In the same week that video games rubbed shoulders with theatre and visual art at the Edinburgh festival, a US teenager was convicted for murders he claimed were inspired by Grand Theft Auto. Jenifer Johnston examines the fiercely contested social effects of an industry which now rivals Hollywood
Dangerous. Addictive. Degrading. Immoral. This was the vocabulary of parents and politicians in 1976, when hit-and-run video game Death Race started to grab the attention of teenagers across America. The game featured indistinguishable white “gremlins” being run over by a white “car” on a black background, with each hit marked with a small white cross.
The morality of the game was enough to inspire a spot on the flagship US current affairs programme 60 Minutes, and spark a global debate about the content of a new genre of entertainment – gaming.
Today is the final day of the Edinburgh Interactive Entertainment Festival, considered the Cannes of the gaming world. It is testament to how far video games have travelled culturally that they are now part of the largest arts festival in the world. Equally telling is their business status, rivalling Hollywood for revenues and reach.
But one aspect of the genre has remained stubbornly in 1976. Nearly 30 years on from Death Race and the same vocabulary is being used about the same issue – that computer games are dangerous, inspire aggression, fuel addictive personalities and instil images of violence into the minds of impressionable children.
Last week, just as the EIEF festival was opening its doors to industry experts and excited players, 20-year-old Devin Moore was convicted in America of the murder of two police officers and a civilian. His failed defence had been partly based on the effects of playing games in the Grand Theft Auto series, created by Scottish-based developers Rockstar North. He reportedly told police after his arrest: “Life is a video game, everybody has to die sometime.”
The arguments over gaming appear cyclical, with each generation featuring a game that becomes the focus of heated debate. In 1983 it was Custer’s Revenge, a short-lived game for the Atari 2600, which was released to protests from women’s groups because a female Native American character appeared to be raped in it.
Night Trap, released in 1992, was singled out for mass criticism (and subsequently enjoyed a healthy rise in sales) for containing scenes of attractive college students being rescued by commandos.
Carmageddon had to be released in several versions in 1997, with players in some countries mowing down pedestrians and others zombies, according to how ferocious the public objection was. Then came Mortal Kombat, Doom – implicated in the Columbine massacre in 1999, when two teenagers gunned down their classmates – Quake, Postal and, most notoriously, Grand Theft Auto in all its iterations.
Over this period academics have studied the effects of gaming culture on children and young people, but without convincing conclusions. The most recent research, from the University of Illinois, found that existing studies were evenly split: for every inquiry that finds a connection between game violence and real aggression, another will say players’ reactions are normal, or that games affect players less than a violent TV programme.
However, while our understanding of the effects of video games fails to evolve, the games themselves have experienced a quantum leap. Movie-like images, orchestral music scores and complex plot lines are creating elaborate other worlds for millions of game players. Traditional entertainment industries are increasingly utilising the ubiquitous nature of video games to service their own ends: bands will scramble to get their songs included on game soundtracks, film studios will make big-screen versions of popular games and now directors such as Steven Spielberg are embracing the very technology that games companies use to create new movies.
Even the real world is becoming fused with the virtual world, with players of online adventures selling virtual swords and treasures accrued in the games for real cash. In short, this industry is not child’s play.
Despite repeated claims to the contrary by those concerned about the effects of video games, children are not the target market. The average age of a game player in the UK is 29, in the US it is 30. This is at odds with public perception.
“People older than their late 30s were not brought up with gaming” says Dr Jason Rutter, an expert in the social impact of computer games and technology at the University of Manchester. “Middle-aged critics get very protectionist over the impact of games on ‘society’, but I think that is because games, unlike books or television, are the single entertainment genre not created of their time. They have never played a game or owned a console. They do not have a good understanding of what game culture is all about.”
Mark Greenshields, managing director of Scottish-based DC Studios, says the industry is frustrated with the continual heavy question marks hanging over the content of games.
“The main problem is that people think games are for kids. They are not. Games by and large are for adults to play. Adults who know their own minds and know what they can handle. The controversy around games is there because an adult product has slipped into the reach of children, despite the industry’s best efforts to stop that happening.”
But despite the logic and reason used to promote the acceptability of gaming, there are still victims who believe that games are responsible for their suffering.
