The Situationist

The Intersection between Tort Law and Social Psychology in Violent Videogames

Posted by Michael McCann on January 25, 2007

Call of Duty 3 for PS3The increasing realism of videogames is unmistakable. With better graphics, enhanced sound, and more advanced plotlines, videogames are becoming frighteningly “lifelike.” While videogame humans still don’t look exactly like real humans, they will eventually. In fact, based on screens like the one to the left (which is from the game “Call of Duty 3“), that day seems to be approaching with great haste.

These new and remarkably vivid games invite numerous questions for legal scholars. One of the more fascinating questions is whether young persons become more likely to commit violence by playing violent videogames and, if so, whether that contribution should be considered legally-cognizable under tort law.

Several courts have already examined this question, including a Tennessee state court in Hamel, et al. v. Sony Computer Entertainment, Rockstar Games, and Wal-Mart, No. 28,613-III (Cocke County Cir. Court of Tenn. 2003). The claim, which asked for $46 million in compensatory damages and $200 million in punitive damages from the designer, marketer, and one of the retailers of the popular PlayStation 2 game “Grand Theft Autogta-violence.jpg (“GTA”)”, was brought by the decedents of a 43-year-old man shot and killed by two teenage boys while driving through Tennessee’s Great Smokey Mountains. The boys claimed that their experience playing GTA, which rewards players for shooting at pedestrians, inspired them to go on an actual shooting spree—a goal made infinitely more obtainable by their access to a parent’s shotgun. Jack Thompson, one of the lawyers for the plaintiff in Hamel, was recently profiled in Newsweek. Thompson insists that videogame companies owe a duty to consumers to either produce “responsible” games or to ensure that sales of violent ones go stringently regulated—and their failure to do either, in the view of Thompson, can cause tragedies like the one which befell Mr. Hamel.

Unfortunately for Thompson, the Hamel lawsuit failed, as have others like it. Courts have yet to identify an empirically-verifiable causal nexus between on-screen killings and real-life ones. Plaintiffs are likewise burdened by the sheer fact that most players do not seem inspired to commit real-life crimes or to suffer elevated aggression. For related reasons, courts have refrained from holding that videogame companies breach a duty of care to consumers by making, marketing, and distributing these games. Similar reasoning has been applied to other forms of violent entertainment, such as movies (e.g., Natural Born Killers) or songs (e.g., the works of Judas Priest) that allegedly inspire fans to commit crimes. But perhaps meaningfully distinguishing, videogame players, unlike movie goers or music listeners, control the characters on-screen and the game unfolds in large part based on the abilities and choices of those players.

The lack of litigation success has not dissuaded lawmakers from seeking to regulate violent videogames. In November 2005, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton co-sponsored the Family Entertainment Protection Act (”FEPA”), which aimed to impose significant fines on videogame retailers that fail to enforce game ratings. These ratings are determined by the videogame industry’s Entertainment Software Rating Board (”ESRB”). The ESRB’s most restrictive ratings are “Adult Only” and “Mature Only,” which are directed towards particularly violent and sexually-explicit games. Critics of the rating system contend that the ratings are not enforced; in fact, a more restrictive label, much like an NC-17 label for a film, can propel sales by making a game sound more realistic and compelling. More Videogame Playersrecently, in September 2006, Congressman Fred Upton proposed the Video Game Decency Act (H.R. 6120), which would require videogame labels to provide more detail and candor in revealing sexual content, with the expectation that more label information will enable parents to better select games for their children. Call it a “consumer choice” type of rationale.

Courts and lawmakers aren’t the only groups interested in the relationship between videogame violence and real violence. Social psychologists, like Jeffrey Goldstein of the University of Utrecht, have also weighed in. In comparing various studies, Goldstein concludes that videogame violence neither incites nor encourages real violence:

Even if we accept that there is a correlation between amount of time spent playing (violent) video games and aggressive behavior, there is no reason to think that games are the cause of aggression (Anderson & Dill, 2000; Colwell & Payne, 2000; Roe & Muijs, 1998). Furthermore, some correlational studies find no significant relationship with aggression (e.g., Sacher, 1993; van Schie & Wiegman, 1997).

