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Video Games: School for Evil?

And if so, what should we do about it?

By Will Offensicht  |  August 15, 2008

Under the headline "Thailand Halts 'Grand Theft Auto' sales after murder" Reuters reports:

A Thai video game distributor halted sales of "Grand Theft Auto" on Monday after a teenager confessed to robbing and murdering a taxi driver while trying to recreate a scene from the controversial game.

The article went on to give more details about the crime:

Police said the youth, an obsessive player of "Grand Theft Auto", showed no sign of mental problems during questioning and had confessed to committing the crime because of the game.  "He said he wanted to find out if it was as easy in real life to rob a taxi as it was in the game," chief police investigator Veeravit Pipattanasak told Reuters.

If convicted of murder, the accused faces death by lethal injection.

Follow the Money

"Grand Theft Auto", aka GTA, is one of the top-selling video games all over the world and has been controversial for some years.  Reuters described the basic issue about the game.

A senior official at Thailand's Culture Ministry said the murder was a wake-up call for authorities to tackle the issue of violent video games, and urged parents to pay closer attention to what their children played.

"This time-bomb has already exploded and the situation could get worse," Ladda Thangsupachai, director of the ministry's Cultural Surveillance Centre, told Reuters. "Today it is a cab driver, but tomorrow it could be a video game shop owner."

The ministry has been pushing for tougher regulation of video games such as Grand Theft Auto, including the imposition of a rating system on sales and restriction on hours that youngsters can play the games in public arcades.

A multi-million dollar lawsuit was filed in the U.S. state of Alabama against the makers and marketers of Grand Theft Auto in 2005, claiming that months of playing the game led a teenager to kill two police officers and a 911 dispatcher.

It's not surprising that GTA might be associated with other murders because GTA glorifies murder in a manner which is not often found in other media.

We've had murders all through history, of course.  Mystery writers tell stories about murderers which occasionally seem to lead to copycat crimes, as is equally true of movies and television.

But there is a crucial difference between GTA's treatment of murder and the way murder is portrayed in other media - murder generally isn't rewarded.

In GTA, on the other hand, committing murder, rape, assault, and other virtual crimes gives you points and advances you to higher and higher levels in the game.  GTA creates an environment where committing crimes is the path to success - the more crimes a player commits, the more successful he is.  In GTA, not only does crime pay, it's the only way to be paid.

Video Games and Violence

Video games have been criticized for inciting players to violence ever since violence started appearing in video games.  On an intuitive level, people find it difficult to believe that television influences human behavior enough to justify advertisers pouring billions of dollars into TV in attempts to influence people to buy their products but that it does not promote violence in people who see violence on TV or in video games.

TV either influences behavior or it does not.  If it doesn't, why are all those advertisers spending so much money trying to influence us to buy their products?  Why do they print "As seen on TV" on packaging?

If TV does influence behavior, on the other hand, why do we permit so much violence on TV?  To a layman, it's completely illogical to claim that TV influences only consumer behavior and not other human activities such as rape, murder, or grand theft (auto).

Controversy leads to opportunity for academic studies, of course, and the more vehement the controversy, the more money becomes available.  Video games are hugely profitable; their makers have funded many studies of whether video games incite violence.  If you Google "video games study violence no proof kids", you'll get more than 150,000 hits.  The general tone of these studies is that there is no proof that video games incite violence.

The Cato Institute has posted an article summarizing the many efforts to ban video games:

For example, Indianapolis and St. Louis passed laws banning the sale of violent video games to minors. (Both measures were struck down by federal courts as violations of the First Amendment.) And Governor Gary Locke of Washington recently signed a law that would prohibit the sale of games to minors that depict acts of violence against law enforcement officers (this law is also being challenged in Federal Court and is likely to be struck down as an unconstitutional restriction of protected speech). In addition, Congress is now getting involved. Rep. Joe Baca (D-CA) recently introduced H.R. 669, "The Protect Children from Video Game Sex and Violence Act of 2003." This bill would impose fines on anyone who sells or rents, "any video game that depicts nudity, sexual conduct, or other content harmful to minors." There are many problems with such regulatory measures.

The article goes on to discuss the constitutional issues involved in any sort of censorship and describes a number of legislative efforts to regulate video games.  It then discloses the fact that no study has found any link between playing video games and increased violence among young people, claims that labeling of games is working by making information available to parents, points out that any laws regulating video games rapidly cross the line into censorship, and makes the self-evident statement that parents should be the judge of what's best for their children.  The article ends as follows:

In conclusion, as David E. Rosenbaum of the New York Times noted in a 2001 column, "Some serious social problems in America may not have good legislative solutions. A case in point could be sex and violence in entertainment." Indeed, peaceful social persuasion and civic pressure are often a very powerful alternative to government regulation. When it comes to the games our children play, industry self-regulation and parental supervision, not government coercion, offers the optimal solution. [emphasis added]

Scragged is certainly in agreement with Mr. Rosenbaum's belief that not every serious social problem has a legislative solution; the number of legislative efforts to regulate games described in the Cato Institute article suggests that most legislators disagree with us.  Assuming that all of the many past studies of video games were in fact correct in their conclusions that playing the video games which were available at the time did not lead to violence, we'd be on the side of not regulating them.

