Feature: Video Games, Violence, Sales, and the Culture of Journalism

PrintE-mail Written by Kyle Moody

At a time when video games are under fire by social forces, it’s more important than ever for journalists to actively portray video games with truth and context. Naming titles is one way, but performing actual journalism? That’s a change I’d like to see. 

By now you've probably seen how various people have been linking video games and violence, particularly in the wake of the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary on December 14. Again, many pundits are claiming that video games are largely responsible for inspiring the shooting, from the NRA to Fox News. While I don’t agree with this statement, the sheer number of sites that have been driving this conversation have me concerned, especially due to their inability to actually cite the titles of games in their conversation. This is a multi-faceted problem that we’re going to examine with due detail.

I’m glad that there exists a plurality of voices in this argument today. When Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris committed the horrific murders in Columbine in 1999, the overwhelming pubic campaign against violent games drowned out any other logical voices. In 2013, it should be easier than ever to see that blaming video games for violence and aggression is part of a larger social problem, but the microphone offered by constant media exposure is louder than ever. And the voices that are being heard, the ones that we trust, are often wrong about this topic.

Today, we’re seeing a difference in the types of coverage that are offered regarding this topic, but there’s still a scary form of media bias that exists regarding video games, and it’s because most journalists don’t understand a thing about video games.

They don’t know how they work. They don’t know how they operate. They don’t know why people like them. All they recognize is a surface-level assessment, and usually that assessment focuses on the graphical fidelity, in-game content, and portrayals of violence and conflict. And Sandy Hook is only the latest link in this ongoing struggle between journalism and understanding.

For one, an awful trend that’s swept through journalism on gaming in mainstream media outlets is the inability to actually give the names of said violent video games. For most writers, it doesn’t matter what games are involved, so many times titles will be left out of the stories or will be knowingly wrong. Recently, Kotaku writer Owen Good wrote a scathing op-ed about journalists being culpable in this blame culture by not actually giving specific game titles when they’re reporting on objectionable content in games. According to Good, mainstream news overindulgence of murderer and mentally ill person Adam Lanza’s connection to Call of Duty is evidence of this lack of connection.

“That's what's driving the current conversation, where the president and vice president are calling for federal research into the effect of violent video games on kids, as a response to a mass shooting incident. This connection is made through one statement and one statement only: a quote attributed to a plumber who had done work in the Lanza home.”

This is absolutely true. Most of the comments I’ve seen in regards to violence and video games has been sloppy at best, speculation made by persons without any clear evidence of existing games or the cycle of game releases. Think back to the now-infamous NRA press conference where Wayne LaPierre blamed the “shadow industries” of Hollywood and video games for shooting deaths. Bulletstorm, Mortal Kombat, and Grand Theft Auto were among the titles that he mentioned as being most culpable in the culture of violence in the United States, yet he failed to mention that the NRA had its own video game available for release. He also failed to mention more current titles that gamers would be more likely to play, such as Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, and Temple Run, along with the current king of the AAA game mountain Call of Duty.

According to actual reports, Lanza was more enamored with Dance Dance Revolution. Not exactly linked to the typical reporting of violent game titles by the NRA or mainstream media outlets. Moreover, friends of Lanza stated that his closest obsession in video gaming was the title Dynasty Warriors, which is a Japanese action game that takes place in the feudal era of the country, is largely bloodless in its violence, and veers perilously close to camp in its narrative. Don’t believe me? Watch the video below (Not for fans of quality voice acting):

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Not exactly fitting within the portrayal of video games by politicians or many media pundits, is it? Knowing Lanza played Dynasty Warriors and understanding why the game is ridiculous is one way of understanding why this argument doesn’t hold sway in this case. That didn’t stop The Express from attempting to portray this game as another of the violent pieces that formed the puzzle of Adam Lanza. They treated the game as an answer when the question and framing was already wrong, and readers that could see the game in action would know it to be false.