Giselle Pakeerah is still in the depths of grief for her son Stefan, who was murdered 18 months ago inn a Leicester park. He was 14 when he was killed with a claw hammer by his friend Warren Leblanc. Leblanc was 17 when he committed the crime. In court, the jury heard Stefan was murdered in the heat of a panicked robbery attempt by Leblanc, who owed money to a gang. It is not an explanation accepted by his mother. She is sure her son is dead because Leblanc had become obsessed with the game Manhunt, whose main character bludgeons people to death.
“Playing a game is not like going to the movies,” she told the Sunday Herald. “They have a unique nature, they absorb players and make them identify with an aggressor.”
“Would I like these kind of games banned altogether? The obvious answer is yes,” said Pakeerah. “But I am not naive – these games are played by millions of people. I am hopeful that in time the industry will come under the control of a much stricter set of regulations.”
The benchmark of whether games are suitable for children or not comes in the form of a ratings system, similar to that used for films. All games receive an age classification run through a two-tier system involving the British Board of Film Classification and a voluntary European set-up known as Pegi (Pan European Game Information). Only 2% of games on sale receive an 18 rating.
However, studies suggests that parents ignore the age ratings when purchasing games for their children. Researcher Jurgen Freund told a recent games conference: “Most parents think their child is mature enough so these games will not influence them. Parents are too divorced from what teenagers play.”
Jack Thompson, a Miami-based lawyer who specialises in cases against the video games industry, knows where he places the blame. On Friday he launched an action against software giant Rockstar – the US parent of Rockstar North – and retailer Wal-Mart aimed at making them pay “hundreds of millions of dollars” to relatives of the victims of Devin Moore.
“Rockstar know their games cause a copycat phenomenon of attacks on people. I wrote to them a year before this incident happened and warned them that it could happen. They didn’t stop it going on sale. Not every kid ‘goes Columbine’ thank God, but some do.”
Thompson claims the teenage Columbine school killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris “trained on playing Doom” and says he trusts research that “shows adolescent brains process games in a different way.”
“I’ve played Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and it makes me nauseated. What normal person would not get sick shooting policemen in a game? Adults should have an aversion to it, let alone kids,” he added.
Thompson also said he has had death threats from game enthusiasts angry about possible legal challenges against Grand Theft Auto.
“I’ve had 10,000 e-mails since the start of the year from gamers saying they want to kill me because of these legal actions I’m pursuing. These people are just so peaceful playing these types of games, so sure that they aren’t affected by them that they are threatening to kill me … I mean, how’s that for irony?”
Regardless of the outcome of Thompson’s case, it seems clear that the cyclical nature of the video game debate is likely to fuel similar actions in the future.
The UK games industry is very successful, employing thousands in high-tech jobs, spurring on innovative research and development and generating millions for the economy.
Gaming as a pastime is also growing in the UK – in 1997 the amount spent on games alone, excluding sales of consoles or PCs, was £508 million; by 2009 that is expected to rise to £1.4 billion.
Console games cost around $5m (£2.75m) to develop at the lower end of the scale – games developed to tie in with a Hollywood movie can cost up to $50m (£27.5m) to develop and market.
This November, Microsoft will launch the Xbox 360, the first of the next generation of incredibly powerful games consoles. It will be closely followed by the Playstation 3 and the Nintendo Revolution.
As well as offering ever more realistic depictions of everything from virtual golf to virtual warfare, the machines are all set to offer a powerful new function, one which is set to fuel the next front in the video game battle.
Connected to the internet, the consoles will put players directly in touch with each other in a more sophisticated way than that offered by the current crop of machines, including global live video link-ups. A British businessman, for example, could play a round of golf in a PGA golf game with a Japanese colleague, doing deals while they chat and play, all without leaving their living rooms.
But the technology is already causing concern for some, including Dr Nikki Kerr of child protection charity Kidscape, who imagines more sinister applications.
“I can see a situation where players’ photographs are put into the game and that scenarios are acted out with players across the world. That is worrying as no doubt paedophiles would be interested in that technology as well.”
Dr Jason Rutter, however, is not convinced that society’s ills should be laid at the door of video games. “It is a hoary old chestnut that games are dangerous,” he said.
“After the Columbine tragedy, for example the two names repeated over and over were singer Marilyn Manson and the game Doom. Of all the problems these two teenagers had computer games were the least of them. Games become a scapegoat for violent behaviour.”