There Is No Such Thing As A “Violent” Video Game

Originally posted 7/11/06 on

Augh!I am a pedant. I care about language and words, and how they are used. Use language with exactitude and precision, and one can convey deeper meaning with fewer words. In other words, eschew obfuscation.

What do the following six situations have in common?

1.) You are playing Grand Theft Auto 3. After enjoying the off-screen services of a prostitute, you beat her up and steal her money.
2.) In Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach, your 1st level female Halfling rogue smashes open a wooden crate with her +1 morningstar, and steals a stack of gold coins.
3.) In Halo 2 multiplayer, you frag an opponent from a hidden position with a sniper rifle, putting a round into his head.


4.) Down on Hollywood Boulevard, you avail yourself of the services of a prostitute. Afterward, you beat her up and steal her money.
5.) In Beverly Hills, you smash open a store window with a crowbar, and steal some gold jewelry.
6.) At the urging of your adult male friend, you hide along Interstate 95 with a Bushmaster XM-15 semiautomatic .223 caliber rifle, and kill an innocent stranger by shooting her in the head.

Any sane person will recognize that the first three scenarios are markedly different from the second three. Yet in standard American English, each scenario is described as “violent.”

If we can say that “shooting” an enemy in Halo 2 is “violent,” and shooting a real person with a real gun is “violent,” then what exactly does”violent” mean?

We do not have a word that means “depicting, or analogous to, violence.” Violencistic? Violentesque? Because of this, it become very easy to conflate “violent” (“marked by, acting with, or resulting from great force”) with “violent” (“representing or describing a situation marked by, acting with, or resulting from great force”).

So imagining or reenacting something that would be a violent act becomes a violent act, at least linguistically.

And as we can see from the media and political hyperbole regarding “violent” video games, many people cannot, or choose not to, discern the linguistic difference.

Let’s consider the difference between scenarios five and six. Is there no difference between violence against property and violence against persons? This question was debated heavily in the news media at the time of the anti-globalization riots in 1999. Many on the anti-globalization Left argued that violence against property was not the same as violence against people, and was therefore permissible as social protest. Many others disagreed.

Those who criticize video game and television violence have recognized this distinction in the past, to a certain extent. Think of all the video games and Saturday morning cartoons in which the “violence” is perpetrated against robots instead of people. Sonic the Hedgehog can smash all of Dr. Robotnik’s robots — that’s not violent, is it? Especially when he’s freeing all those little chicks and bunnies?

Today, however, the distinction between violence against people and against inanimate objects seems to have disappeared, even when talking about fictional or imaginary violence. Shooting a crate and shooting a person become conflated, just as imagining the violence and realizing it are conflated.

I become incensed whenever censorship advocates describe a video game (or movie or book or song) as “violent” or “dangerous.” Perhaps it’s too pedantic or simplistic to insist that a video game can not hurt you. Unless your Xbox 360 power supply electrocutes you or crushes you under its incredible weight, it can’t injure you. Unless it gives you a paper cut, a book can not do you harm. A movie never sent anyone to the hospital, unless the overpriced combination of Coca Cola and Red Vines gave them a stomach ache.

Yet when Senator Hillary Clinton released her guide for parents last month, it was entitled Media Safety. In addition to describing certain media as “age-inappropriate” and “offensive,” she decried some web content, TV shows and video games as “dangerous.”

Yes, parents, you must worry about your child’s “safety” from all these “dangerous” media. Dangerous how?

Can TV shows and video games be age-inappropriate? Absolutely. Obviously, children can be confused, frightened, even emotionally harmed by the adult themes implicit in images of violence, horror, and eroticism. Personally, I’m more concerned when a child views a scene of casual murder, even when the violence occurs off-screen, than I am about a scene of cartoon violence or of sexuality. But honestly, parents should be reasonably able to prevent their children from accessing media with adult themes.

Reasonably able. The effort to “protect” children from adult media absolutely can not prevent adults from producing and consuming media as they see fit. And certain kinds of media — video games, comic books, and animation — cannot be labeled “child-only.” The world is full of adult games and comics. Parents who can not discern the difference are the problem, not the producers of the GTA games or of Japanese tentacle porn.

Censorship advocates insist that exposure to violent images can induce violent behavior. Therefore, the logic goes, the violent image caused the violent behavior. This line of reasoning fails on many levels.

Studies vetted by the American Psychological Association demonstrate that children exhibit an increase in violent behavior for a period of time after exposure to violent images. First of all, we can safely assume that the behavior described by the researchers as violent did not include physical attacks on other children. If it did, the researchers would be guilty of ethics violations. We can assume the affected children were “acting up.”

Second, the APA has yet to compare the reactions of children to images of sporting events, or to actual participation in sporting events. The same people who believe you should not pretend to hurt people on a computer advocate that you should slam the hell out of a quarterback or punch your boxing opponent in the face. These activities are wholesome, healthy and non-violent? No, they are simply traditionally accepted in our society.