To amplify Goldstein’s conclusion, other scientific research suggests that playing violent videogames may supply a therapeutic, healing benefit. According to a study of videogame players conducted by Dr. Bryan Raudenbush of Wheeling Jesuit University, videogames “can reduce pain and a high speed virtual death-match is more effective at dulling discomfort than an arcade classic like space invaders.” The study indicates that violent games are perhaps the best types of game for capturing the attention of their players and distracting them from what would otherwise ail them.

So if violent videogames are indeed therapeutic, we might wonder to what extent the “primacy effect”—the tendency for the first information received to carry more weight than later information on one’s overall impression—influences how the non-gameplaying public perceives violent videogames? After-all, many parents, judges, and lawmakers are worried about children playing violent videogames, and presumably many of them base their opinions on on-screen images rather than from actually playing the games. So perhaps the primacy effect is relevant: adults see children playing games that feature horrific images, which in turn dissuades them from wanting to try those games (or to learn more about the games), which in turn motivates them to dislike those games and to discount positive observations about the games and their effects on players.

But even if the primacy effect lends insight, new research on motivations behind playing videogames offers, at least by implication, a more sobering take. According to a recent study conducted by psychologists at the University of Rochester and published in Motivation and Emotion, playing videogames fulfills basic psychological needs, including autonomy, control, and competence. So why do videogame players feel obliged to simulate violence in order to satisfy their basic psychological needs? Why can’t those needs be satisfied by simulating charitable works or urban revitalization? I know, people don’t need to simulate good deeds on-screen: they can physically partake in them. But is that the real reason why games featuring those objectives would be considered incredibly lame and never sell?

I’m not sure, but perhaps our tendency to satisfy basic needs through videogame violenceSaddam Hussein Hanging relates to why we often condone or even praise real-life violence. Sure, there are plenty of times when we repudiate violence, but it is frequently the circumstances and situational factors of the violence rather than the violence itself. Just juxtapose public reaction to the hanging of Saddam Hussein (which most Americans supported) with reaction to the treatment of Hussein in the minutes immediately preceding his hanging (which many Americans seemed to oppose). Or take more routine circumstances—we embrace two boxers who savagely beat each other up, but assign criminal sanction to two street fighters engaging in the very same violence; we applaud and financially-reward a linebacker for sacking a quarterback with a harsh blow to the ribs, but we punish that same linebacker for exacting the same blow, except a foot higher on the quarterback’s body. Is it really the violence that we don’t like?

So maybe courts and various academics are missing a potentially larger point about violent videogames. Maybe we shouldn’t be looking for causation or duty or other elements of a tort claim. Maybe we should instead look for what those games say about the human animal—us.


12 Responses to “The Intersection between Tort Law and Social Psychology in Violent Videogames”

  1. As of now, I share the court’s view on this subject. I feel that the person carrying out these act, although they may be impacted in some way by the video game, is the only entity making the most relevant decision in the matter: to carry out the act of shooting another person.

    Would a disclaimer printed on the more violent games do any good? Would it hurt sales of the game?

  2. Will said

    I think you address several pertinent issues in this blog.

    1) Realism and video games – There was an article in the Washington Post about a year ago (2/14/06) that looked at U.S. soldiers in Iraq and their previous exposure to violent video games, including training and recreation. Even though I don’t believe that violent video games are correlated with violent behavior, how are we to view soldiers playing violent games? Are these games or VR missions preparing them for real life situations? From what I can tell, there are many conflicting views on this, even within the military.

    2) Regarding violence in video games and the effects – While I do not believe that Grand Theft Auto can be directly blamed for violent behavior in children, I have heard anecdotal evidence about people joking that while driving after playing Grand Theft Auto, they felt the urge to run over people on the sidewalk (which while not rewarded, is often described as one of the more entertaining parts of the game).

