was unnecessary as no evidence linked video games to youth violence and the voluntary ESRB system was working well. To add fuel to the fire, a coalition of 82 psychologists, criminologists, medical scientists and media researchers joined the fray, claiming that the State of California misrepresented the science concerning video games. In California’s corner were eleven other states, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, the California Psychological Association, Common Sense Media, and the Eagle Forum

Jerry Brown won the Governor’s election in 2010, so the case was refiled as Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association. 

After many arguments the judges struck down the law by a vote of 7-2, on the basis of violating the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The 14th Amendment is, in brief, an amendment stating that No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States. 

Judge Antonin Scalia, who presided over the case, stated at the end that “Like the protected books, plays, and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas—and even social messages—through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot, and music) and through features distinctive to the medium (such as the player’s interaction with the virtual world). That suffices to confer First Amendment protection.” 

In January 2012, the state of California agreed to pay the ESA $950,000 for reimbursing the ESA’s legal fees during the Supreme Court trial, atop approximately $350,000 in fees from the previous trials at lower courts. The ESA stated that it will use an unspecified portion of this money to help create after-school programs in “underserved” communities in the Oakland and Sacramento areas to help teach students job skills. 

Needless to say, ever since the inception of video games into mainstream media, there’s been an uphill battle both in terms of acceptance into society, and acceptance as a respectable form of media. Tying in real-world violent behavior to video game usage (most notably, violent video games) is a popular argument to use by parents, politicians and policy makers to offer explanation on why our nation’s youth is susceptible to engaging in violent behavior. 

What do you consider a “violent video game”? Could it be a game like Fornite, that puts you in a large world, shooting and killing others in a very comedic and cartoonish environment? Or is it in games like Call of Duty or Gears of War, where you’re blasting through enemies indiscriminately with realistic effects, blood and gore? How about sports games like FIFA, NHL or NBA where are given the freedom to commit serious fouls against others? One could also consider games like Super Mario Bros violent, because of the main characters dispatching enemies by stomping on them, setting them on fire, or throwing them off cliffs! The definition of what is a “Violent” video game can be varied, and often times convoluted. This is where research tends to confuse parents, and where the ESRB can fail in accurately describing what type of content is in the video games they are buying for their children. However, I am of the opinion that it should be up to the parents to know EXACTLY the kinds of video games their children are playing, and moderate them. 

As stated at the beginning of this episode, our nation is still reeling from the deaths at El Paso and Dayton by cowardly individuals wanting to cause hurt and suffering to many. Many politicians, along with our President, have come out to say that “violent video games are the problem!.” 

House Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy led us off with an interview on Fox News, stating, quote, “The idea that these video games that dehumanize individuals to have a game of shooting individuals. I’ve always felt that it’s a problem for future generations and others. We’ve watched studies show what it does to individuals, and you look at these photos of how it took place, you can see the actions within video games and others.” He also continued, saying “But what I’d like to do is get all the facts, are there indications? There are times before that we have found this.” Nice job backpedaling a bit. 

President Donald Trump spoke to the nation on Washington’s response to the shootings, saying “We must stop the glorification of violence in our society. This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace. It is too easy today for troubled youth to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence. We must stop or substantially reduce this and it has to begin immediately.”

Lt. Governor of Texas Dan Patrick quoted, a day after the El Paso shooting, “There have been studies that say it impacts people and studies that say it does not. But I look at the common denominators, as a 60-some-year-old father and grandfather myself, what’s changed in this country? We’ve always had guns, we’ve always had evil, but what’s changed where we see this rash of shootings? And I see a video game industry that teaches young people to kill,” 

Are they right? Children are quite impressionable, so is what they’re playing making them act out violently in society? 

This is where the research begins to get confusing, and oftentimes misleading. 

For starters, the American Psychological Association published a Resolution on Violent Video Games. It also cites that in 2005 it created the Task Force on Violent Media. The Task Force was formed in order to review any literature, studies and findings related to the topic of Violent Video Games. In it, their resolution states that there IS a link between violent video game play and aggression. Aggressive behavior examined in this research included teacher ratings of aggressiveness focused on behaviors including insults, threats, hitting, pushing, hair pulling, biting and other forms of verbal and physical aggression. 

What the studies they compiled showed, in the end, is that ALL violence is aggression, but not all aggression is violent. Confused? So are a lot of people. This distinction is important, because there has been insufficient research that has examined whether violent video game play causes lethal violence (ie. no data has been found). It would be difficult, to near impossible, to correlate the two. They’ve also found that high levels of playing violent video games is associated with decreases in socially desirable behavior such as prosocial behavior, empathy, and moral engagement. The one study, (Arriage et. al)  that found this conclusion had college-age video gamers play violent video games and non-violent video games, and made them take a Self Assessment Manikin test that measures pleasure, arousal, and dominance afterward. They recorded their feelings as they were playing, and the test results, and then also recorded their feelings and habits as they resumed play. Which, in the end, they found a decrease in feelings of pleasure and emotion. 