Grand Theft Auto may be in a different category, however, for a number of reasons.

First, video games are becoming more and more realistic as computers and displays improve.  The games examined by the earlier studies did not have particularity realistic graphics; it may be that with the improved video realism of GTA, the line between game and reality has a greater chance of becoming blurred in a player's mind.

Second, there's the overall motif of GTA of awarding game points and advancements in rank for successful crimes, which is not really the mindset that we want to encourage in people.

Finally, it appears that the details of how GTA crimes are carried out are not only depicted realistically, they are also quite accurate as to similar situations in reality.  "He said he wanted to find out if it was as easy in real life to rob a taxi as it was in the game," chief police investigator Veeravit Pipattanasak told Reuters.  Apparently it was, though the Thai police forces seem to be more competent than those in GTA.

This suggests that GTA's combination of realistic video, rewarding violence, and accurate depiction of the steps in carrying out violent crimes may offer a qualitatively different influence on violent behavior than previous games: GTA becomes a completely risk-free school for crime and evildoing.

In this case, it is clear that the murderer was following up on ideas and plots suggested by GTA.  He said that he had not intended to kill the driver, only to rob him, but the driver is dead either way.  At the very least, this murder has invalidated all prior studies of the influence of video games on violence; the researchers will have to apply for more funds and do the studies all over again.  How sad.

Individuals and Society

We've discussed the difficult trade-off between individual rights and societal rights.  As we pointed out, the mechanism Americans use for balancing individual rights with societal rights is called "politics."  It is interesting to ponder some of the other regulatory decisions we've made.

Having experimented with the prohibition of sales of alcohol, our society has decided that alcohol should be freely available to adults despite the number of people who are killed by intoxicated drivers and the number of alcohol-driven assaults.  Prostitution is illegal in most states but legal in Nevada.  We've decided to outlaw marijuana, cocaine, and a number of other drugs and even to declare a war on drugs despite the fact that the market demand is strong enough to fund the Taliban in Afghanistan and to support the FARC drug dealers who tortured Mrs. Betancourt.

Again, we're reminded that our political system runs on money.  The huge amount of money that the war on drugs yields to police departments and other law enforcement agencies makes it unlikely that drugs will be legalized any time soon.

Video gaming has become too profitable for our political system to be able to regulate it readily even though we now know that their self-serving "studies" must be flawed.  Practically speaking, absent a huge epidemic of violence which can be directly traced to video games, our political masters will probably follow the money and continue to let the games be sold.

Politics aside, however, there remains the question of the morality of making money by selling games which advocate and rehearse violence in the graphic detail to be found in GTA.  There are many who believe that cigarette company officials conspired to cover up their internal studies of the addictive effects of nicotine and the carcinogenic nature of tobacco and that such conspiracies were evil.  Suppose that this GTA-induced murder proves to be the first of many murders induced by GTA and games like Godfather II, whose publisher promises "even more visceral hand-to-hand brutality" along with pressure tactics and "executions," a mealy-mouthed way to describe premeditated murder.

Game-induced murders becoming common would either confirm the bogus nature of all the existing studies of game-related violence or show that GTA and its ilk constitute an entirely different animal.  Would we then conclude that the developers of this new category of "game" were evil?

Or would we regard them as evil only if it were shown that they knew their product could induce violent behavior and released it anyway?  Now that the publishers know that GTA can induce violent behavior, what will they do about it?

Freedom To Be Stupid

We haven't yet discussed the most interesting question.  Let's suppose for a moment that the next round of studies conclusively proved that GTA and games like it cause a statistically significant rise in murders, just as it's conclusively proven that smoking causes lung cancer and alcohol causes liver disease.  Would it still be right for the government to outlaw a computer game that, in and of itself, causes no harm to anyone?

A knife or gun cause no harm to anyone until a person makes the decision to pick it up and shoot or stab someone.  Karl Marx's book Das Kapital and Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf led directly to the deaths of tens of millions of people; yet both books are still freely available for purchase and have been ever since they were first published.  Sitting on the shelf, they are harmless; in the hands of the vast majority of readers, they are still harmless; but entering into the hearts and minds of some readers, they led to mass murder.  Despite knowing this, we recognize that it is wrong to outlaw thoughts, even evil thoughts.

Traditionally, America has placed responsibility for criminal acts on the individual specifically performing the criminal act.  Guns don't kill people, people kill people.  In the hands of a man with murderous intent, a desk pen is a deadly weapon.

We don't outlaw devices such as automobiles that are inherently dangerous, but we regulate their use; similarly, almost any ideas or publications can be freely distributed to adults.  In fact, GTA is one of these: it's rated "M" for Mature, and is supposed to be sold only to customers 17 years of age or older.  Because some people misuse or abuse things that other people can handle, does that make a blanket ban wise or right?

As we've discussed, freedom must include the right to be stupid or the word has no meaning.  By its very nature, freedom brings with it responsibility to account for your own choices and actions and to control them where necessary.

There are only two choices regarding who can make decisions on what's best for you: you yourself, or somebody else.  Whom would you rather made decisions on your behalf: you, or the government?  This is the liberal's dilemma - if you feel qualified to make decisions about what's best for someone other than yourself and your own children, it won't be long before someone else is making decisions for you.