New Whine in Old Battles: the Crusade Against Video Games

by Wendy McElroy

On September 7th, Wal-Mart and Kmart announced a new policy: they will not sell "violent video games" to anyone under seventeen unless the customer is accompanied by a parent. The decision has been widely applauded as a move toward eliminating violence from society, especially the so-called copycat violence that certain video games are said to inspire within children. These games incorporate "virtual violence" into their method of scoring. For example, in Carmageddon players score points by driving virtual cars over as many pedestrians as possible. Exposure to violent games is said to be an underlying cause of such tragedies as Columbine.

The "voluntary" policy change at Wal-Mart and Kmart is the business equivalent of jumping off a cliff before being legislatively pushed over the edge. It was a response to increasing pressure from politicians. In May, the executives at Wal-Mart and Kmart (along with other major retail chains) received a letter signed by seven senators who urged them either to cease selling or to restrict the sale of violent video games. In August, Toys R Us replied to Senator Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. – one of the signatories – and assured him that they had restricted the sale of violent video games to minors. Sessions pointedly observed that other retailers (e.g. Montgomery Ward and Sears) now prohibited such sales.

Politicians at the state level have been equally vigorous in the call for commerce to self-censor. Jim Ryan, the Attorney General of Illinois, declared, "When it comes to exposing our children to violence, we must be especially vigilant. It defies common sense that we would want these shockingly violent and interactive ‘murder simulators’ to flow freely into the hands and ultimately the minds of our young people." The targets of his righteous wrath were M-rated (mature-rated) video games. Although no law prohibits the sale of M-rated games to minors, Ryan called for a voluntary ban. That was his "preference," Ryan stated, then he explained that his office was investigating other solutions to the "problem."

The timing of the announcement of compliance by Wal-Mart and Kmart is revealing. Their statements came shortly before the much anticipated upcoming release of a government report that Clinton demanded in the wake of Columbine. The report is expected to condemn the entertainment industry for marketing "adult" movies, music and video games to children.

In short, there is a full frontal assault on freedom of expression – from the federal and state governments, as well as the media – being conducted under the banner of "protecting children from violence." The private sector is blamed for making a profit off the endangerment of children’s safety.

The censorship argument hinges on a connection being drawn between images and behavior: namely, that violent images cause violent behavior. What evidence supports this argument? Senator Sam Brownback, R-Kan. explains, "Common sense should tell us that positively reinforcing sadistic behavior, as these games do, cannot be good for our children." Of the anticipated report on whether violent games are targeted to kids, Brownback states, "If this is true - and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that it is - this is a scandal and an outrage." In other words, the pro-censorship argument is supported by the "common sense" of politicians and "anecdotal evidence."

If someone questions the "common sense" of how crime can be declining steadily although violent video games have swept the nation, the questioner is quickly silenced by emotional rhetoric about school shootings. If someone who was brought up playing with G.I. Joe doubts the "anecdotal" evidence of how violent games lead to violence in reality, the "protect our children" card is played. Arguably, this is the most politically powerful card in the deck.

The current furor over violent video games is only the most recent expression of a long censorship campaign that can be dated backward at least three decades to 1972, to the United States Surgeon General’s proclamation that children become violent due to images on television. The renewed call for the censorship of images has a familiar ring to it. About the same time that the Surgeon General attacked violence on television, the Federal Commission on Pornography and Obscenity – called by President Nixon – rendered its findings on the connection between sexual images and violence. The Commission found that there was none. The subsequent use of "studies" and "evidence" to suppress dangerous sexual images has a direct parallel to what is happening with violent video games.

In 1984, President Reagan tried to erase the findings of Nixon’s Commission by replacing them with the Meese Commission Report. The Report was the culmination of a circus of biased public hearings conducted by the U.S. Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography for the purpose of investigating "evidence linking pornography to anti-social behavior" – that is, linking porn to violence against women. The Meese Commission was more obedient to political will than its predecessor: it found that graphic sexual images lead to violence. After all, it was headed by the same man – Ed Meese – who was largely responsible for raising the age limit that defined "a child" from 16 to 18.

Not surprisingly, much of the Meese Commission’s proof that pornography led to sexual assault came from politically biased sources who gathered data in order to reach a foregone conclusion. Even valid studies were interpreted in a politically expedient manner. In the Virginia Law Review, Nadine Strossen – President of the American Civil Liberties Union – commented on one study used to support the anti-porn position. "The Meese Commission...relied on Professor Murray Straus’ correlationship ‘justify’ their conclusions that exposure to ‘pornography’ leads to sexual assaults. But, as Professor Straus wrote the Commission, ‘I do not believe that [my] research demonstrates the pornography causes rape.’"

The ideological bias embedded in studies stems not merely from political funding or a political agenda. It is also springs from the assumptions that researchers bring to their studies. For example, if researchers believe human beings are largely hard-wired by genetics toward certain behavior, they are likely to ask different questions than if they believe human behavior is determined by the environment.

Even when good research is honestly conducted and attempts are made to filter out assumptions, the media commonly distorts the significance of findings in order to produce sensationalism. A frequent act of distortion is to blur the distinction between a correlation and a cause-and-effect relationship. A correlation says nothing about cause-and-effect. It is a fallacy to assume that if A can be correlated with B, then A causes B. Such a correlation might indicate nothing more than that both are caused by another factor, C. For example, there might be a high correlation between the number of doctors in a city and the number of alcoholics there. One factor doesn’t cause the other; both are proportional to the size of the city’s population. The same is true of the correlation between playing M-rated video games and violence by minors. It is as valid to state that attendance in public school causes students to shoot their classmates, as to ascribe that behavior to playing a game.

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, freedom of expression triumphed over attempts to eliminate pornography. It was a heated and prolonged battle during which radical feminists joined with the religious right to call for censorship. They lost largely because their data was widely discredited. I do not believe the censors will lose the fight against violent video games however flawed their evidence may be. People are in a panic over violence in the schools and the government needs a scapegoat. It cannot blame the public school system for which it is responsible. It cannot control or repair the break down of the nuclear family that has left millions of children without the traditional safety net of values and guidance. But government can blame the private sector for selling "unsavory" wares. And it can control retailers like Wal-Mart through letters of intimidation signed by Senators.

In the final analysis, it probably will not matter how weak the common sense or how anecdotal the evidence is that underlies their arguments. The censors will probably win.

Those watching the political juggernaut go by should raise one question repeatedly. Where are the parents? Why are they appealing to government to inculcate proper values into their children? Why are politicians being asked to exercise what is rightfully parental control? The games being targeted by law-makers have been clearly rated so that parents know them at a glance. Why aren’t parents opening their eyes and taking responsibility for their own children?

September 12, 2000

Wendy McElroy is author of The Reasonable Woman. See more of her work at and at her personal website.

Wendy McElroy Archives