    I don’t think this indicates that GTA brings forth sociopathic and homicidal tendancies, though; the video game literally allows you to drive outside the lines. But in real life, it’s ultimately our choice to NOT drive outside the lines. In short, while video games and the situations in the video games can influence our pattern recognition, we nevertheless can’t allow them to excuse individual behavior – to do so is incredibly simplistic and short-sighted.

    3) Regulation – I believe the biggest problem in regulation is not the labelling, but rather the enforcement on the part of parents. If parents are willing to buy M rated games for their children, or are willing to turn their backs while their children buy M rated games, there’s little the video game industry can do.

    4) Basic psychological needs – One of the charities I contribute to is Child’s Play, a charity started by the webcomic artists of Penny Arcade. I think their efforts in the past four years show that video gamers are very much capable of charitable behavior, and that just because they choose to play violent (some say pointless) video games, does not mean that they are also incapable of acts of largess and philanthropy.

    I think video games are appealing because they’re goal oriented – it just so happens that violence gives such a tangible goal – kill or be killed. But there are exceptions. Sim City was an incredibly popular game. As is the Civilization series (which does include significant warfare, but the civilization building elements and diplomacy are central to the game). And there are plenty of non-violent videogames out there, my favorites being Katamari Damacy and the Guitar Hero series. I can’t wait for Bob Ross Painting for the Nintendo Wii.

    But I think you point about violence is accurate: we condone violence depending on circumstance. Fighting is embraced as an integral part of hockey, and it’s so institutionalized in that sport that people are complaining that there is not enough fighting now, but anathema to, say, basketball. The level of violence isn’t necessarily what people complain about.

    5) I think you meant to write Judas Priest – Judais Priest would be a great name for a Hasidic Jewish Heavy Metal cover band.

  3. Ann Bartow said

    What should one conclude about game features like the ability to “role play” rape? See e.g.

  4. Will said

    Ann – I am not familiar with Second Life, so I was rather shocked to see that post. Am I correct, though, when I say that as an in-game feature, it is designed for two adults to roleplay a fantasy of non-consensual sex? By that I mean, you aren’t allowed to actually rape another player, right?

    Also, from what I read in the comments on the Gawker post, how does Second Life’s “user created” status influence how we should view this? Should the moderators of the game be able to include something in their Terms of Service that prohibits or censors the creation of such game features? And if there ever was a case similar to the ones the Professor McCann describes above (in which GTA is blamed for violent behavior), who would the defendant in that case be? The creators of Second Life, or the creators of the fantasy scenario?

    I think this question extends beyond Second Life. There are many games in which you can create unique modules or use a game editor to customize the gaming experience.

  5. Ann Bartow said

    Someone has set up “rape role plays” as a business in SL, so I guess you could say the rape was consenual. Read the comments here:–28711.phtml

    As the Feministing post notes, there is also a game called “Rapelay” that is described here:
    It is a “rape simulator” so consenting players are not required.

    The legal scholars who study and write about gaming don’t seem much interested in the ramifications of this, or of the rampant presence of pornography in SL.

  6. Ann Bartow said

    Will, I replied yesterday but perhaps my comment get caught in your spam filter. It contained several links and the word “pornography,” both of which are unsuprisingly associated with spam!

    The “rape role play” noted above is sort of a business model at SL, so in that sense it is consensual, but once a rape is paid for, I don’t think the purchaser has to behave as if it is a role play, if that makes any sense.

    Some games feature “rape simulations” where the rape is part of the programmed play, so consenting players are not required, see e.g.
    Whether these types of activities are available at SL I do not know.

