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Video Games Under Fire

June 7, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

The game industry comes under fire from politicians and the media nearly every time there's a shooting in a school, or any time a young person commits a notorious act of violence. In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, Joe Biden invited industry executives out to Washington to discuss games' role in violence, and more research has been proposed.

But there's been a lot of research done already to show that games do not have a direct correlation with violent behavior -- and it seems as though much of the fear comes from ignorance of games, since current lawmakers didn't grow up with games as a popular medium.

The ESRB does a pretty excellent job of self-regulating, and very few people, even in Washington, have proposed a better system. As games came under fire from not only Washington but also the NRA, many in the industry wondered whether the NRA wasn't just passing the buck.

I discussed these issues with Randy Pitchford, CEO of Gearbox Software, and no stranger to violent games, a couple months after the Sandy Hook tragedy, and around the time of the NRA's comments blaming the game industry for violent youth. We wondered 0- how much better a place would the United States be if the NRA regulated its customers as well as the ESRB does?

I've been having this internal debate with myself, what with Washington getting mad about video games. I think there was a strong suggestion, from Biden bringing out a bunch of game execs, that we are complicit in this. The NRA accused us of being responsible.

Randy Pitchford: Yeah. I saw the NRA's position. My take on Washington, on the White House position... There's no doubt that there's some noise out there that suggests that there's some relationship. I don't believe it's irresponsible to question that. And if you're going to question that, I feel a lot better about him questioning the industry then questioning the NRA. Because the NRA has already made up their mind.

Sure. But then I was thinking about this in context of games where they actually do use real weapons and then market that as an exciting element of the experience. This is a realistic weapon that you can actually own. And then we're going to put you in this world where you can actually kill people.

RP: There was a recent example of that. I think it was an EA game.

Medal of Honor, yes.

RP: I wonder how that worked out, though. I couldn't tell as an observer whether they believed that was beneficial, like net positive or net negative... It was kind of a stunt, too, wasn't it?

I don't think it was totally a stunt. It was a "here's our legitimacy" kind of thing.

RP: Oh, interesting. Though, that's a bit of a stunt too. If I remember correctly, and again, I don't have a perfect memory on this, but my memory is that the products were being offered before the game existed, which is a push-side approach instead of like...

The opposite of that is after I first saw Star Wars in 1976, I frickin' wanted an R2D2, and I wanted a Vader, and I wanted an Obi-Wan. And then Kenner said, yeah. It felt like one followed the other. 

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Jakub Majewski
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There is something terribly disingenious about this interview - both the answers, and the questions. Brandon, you and Randy Pitchford did a great job together, ripping a straw man to shreds. But how about getting to the real issues? Or are they too inconvenient?

The media certainly waffles on about guns in games, and it certainly seems like there's quite a few people out there daft enough to seriously think that yeah, games teach people to handle guns, and these people can then go on a killing spree. But that's not the issue.

We learn about society and acceptable behaviours through the media. We don't learn these behaviours in a literal way - it's not "oh, I killed Arabs in Modern Warfare, Arabs are bad, I should kill them in reality". It's not even "I killed lots of people in GTA, and had fun, boy it would be great to try that in reality". The impact is subtler.

One of the things that riled me the most about the very first Modern Warfare game, for instance, was the very first mission - as your team attempts to secure the ship, you enter a room filled with sleeping people (terrorists? Sailors? Who cares, it's all the same...), and one of your companions proceeded to execute them in their sleep, complete with snarky comments like "goodnight!". My reaction was - if the British government doesn't sue these guys for defamation, then there's something very seriously wrong with the SAS. It is an unmitigated act of evil to kill an unarmed man in his sleep, especially in a situation where it is not even clear if this man poses any threat, or if he's just one of the sailors. Really, the SAS does this? They're not even capable of gagging and tying up a prisoner? If I were a Brit, I'd be outraged at the very suggestion that the SAS may undertake such tactics - and utterly shocked if it turned out that they actually really did that. But most of my friends who played the game were like - well, gee, of course you gotta do that, it's normal, you do what you have to do to get the job done. This need not be attributed to games, but it certainly must be attributed to the media, who in a hundred different ways take steps to justify such actions. Now, none of my friends are killers, or even remotely potential killers (I hope) - but I know for sure that if any of them were ever to join a special forces unit, they would not hesitate to perform similar acts of evil. And I would very much prefer to see more games out there that teach us that you know, it's not actually fine and dandy to kill someone in his sleep.