Other news outlets avoided this game title altogether. Since Dynasty Warriors is not as identifiable or easily stereotyped as games like Call of Duty, it was easily left out of the conversation. But still, games were brought up as a valid stimulus for Lanza’s actions, and the titles didn’t matter. When faced with this quandary, Good brings up the following point:

“That's why names are important. It helps readers verify the accusations made against them and the credibility of those making them.”

Another reason for this inability of journalists to list proper game titles is the need for hits and the laziness of content creation. Let’s move to a time before the Sandy Hook shootings and focus on an equally abhorrent set of crimes perpetrated by the killer and by the “journalist” covering the story. Please be warned that the details of the crime are gruesome and not for the faint of heart.

On August 17, 2010, 18 year-old Tyler Savage baited 16 year-old Kimberly "Kimmie" Daily to a brushy area near his house in Puyallup, Washington. Daily, a developmentally-disabled female, tried to leave after 15 to 20 minutes, at which point Savage attacked her from behind and choked her to death. Savage stripped her of her clothes, sexually molested her corpse, carried her into a patch of brambles, and put her bicycle on top of her.

Tyler Savage

It’s a sickening crime, but coverage of the story varied across outlets and was disgusting on a different level. Besides the sexual assault and murder of a young, developmentally disabled girl, Savage was accused of playing Dungeons & Dragons. Joel Moreno of the Seattle PI wrote the attention-grabbing headline “Detectives: Murder motive may have been video game fantasy.” In it, Moreno links a game to Savage’s actions, but it’s referred to as “a violent fantasy from Dungeons and Dragons.” It’s actually Dungeons and Dragons Online that Savage was playing, which is important as Dungeons and Dragons is a wide-ranging fantasy and intellectual property based on its humble origins as a role-playing dice and card game. But you wouldn’t know it based on Moreno’s story. Instead, he throws bones like this to an angry mob searching for an answer to this crime:

“The video game theory comes from something Tyler Savage said to investigators. He talked about playing a video game to cope with what he’d just done. Detectives now want to know if that game somehow became his point of reference on reality.”

Only in secondary/supporting paragraphs, and at the very end, do we see the following “disclaimer” written:

“Savage’s defense attorney calls the video game connection pure speculation and a rush to judgment. ‘What if there’s a chemical or organic imbalance or something physically wrong, identifiably medically wrong with his brain that caused this to happen?’ said defense attorney Jay Berneburg.”

Why is it written like this? Because Moreno gets to have his cake both ways. He gets the hits caused by linking a murder to video games, and he also gets to trumpet his incredible “journalism” skills. People can scan the headline and come to a conclusion about the content and news, while invested readers will be able to locate a crumb of “objectivity” in his piece.

Mike Fahey of dedicated gaming news site Kotaku offered a stronger form of journalism in his follow-up story “Detectives Explore Video Game Fantasy as Motive for Brutal Teen Murder.” The reason why Fahey’s story is better? Look at that description of the crime that I used above. All of those details came from the Kotaku piece, not the Seattle PI story. Quite frankly, Fahey’s story provides greater details and information. It’s gory, descriptive, and factually accurate regarding the game being played, along with its actual link to the crime Savage committed:

“(Savage) then told investigators he went home and played Dungeons and Dragons Online to help him forget about what he had done.”

Fahey’s story is a much deeper read than what was offered by the Seattle PI link. He explores the statements made by authorities, Savage’s defense lawyer, and Savage’s acquaintances. Fahey defines what D&D Online is for readers, noting “It bears noting to those not familiar with the game that it does not involve overt depictions of choking or rape.” He also reaches out to game developer Turbine for a comment, and none was given.

Dungeons and Dragons Online

Screenshot from Dungeons & Dragons Online

Reasons for the connection between the game and Savage’s brutal crime varies, but none of those interviewed outwardly blame the game for the murder. In fact, according to Fahey:

“Investigators are making one thing perfectly clear: They aren't looking to blame the video game for the crime. They're simply trying to understand what makes a teenager with no prior criminal record suddenly commit such a heinous crime.”

