Video games have become an undeniable part of our entertainment culture. The gaming industry continues to grow and is gradually appealing to a wider and wider audience. Millions of video game consoles are sold every year and the same can be said of the multitude of games that are accessible for those consoles. But not all games sell millions-- some barely make it to the million mark. Strangely, the recent trend, at first glance, appears to have violent video games dominating the market. Many people gravitate to the games with violent content-- Grand Theft Auto IV and Gears of War to name just a pair-- when searching for a new entertainment experience on their video game platforms. However, the focus in the morality debate surrounding violent video games has settled around children playing games rated "M" for Mature. In recent years, a great movement to target the developers and publishers of such games has attempted to bring about a change. This attack surprisingly, aims at forcing these kinds of games from even being made.
Developers and publishers of video games are, respectively, the companies that design and create the games and market and release the created games for sale. In the United States in particular, the focus of criticism falls on them. Companies like Rockstar Games, most known for its Grand Theft Auto series, have come under direct fire from high-powered moral critics. But are the developers and publishers of violent video games the groups that should be focused on?
University of Calgary professor Dr. Jim Parker has been involved in game design and development, researching the design process and creating innovative games in the Digital Media Laboratory at the U of C since 1998.
Parker says the assumption built in the previous years that games with some violent content are synonymous with games in general is false.
"Violent games are a niche market," he explains. "It is not the majority market, it's quite the contrary. A relatively small percent of games are [rated M], 15 per cent maybe."
He says violent games make up a very small corner of the gaming industry overall, and though they are often successful, they are by no means the most popular.
"The really popular games are games like the Sims, which is the most popular one in the market," he adds.
The Sims, which is rated "T" for Teen by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, is a hugely successful game franchise. As of April 2008, The Sims 2 has sold over 100 million copies worldwide. Though violent games are popular, none have come even close to the popularity of the non-violent Sims franchise.
For the violent game market however, the fact that there is a rating system in place as sufficient enough warning for consumers.
"As far as they're concerned, the 'M' on the box is good enough and, frankly, there's something to be said about that," Parker says.
The Entertainment Software Ratings Board assigns classifications to games to determine which age group they are suitable for and these ratings have been successful for the industry. Not only have they inspired developers to eliminate some controversial content, they also serve as a means to deflect criticism should children play them.
"You can now say, 'Well, we told you it was M,' " Parker says. "I think that's reasonably accurate. A lot of game developers think 'M' is the kiss of death for their game, so they struggle to get [a rating of] 'T' or below."
Parker notes, though the ratings do tone down content, the controversy is not just about the content itself, but what it means for the gamer.
"The designer builds into the game the goals," he explains. "In order to win a video game, you have to adopt the morality of the game designer. In other words, a game designer says, 'Right, in order to win this game you have to kill prostitutes.' Well, that's what you have to do to win the game."
But should it really be the game developers that receive the brunt of criticism for how it affects children playing? Not necessarily. Parker says parents are the first line for defence.
"Parents should understand better how video games really affect their children and they don't," he says. "Media affects people. [They] tend to oversimplify things by saying, 'It's obvious that...' or, 'Anyone can see that this game will affect their child in this way.' "
While certain developers continue to create violent games, Parker say the access to these games should primarily be the responsibility of the parent.
"Parents have to pay attention," he says. "They've got to watch. If you send your kid to a 14A-rated movie and your kid is 12, the theatre is supposed to keep them out. But there's some variation in ages and they can't always tell. So let's face it, that's not going to work. You've got to pay attention."
The big question in this debate is whether violent games are truly as pervasive and dangerous as many are made to believe. Parker says the bottom line of the current gaming climate is surprising.
"The truth is-- and this is a big truth-- if video games and violence in them affects children negatively, then why is youth violence at an all-time low after 20 years of video games?" he asks. "It doesn't make sense."
If violent video games possess very negative influences as the strongest critics claim, it still remains that violent games are a small segment of the overall market. Ultimately, whether or not these games should be created is not the question; it's how the impact of these games is perceived by the public.