That's just one example. Yes, games influence people, they shape their mentality just like all media do - and it's a cheap and lousy excuse to brush all this off with an airy, "well, if the NRA actually controlled gun owners, no one would ever think to blame us". No, damn it - we, as game developers, certainly are responsible in the way we shape attitudes towards violence. We're not alone in this, other media perform the exact same role - but that doesn't get us off the hook.

What I would really like to see, is for game developers to sit down and seriously address this topic. But such a discussion would not even mention guns, or Sandy Hook, or the NRA. It would be concentrated squarely on questions like: what are the values that our games espouse? What behaviours and attitudes do we praise through games, and what do we condemn? Do we encourage, for instance, military efficiency over human mercy? Do we encourage players to think that it's acceptable to kill someone just because he *might* pose a threat eventually? Do we discourage players from thinking about alternative solutions, simply by virtue of not incorporating them into the game?

It's not that having people handle guns all the time will cause them to be more violent - but if the media, collectively, pummel someone for a decade with the message that problems can be solved with guns, and never actually showing any other potential solutions, we can hardly be surprised when, you know, someone solves his problems with a gun. And it is our fault.

What if that Modern Warfare situation I had described earlier had multiple solutions? What if the player was given the option of trying to subdue the sleeping men (I refuse to call them terrorists, based on the fact that we don't know who they are, and it is natural to assume that a large freighter would have onboard a crew of sailors who need not have anything to do with terrorism)? This option may well have been terribly difficult - take too long, and they'll wake up and sound the alarm. Do it right, though, and you're praised with a few words at the end of the mission, maybe get an achievement, whatever. The player may still wind up choosing to simply execute them and move on. But he'll know that there was an alternative, and that he made the conscious choice of taking the easy, not the right path.

Michael Joseph
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Very well said.

At one point Pitchford and Sheffield agreed that the games industry regulates itself very well.

And of course it does not. Because if it did, it would actually be having the types of conversations you describe and would always be mindful of the power of their media to help shape the world.

Television and radio used to do much more "self-regulation" because they recognized they had a responsibility to society. But all of that is pretty much gone. Celebration of trash tv and shock jocks and tabloid infotainment 24/7 proves that there is very little self-regulation in media today.

Anything goes, just slap a warning label or age-limit logo on it. That's not self-regulation. If it is then it has no meaning.

Brandon Sheffield
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I agree that this is a good discussion to have! But that is not the discussion we had, because at the time of this interview, sandyhook had just happened, and games were coming under fire from the NRA, and it was a big issue for us at the time. It's true that there are deeper issues about violent themes in games, but I think criticizing us for having a different discussion is kind of strange - I think all these discussions are valid (though we did get into it *a little* with discussion of influencing people).

As for the industry regulating itself, well, that's up to debate. Games don't get into the extremes that film does in terms of torture porn, but in some ways it's the subtler stuff that's more insidious. It's a discussion worth having, but again, it's a totally separate discussion from "what does the government think, and have the right to think about games," which was the main drive of this one.

Eric Harris
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I think Jakub was saying that the questions raised in this discussion has answers, but developers need to act on the facts. I do think Jakub does not really know how demented some game developers are though. We all know that some of the violent content that is in games is disgraceful, and people who put these ideas in games should be ashamed of themselves.

Kevin Reese
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You make good points, but regarding "Yes, games influence people, they shape their mentality just like all media do" I would say this the core crux of the entire subject we are talking about, yet this has not really been shown scientifically.

I don't see why there is no much debate on this subject before it has been established that there is even any correlation at all.

The media, not science, established the link between gun violence and video game violence, and the debate has built layer upon layer of this manufactured premise to the point of rendering much of this debate without merit IMHO.

