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Friday, April 11, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Commentary

No video game can make someone violent

Seattle Times staff reporter

What do you think?


We're interested in your opinions about video games, their content and what regulation, if any, they should fall under. What have been your experiences, or those of your children? Please send your responses to: talktous@seattletimes.com.

I have the makings of a killer, by some accounts. The training, at the very least.

Spent countless hours bumping pedestrians into early graves, spraying enemy soldiers with lead, inflicting grisly compound fractures on brawl opponents. It was only in video games, mature-rated "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City," "Return to Castle Wolfenstein" and "Tao Feng: Fist of the Lotus." But add a childhood filled with violent TV — loved "The Wild Wild West" — and some people might be surprised at the self-restraint I've shown in real life.

But hey, it's still early.

A bill on the way to becoming a law in Washington state would make it illegal to sell kids the kinds of games that the bill's backers say lead to real violence. It would make selling M-rated games to those under 17 a Class 1 civil infraction with a penalty of up to $500. It awaits a Senate floor vote after passing unanimously in the Children & Family Services & Corrections Committee last week. It passed in the House March 18 by an 81-16 vote.

One prominent expert witness, Florida attorney Jack Thompson, said he's testifying here "on behalf of victims killed by kids who trained on these murder simulators," and refers to "children now dead because of these games."

These days I'm no kid, and it's part of my job to play the games and write about them — as well as lay out the facts and extract their meaning. The bill is unsupported by research, the issue more clouded with rhetoric than a WWE Smackdown. But beliefs and assertions carry the weight of facts in a field so young, and that's troubling when they become the basis for law.

Some facts:

• The average age of a video-game player is 28.

• Only 13.2 percent of all video games sold in 2002 were rated M.

• Adults are present 83 percent of the time during the sale of video games, either buying them or accompanying their kids.

• Children buy only 15 percent of games on their own.

The sum of all those numbers is that we're hardly looking at an epidemic of inappropriate game purchases.

That hasn't stopped politicians. California Democrat Rep. Joe Baca's "Protect Children from Video Game Sex and Violence Act of 2003," would make selling M-rated games to minors a federal crime, with even harsher penalties: $1,000 the first time and not less than $5,000 afterward. A previous version of the bill died in committee, and that's where the current one is at the moment.

When I spoke to 36th District Democratic Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, the bill's author, before the ESHB 1009 hearing in Olympia, she declined to defend attorney Thompson's statement that kids are dead because of video games, even though she's the one who invited him.

(Thompson has said that "Halo" publisher Microsoft should be sued and held liable for money damages by victims of the Beltway Snipers; the two accused of the shootings said they practiced with it. His suit blaming game manufacturers in part for a 1997 Paducah, Ky., school shooting was dismissed. Continuing that legal trend, a separate class-action suit against game companies for the 1999 Columbine High School massacre was also tossed out.)

But Dickerson said, "I believe that in some cases they can absolutely be a factor, one of many factors. But there have been some recent crime sprees that have absolutely linked video games with crimes such as murder.

"How much a part of those actual killings did video games play? I don't know. But I think that police around the country are connecting the dots, and I think it's true that they can play a role."

Dickerson holds a master's degree in social work and has worked with at-risk teens. "And I know that these games are interactive, and they use points to reinforce behavior. Kids are especially vulnerable to that."

She contends that's a crucial difference between video games and more passive entertainment such as film. And, she said, "There have been 35 studies in the last couple of years that show a definite link between ultraviolent video games and real harm to children."

In fact, research on the subject is all over the board, and people on either side of the debate can find studies that support them. But this is from a May 2000 broad review of the research:

"At present, it may be concluded that the research evidence is not supportive of a major public concern that violent video games lead to real-life violence."

That's from a source close to Dickerson, at least geographically: the Washington State Department of Health Office of Epidemiology. (Those researchers allow that their conclusion could change down the line, as more research and increasingly violent/realistic games come out.)

No less than then-Surgeon General David Satcher reached a similar conclusion in his major 2001 roundup, "Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General."

"We clearly associate media violence to aggressive behavior," he told a news conference after releasing the report. "But the impact was very small compared to other things. Some may not be happy with that, but that's where the science is."

The fact, then, is that there's nothing even close to a scientific consensus to support ESHB 1009. But ratings awareness and enforcement do need improvement.

Rep. Dickerson cites a Mothers Against Violence in America sting, in which 12 out of 13 retailers sold M-rated games to minors. That's consistent with the Federal Trade Commission's 2000 survey, in which 85 percent of underage teens were able to buy M-rated games as well as music with explicit-labeled warnings; while 54 percent got into R-rated movies, which isn't a crime despite 35 years of MPAA film ratings.

That's where parents should come in. The Surgeon General said, "preliminary data point to the potentially vital role of parents in supervising their children's exposure to violent media and in helping them interpret it." So shouldn't that be mom and dad's responsibility?

"How did I know you'd ask that?" Dickerson said.

"Parents are asking us. The PTA is asking us to help them. Because just as parents don't want retailers to sell beer or wine to their children or tobacco to our children because it's bad for them, they're saying 'Help us. Don't make this stuff available to our kids.' Parents absolutely do need to take responsibility, but in society today, you and I both know that it's pretty easy for kids to go next door and get hold of something that parents won't allow them to have."

However, alcohol and tobacco are drugs with objectively indisputable effects. Anyhow, the makers of Xbox have taken a significant step in the right direction by adding parental controls to the game console.

This last one you can add to the short list of Constant Truths: No video game has ever made anyone do anything violent. Ever. Not Columbine, not Paducah, not the Beltway Snipers, not so much as a wedgie.

The reasons are free will and responsibility, and they tend to go ignored in the crossfire.

Why don't you hear about this sort of problem as much in Japan — which loves video games and gore films even more? Satcher and other experts say one factor may be the easier access to guns here.

But it's also because America has a proud tradition of citizens who won't accept personal responsibility for their behavior or their children's, and who blame media influences for their own actions. There are innumerable influences on us throughout life, but we can't be programmed by them like, well, characters in a video game. It's always our choice to act on them or not, and we can never be free from the responsibility for making those choices — no matter how many times we may have whacked a "Vice City" victim or a "Halo" adversary. If we don't have that kind of free will, life is meaningless.

It's a nasty habit of not just scapegoating others for our behavior but suing them for it. And it's always the new stuff that pushes technology and social mores. Video games are just the latest in that perpetual cycle. (Really perpetual: Plato wasn't crazy about the influence of music, and he hadn't even heard Eminem.)

The grieving, outraged and frustrated have always sought targets; the guilty look for excuses. But MTV's "Jackass" doesn't make kids try dangerous stunts. Listening to Marilyn Manson doesn't make anyone commit suicide. Watching "Natural Born Killers" doesn't make people go on mayhem sprees. Reading comic books doesn't seduce the innocent into juvenile delinquency. And this just in: That devilish rock 'n' roll music don't get all up into your loins and make you get pregnant.

When it comes to dangerous behavior there'll always be something new to blame, but the only way to die from a video game is by getting bludgeoned with a game cartridge. Anyone for the Anti-Video Game Bludgeoning Act of 2004?

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

Correction: ESHB 1009 would make it illegal to sell or rent an M-rated game to minors which depicts violence against a public law-enforcement officer. The story said the Washington bill would apply to all M-rated games, as a federal bill cited would.

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