Features

More than a game

Culture | Lawsuit raises tough questions about violent video games' effect on teenagers

Issue: "Rita: After the storms," Oct. 8, 2005

Life is like a video game," 18-year-old Devin Moore reportedly told police officers when they arrested him for murder. "Everybody's got to die sometime."

The Alabama teen was arrested in June 2003 for killing two police officers and a dispatcher. Today he finds himself part of a controversy over the effects of violence and sex in video games. Attorney Jack Thompson is blaming the violent video game Grand Theft Auto for Mr. Moore's actions and is bringing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the game's creators, Rockstar Games and its parent company, Take Two Interactive Software, Inc.

Grand Theft Auto is also under fire for explicit sex scenes hidden within the game, prompting the House of Representatives to call for an investigation of the game's manufacturers.

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Video-game violence is nothing new, but some vicious games are unlike the old point-and-shoots. In Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, gamers play criminals who hijack cars, run over police officers, mow people down in the street, and run through pools of their blood to escape. In NARC, a player plays a police officer who can use the drugs he confiscates to improve his weapon accuracy. In Doom 3, a player's gun blast spatters a monster across the wall in a spray of blood.

Explicit sexual content in video games is also becoming commonplace. Porn star Jenna Jameson has launched a sex simulator game called Virtual Jenna. Earlier this year, Playboy: The Mansion appeared on store shelves. Singles: Triple Trouble, described by CNN as a naughty version of The Sims, contains nudity and sex as well. The content of the games is forcing parents, psychologists, attorneys, and juries to ask tough questions about old issues: how sex and violence affect kids.

Chet Miller, a 17-year-old New Mexico resident, blasts aliens into oblivion with a twist of his thumbs, eyes fixed on the screen. "It's a release," he says, obliterating a moaning monster with a plasma rifle. "You are the strongest person there and you don't have to worry about any kind of consequences."

Some, like those in the American Medical Association who call media violence "a public health threat," do worry. Infamous violent video gamers (VVGs) include Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and Michael Carneal, a 14-year-old Kentucky teen who killed three and wounded five of his classmates. Iowa State psychologist Craig Anderson says VVGs are more likely than others to be aggressive and more likely to become more aggressive.

Others say such professorial studies exaggerate the effects of video-game sex and violence. They point out that studies have proved correlation, not causation, and few VVGs turn fantasy into reality. "The research could simply show that aggressive people like aggressive entertainment," Henry Jenkins, director of comparative studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argues: "No research has found that . . . violent video-game play could turn an otherwise normal person into a killer."

Ben Finnegan, a 21-year-old Hillsdale College student, protests as well. Mr. Finnegan occasionally enjoys playing violent games and makes a case for some virtual violence. "Video games can have just as stirring a story as a movie," Mr. Finnegan says. "Even good Christian movies use a lot of violence." In the video game Call of Duty, for instance, gamers can play a World War II soldier of the 101st Airborne Division, parachuting into France and rescuing POWs.

Still, some software engineers have become concerned enough to leave their jobs. Andy Thyssen worked for Midway Games, Inc., for eight years, then quit partly because of the content, which he says "desensitizes the player." Mr. Thyssen says that angry, unstable teens may use the games to act out their violent fantasies in a virtual world, warning that "for some individuals that opens a door to making it easier to visualize and act upon that thought life."

Mr. Thyssen says kids will put themselves in the shoes of the character they're playing. A stable, healthy person will treat the game the way it's intended, as a game. Unstable, angry people could use the game as a vehicle to "make their daydreams come true." He argues that twisted people can twist even the moral games Mr. Finnegan praises. An angry teen playing a World War II game may imagine that the Nazis he fights are his personal enemies: "There . . . that one's for that jerk in the lunch line. I'd like to see his face if I launched him out of the lunchroom with a grenade like that Nazi just did. Those guys on the hill are the jocks that always laugh at me. There. Look at them run now."

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