Obama Wants More Violent Video Game Studies, and That’s Okay

As defensive as I am about video games, and my right to enjoy them like any other form of speech, I draw the line at declaring we don't need any more knowledge.

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Carolyn Kaster / AP

President Barack Obama, accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden, gestures as he talks about proposals to reduce gun violence, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, in the South Court Auditorium at the White House in Washington.

Here’s an interesting fact that came out of the recent debate over gun control: Thanks to the U.S. Congress, the government has been unable to fully research firearm safety for the last 16 years.

In 1996, as Reuters tells it, the National Rifle Association pressured lawmakers into cutting $2.6 million worth of Centers for Disease Control funding, which was being used for firearms research. Congress later restored the funds, but with a restriction on any research that “may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” Apparently the NRA had been dismissing past studies as “anti-gun propaganda,” but it’s hard to see the group as anything but afraid of what we might learn through more research.

Now that President Obama wants Congress to fund research into violent video games, I’m sad to see a parallel among some of my fellow gamers and game journalists, who think the government should just leave games alone.

“Dear Mr. President, We are not ignorant about the relationship between media including videogames and violence. Studies show there isn’t one,” Garnett Lee, Editorial Director of GameFly Media, wrote on Twitter.

“No matter how many studies show no links, it’ll never be seen as a reason to not fund another one,” Wired Editor Chris Kohler wrote.

Sorry, but I can’t join in on this collective freak out. For as defensive as I am about video games, and my right to enjoy them like any other form of speech, I draw the line at declaring we don’t need any more knowledge.

True, there isn’t much strong evidence to prove that violent video games make children violent in the real world. That’s why, in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to let California outlaw the sale of violent games to minors. The state didn’t have enough evidence to prove that violent video games cause violence — certainly not more than any other media — so just like the movie and music industries, the video game industry gets to regulate itself. It uses its own ratings system, and retailers take it upon themselves not to sell mature-rated games to minors. They happen to do an extremely good job, too, according to the FTC.

But just because existing research doesn’t link violent games with violent behavior doesn’t mean we know everything there is to know about how these games affect us. Just today, Kotaku published a lengthy story on everything we do know from violent games research. One of the most surprising takeaways: hardly anyone has studied whether video games are bigger primers for aggression than non-interactive media, such as movies. As Polygon reports, the CDC has supported violent media research before, and believes there’s more work to be done. We shouldn’t be afraid of that.

We also shouldn’t be afraid of the implications. There is a serious debate to be had about whether a certain level of media violence — I’m talking really gruesome, depraved stuff — deserves the same type of classification as pornography, which is illegal to sell to minors in the United States. The Supreme Court actually allowed for this possibility in its 2011 ruling, but it tossed out California’s violent game law in part because it was too broadly-defined, and because it unfairly targeted video games instead of all media. The government long ago decided that minors shouldn’t be allowed to see hardcore sex on the belief that it’s harmful, so either we start figuring out similar parameters for media violence, or we decide that trying to legally prevent minors from seeing anything is an impractical and misguided enterprise. Either way, it’s hard to have that debate without more knowledge about how violent media affects us.

I do wish Obama hadn’t singled out video games over all other media in Wednesday’s briefing to the press. And I admit that the parallel to the NRA’s crackdown on firearms research is a bit unfair. After all, guns literally are weapons; video games are not. One of these things is clearly more dangerous to possess than the other, and unless you’re NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre, it shouldn’t be hard to recognize which.

The good news is that the Obama administration seems to be aware of all this, and I don’t see much evidence that there’s a video game witch hunt at hand. Obama’s official memorandum on gun violence research doesn’t specifically mention video games at all, and mentions the importance of giving parents the tools to decide what media their children consume. Even the video game industry’s main trade group, the Entertainment Software Association, is okay with Obama’s push for more research. That’s a pretty good indication that the government isn’t coming after our right to virtually shoot aliens in the face. It just wants to know more about what happens in our brains when we do. So should we.