The Everlasting Controversy

This assignment was written for a Feature Writing class about a socially relevant issue that could be discussed through people affected by the problem and explained by an expert source.

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“The only real world violence that you’ll find from video games is if you hit me hard enough over the head with an Xbox or Playstation.” John Waldman, an avid gamer who has already burned through twelve hours of Halo: The Master Chief Collection despite being released just two days ago, says in response to the everlasting controversy concerning his favorite hobby.

Waldman was introduced to his favorite pastime at the age of four with Pokemon Blue by his older brother Adam who already owned the franchise’s trading cards and action figures. As a twenty-two year old Biology student at Millersville University who is graduating at the end of 2019, he frequently plays to de-stress from his intensive exams and three-hour labs.

“The appealing part of video games is how they make you feel so powerful while gaining instantaneous feedback.” Waldman explains in comparison to other types of work where he fails to see results after a short period of time. He doesn’t see his part-time job earnings until payday and doesn’t receive the grades on his projects for weeks. Role-playing games allow him to experiment with multiple personalities too, embodying a type of confidence that he might naturally lack, while not facing any consequences if he chooses to be mean to other characters.

Jonathan Gibson, the twenty-three year old best friend of Waldman who currently works at Esri as a Software Development Engineer, describes his own reasons for pursuing this same hobby. Gibson was also shown video games at the age of four by his sister, specifically with Mario Kart 64, and has continued to prefer multiplayer games since they effectively create a social environment for his friends back in Pennsylvania while he continues to live in Southern California. Left 4 Dead and Red Dead Redemption provide him with physical more engagement with typing and clicking than watching television too.

Neither of them plan on switching pastimes anytime soon. 

One of the first controversies about video games involved the death of a thirteen year old boy named Noah Wilson on November 22, 1997. His friend, Yancy, stabbed him with a kitchen knife. According to the official court documents, Wilson’s mother sued Midway Games by claiming that the “design and marketing of Mortal Kombat caused her son’s death.” Yancy apparently became so obsessed with the series that he believed himself to be the character Cyrax and wanted to copy a finishing movie featuring this brutal act, despite not actually appearing in the game. The court dismissed this case in favor of the developers. 

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Forbes notes that the media’s connection between video games and crime became extremely prevalent only after the Columbine High School massacre. Government officials discovered that the perpetrators Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold enjoyed playing Doom in their free time. 

In early August, President Donald Trump suggested that young people are inspired to commit mass shootings, such as the ones in Dayton and El Paso, because of the media that they choose to consume. His solution, according to Forbes, asserts that “we must stop the glorification of violence in our society. This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace.” House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy and Texas Lieutenant Governor have publicly agreed with this position. 

Dr. D. Matthew Ramsey, a Communications professor at Salve Regina University, clarifies why the media has maintained this narrative for decades despite redundant storytelling and widespread doubt. “It’s a convenient fiction with no ‘blowback’ as a politician or media outlet since they’re not funding your career.” 

He doesn’t believe that it’s a conspiracy from the media since the writers act on deadline, wanting to report on something familiar that will attract the most clicks and views for their websites. There’s much less interest for readers in simply describing the socialization of video games beyond the stereotype of the basement dweller, ignoring the actual audience of older people and women who play. Debunking a story becomes boring for audiences as well since there’s “no hook, no victim, and no villain.” These media stories try to convince readers that the problem can be solved by merely blaming video games rather than addressing the complexity of poverty and mental health.

Gibson rejects these media stances, saying that his hobby is mostly condemned because the players are the ones consciously making the decisions. “These politicians are the same people who grew up on Looney Tunes and show their kids the Rambo movies without a second thought, but they don’t want to include themselves in that narrative and take responsibility.” 

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Waldman also dismisses these claims without a second thought. He believes that aggression from playing games does not translate into the same emotions in real life with the example of the notorious Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series. His character is able to run over fifty people while going three-hundred miles per hour on a residential street. Waldman has never felt the need to replicate this decision in real life, going five mile per hour more than the speed limit at the most. 

These media arguments tend to portray the players as the leading causes of hostility, but most games feature them as a means of self-defense. In Skyrim, the Dragonborn is mostly fighting bandits that were programmed by the developers to be antagonistic. They can’t be convinced to stand down so the player has no choice but to fight back. These games often punish a person’s character if they choose to be confrontational for no reason too. If the Dragonborn kills an innocent villager in Whiterun, he or she will be chased throughout the map by the Imperial guards. 

A research study conducted in 2018 at Oxford University by Andrew K. Przybylski and Netta Weinstein provides scientific support for their opinions. A thousand British teenagers, who were predominantly white and selected to be equal in gender, were asked survey questions about their aggression levels after playing games. The results determined that the time playing video games could not correlate with their inclination towards perpetrating criminal offenses.

