Video game controversy

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Video games have been a subject of debate and controversy in much the same way as other media forms have been. Controversy in the 1950s about comic books led to the instution of the Comics Code Authority in the United States. The rise of home video systems in the 1980s led to scares about "video nasties" and the institution of censorship regimes for video. The concern and controversy about video games comes from many sources: public opinion, the popular press, politicians and even some academics. Some of the controversies regarding video games can be categorised as moral panics.

The controversy around video games concerns a number of factors. Firstly, violent content and depictions of criminality in video game has been thought by some to be dangerous in that it might make players more prone to commit violent, criminal, anti-social or undesirable activities. This is exarcabated by the fact that players of games, unlike those watching a movie, are actively participating in the violence. Many more are concerned by the addictive nature of video games and the extended time that many take to play. This has been blamed for physical inactivity and obesity amongst video game players. In South Korea, some players of online games like StarCraft and World of Warcraft have died after playing for extended periods.[1] Some video games depict sexual scenarios, which some find concerning for the same reason they find them concerning in other forms of media. Finally, some are concerned by the possibility of a drop in attention span amongst video gamers and those who consume large quantities of electronic media.

Early video games often had little that people might find concerning in the same way that later games do. Pong, Space Invaders, Galaga and Pacman. As the power of computers and gaming systems has advanced, it has been possible to produce much higher quality of video graphics and to have a music and sound effects that are the same quality as the audio used in movies. As 3D graphical realism has been perfected, the critique of video games by those concerned about depictions of violence has become more relevant, in the same way that a Quentin Tarantino movie might concern people more than a silent movie.

Unlike movies, there is a perception that video games are primarily for younger players. This was once true, but doesn't hold in current times. During the 8-bit and 16-bit era of video games - the time of Nintendo's NES and SNES and Sega's Genesis and Master System - gaming was primarily the preserve of under eighteens, but with the arrival of 32-bit consoles and since, gaming became more popular with those over eighteen. The teenagers playing on 8-bit and 16-bit consoles also grew up and didn't stop playing games. The terminology 'game' also makes it seem like video games are made for a younger audience. A movie can be aimed at adults – pornography specifically, but violent and sexual-themed movies can also be intended for a mature audience. Games struggle with this because of the perception that games are played by and intended for children and teenagers rather than adults. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the industry body representing game manufacturers in the United States, the average age of game players is thirty-five.[2]

This perception – considered fallacious by many – that video games are for children has prompted many into finding controversy in video games where none would be found for the exact same message being depicted in any other media or art form. For some, this feeling that games are only for children and entertainment has been blamed for the fact that games have yet to reach the status of art. This feeling is described well in the Artist's Statement that accompanies Super Columbine Massacre RPG!:

Thus far, video games have been relegated to escapist entertainment—an industry known best for little blue hedgehogs and plucky mustached plumbers bouncing about in fantasy worlds. There is little in the realm of socially conscious gaming—software that does more than merely amuse for a few idle hours. Yet while some low-selling games offer pedagogical education (in geography, math, etc.), games that genuinely challenge social taboos or confront real cultural issues are nearly non-existent.[3]


A number of different models of media consumption have been proposed and have direct bearing on the controversies regarding video games. These include:

  • the hypodermic needle model which proposes that violent (or sexual, political etc.) content directly affects the consumer of the media in question. Under this model, people consume the media in question which triggers them to copy the acts depicted.
  • the use and gratification model which proposes that consumers of media seek out that media and use it to serve and gratify their own needs.
  • reception theory posits that meaning is not an inherent component in the media texts but is dependent in some sense on the viewer, listener or player of the media and their personal background.

Some critics of video games seem to implicitly assume that the hypodermic needle model is correct, while those who defend video games point to how for many people violent video games serve as a way to let out violent feelings in a controlled environment - the video games are much like a punching bag or a stress ball rather than like a training school for violence.


Violent games have been available for a long time but the graphical realism has made them more popular since the rise of 32-bit console games and the equivalently aged PC games. As in movies, violence can be used for both positive and negative ends. In the stealth game Metal Gear Solid violence is used, but it is used for a noble military aim: to prevent a group of terrorists from taking charge of a high-tech robotic machine capable of launching nuclear weapons. The Grand Theft Auto series uses violence for quite the opposite role: as part of criminal actions, and often just to cause havoc for fun. The Between these two extremes lie a great deal of violence in games – violence for neither good nor bad reasons. This may mean shooters like the Doom franchise or fighting games like Street Fighter franchise.

Critics of video games have pointed to numerous murders: Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had played Doom and, when planning the massacre at Columbine High, compared it to playing Doom.


Video games can and have depicted a wide variety aspects of romance and sexuality. Many video games often depict a wholesome and budding romantic relationships untainted by sexuality. Many do quite the opposite, but the number of games which have sexuality as a primary element is quite small. Critics of video games have pointed to the unhealthy relationship the player of the Grand Theft Auto games has with prostitutes during the game: indeed, pointing out that one can have sex with a prostitute and then run her down to retrieve the cash you paid for sex.

One source of particular controversy are games like RapeLay and other video game simulators which allow players to engage in virtual rape (including gang rape), sexual assault and forced abortion. Following complaints, RapeLay was removed from[4]


  1. John Anderson, Spot On: Korea reacts to increase in game addiction
  2. Entertainment Software Association, Industry Facts
  3. Super Columbine Massacre RPG! Artist's Statement: A Meditation on Super Columbine Massacre RPG!
  4. Matthew Moore, Rapelay virtual rape game banned by Amazon, Daily Telegraph.