It could be a fact that your choice of color of paint for your walls in your home may affect your propensity for violence more than games. Yet there is no discussion on this. And this is because [personal theory invention time] traditional media is adverse to gaming for economic and generational reasons, and aware of this consciously or not, it affects the bias on reporting.

Eric Harris
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@ Kevin
Yeah Jakub makes a good point. The damage is not in making someone want to commit violence. But the developers take a side on what is acceptable, based on the media they produce.

Jakub Majewski
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Brandon - I understand what you mean when you say that this Sandy Hook simply was the biggest thing on your mind at the time. But you're not quite off the hook in my view, because your duty as a journalist is to dig deeper. The impression I get from the tone of your article, and especially the introduction, is that you want to prove that games are not to blame for violence. But in your attempt to prove this, you only examine the most common arguments the press has been making. To me, it seems that without tackling the deeper issues I mentioned, your article is incomplete. And it's more than that - I believe that by taking this approach, the games industry (you're not the only one who's been talking about these issues in this particular way) is shooting itself in the foot. The reason the public in general is willing to give credence to the press accusations against games, is simply because people *sense* that games (...and other media) influence them, and the press is simply providing a false-but-convincing-at-first-glance explanation as to how this influence is exerted.

The only way for the games industry to exonerate itself from the false accusations, I believe, is to plead guilty in regards to the real issues.

Kevin - it seems like you didn't quite understand my point. The things I am talking about need no scientific proof, because they are the daily bread of our life. I am not saying that violence in games makes people more violent - I'll leave that to the scientists to argue about. What I am saying, is that games, just like any other medium, are a way of having a discussion, and discussions have this tendency to sometimes persuade people to change their views. No matter what you do, when you have a game with a story, you are taking a stand on various issues. You are telling the audience, by means of the story, what your opinion is about issues, individuals, behaviours, et cetera. I'm sure you'll agree there's no need for scientific proof on this count - if there were, you wouldn't be talking to me right now, as you have no scientific proof that you can influence my thinking by presenting your point of view :).

By the way, I do actually believe that games are more effective at this than other media, because instead of presenting the message passively, they do it actively - that is, the player doesn't merely witness people telling him how to solve particular issues, instead he actually solves the issues himself, and the designers get their message across not by putting it in the mouths of characters, but by shaping the game to reward certain actions and punish others. It's like with toddlers - you can keep telling them all day that touching a hot object will hurt them, but in all likelihood, the message will only finally get through when they disobey your warnings and actually touch the hot object.

Brandon Sheffield
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Jakub - I didn't present the idea that games were blameless, and if you read it that way, I guess that is my fault. but prompts like this one: "But then I was thinking about this in context of games where they actually do use real weapons and then market that as an exciting element of the experience. This is a realistic weapon that you can actually own. And then we're going to put you in this world where you can actually kill people."

that is meant to say "hey, we do have a responsibility here, and what do you think of it?" I'm not the subject of the interview, randy is, so I don't want to put in too much of myself. I guess, ultimately, it's my failure for putting out this article instead of the one I had at one time intended to write about how the game industry needs to take more responsibility for the way its violent content is presented. Unfortunately I am no longer really a journalist!

And to reply to the person who said that lara croft, etc are on the level of film torture porn, no, I could not compare Tomb Raider or even Modern Warfare 2 to Hostel or Saw. These are totally different levels of extremity.

Ramin Shokrizade
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So many good posts here, I'm used to reading long streams of plausible deniability when the subject of violence in games comes up.

When I wrote my Third Tier of Game Development paper in 2010, I proposed that we would use virtual space to replace our education, transportation, labor, and even medical systems by 2030. The idea was that we could train our people faster in virtual environments than in real ones. So while I may agree that guns in games may not cause violence, I certainly believe that their use (especially when realism is optimized) raises skill and acts as an educational experience that can make a gun equipped killer much more effective.

I thought Randy's mention of empathy was very insightful. He suggested that low empathy was what was causing the disconnect, that allowed people to hurt each other. As others in this tread have suggested, aren't we trying to minimize empathy with our game designs? We work very hard to make sure that the player does not have to deal with the consequences of pulling the trigger.

