A 13-year-old turns on a computer screen, presses a couple of keys, and watches a virtual man, woman, or child explode into virtual gore. Another flips a joystick and watches a man steal a car in tandem with the button-pressing. These images are tied to the pop culture understanding of the video games available to our youths. They tie in to a bigger question that occasionally finds its way into the media: Should violent video games be banned?
To some organizations, the answer seems obvious. The American Psychological Association has a hard stance on this issue: They claim that meta-analysis of scientific studies on video game violence show a correlation between exposure to violent video games and aggressive behaviour. This doesn’t mean that each individual who plays Mortal Kombat is going to go and rip a person’s skull out of its socket; it means that after exposure to a violent video game, a person is more likely to act aggressively or do violence. The APA also claims that those who are naturally aggressive are more affected by this side effect than are those who are naturally passive—that is, those already prone to violent crime are most affected by violent games. This seems damning for gamers everywhere.
If this were the only factor to consider, if we were to ignore the broader cultural implications of banning violent video games, it would be quite obvious what governments should do. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your mindset, there is a lot more to the debate than the effects of the games on the individuals who consume them. There is also the question of where video games fit into our world’s long history of censorship.
Traditionally, censorship has mainly been a problem for the artists, politicians, and philosophers; where do video games fit into the mess? One answer is that some of the most violent video games qualify as artistic on one level or another. The number of artists involved in the development of a video game is quite spectacular—from writers to composers to sketch artists to actors, the modern video game is replete with artistry of all forms. This complicates the question of banning video games. Even if the games themselves are not art, there may be valid artistic expression inside them on one level or another.
Another major complication is the comparison to the extremely negative effects of other legal products. How do the aggressive side effects of violent video games compare to the aggressive side effects of alcohol abuse? Is the increased aggression associated with extreme violent video game consumption worse than the negative side effects of tobacco smoke? For the sake of consistency, shouldn’t a government ban all of the supposed dangers or none of them?
Now we find ourselves at an impasse. Do we fight for these freedoms or for mental health?