When Two Tribes Go to War: A History of Video Game Controversy
Design by Collin Oguro
Since the earliest days of pinball, someone somewhere has been determined to ban games--our visceral companions and instigators of id-driven fun. Ronnie Lamm, the noted Long Island PTA president, mother of two, and opponent of arcades and gaming culture in general, spoke about her cause on the MacNeil/Lehrer show in December 1982. She discussed how she and other advocates for banning video games had recently "passed final legislation to limit and control what we considered as being a massive proliferation of games within our community," according to a transcript. Lamm and her group placed limitations on arcades' proximity to schools as well as on the hours during which kids would actually be allowed to play.
Lamm claimed that lack of supervision in arcades drove her fight. She also criticized game culture: "Within our community, there was a tremendous push on for the downtrodden, unemployed person to open up--make a quick buck, open up an arcade--quarters upon quarters dropping into their pockets tax free, no limitations, no investment necessary, no skills needed to work with young people." The same year, 1982, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop suggested that games had no merit and offered little in the way of anything constructive to young people. Games were under fire, and Mortal Kombat was still a good 10 years from its inception. To understand the psychology behind what makes violent games attractive is an undertaking too epic and possibly academic for these pages--and one in which, perhaps, there is no definitive answer.
In the mid-'60s, media theorist Marshall McLuhan offered some insight in Understanding Media: "The games people play reveal a great deal about them." And while his vision at that time may not have been keen for a world of first-person shooters and digitized carjacking, he clearly understood the potential for electronic media to permeate and change our culture--as it has. Assuming there is truth to the idea that what we play defines us, the rising popularity of games deemed violent by some reflects that the United States has a violent culture, but we know this. More than 11,000 people die each year in the US from gunshot wounds, and most of the ones we hear about on the news have nothing to do with games. And then there's Columbine. Were games a culprit? Some say yes, and some say no. But no one truly knows. Unless one can isolate every factor that may have inspired a violent incident--too much sugar, too much MTV, not enough sex--we may never know.
In December 2001, Surgeon General of the United States David Satcher, M.D., Ph.D., led a study on violence in youth and determined that while the impact of video games on violent behavior has yet to be determined, "findings suggest that media violence has a relatively small impact on violence." The report stated:
"The impact of video games containing violence has recently become a focus of research because children are theoretically more susceptible to behavioral influences when they are active participants than when they are observers. To date, violent video games have not been studied as extensively as violent television or movies. The number of studies investigating the impact of such games on youth aggression is small, there have been none on serious violence, and none has been longitudinal." With that said, the report noted that recent "meta-analysis" of these studies found that "the overall effect size for both randomized and correlational studies was small for physical aggression and moderate for aggressive thinking."
The Surgeon General's report notes that the media is not necessarily the cause, although much testing must still be done. It is important to look back through history at violent crime. In his film The Young Poisoner's Handbook, director Benjamin Ross revealed a fictionalized view of a notorious real-life, adolescent killer, Graham Young, who poisoned multiple friends and family members in England in the 1960s. Young, unlike Columbine's Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, did not play Doom. Perhaps a chemistry set was not a good idea for Young.
Video game controversies tend to fall into three main areas: games deemed so violent or controversial that governments and legal bodies intervene (Major Offenders), games controversial enough to make retailers respond by pulling products off of store shelves (Retail Rogues), and games that solicit grassroots uprisings, such as insider Web melee among groups that feel somehow maligned by a game's message or mission but do not truly hinder a game's success (Peaceful Protests). There are plenty of games that are worth noting that do not fall into these categories; you'll find those in Dishonorable Mentions. Since controversy is not just a black and white issue, The Docket includes a sampling of game-industry lawsuits and squabbles, and Juvenile Hall features the lighter side of controversy, because sometimes it's OK just to laugh. We have included many of the notable controversial games, although naturally, there are others not mentioned here. That's where you come in. What game do you think is the most controversial of all time?