NEW YORK - In video games these days, you can strangle someone with a garrote (Manhunt), pop an enemy’s head off in a shower of gore with a sniper shot (Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy), and direct a teenage girl to shotgun a demon dog (Silent Hill 3).
The video game industry seems to delight in pushing the envelope — and the bounds of good taste — with ever-gorier content. That has put it under renewed attack from legislators and activists who claim some titles must be kept out of kids’ hands, though courts have repeatedly granted games First Amendment protections.
The opponents cite new research that they say suggests strong links between violent games and aggressive behavior. They are disturbed by games’ cultural ubiquity and the always-improving technology that makes virtual gore more realistic than ever. Lawmakers in at least seven states proposed bills during the most recent legislative session that would restrict the sale of games, part of a wave that began when the 1999 Columbine High School shootings sparked an outcry over games and violence. None of the measures that passed have survived legal challenge.
The game industry says legislating ultra-violent games out of the hands of children would deal a severe blow to free speech. Game companies point to the industry-imposed ratings system that gives detailed descriptions of violence in a game and labels some titles as ‘‘mature’’ or ‘‘adults only.’’
‘‘Does it make any rational sense to you that we’re going to pass a law someplace that says we’re not going to prevent minors from buying ‘Passion of the Christ’ or ‘Kill Bill’ or ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ in a local store but you can’t buy Resident Evil?’’ said Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association, referring to three violent movies and a popular horror-action game.
The debate reflects a divide in the way people perceive games. Are games harmless, perhaps even cathartic, as many people who grew up playing them believe? Or are they teaching kids to be more aggressive, and in extreme cases, to kill? Author Evan Wright ponders the effects of video games on U.S. soldiers in the current Iraq war in his new book ‘‘Generation Kill.’’ In an endorsement that Grand Theft Auto creator Rockstar Games would probably rather not get, he quotes one U.S. soldier as saying an ambush felt just like playing the game.
‘‘It felt like I was living it when I seen the flames coming out of windows, the blown-up car in the street, guys crawling around shooting at us,’’ the soldier says.
Game advocates, on the other hand, say work by researchers like Anderson is flawed, and point out that other data show no link between game violence and real-world violence.
The next 12 months could see a flurry of new scrutiny of violent games because three controversial franchises are due to release sequels. They include Doom, notorious as a favorite of the Columbine killers; Mortal Kombat, with its calls for a player to ‘‘finish’’ opponents in myriad gruesome ways; and Grand Theft Auto, which exhorted players in its latest iteration to start a Cuban-Haitian race war.
Meanwhile, we’re in the midst of a gaming explosion. Deloitte & Touche predicts the worldwide number of ‘‘game compliant devices’’ other than PCs will see a six-fold rise by 2010, from 415 million now to 2.6 billion. Among games’ most vocal critics is Jack Thompson, a Florida lawyer who has tried, so far without success, to argue for acquittal of defendants in violent crime cases in which he believed that games made them do it.
‘‘There’s a culpability here that should be shared by those who are training kids to kill,’’ Thompson said.