So why does this narrative exist? Think back to how I talked about Columbine. Even though Dave Cullen provided the definitive text on Klebold and Harris’s actions in his excellent book Columbine, there are still educators and media pundits who believe the shooting was tied to Doom. This blame game has occurred repeatedly over the years with varying topics, from sex and Mass Effect to homophobia and Bully to rape within the context of pirated games.

Today, if you perform a cursory Google search of “violence and video games” you can find Senator Charles “Chuck” Grassley (R.-Iowa) saying “There are too many video games that celebrate the mass killing of people" during a Senate meeting on gun violence. Furthermore, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) responded with this bromide when asked by Chuck Todd about background checks for gun sales. “Chuck, I'm going to wait and see on all of these bills. You know, I think video games is [sic] a bigger problem than guns, because video games affect people.”

But there is hope coming from the news and coverage over the past seven weeks since the shooting occurred. A number of video game news outlets have given outstanding professional and personal insight into this debate, offering news reports on studies linking violent actions to exposure to violent video games. Sites like IGN, Kotaku, and Eurogamer have been instrumental to this changing of the violent games debate. IGN editor-in-chief Casey Lynch gathered many of his gaming journalism peers together for a fantastic multi-part examination of violence and gaming culture, and his views on the role of violence in games and his conversation with Gamasutra’s Chris Graft are required reading.

The work of gaming website Polygon in this violent games debate is another example of excellent journalism that has pushed the medium forward. Their story on a Connecticut town that was holding a drive to collect and destroy violent video games in order to "inspire" a "conversation" about violence and media exposure was the most comprehensive and thoughtful piece on the topic. Fortunately, Dr. Christopher J. Ferguson, the chair of Texas A&M International University's department of Psychology and Communication, spoke out about this specific drive and is citing his research as well as that of others to show, in spite of what the game-destroying group cites as "ample evidence that games contribute to aggression," that there is "no evidence linking video game violence to bullying or any other forms of youth aggression or violence. Past research has been mixed, at best, and often weakened by substantial methodological flaws." In the end, the town decided to not hold the campaign, stating that “the conversation was already occurring.”

Furthermore, game developers are making themselves answerable to an extent that is unprecedented. Gamasutra, a site that focuses on the technical side of development, has offered a variety of useful links and discussions for both sides of the debate within the development circles. But game development is a slowly changing industry that’s hidden behind unspoken ethical codes and PR red tape that prevents many journalists from gaining access to the people that would be able to offer insight into specific narratives. Read Eurogamer’s Simon Parkin’s amazing inside story on the link between weapons manufacturers and the developers who must pay a licensing fee to use their “brands” in their games. Too many developers and publishers hide behind the “no comment” wall to really offer insight that would benefit the industry.

This is one of the reasons I teach a course on video games and journalism at The University of Iowa, and I’ve been lucky enough to work with a variety of gaming journalists and able professors to make this course adhere to the professional boundaries of journalism. At the end of the day, all that’s different about these students would be the medium that they are covering, which requires an understanding of core skills and applicable cultural knowledge that should be used while writing. Based on the overwhelmingly popular reception to the course and the willingness of journalists, developers and legislators to have a truly honest conversation about this topic, I’d say that the tide is legitimately turning in the favor of people beginning to take this topic seriously.

But it’s an uphill battle facing the industry, and one that’s not going to be easy to win. Very recently, CNN host Erin Burnett attempted to have decorated psychologist William Pollock link violent, M-rated games to incidents of gun violence.

Pollock, while condemning these games for their “disgusting” content, did not agree with her assessment, but nevertheless the damage was done. One more talking head that can propagate this belief without understanding what games actually are or how they function is more damaging than ever to the credibility of this industry.

It’s time journalists actually took a stand and did their job. Understanding how video games operate and reading the actual research on the topic is one important way. Another way that journalists should actually cite the games that they believe are linked to violence. By taking these steps, I believe that journalism can actually become credible again when dealing with issues related to gaming. Otherwise, there’s going to be an uncomfortable divide between those who know the answers to the questions, and those whose answers will continue to propagate the lies that have informed this cultural stigma.

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