Let’s see the reactions of children to video games compared to their reactions to loud music, or a hunting program on TV, or an argument between their parents. Let’s study how various factors in a child’s life impact their behavior. That is a complex undertaking, and thousands of child psychologists and sociologists are hard at work on it right now. But these aren’t the people who put out simplistic reports linking video games with violence.

Third, let us assume that “violent” video games cause a certain amount of “acting up” in a minority of children. Would this justify a ban on sales of certain games to minors? Would this justify censorship of game content, even self-imposed industry censorship?

For a hundred years, shrill conservatives have blamed the mass media for the corruption of our children. First it was the novels of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain; then Frank Sinatra and his Bobby-Soxers; then Elvis, the Beatles, television, movies, rap music and video games. Every one of these pop culture phenomena was described as a “danger” to our children, by opportunistic politicians and religious figures who prey on parents’ ignorance about popular culture.

Parents are bombarded with false “dangers” to their children (terrorism, razors in Halloween candy, stranger abductions, Satanism, school shootings). None of these is a real threat to your child — but what parent wants to be the one who did nothing, and their child is the one who gets hurt?

A video game will never hurt your child. It will not turn them into the Trench Coat Mafia. You have the right to tell your child what they can buy, and what they can play — but you do not have the right to tell me. Even if your child were in danger, you would not have the right to tell me.

But your child is safe. Pay attention to the media they consume, not just the video games. Try to keep on top of what they see and do in school and at their friends’ houses. Teach them what you feel is appropriate, and expect them to respect your wishes.

But see the video game “threat” for what it is — no threat at all.


  1. Good points. I think the problem lies when you get a person who has some other mental issues that don’t allow them to separate the realities of the first three from the last three. You and I can, but not everyone can.

  2. If kids who play violent video games grow up to kill people, then kids who play sports video games must grow up to be athletic legends, right? Screw practice, let’s buy the football team another copy of Madden ’07.

  3. Good Article. Just to point out, movies have sent people to the hospital. In fact a woman died of a heart attack watching Passion of the Christ. So certain images and other sensory stimulants might actually be dangerous lol.
    But good article none the less.

  4. You are absolutely correct!! I am a teenager and i play violent games all day killing people in horrible ways but i’m a good person. Games are not bad, its the people who say they are bad who are.

  5. It’s physically impossible for me to agree more.

    As always, the main culprits in the mind of the censorship advocate remain his ignorance (abetted by the catch-22 of his inability to objectively explore the media he’s been told is harmful) and his towering sense of moral righteousness- which really makes it impossible to get through his thick skull.

    This combination of ignorance and crusader mentality invariably leads to ad hominem attacks on the pro-videogame/anti-censorship advocates.

    “Well, it really doesn’t matter that your ‘scientific data’ doesn’t support my argument. I don’t much care for science in the first place. All I know is, *I” am not the one who loves to play these murder simulators. How can we trust anything you say, if you’re already corrupted by these games? You just don’t want censorship because you want to carry on shooting people on ‘the counterstrike’ and fantasizing about shooting real people. In fact, if you’re not for making all games illegal, you’re supporting terrorism!”

    You get the idea. Preaching to the choir, I suppose, but it’s enjoyable to say.

    Also, in the list of media that have been blamed for corrupting youth, comic books are perhaps the most astounding example of such zealous rushing to judgement and censorship, and one of the most complete victories by the censorship crowd.

    In the 30s a few prominent- if deplorably unscientific- psychologists testified before Congressional comittees, spouting a lot of nonsense about kids retreating into a fantasy world of violent, Freudian delusion. The result: for decades, no comic could get onto the shelves in the USA without submitting to a set of guidelines which were independent and “voluntary” in name only.

  6. I think i could have taken this with a little more weight if perhaps the author had spelled convey correctly…

  7. Damnit, chill off with thoses comments on video games… yes some games are violents and gore and whatever pershaps it’s the parent’s job to impose some limits for there kids…

  8. It’s amazing that it has become so much to ask for parents to actually parent. If you are so lazy that you can’t monitor your child’s entertainment intake and therefore have to keep said entertainment from everyone, including consenting adults, you should have just used birth control.

  9. If a game has an age label on it respect that. It is that simple. I’ve lost count of the number of kills I’ve done playing CSS or the GTA series et al and I’m not even a frequent player.

    As a teacher the worst kids I have ever taught come from families that don’t give a shit about what their child is doing in their bedroom (no innuendo intended) and buy their kids 18 games for their 14th simply because they say their friends have it or allow their kds to watch 18 films made a few years ago because “it’s not scary any more”… a classic was me comforting a kid because his Mum thought that watching Alien would be OK because the effects ‘are so dated and obviously false’… I STILL freak out when the alien pops out of his chest and I’m 37.

    Esentially people have forgotten that kids are kids, they are not little adults.

