New Whine in Old Battles: the Crusade Against Video Games

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September 7th, Wal-Mart and Kmart announced a new policy:
they will not sell "violent video games" to anyone under
seventeen unless the customer is accompanied by a parent. The decision
has been widely applauded as a move toward eliminating violence
from society, especially the so-called copycat violence that certain
video games are said to inspire within children. These games incorporate
"virtual violence" into their method of scoring. For example,
in Carmageddon players score points by driving virtual cars over
as many pedestrians as possible. Exposure to violent games is said
to be an underlying cause of such tragedies as Columbine.

"voluntary" policy change at Wal-Mart and Kmart is the
business equivalent of jumping off a cliff before being legislatively
pushed over the edge. It was a response to increasing pressure from
politicians. In May, the executives at Wal-Mart and Kmart (along
with other major retail chains) received a letter signed by seven
senators who urged them either to cease selling or to restrict the
sale of violent video games. In August, Toys R Us replied to Senator
Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. – one of the signatories – and assured him that
they had restricted the sale of violent video games to minors. Sessions
pointedly observed that other retailers (e.g. Montgomery Ward and
Sears) now prohibited such sales.

at the state level have been equally vigorous in the call for commerce
to self-censor. Jim Ryan, the Attorney General of Illinois, declared,
"When it comes to exposing our children to violence, we must
be especially vigilant. It defies common sense that we would want
these shockingly violent and interactive u2018murder simulators' to
flow freely into the hands and ultimately the minds of our young
people." The targets of his righteous wrath were M-rated (mature-rated)
video games. Although no law prohibits the sale of M-rated games
to minors, Ryan called for a voluntary ban. That was his "preference,"
Ryan stated, then he explained that his office was investigating
other solutions to the "problem."

timing of the announcement of compliance by Wal-Mart and Kmart is
revealing. Their statements came shortly before the much anticipated
upcoming release of a government report that Clinton demanded in
the wake of Columbine. The report is expected to condemn the entertainment
industry for marketing "adult" movies, music and video
games to children.

short, there is a full frontal assault on freedom of expression – from
the federal and state governments, as well as the media – being conducted
under the banner of "protecting children from violence."
The private sector is blamed for making a profit off the endangerment
of children's safety.

censorship argument hinges on a connection being drawn between images
and behavior: namely, that violent images cause violent behavior.
What evidence supports this argument? Senator Sam Brownback, R-Kan.
explains, "Common sense should tell us that positively reinforcing
sadistic behavior, as these games do, cannot be good for our children."
Of the anticipated report on whether violent games are targeted
to kids, Brownback states, "If this is true – and there is
plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that it is – this is a scandal
and an outrage." In other words, the pro-censorship argument
is supported by the "common sense" of politicians and
"anecdotal evidence."

someone questions the "common sense" of how crime can
be declining steadily although violent video games have swept the
nation, the questioner is quickly silenced by emotional rhetoric
about school shootings. If someone who was brought up playing with
G.I. Joe doubts the "anecdotal" evidence of how violent
games lead to violence in reality, the "protect our children"
card is played. Arguably, this is the most politically powerful
card in the deck.

current furor over violent video games is only the most recent expression
of a long censorship campaign that can be dated backward at least
three decades to 1972, to the United States Surgeon General's proclamation
that children become violent due to images on television. The renewed
call for the censorship of images has a familiar ring to it. About
the same time that the Surgeon General attacked violence on television,
the Federal Commission on Pornography and Obscenity – called by President
Nixon – rendered its findings on the connection between sexual images
and violence. The Commission found that there was none. The subsequent
use of "studies" and "evidence" to suppress
dangerous sexual images has a direct parallel to what is happening
with violent video games.

1984, President Reagan tried to erase the findings of Nixon's Commission
by replacing them with the Meese Commission Report. The Report was
the culmination of a circus of biased public hearings conducted
by the U.S. Attorney General's Commission on Pornography for the
purpose of investigating "evidence linking pornography to anti-social
behavior" – that is, linking porn to violence against
women. The Meese Commission was more obedient to political will
than its predecessor: it found that graphic sexual images lead to
violence. After all, it was headed by the same man – Ed Meese
– who was largely responsible for raising the age limit that
defined "a child" from 16 to 18.

surprisingly, much of the Meese Commission's proof that pornography
led to sexual assault came from politically biased sources who gathered
data in order to reach a foregone conclusion. Even valid studies
were interpreted in a politically expedient manner. In the Virginia
Law Review, Nadine Strossen – President of the American Civil Liberties
Union – commented on one study used to support the anti-porn position.
"The Meese Commission…relied on Professor Murray Straus'
correlationship studies…to u2018justify' their conclusions that exposure
to u2018pornography' leads to sexual assaults. But, as Professor Straus
wrote the Commission, u2018I do not believe that [my] research demonstrates
the pornography causes rape.'"

ideological bias embedded in studies stems not merely from political
funding or a political agenda. It is also springs from the assumptions
that researchers bring to their studies. For example, if researchers
believe human beings are largely hard-wired by genetics toward certain
behavior, they are likely to ask different questions than if they
believe human behavior is determined by the environment.

when good research is honestly conducted and attempts are made to
filter out assumptions, the media commonly distorts the significance
of findings in order to produce sensationalism. A frequent act of
distortion is to blur the distinction between a correlation and
a cause-and-effect relationship. A correlation says nothing about
cause-and-effect. It is a fallacy to assume that if A can be correlated
with B, then A causes B. Such a correlation might indicate nothing
more than that both are caused by another factor, C. For example,
there might be a high correlation between the number of doctors
in a city and the number of alcoholics there. One factor doesn't
cause the other; both are proportional to the size of the city's
population. The same is true of the correlation between playing
M-rated video games and violence by minors. It is as valid to state
that attendance in public school causes students to shoot their
classmates, as to ascribe that behavior to playing a game.

the u201880s and u201890s, freedom of expression triumphed over attempts
to eliminate pornography. It was a heated and prolonged battle during
which radical feminists joined with the religious right to call
for censorship. They lost largely because their data was widely
discredited. I do not believe the censors will lose the fight against
violent video games however flawed their evidence may be. People
are in a panic over violence in the schools and the government needs
a scapegoat. It cannot blame the public school system for which
it is responsible. It cannot control or repair the break down of
the nuclear family that has left millions of children without the
traditional safety net of values and guidance. But government can
blame the private sector for selling "unsavory" wares.
And it can control retailers like Wal-Mart through letters of intimidation
signed by Senators.

the final analysis, it probably will not matter how weak the common
sense or how anecdotal the evidence is that underlies their arguments.
The censors will probably win.

watching the political juggernaut go by should raise one question
repeatedly. Where are the parents? Why are they appealing to government
to inculcate proper values into their children? Why are politicians
being asked to exercise what is rightfully parental control? The
games being targeted by law-makers have been clearly rated so that
parents know them at a glance. Why aren't parents opening their
eyes and taking responsibility for their own children?

12, 2000

McElroy is author of The
Reasonable Woman
. See more of her work at
and at her personal website.

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