Violent video games need oversight, but good luck implementing any controls


The Exchange is part of an ongoing series on The Hive tackling the questions facing Boston’s entrepreneurs, investors, and innovators. This week, we ask participants if the video game industry should be regulated.

Below Margaret Weigel, a Boston-based based multimedia producer and researcher specializing in technology, education, and games, argues that the video game industry is not above regulation, but controls s poses an uphill challenge.

For more opinions, read the rest of The Exchange. Have your own opinion, or an idea for another topic? Email Hive@Boston.

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Should the sale of violent videogames be regulated? In the wake of Aurora, Columbine, Newtown, and far too many other episodes, attempts to prove or disprove a connection between violent gameplay and antisocial, aggressive and violent behavior are revisited. The findings, inconclusive at best, recently prompted the White House to call for more research on the issue.

I can think of a few good reasons why access to violent video games should be limited to adults (18 or older in the eyes of the law) – youth are still developing higher order cognitive functions and internal moral compasses, they benefit from more realistic and appropriate behavioral examples and role models, and habituation to violent representations is already far too easy to come by. Why age 18? We have decided that personal responsibility and adult freedoms starts at age 18. In the absence of a better system, we make do with a clumsy age-based assessment.

Would enforced regulation hurt the violent video game industry’s bottom line? Probably, but too bad. To what extent should profits dictate public policy? Industry in general has cried foul at virtually every attempt at regulation throughout modern history, from electric signs and seat belts to food labeling and firearms. Restricting minors’ access to violent games does not shut down game production, only limits sales to adults – their alleged target audience, right?

But the game developers can still sleep easy – I can think of even more reasons why regulating these games would be doomed from the outset.

Violence, like porn, is in the eye of the beholder; if we legislate it, that eye is jettisoned in favor of a consensus decision that may or may not resonate with the player. The deciding committee may be comprised of individuals who, for instance, all hate clowns or the color orange. A 1989 academic paper defined videogame violence as “the act of destroying individuals or objects or the ingestion of individuals.” (Just what does destroying and ingesting someone entail? Details, please).

As for imposing age limits, good luck with that, too. A 2011 CDC survey found that close to 4 out of 10 teens drink alcohol, and parents actively help their children circumvent COPPA age restrictions on Facebook. And you can’t convince me that the merchants who sell mature video games check every buyer’s ID (especially online).

So what are we left with? Much of the concern around violent video game play is their potentially devastating effect on vulnerable youth, many of whom struggle with depression, anxiety or some other type of emotional issue. Some of these kids go on to buy guns and shoot up malls and schools. So as the ultimate act of self-regulation for the violent video game industry, I propose that these companies set aside a significant portion of their profits to establish free, comprehensive mental health services available in every major metropolitan center in the country. That way, everyone can sleep easier.

Margaret Weigel is a Boston-based based multimedia producer and researcher specializing in technology, education, and games. Weigh in on The Exchange: Let us know what you think of violent video game regulation at or on Twitter at @HiveBoston.