November 11, 2016—The cause and effect relationship between art and culture has been a long-debated topic. Does art depict what actually exists in our culture, or does the art dictate what exists. It’s a classic chicken/egg debate. And this ongoing debate occasionally rears its head in the video game space in the form of criticisms, and even lawsuits, suggesting that violence in video games begets violence in real life. There are loud voices on either side of this debate.
Perhaps the most famous video game violence lawsuit came after the Columbine school shooting tragedy. In that case survivors of a teacher that was shot and killed by Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris sued a bunch of media sources, including video game companies Acclaim Entertainment, Activision, Apogee Software, Atari, Capcom Entertainment, Eidos Interactive, ID Software, Nintendo, Sega, and Sony claiming that they were liable for having manufactured and supplied violent video games which included Mortal Kombat, Wolfenstien, Mech Warrior, Nightmare Creatures, Doom, Resident Evil, Final Fantasy, and Quake. According to the Complaint, these games “made violence pleasurable and attractive and disconnected the violence from the natural consequences thereof, thereby causing Harris and Klebold to act out the violence… and trained them how to point and shoot a gun effectively without teaching either of them any of the constraints, responsibilities, or consequences necessary to inhibit such an extremely dangerous killing capacity.” Interestingly, the lawsuit sought $5 billion in damages, while the families of the victims had reached a $2.5 million settlement with those responsible for providing the real life guns used. The Court dismissed the claims after concluding, among other things, that “there is no basis for determining that violence would be considered the likely consequence of exposure to video games or movies” and “imposing liability would “burden these Defendants’ First Amendment rights to freedom of expression.” See Sanders v. Acclaim Entertainment, Inc., 188 F. Supp. 2d 1264 (D. Colo. 2002). The Sanders lawsuit was filed in 2001 and was actually the second lawsuit that accused video game manufacturers of being responsible for school shootings. The first was filed in 1997 and related to the Heath School Shooting in Kentucky. Since those lawsuits, there have been other various legal skirmishes arising primarily from efforts to limit access to such games. Those efforts have generally resulted in the laws being found unconstitutional.
There have been various studies over the years concluding that violence in video games or other media do not cause real world violence. Erik Kain at Mother Jones has done a fairly exhaustive summary of the science. However, as with a lot of issues in our society, science doesn’t necessarily end the debate. Notably, according to the Kain article, President-elect Trump previously tweeted that “Video game violence & glorification must be stopped–it’s creating monsters!” We can reasonably expect that video games will be part of the debate anytime people are looking for reasons behind an incomprehensible tragedy. That may ultimately result in a misguided effort to regulate the gaming industry, but for now, the science and the courts are against this.