When we make "pay to win" multiplayer games, where we say "we will let you beat this other person if you give us money", aren't we appealing to some of the lowest empathy members of our society? I mean what type of person enjoys paying to hurt someone else? If you yourself have low empathy, the previous sentences may not make a lot of sense to you.

Let me take this one step further and suggest we are actually training people to have lower empathy in our games by rewarding them for acting to grief other players in these models. To me sometimes it seems that developers will target young audiences because they know that group does not have a fully developed concept of community, and can effectively use monetization models that require low levels of empathy successfully on them.

What are the long-term effects of this behavior on our part, on our children? We have no clue and I doubt there is any research in this area. When I met with public health professors in 2010 and 2011, with only a few exceptions I was met with disinterest on whether this could lead to a public health problem in the future.

Kevin Reese
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I think this entire premise that gun violence is directly related to gun violence in video games is has never been shown, effectively rendering all discussion on the topic not very useful.

The highest rate of gun violence, since the introduction of early video games (the 1970's), has been between 1986 and 1997, for example.

[As stated in the opening paragraphs of this article] sensational journalism (not this including this even-handed website) have correlated video game violence with actual gun violence, but I do not know of any studies that have made any convincing arguments that there is in fact any correlation at all.

We are actually living in less violent times today, for kids, then we did during many periods in the 20th century, before violent games. I don't see any confirmed correlation between these two things. I think it would be more efficacious to scientifically show this correlation before discussing the 'guns in games' matter so much before this done. Personally I suspect there is little or no correlation.

Jana Sloan van Geest
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I think that the most important point made in this article is that games are but one part of a media landscape/culture that influences behavioural changes as a whole. This is true; however, I think that the games industry has a greater responsibility here than other types of media, as an interactive medium.

Games allow the player to participate in simulated acts of killing in a way that isn't currently replicated by any other medium. It's ingenuous to think that hundreds of hours of FPS gameplay won't have an effect on someone's psychology. I personally find that my interactions with the outside world take on a slightly different tenor after I've been playing a violent game for a few hours. For me, the effect is ephemeral; for someone with an unstable psychological profile, this may not be the case.

On the other hand, shooting a real gun is a great deal different than manipulating game controls.

There is no established link between playing violent games and committing violent acts, but I don't think we have any research that disproves such a link, either. Since the issue is so serious and since gaming occupies such a unique position in the media landscape, the industry should devote time and resources to examining any possible correlation. It would be difficult to provide clear proofs in either direction, but game developers who are in the business of FPSes should engage in dialogue with researchers examining this issue and take the research into account when creating their games.

Jakub Majewski
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There's research both ways on this, Jana. I suppose it's unsurprising - games have a different effect on different people, because... different people are different.

I went over a lot of this research while doing my master's degree - that was ten years ago, so I don't know what's changed since then, but the very brief version of what the story was ten years ago is as follows:

1. Some research has demonstrated that kids, after playing violent games, have become more violent - when presented with a bobo doll after playing a violent game, kids were more likely to hit the bobo doll than other kids who had played a non-violent game. However, it was not clear if kids would actually have been more violent towards people, or if the game simply made them aware of a possible way to play with the bobo doll. So... err, ultimately, inconclusive.

2. Other research has demonstrated that kids, after playing violent games, have become calmer. This is the so-called catharsis effect, the idea that playing allows the player to unload his pent-up emotions. However, again there is a limitation - while the catharsis was clearly there, it was not clear if it was caused by the violence as such, or simply by the intensity of the game. That is to say, the experiment did prove that a fast-paced game causes catharsis, but failed to prove that a violent fast-paced game was more effective than a non-violent one would have been.

All in all - in both directions, there are possible links, but nothing certain. The main point I want to make, though, is that one would not necessarily exclude the other.

Eric Harris
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Matter of fact there have been more studies confirming that it increases aggression(not necessarily violence, but yes aggression can lead to violence.) In addition, it desensitizes people to violence. People just don't get as concerned about he violent imagery they just saw, because they have become used to seeing violence.

