TW: Discussion of video-game violence and sexual assault
Violent video games have been under scrutiny ever since the release of Death Race in 1976. Their depictions of murder, maiming, dismemberment or sexual assault fuelled many campaigns for regulation. As graphics become ever more realistic, fears over the influence of violent games continue to rise, so much so that an Illinois Senator is trying to ban them completely.
HB3531, an amendment to Illinois’ Violent Video Games Law in the Criminal Code of 2021, was introduced by State Representative Marcus Evans Jr in response to an increase in car jackings in Chicago. The amendment will prohibit the sale of all violent video games to anyone, minor or adult.
Evans hopes his bill will “prohibit the sale of some of these games that promote the activities that we’re suffering from”
The bill also expands the definition of ‘violent video game’ to include any that “allow a user or player to control a character within the video game that is encouraged to perpetuate human-on-human violence in which the player causes serious physical or psychological harm to another human or animal”. This includes all types of abuse, animal or human, and motor vehicle theft with a passenger/driver present.
Evans’ intentions stem from his interactions with Early Walker, a Chicago resident behind the state’s Operation Safe Pump campaign. Walker highlighted concerning similarities between the video game franchise Grand Theft Auto and Chicago’s recent car jackings – of which there were approximately 218 in January alone. Evans hopes his bill will “prohibit the sale of some of these games that promote the activities that we’re suffering from in our communities”.
Many people, businesses, and organisations responded with outrage and concern: Individuals on social media compared the games to violent movies, and highlighting more pressing issues like the current pandemic and gun violence.
Meanwhile, the ESA (Entertainment Software Association) released a statement regarding the legislation:
“While our industry understands and shares the concerns about what has been happening in Chicago, there simply is no evidence of a link between interactive entertainment and real-world violence. We believe the solution to this complex problem resides in examining thoroughly the actual factors that drive such behaviors rather than erroneously ascribing blame to video games based solely upon speculation”.
Most responses to HB3531 are strongly negative but deciding whether the legislation will be passed is now up to state legislators.
Illinois’s legislature is bicameral. In other words, the legislative body has two chambers. The bill must be approved by the House of Representatives and Senate before progressing to the judicial branch and ultimately, the Supreme Court. It’s a long, confusing process, and the amendment can be vetoed by multiple parties. This process is outlined in more detail by this flow chart.
A Cycle of Controversies
This isn’t the first time violent games were the subject of political and legal scrutiny. They were controversial the moment they hit the market. Death Race caused public outcry for using sound effects and gravestones when players ran over humanoid figures, and was taken off the market by its manufacturers.
Interactive movie game Night Trap was removed from stores in response to a joint Senate Judiciary and Government Affairs Committee in 1993 due to extreme violence and sexual content. In the same year, the influence of Mortal Kombat along with Night Trap and Doom was debated in Congressional Hearings. This prompted them to form the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. The ESRB regulates the gaming industry in the US and ensures content is marketed and sold to appropriate ages.
statements that violent games … “encourage people to engage in illegal, immoral, sexist, and violent acts” aren’t supported by current research
The arguments supporting Evans’ legislation eerily echo the very first video game lawsuit in 1999, led by anti-video games activist and (now disbarred) attorney Jack Thompson. He represented the parents of three children killed in a 1997 school, shooting, and claimed that violent games caused violence perpetrated by teens. Thompson had evidence that the shooter, Michael Carneal, spent most of his time playing violent games, including Doom.
The battle between lawmakers and violent games pressed on. 2003’s Protect Children from Video Game Sex and Violence Act made selling violent games to minors a crime in the US. 2005’s Entertainment Software Ass’n v. Blagojevich case saw the Northern District of Illinois grant a permanent injunction against enforcing the Violent Video Game and Sexually Explicit Video Game laws. This was then appealed the following year. In 2011 California’s law restricting the sale and distribution of games was ruled unconstitutional, and video games were protected under the First Amendment.
And throughout it all GTA faced a slew of lawsuits for its violent and sexually explicit content.
Hysteria and Scapegoating
In most of these lawsuits and legislations video games came out on top. How? Their victory comes not solely from the protection of free speech. It also stems from the lack of evidence supporting a correlation between violent behaviour and violent games.
Researchers Lawrence Kutner, PhD, and Cheryl Olson, ScD, assert statements that violent games “make children violent” or “encourage people to engage in illegal, immoral, sexist, and violent acts” aren’t supported by current research. Irrational fear causes people to draw connections between violence and video games. It is these fears that are behind the introduction of HB3531.
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