Michael R. Ward, a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, organized his own investigation on the same topic but found that gaming is associated with a decrease in crime because people are allocating their time towards this hobby instead of engaging in lawbreaking. He summarizes this idea by saying that “the simulated behaviors in video games could be more attractive to those with the actual behaviors leading to reversed causality from violent behaviors to video game play..” 

In fact, Waldman regularly avoids games that constantly frustrate him because they’re no longer any fun. Overwatch is the first of these titles that comes to his mind because he enjoys planning  with a six “stack” or team of friends, but cannot achieve the same goals with strangers online. Gibson experiences the same annoyance with Mario Party because the game doesn’t clearly explain the rules and relies solely on luck rather than strategy. 

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Waldman frequently plays games without any kind of violence, such as Rocket League where the objective involves driving a car around a sports field to push a ball into a designated goal. Gibson enjoys Stardew Valley, finding the most relaxation in fishing or simply attending to his crops. They both agree that brutality isn’t required for a game to be good in the first place. What matters most to them are well-written storylines, comfortable controls, beautiful soundtracks, and more.

CNN reported in early August of 2019 that Walmart would no longer be showing video games displays as a “thoughtful and deliberate” response to mass killings. The stores would continue to sell guns, maintaining their status as one of the biggest providers of firearms in the world. Walmart originally sold assault rifles until the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2015 and changed their age policy to twenty-one after the Parkland shooting of 2018. 

Most people aren’t aware of games from store displays anyway, hearing about them from friends or the Internet instead. Waldman agrees that they act as a hype tactic and serve no actual importance. Walmart seems to be “taking away something that’s not the real threat while maintaining the real one.” Gibson, on the other hand, already expected a wide audience of buyers of Walmart and expected their promotions not to exceed the PG-13 rating. 

If politicians become unhappy with these current regulations and wish to take further action, the selling of video games could eventually be affected. This call for censorship arises from the Moral Panic Theory that, as explained by Dr. Ramsey, entails when the media covers stories that are not completely true or exaggerated. The public fear arises by playing into the preconceived notions of parents and justifying them since parents don’t fully understand what their kids are playing. The current rating system was created as a way to alleviate this widespread anxiety. 

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Gibson has no problems with the regulations surrounding the rating system, but notes that poor awareness exists from both ways. “Some parents will buy GTA without knowing the story while other parents will deny on principle about letting their kids play Super Smash Bros just based on the teen rating.” 

Dr. Ramsey agrees with Gibson about maintaining the current censorship guidelines. They should only be enforced, in his opinion, if the developers are encouraging hate crimes explicitly as part of their games, but these instances are incredibly rare. 

The argument that video games cause cruel behavior is often based on the ubiquitous assumption that desensitization occurs from repeated exposure. While there is no question that perpetrators of murder are sometimes inspired these titles, like in the case of Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik, does that desensitization truly occur?

“Experiencing real life violence, like living in an abusive household, is more impactful than seeing fake violence anyway,” Waldman explains, “especially since you can escape the later whenever you want.” After the birth of his nephew Levi, Waldman has taken a new appreciation for the preciousness of life and feels extremely sympathetic to people whenever tragedy affects their lives.

Gibson concurs with his best friend because “the factors of somebody’s personality determines the desensitization more than any video game ever could.” Mass shooters are often established already with online communities that are rampant with racism and sexism. These beliefs rely on some sort of brutality to be maintained. 

Their arguments are surprisingly contrasted by a research study conducted by Nicholas L. Carnagey, Craig A. Anderson, and Brad J. Bushman in 2006. Their participants, consisting of 257 college students (124 men and 133 women) played one of eight video games for twenty minutes. Their heart rates and galvanic skin responses were observed as they watched a ten-minute video of real-life ferocity. The college students who played violent ones were seen to have lower responses in comparison to their counterparts that played the non-violent titles, demonstrating a physiological desensitization to violence.

When considering this argument, not many people are discussing the opposite effect. Dr. Ramsey considers how the exposure to fake violence actually makes people more afraid of crime in their reality, since they are identifying with the victims more than the killers. A 2014 study from the University of Pennsylvania saw these results in relation to prime-time television violence but the same psychological process may happen with playing video games. 

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Despite the controversy, Waldman will definitely introduce video games to his future children, maybe not starting with Doom, but circling back to his own introduction with Pokemon. Gibson has already started compiling his own list consisting of Spyro and Sly Cooper.

Dr. Ramsey believes that the media will wane on blaming video games for real-life brutality, since the older generations that didn’t play with be replaced by gamers in their same jobs, writing their own media reports. He anticipates that the next scapegoat will be virtual reality, since it’s impossible to anticipate the effects and remains limited in accessibility, becoming something that even the replaced generation would fail to understand.

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