Video game development brings together some of the brightest talents in order to create something beautiful. No other medium, including film and television, combines science and art the way video games do. Throughout a game’s creation, highly skilled programmers and mathematicians work with talented artists — traditional and 3D. In addition, an army of production staff design, develop and market their product with cult-like enthusiasm. The point being; video game development is a worthy and rewarding profession.

Nevertheless, through any existential societal crisis, we all need a Boogeyman to blame. In the 1950s, they went after comic books, 1960s blamed rock and roll, and the ’70s held pornography responsible for societal ills. Today, instead, video games have borne the brunt of the degradation of youthful joy for the past couple of decades. This has been spurred on by the recent classification of video games addiction as a genuine issue by the World Health Organization.

While some games are seemingly addictive and many are violent, should we hold the players of these games to account when something goes wrong? It is easy to blame sedentary life on entertainment mediums such as video game consoles or streaming channels. Yet, the corporate influence and advertisement of alcohol and gambling remain. While the debate over the effect of video games rages on, the fact remains that the video games market has never been bigger — currently estimated at $65 billion per year.

Violence as Entertainment

The past 20 years have seen countless stories of violence where video games are supposedly to blame. Some of the most infamous cases blame games directly, while others implicate games as a contributing factor. The 2004 murder of Stefan Pakeerah is a prime example of unfair blame — much to the chagrin of the victim’s parents, who want to make some sense of the appalling attack on their son. The teenage friend who lured Stefan to his death did not own a copy of Rockstar Games’ Manhunt, as initially alleged (the game Stefan’s parents blamed for the attack). Furthermore, an investigation found that the game played no role in influencing the crime.

Unsurprisingly, efforts have been made by numerous individuals to ban violent games from sale. For example, infamous attorney Jack Thompson is known for his crusade against Rockstar Games’ best-selling title Grand Theft Auto. In addition, Thompson has filed numerous suits against video game developers whom he sees as unsavoury. Understandably, Mr Thompson might see a video game that includes torture, murder and prostitution as entertainment as unsavoury.

However, it is challenging to understand his personal views on The Sims, which he controversially labelled as paedophilia. It has been determined that his concerns over nudity and sexual content comes from unofficial mods not supported by the game’s developer. However, many video games are indeed violent, and consumers use them as a means of escapism. Nevertheless, almost every major blockbuster movie, TV show and music video production for famous artists contain violence and sexualisation.

Furthermore, 90 per cent of ESRB-rated video games deemed suitable for children contain some form of violence, most of which is comedic. At the same time, a preschooler watching two hours of cartoons per day is exposed to similar violence, adding up to over 10,000 events per year. If anything is to be taken from these statistics, there is too much violence within all mediums and the entertainment industry as a whole requires more stringent regulation. However, the nature of today’s purchasing via online digital platforms makes it almost impossible to control what content children are exposed to.

The New Crack — Video Game Addiction

Like anything enjoyable, video games have the potential to become addictive. If the recent press is to be believed, the public would be forgiven for thinking that every game enthusiast becomes a raging monster when deprived of their favourite source of entertainment. In 2018, the World Health Organization officially classed video game addiction as a genuine disorder. While there is evidence that video game addiction does exist, for many, this move by the WHO is seen as reactionary to the plight of mothers who become concerned over their children’s time spent playing one game in particular — Fortnite.

Fortnite gamers are notoriously passionate about the game. However, a 2020 survey by Statista reveals that only 5 per cent of Fortnite’s 80 million gamers play for more than 21 hours per week while 36 per cent play for less than five. Considering the WHO’s liberal and unfounded estimate of a 10 per cent gaming addiction rate, around 40,000 Fortnite gamers are prone to addiction. However, this does not consider that the majority of Fortnite’s full-time gamers are professionals who play for a living. Therefore, the actual number of addicted Fortnite gamers is potentially significantly lower.

Fortnite aside, gaming addiction, like any, is a severe issue that should not be taken lightly. Video game addicts are prone to depression, tantrums, withdrawal symptoms, and violent outbursts if unable to play their preferred game. For example, the ultra-violent 1980’s movie Scarface is a Hollywood classic depicting the rise and fall of a drug lord. 2006 saw the release of Scarface: The World is Yours video game which led to tragic consequences when 22-year old Alejandro Garcia shot and killed his 17-year old cousin over an argument about whose turn it was to play. In another shocking case in 2010, British Man Gary Alcock is currently serving a 21-year prison sentence for killing his girlfriend’s 15-month old daughter because she interrupted his gaming session.

The Blame Game

As much violence as there is in popular media, the blame cannot be placed squarely on the producers of such material. All media found to be violent, racist, sexist, or contain any form of adult material is clearly indicated to do so. Therefore, parents of children who own such productions are solely responsible for ensuring that what their children are exposed to is suitable for them. Additionally, where addiction is concerned, screen-time and parental controls are available on all video game consoles such as Xbox, Nintendo and PlayStation. Further, streaming accounts like Netflix and Disney+ can be customised to filter adult content.

However, the problem is that many parents do not take the necessary actions to monitor or block what their children view. A study by Pew Research discovered that only 39 per cent of parents use parental control systems to restrict content. To be fair, just under 40 per cent is a higher than expected number, yet 60 per cent of parents remain who do not monitor their children’s exposure to adult content. This includes video games, movies and music. All of which are rigorously controlled by rating systems particular to each country or region.

The United States classifies content using the ESRB rating system for video games, and Europe uses the PEGI system. Moreover, neither of those are particularly difficult to understand. In addition to recommended age ratings, these are accompanied by extra information specific to a game. For example, the extremely popular video game The Sims 4 is recommended for teens and warns that it contains ‘Crude Humour’, ‘Violence’ and ‘Sexual Themes’. However, this game is far from violent and shows no explicit material.

This raises the question of the efficacy of rating systems themselves. While the aim is to convey the general sense of the theme and content of a video game, ratings do not necessarily give an accurate representation of the contents. For example, due to the failing ESRB system, only 27 titles in the history of games have been labelled ‘Adults Only’.

In Summary

From the ancient Roman gladiators to Shakespeare plays and Hollywood, violence has been used for entertainment. Fortunately, we have advanced our civilization enough so as not to throw people to the lions. However, boxing and MMA attracts millions of people globally. As a prominent entertainment medium, it was only inevitable that video games include violence in predictions. Since the Mortal Kombat affair of the early ’90s, violence in games has been a subject of much contention.

Over the past three decades, video game violence has become disparate and controversial compared to other mediums, perhaps because of the interactive aspect not found in music or movies. However, several high-profile crimes have brought violence in games to the fore time and time again, as people look to either shift the blame to something else or shy away from social mirroring as they try to make sense of the senseless.

In addition to allegedly influencing high-profile crimes, there is a growing concern that video games are becoming addictive. Popular games like Fortnite are under scrutiny for spurring addiction. As a result, the World Health Organization moved to classify game addiction as a genuine mental disorder akin to drug and alcohol dependence. However, given that video game violence is common knowledge, age ratings are clearly labelled, and every platform provides parental controls, parents must be held partly responsible.

While almost 40 per cent of parents use parental controls to reduce their children’s exposure to adult material, there is still a need to address the issue adequately. It is easy to get sucked into the blame game, yet all the protesting in the world is not enough to curb violence in mainstream media. In a democratic society where freedom of artistic expression is allowed, outright banning of material that a handful of people do not agree with is not feasible.