Defining and Understanding Violent Video Games

Oct 26, 2010, 12:12 PM, Posted by

Guest blogger Maria Chesley Fisk, Ph.D., is Deputy Director of Health Games Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio, which funds research to advance the innovation and effectiveness of digital games and game technologies intended to improve health.

On November the 2rd, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case of Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Software Association.  The court will hear arguments for and against the state of California’s yet-to-be-enacted law banning the sale of violent video games to youth under the age of 18. Under the law, violent video games would be labeled 18 and those who sell them to minors could be fined up to $1000. Games used as examples include Resident Evil 4 and Tom Clancy Rainbow Six 3. The California law defines “violent video game” in 150 words as, in part, as “a video game in which the range of options available to a player includes killing, maiming, dismembering, or sexually assaulting an image of a human being.”

On October 22, at the Meaningful Play conference at Michigan State University, I facilitated a lively and thoughtful discussion about this case and its implications. A couple of themes emerged, and I will surely flavor them with my own opinion as I describe them here.  One theme was that whether there is an enacted law or not, parents should monitor their children’s gameplay (play with them even!) and teach their children positive strategies for handling conflict and frustration.  In short, parents should proactively take responsibility. 

A second theme of the discussion was that video games are powerful teachers. They teach whether they are designed for education, change, or entertainment and whether the teaching is intentional or unintentional. In other words, video games have effects on players. We as a society would benefit from honest, informative conversations about the nature and extent of those effects, as well as from more research that informs those conversations. 

A third theme was that parents should take into account the ratings assigned to games by the ESRB rating system in addition to their own evaluations of the appropriateness.  At least some participants wished we could use the resources consumed by the court cases that led to the Supreme Court case differently— informing parents about the rating system and the potential positive and negative consequences of playing games.  Game reviews from organizations like Common Sense Media are other tools that can help. 

I support a simple definition of violent video games:  Violent video games are those that represent violence as the best or only way to resolve conflict.  And I wholeheartedly agree with the discussants that parents are in the best position to monitor and help children process the messages they get from video games and other media.  Processing messages from media involves noticing them, evaluating them, and considering alternatives. In the case of violent games, an alternative is a peaceful approach to resolving differences. I hope the upcoming Supreme Court case will raise our country’s awareness and fuel productive, healthy conversations about the implications, responsibilities, and opportunities associated with children’s use of media.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.