  7. Bruce Boyden said

    There’s a couple of interesting issues here for gamers. One is the optimal amount, or perhaps extent, of realism in combat-simulation games such as Call of Duty 3 or (one of my favorites) Counterstrike. Speaking for myself, what draws me to these games is the same thing that drew me to cardboard-counter board games in the 1980s, which is the tactical challenges of combat. Real combat, on the other hand, is a terrifying and gruesome experience. Game developers will have to choose between whether to have more realistic injuries in their games, alongside more realistic physics, etc. That would take a lot of the fun out of such games, at least for me, unless the purpose of the game was more storytelling than tactical — e.g., “role-play a soldier on D-Day,” as opposed to “achieve the objective.”

    I believe game developers are aware of this. Soldiers in most games who are hit tend to just groan and fall over, as they did in 1950s war movies, even though it is possible to depict more realistic responses (e.g., the fortunately short-lived “Soldier of Fortune” games). Also, several games seem to go out of their way to minimize the humanity of (or maximize the justification for killing) the enemy; in Doom, any human soldiers you encounter are possessed zombies; in Half-Life 1, the marines are shown killing unarmed scientists before you ever get a chance to shoot at them (although, interestingly, they arguably have their own justification, as the fate of the entire planet is at stake); in Half-Life 2, the humanoid soldiers are actually drone-like cyborgs; in F.E.A.R., most of the opposing soldiers are mindless, telepathically controlled clones. More free-form games may allow the player to, in essence, do whatever they want, and without a fully modeled society, the in-game consequences may be limited. Even in Half-Life, nothing prevents the player from killing the scientists too, if he or she wants. But my impression is that most games minimize the realism of the violence in way or another.

    A further indication of the separation between in-game and real-world violence is that, in multiplayer games such as Counterstrike or Battlefield 2, a lot of people play against their friends. Perhaps they are working out deep-seated aggressions, but my sense is that players play shooter games against friends for the same reason one plays any competitive game against friends–for the shared experience, not because you’d secretly like to see them dead.

    I realize my evidence is anecdotal, but as someone strongly opposed to, e.g., vigilantism, I certainly do not think there is any necessary connection between enjoying combat or shooter games and “condon[ing] or even prais[ing] real-life violence.” There may be an element of American culture that does, in fact, condone or praise a level of violence beyond that which is optimal, and that may be reflected in the level or sort of enjoyment some players get out of some games. But I’m not sure that problem can be traced even to mass media, let alone video games in particular.

  8. Jeff McDonald said

    Professor McCann’s Article “The Intersection…in Violent Video Games” strikes an interesting chord in the ‘Nature vs. Nurture’ debate. As these video game become more real, undoubtedly culminating in virtual reality or beyond, they create an interesting ‘environmental’ quirk: These games create a ‘world’ (and potentially a worldview) which is becoming increasingly real. For those that participate excessively- essentially living in, or taking prolonged “vacations” in this virtual world- it would be reasonable that they absorb the values imposed or implied within that world, much like we do in the real world. The more influencable the person (the weak, young, isolated, tormented, or aggresive) may begin to consciously, unconsciously and/or subconsciously begin to derive their social demeanor, behavior and values from that world. These may then, more than probably, manifest themselves outside of the scope of the game. Much of our behavior results from our perception of the world and reaction to it. As the line between game and reality dulls so does the line which separates behavior in the virtual world and the real. So, why should the lines of liability and social duty do the same?
    Great article!

  9. Oskar Shapley said

    You should comment on the several children who replayed Saddam’s hanging and killed themselves in the process. This example is a good argument for the influence of video games on behaviour and could be even decisive in court.

  10. […] by The Situationist Staff on March 20th, 2007 In January, The Situationist featured a posting on the intersection between tort law and social psychology in violent video games. That post, which generated some wonderful reader comments, examined the legal maneuvers of […]

  11. […] have written about possible connections between playing violent videogames and violent acts (”The Intersection between Tort Law and Social Psychology in Violent Videogames” and “Suing the Suer: Video Game Company Sues Jack Thompson“). In the wake of the […]

  12. […] found in videogames on several occasions (see “The Situation of First-Person Shooters“; “The Intersection between Tort Law and Social Psychology in Violent Videogames“). We have also examined how, because of stereotype threat, the situation in which women find […]

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