James Margaris
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Why am I to believe that "sexism" in games - stuff like large breasts in a game that will sell 40k copies - is undeniably damaging but pervasive violence in multi-million sellers is not?

I don't have a strong opinion on gun violence or sexism in games but some consistency would be nice. It seems like all the arguments in favor of sexism in games being damaging apply just as well (if not more so) to gun violence. But in one case the argument is that video game content is extremely influential in greater culture and in the other case it is not - just because.

Gamasutra recently featured that Tropes vs Women video about women in refrigerators etc. Has anyone proven that video games "directly" lead to violence against women, or lower pay for women, or sexual harassment at work? Like you play a video game in which your girlfriend is murdered then the next day you murder your real life girlfriend due to simple cause and effect?

I suspect most people would argue that "does playing this game that features violence against women turn you into a murderer?" is not the right question to pose, and that the effect media consumption has on people is a little more complex than "does it make you murder people?" Yet for generic gun violence that somehow is the right question.

Eric Harris
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No, but the next time someone beats their wife and you see/hear of it, you might not be as shocked, if you not had not been exposed to that before.

Heng Yoeung
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It seems like every time we talk about the effects of videogames on behavior, we assume that the demographics to talk about are the late teens to early twenties adults. I would suggest that these demographics are stable against the influence of violent videogames. The demographics we should be worried about are the kids of America ages, let's say, 7 to early teens. Kids learn by imitation. This is fact. If you show that the way to resolve issues is with fists and guns, I definitely think this affects their psyche at some level. I remember, for example, when my nephew was about 8 years old and we played Mickey Mouse's Castle of Illusion on the Genesis, every time we got to the part where we fight the boss, he would go hide under the table where the tv sat. The game is all cartoon, but to him it's just as real as the real thing. He's now an adult who's graduated college. But, in all of this time, I have never forgotten this. So, yeah, this definitely shows that there's some correlation between what kids see and how it affects them. It really makes sense when you think about it. I mean, for example, we don't allow our kids to view porn. Why? Obviously, there is a real correlation we all know too well.

As to the sexism in games, I think this is sensationalism from the standpoint of those the product is targeted at, which is adults. I am a Catholic man and my sister is a Catholic nun. I find no offense at all watching those killer nuns in Hitman Absolutioin. I thought it was kinda cool. I have no doubt that the intended audience for the product can distinguish between reality and fiction. As to how it would affect kids, that, again, is a different story. But, we all know that anyway because we censor what they watch, ie. porn.

In any case, I just thought to provide some insight in this whole mess of affairs. Feel free to shoot it down.

Stephen Goldberg
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People are self interested and the same principle can be used with a group of people with common interests. The NRA blames video games, and lets make no mistake, they are not alone. These people appoint blame to serve as an agenda or to direct attention away from themselves.

I am not sure how 'trash' television or violent video games are to blame and to promote industry self regulation, within media, seems like a pretty poor response. All this does is omit individual responsibility and/or regulation. "It is the 'trash' television;" "it is video games." Why is it never the person who chose to engage in the activity in question? Why is it never the parents responsibility?

The omittance of individual responsibility is a cultural epidemic that has even been exhibited toward the fast food industry, and will only continue to become worse until we accept the decisions we make and the consequences that follow.

Benjamin Quintero
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It's sad, but the reality of it is that humans are just flawed and most of us are sitting somewhere on the spectrum of mental instability. I can promise that in 100 years our children's children will probably be having the same discussions after some crazy bastard uses future technologies to EMP bomb everyone's digital brains. Life goes on and crazy people will always be crazy...

Heng Yoeung
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The mind is not located in the brain. It exists within the entire human organism. So, to marry a human brain with machines, ie. cybernetic organisms, is to leave out the human being. It'll be just a machine at its core. We don't have to worry about someone EMP bomb (whatever that is) our digital brains because it would just kill the machine. Cyborgs are a reality of movies.

Jose Blanco
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Is anyone actually surprised at the meaninglessness of anything Randy Pitchford had to say here?

Eric Harris
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Elaborate please.