  10. I totally agree, the media and other groups have spun “violence” in video games to the point where any violent crime is linked to video games.
    During the Virginia Tech shooting I personally saw Jack Thompson giving an inverview to the media stating that the police is searching the guy’s PC and will undoubtedly find GTA or CS on his computer and because of that the guy went on a rampage. The fact is the police at the time was still hours away from finding all the details of the tragedy, including the ID of the person and his motives(which had no connection to any video game – which most likely baffled Thompson to no end).
    People like him just take advantage of the fact that average parents are uninformed and will believe whatever the media says to put less responsibility on themsleves when it is much easier to blame somebody/something else.
    If one does not take responsibility, they shouldn’t blame it on someone else, i know i will probably insult someone with this next commment and that is not my intent:The Naxis did it and see what happened.

  11. i don’t know where most of you are from but i’ll assume that most of you are American, i would just like to say it i just the same over here. People nowadays are obsessed with this so called ‘nanny culture’ dogmatically telling people what they can and cannot do and it would seem that this clearly a result of some sad minorities being incapable of lookin after tehmsleves and their families. Only futher perpertuating the problem. I also think nowadays that people do not clearly have enough to concern themselves with. As there lives become more and more comfortable they seek out new problems new apocalyptic concerns such as this and to a certain extent global warming etc we have seen it for years. In the past peopl have had real problems in our societies to deal with such as war, poverty and famine. This biggest problems people seem to concern themselves with these days are one such as this. We lack purpose and therefore direction. It is a sad decline, taht the so called greatest species on Earth has fallen so that i find myself envying animals.

  12. Excellent post.
    Gonna spread this page around.
    Can you do one on “Hate Crimes, what is one, really?”

  13. its true parents arnt doing even the basics to control media input on there kids so the demand some one else do it for them and fuck all of us in the ass in the process

  14. If the school schooting investigators stopped asking “did the shooter play Grand Theft Auto?” and started asking “was the shooter fequently bullied by other students?” they would find much more illuminating results. But they’re not going to do that, because then the school might be expected to do something about bullying for a change.

  15. Very well written article. It reminds me of this great quote;

    There’s so much comedy on television. Does that cause comedy in the streets?

    — Dick Cavett, mocking the TV-violence debate

  16. Great article!
    Sadly, most Jack Thompsons out there won’t let your point count, because you are a game[r] and thus a danger to society only trying to weasel out…

  17. the experts also argued that steroids should not be regulated in the same fashion as elicit drugs such as crack cocaine and heroin but congress made them illegal also.

  18. couldnt agree more, especially with “tar”‘s point – why not get everyone to play sports games if kids turn into rapists and murderers through GTA, CS and CoD?
    video games are a scapegoat for the media – anything a child does can be blamed on them and they are considered bad to all the parents who dont play them. if you have the experience of playing one you know that its not about the killing, its about the competition.
    PLUS, if a game has been approved for an age by an official government group, and the person playing is over that age, surely there is no basis for any accusations? the officials approved it so they cant start blaming it later.

  19. All very true. however, there are some things on the internet that can be safely described as dangerous. Not dangerous as pertaining to the physical person, but to the mind. Namely, 4chan’s forum, /b/. It can warp even the most well adjusted person into a malicious troll without even directly targeting him or her.

  20. This coming from someone that claims, “I am a pedant. I care about language and words, and how they are used.” I get just a few lines into this article to find that the writer has no understanding of their topic. Saying that you “frag” someone buy sniping them and what not. Clearly the writer didn’t take the proper time to understand the subject matter. I stopped reading this bunk after a few paragraphs because it’s obvious that the writer didn’t care enough to put in the effort to make this a well thought out article. Please, for future reference, try to take an interest in what you write about before asking us to listen to you.

  21. The wonderful world of Disney presents: Grand Theft Auto: House of Mouse!

    Seriously, though, nice topic points.

  22. @anon: LOL wut? Clearly you are very confused as to the meaning of the word “frag,” or at least you think it has some precise meaning. It does not. Are you in possession of some Oxford English Dictionary of Gamer Slang the rest of us don’t own? One “frags” something by destroying it with a gun, or an explosive weapon such as a fragmentation grenade. The end.

    I was a gaming journalist for three years and ran a gamer jargon website for a few years before that. Hardly Nobel-prize-winning endeavors; but I am uniquely qualified to define “frag.”

    You wrote 111 words to tell me you didn’t read the blog post. If you ever return here, perhaps you could explain the thinking behind that, if any. Perhaps you need a hobby. I suggest you take up video gaming.

  23. Now, I agree with the idea that video games do not breed violence. I know this because I play Games like GTA all week long, but have never gotten so much as a speeding ticket in my 3 years of driving. Nor have I been convicted of rape, murder, assault, etc.

    However one thing that was said, I would disagree with. “Unless it gives you a paper cut, a book can not do you harm” Essentially a book is a story or an idea that has been written down. Ideas can be very dangerous, Look at Hitler’s idea for a supreme race. He used a book to spread this idea like an infect. More than likely you already know that I am talking about ‘Mein Kampf’.

    Now That does not mean that reading ‘Mein Kampf’ will make you a Nazi. You must believe it to be true, or it has no effect. Which is why I believe Games are harmless. We know they aren’t real.

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