On Saturday, in a twist on gun buyback programs, a Connecticut town will host a “Violent Video Games Return Program,” encouraging residents to turn in their used first-person-shooter games—to be later smashed and incinerated—in exchange for a $25 gift card from the local chamber of commerce. I sympathize with the initiative: The town in question, Southington, is a mere half-hour drive from Newtown, and the program’s founder is Max Goldstein, a 12-year-old who, while attending the funeral of a boy murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary, resolved that the violent games he loved were just too real to take after Adam Lanza’s shooting spree. But are we really hoping to purge our collective soul by demolishing copies of "Halo 4"? Americans have gone to the dumpster before, of course, burning gangsta-rap CDs for being too profane or comic books for being too subversive. But video games are different. They are not made to be watched or read or heard, but played. The digital violence we witness on-screen comes from our own hands, which makes video games both much easier and much harder to saddle with allegations of corrupting the culture.
To understand video games’ complex status as our current bête noire of media entertainment, it is helpful to examine, briefly, some of the pariahs of the past. Comic books, particularly those rich in murders and fornication, so irked lawmakers in the 1940s and 1950s that McCarthy-like hearings were held and words like “terror,” “horror,” and “crime” were banned from appearing in books’ titles. Not long after, television was called upon to face Congress, with representatives of the American Temperance Society, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Movement, and the National Grand Lodge of the International Order of Good Templars decrying the new medium’s alleged encouragement of violence and drunkenness. The same drama unfurled in the early ’90s with gangsta rap. Almost immediately after the genre entered the MTV mainstream in the late 1980s, it was besmirched in the press, discussed by the Supreme Court, and even closely monitored by the FBI. Music whose primary themes were sex and violence, went its critics’ logic, was unworthy of the protections usually afforded to artistic endeavors; in the words of then Vice President Dan Quayle, such music had “no place in society.”
All three crusades were politically potent, bringing liberals and conservatives closer than most other issues ever could. But in each case, the critique soon began to unravel—and not simply because there’s never been conclusive proof of a correlation between media consumption and deviant behavior. Each attempt to discredit a particular art form or genre immediately ran against a bulwark of ethnic, ideological, or socioeconomic considerations. The targeted comic book artists, for example, were nearly all sons of Jewish immigrants, which inevitably colored the debate about their creations—particularly with news of the Holocaust still fresh—with racial overtones. Fuming in 1941, one critic warned that comic books were “furnishing a pre-fascist pattern for the youth of America”; many agreed, leading to massive comic-book burnings. That the works of Jewish authors and illustrators were being set aflame in American towns just a few years after they met the same fate in Germany was a bitter irony. The movement to curb gangsta rap followed a similar pattern: To have a serious discussion about N.W.A.’s lyrics also meant having a discussion about race and poverty and prejudice and a host of other issues that complicated the simplistic narrative of gangsta rap’s corruption of America’s youth. Inevitably, the casters of aspersion ended up looking like graying fuddy-duddies on the wrong end of progress, while the former menaces to society entered the mainstream (and, in some cases, the canon): The refugees of the shuttered shock comics went on to found Mad Magazine, and N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton was ranked the 144th best albums of all time by Rolling Stone. (The Chronic, by N.W.A. alum Dr. Dre, was ranked 137th. Meanwhile, fellow alum Ice Cube, as much an actor as a rapper now, was seen most recently portraying a police officer in the Hollywood remake of 21 Jump Street.)
But video games are different. Whatever else they may be—pastime, industry, media—they are first and foremost algorithms, strings of if/then propositions that govern carefully scripted interactions between players and machines. These interactions may have something to say about real-world issues—recent titles, like the Call of Duty series, have been uncannily adept at incorporating historical and geopolitical themes into their games—but that’s not where the pleasure of play lies. As any habitual gamer knows, the thrills that compel us to pick up a game controller are very different than the ones that drive us to listen to Tupac, say, or indulge in a gory Quentin Tarantino movie. The latter give the satisfaction of seeing the social order challenged in a defiant but ultimately safe way; Straight Outta Compton, for example, sold more than three million copies—more than 80 percent of which were bought by white suburban kids who saw the rappers as the new heralds of illicit cool. This dynamic doesn’t apply to Battlefield 3, say, or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, or any of 2012’s best-selling and bloodiest games. It’s not only that these games tend to be deeply embedded within the establishment and adoring of its values—the U.S. Army, itself a major player in the video game market, has recently licensed a host of virtual weapons to video-game producers—but also that when we play, we’re engaged in a series of rapid, instinctual movements that are much more about pattern recognition and hand-eye coordination than they are about imitating, or fashioning our own values after, the characters on the screen. We embody the game, and the nature of our embodiment has more to do with our thumbs than it does with our minds. In this respect, the experience is much more like playing a contact sport than it is watching TV or listening to music: Video games move too fast for us to think about the meaning of it all; when we play, we’re too busy trying to stay alive.
Several generations of scholars have found no evidence that violent video games lead to violent behavior. Having reviewed much of the existing research on the question when adjudicating (and ultimately rejecting) California’s attempt to restrict the sales of violent video games, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia summed it up nicely: “Psychological studies purporting to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children do not prove that such exposure causes minors to act aggressively.” Nonetheless, the critics keep howling. And that chorus will only grow louder as the video-game industry continues its stratospheric growth: Despite disappointing sales in 2012, video game titles—particularly violent ones—are setting records never before achieved by any book, album, or movie. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 made $775 million in the five days after its release in late 2011, a sum that took the highest-grossing movie of all time, Avatar, nearly two months to reach. The game’s sequel of sorts, Call of Duty: Black Ops II, did even better in late 2012, selling a billion dollar’s worth of copies in just two weeks. That number, one senior video game industry executive noted, equaled the total take of the ten best-selling movies of that year thus far. If one is so inclined, it’s easy to imagine such a massive industry constituting a real threat to the culture—not just a foul and marginal medium, but an increasingly dominant one deserving of respect and trepidation. It’s even easier to imagine given the nature of games: It’s one thing for a parent to hear her kid parrot a few filthy lines of lyrics, but it’s quite another to watch the kid furiously pressing buttons to enact a pixilated on-screen carnage.
The fear directed at video games, then, is as understandable as it is misguided and, ultimately, futile. Kids who play violent video games, and increasingly do so with strangers from around the world, are not doing anything fundamentally different than what previous generations have done, when sticks served as swords or hands as pistols. Then, as now, they were making sense of their world through games, working through complex issues like trust and competition and, yes, violence—not by reading or watching or listening to anything, but by playacting. Without ever having read cultural historian Johan Huizinga, kids perpetually prove his point that so much of modern culture—war, jurisprudence, economy, courtship, religion—stems from game play, which is, first and foremost, a safe and sublimated way for human beings to experience the intense, sweeping emotions that make up so much of life. For many American kids, such play happens to occur in the digital rather than the real world. By confiscating and burning their games, parents risk extinguishing a critical outlet—and creating the very problem they were trying to avoid.