Everything that the APA has found in these studies, in terms of aggressive behavior by video gamers have been found in the laboratory setting. So, they have found immediate, short term forms of aggression by players. And also decreases in societal behavior norms like prosocial behavior, empathy, and moral engagement. HOWEVER, it is also noted that there are many factors that are known to be risk factors for increased aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition and aggressive affect, and violent video game use is ONE such risk factor. 

Many of these studies performed, that the APA cites, are short term studies, and also collect data from self-reports from study candidates. Long term studies tell a different story. 

Recently, a study performed at the Oxford Internet Institute has found no relationship between aggressive behaviour in teenagers and the amount of time spent playing violent video games. Dr. Netta Weinstein, a researcher on the study, said that “Our findings suggest that researcher biases might have influenced previous studies on this topic, and have distorted our understanding of the effects of video games.” Every researcher had to publicly register their hypothesis, methods and analysis technique prior to beginning the research. The data was drawn from a nationally representative sample of British 14- and 15-year olds, and the same number of their parents or caregivers (1,004 teenagers, and 1,004 parents). Teenagers completed questions on their personality and gaming behaviour over the past month, while their parents or caregivers completed questions on their child’s recent aggressive behaviours using the widely-used Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire. It was there that they DID NOT find any real world link to violent behavior in society. They did observe, as previously stated in other studies, that short term aggression like trash talk, competitiveness and trolling were prevalent, and could contribute to anti-social behavior, but it was not proven to. 

Adding to this, a study recently completed at Florida State University “revealed that early childhood mental health symptoms at age seven related to ADHD, depression and early conduct disorder predicted criminal behavior at age fifteen. Male gender also predicted criminal behavior at age fifteen. However, exposure to shooter games did not predict adolescent conduct disorder or criminal behavior.” 

Lastly, a meta-analysis was conducted by Maya B Marthur from Stanford and Tyler J VanderWeele from Harvard University, which compiled many studies conducted that tried to correlate video game violence as predictors to violent behaviors. What they found, to no surprise, is that they do cause aggressive behavior, but the effects are quite small. 

The problem in our society, especially in a world of social media where we want our feelings and opinions validated by others, we cling to groups and people that share our same sentiments. Others tend to read articles and studies and misread them, or pick certain language (normally taken out of context) that can validate what they feel is right, to them. This is why policy makers, parents, and “influencers” tend to fire at the hip when they find an audience that agrees with them. And they oftentimes misrepresent data that could disprove the message they are trying to advocate. The violent video game debate is no question, and has for decades undergone study after study, oftentimes coming up with the same conclusions. However, as noted by the Oxford researcher Andrew Przybylski, “A cherry-picked result can add undue weight to the moral panic surrounding video games. The registered study approach is a safe-guard against this.” 

Here’s hoping that new research studies can follow this approach. 

Where does that leave us, as video gamers? As stated before, in history, time and time again, the question whether or not violent video games are harmful to our youth, and if it should be regulated, has been answered many times over. Both in the form of a very descriptive ratings system, and a Supreme Court case that declared video games as an ”art form” and protected under the First Amendment. Scientific research has proven multiple times that violent video games, however causing increases in short term aggression that may involve bouts of insults, threats, hitting, pushing, hair pulling, biting and other forms of verbal and physical aggression, it does not predict violent behavior in a real world setting that can give an answer to why mass shootings happen, or any other forms of violent crime. 

As to what the answer is to why we are one of the only developed countries in the world that suffer this problem of rampant gun violence, we must narrow our focus and address the various forms of such gun violence separately. According to, in 2018 alone we had 14,773 total deaths by guns. 340 of those victims were from mass shootings, 1,884 from defensive use, 2,124 from home invasions, and 1,641 were from unintentional or accidental shooting. This, of course, does not include those that have died from suicide, which is estimated to be around 22,000 victims. In 2017 alone, 50% of those suicides were from firearms, according to the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention. 

There is no simple answer to this problem, but we cannot find scapegoats that derail the conversation, or barge us from acting. Do your research, read, and join the conversation and listen to both sides of the table. 

Thanks for listening, and I hope you found this helpful in your understanding on why video games are NOT the problem. By the time you’re listening to this, this entire episode will be posted on our website, as well as attached links and references I used when researching this topic. If you like this, please let us know by leaving us a review on iTunes, or letting us know on Facebook and/or Twitter @EXPCast. Write us an email at too.