The Shades of Gray: Why Jack Thompson is Wrong… But So is the Game Industry

digital_addiction_1.jpgLast week’s tragic shooting at Virginia Tech University served to start another go-around on a number of issues including security, gun control and violence in entertainment. In a free society how can our schools be made more secure and thus safer… yet retain an open atmosphere of free thought? In a complex society, how can we be expected to make choices and, once those choices are made, even begin to predict their ramifications?

But the issue that has once again become a hot topic is that of video game violence. Show boaters such as Jack Thompson were quick to jump on for another ride, claiming that the shooter used video games to “train” to become a killer. I find this difficult to believe. But the misconception has permeated the mainstream media, and various parents’ groups and other pro-censorship organizations have joined this bandwagon as well. It has been claimed that violent games — developed by the military or law enforcement — have been used to “train soldiers and police,” and were then converted into entertainment. Where this theory originated this reporter cannot say, but it is false, at best.

While there are games that resemble simulators the truth remains that the United States Army isn’t actually training on games like Call of Duty. And even games like America’s Army were developed as recruiting tools, not military trainers! After the Columbine shootings in 1999 then president of the IDSA (later ESA) said at the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo that a video game controller can no more train you to drive a racecar than it can teach you to shoot a gun successfully. But the myth continues, thanks to people like Jack Thompson.
Mr. Thompson last week stated on FoxNews and elsewhere that gamers can lower their heart rate through repeated gameplay. I could joke and say that the average gamer can’t see his feet while standing, and is a fat slob who eats donuts while playing World of Warcraft. But that’s as unfair a stereotype as the ones Mr. Thompson makes. The fact remains that my heart rate jumps when I play violent games — and I’ll add that I am a regular runner and biker. I ride, bike or lift weights religiously. My resting heart rate is around 48-50, and no amount of “training” either running or playing games can keep my heart rate down. Games get you excited, and this causes your heart rate to increase.

Nor can you use most video games as training programs for a future massacre. Where this idea that games help a killer train is just irresponsible. A would be violent killer would have to take the time to create custom maps of the locations he would later use for use in game. So far no maps have shown up.

Thus if any of these killers played games; it was just part of their lifestyle, as it is for the millions of people who don’t even own a gun. Games can be part of anyone’s lifestyle, just like watching TV or reading a book. In the case of the shooters at Columbine both young men quoted Shakespeare and tried to learn German. Neither of these facts is typically touched upon, and it is worth noting that the Columbine killers choose April 19 for their massacre – the birthday of one Adolf Hitler. Clearly their motivation came from a number of sources, too bad violent games are always the leading cause.

But the game industry isn’t totally innocent either
Everything I’ve just said has been brought up numerous times by the ESA (Electronic Software Association), the video game press, lobbyists and other experts in the video game industry. The problem is that both sides — that of Mr. Thompson and the video game industry — like to present things as if they are merely black and white. The video game industry is partially at fault too, at least indirectly. This is because time and time again the industry won’t concede that some of the parents’ groups may be right.

In an effort to fend off the likes of Mr. Thompson, the video game industry has dug in and the result is akin to the Emperor’s new clothes. The true is that there are many violent games, and while these make up only a portion of all titles released these also tend to be the titles that get on the cover of the major gaming magazines. Thus violent games are actually being marketed to kids, despite the industry’s stance that they are not!

Games that are rated M for Mature are on the cover of the magazines can still be readily bought by the youth of this country. The game ratings may work, but the content is still marketed, directly or indirectly, to the youth. Very few magazines have a policy not to report on, not to review or otherwise not cover M rated games. M rated games are reviewed in magazines such as Electronic Gaming Monthly, newspapers including USA Today and Web sites such as

Rarely in any of these games is it stressed that M rated games are meant as adult content. Yes, it is fair to say that the parents should still pay attention to the ratings, but this is increasing hard to notice when the games are presented in the mass-market media. With this high-profile coverage of games it is increasingly difficult for parents not to believe it is OK for kids. After all, a review on CNN says the game is good!

Worse is the fact that unlike movies games are typically not rated on story/plot content. Games typically are rated based on visual content. That is a game that is a World War II shooter with an All-American hero may receive a T for Teen (Medal of Honor from Electronic Arts is a good example), but another WWII shooter with an All-American hero may receive an M for Mature (Brothers in Arms from Ubisoft). One factor is that the language used (i.e. swearing), but it is actually the blood, or rather the depiction of blood. That’s right… show no blood you might get a T, but show some blood you get an M. The problem is that patches, which quickly show up can turn a gray puff of smoke in Medal of Honor red, thus making an otherwise T game into an M. The context of blood isn’t considered either. Any blood, big or small can push you over the line. So a game with lots of shooting and destruction can still be rated Teen.

But the problem is deeper. While violence and blood are certainly reasons to consider ratings, one element of games that seldom seems to be covered is the story content. Games often have characters with few morals and absolutely no redeeming qualities. In other words people that in real life we would label as sociopaths. And yet the industry does little to address this growing problem — mainly because they don’t see a problem. The issue is shrugged off, and everyone from the ESA to the lowly game reviewer defends these games by saying, “this is for adults.” If it were for adults shouldn’t it carry an AO rating (Adults Only)?

While TV and movies have their share of criminals, most eventually must be made to pay for their crimes. Tony Soprano is one of the rare examples where the bad guy gets away with it, but with several episodes remaining we still have to wonder whether the mobster with a heart of gold will ride off into the sunset. However, even if Tony does retire to the good life, most cinematic bad guys get their due in the end — even if it is in a blaze of glory ala “White Heat” or “Scarface.”

And the latter is perhaps the very best example. In the movie Tony Montana gets killed in a hail of bullets. In the Grand Theft Auto styled game version Tony is back and rebuilding his empire. This brings up that other movie ties in such as The Godfather also feature a goodfella working his way up, and beating up anyone who stands in his way.

I’m not saying these games aren’t fun at times, but the point remains that maybe an M rating isn’t enough. Maybe these games truly warrant that AO rating. The video game industry wouldn’t like this solution, as retailers such as Walmart and GameStop might not readily carry AO rated games. Of course in this day and age the games could be ordered by adults online. So what is the problem?

Fighting monsters and saving the world, battling the evil Nazis in World War II, or playing as law enforcement going after the mob are all very different from breaking the law (and breaking heads in the process). The latter is truly not socially responsible behavior. Maybe this needs to be addressed more closely.