These questions are not easily answered, and they have been the subject of endless, heated debate. To be fair, the gaming industry has taken important steps in making the market safer for children. A majority of games being developed today contain very little truly objectionable content, including those released for purely entertainment purposes. More and more titles are being released that appeal to all ages, genders, and interests; as a result, the industry is experiencing astronomical growth. The Interactive Digital Software Association (ISDA), the leading trade association for the entertainment software industry, has predicted that total entertainment software sales for 1997 will break the $5 billion barrier, swelling a remarkable 36 percent over the previous year. Interestingly, the most rapidly rising categories are not violent action games, but relatively benign trivia, strategy, and sports titles.
Other steps have been taken that empower consumers. A widely accepted standard for rating the content of games has been embraced by a majority of game publishers. The Entertainment Software Rating Board’s (ESRB) independent rating system gives parents and consumers information about the content of video games so they can make informed purchase and rental decisions. Additionally, many game developers, such as Apogee Software, have taken it upon themselves to include parental lockout features with their titles. No, this does not mean the games are so complicated only computer-savvy kids can figure them out! It means parents can choose to “lockout” the more controversial aspects of a game, including graphic violence, objectionable language, and sexual content.
Yet all is not rosy, bouncy, happy, smiley, fun, fun, fun in this dawning age of interactive entertainment. A relatively small, but very prominent, group of bad boy game developers who carry very big and bloody sticks are grabbing the lion’s share of today’s headlines and stirring up the ire of concerned parents and outraged interest groups. How? By releasing titles that feature some of the most gratuitously violent, obscenely sexual, and shockingly amoral content since the days of Sodom and Gomorrah. Okay, perhaps that is a trifle overstated, but it is precisely how the harshest critics of the red light district of gaming perceive the content. To them, games like 3D Realms’ Duke Nukem 3D tarnish the beautiful landscape of the digital domain, corrupt the minds of our youth, and cast a shadow of doom over the future of Western Civilization. Foremost in their minds is the availability of such software to young people. It is true that today’s youth have easy access to graphically violent and sexual games; many retailers do not enforce age guidelines, and demonstration versions of most titles can be downloaded from the Internet, or installed from the companion discs that are included with popular gaming magazines.
Some people too glibly dismiss the effects violent games may have, saying they are merely today’s harmless equivalent of yesterday’s Bugs Bunny and Road Runner cartoons, and allow children to act out their natural aggressive tendencies in a socially acceptable manner (I do not recall Elmer Fudd using the same colorful verbiage as Duke Nukem, and Daffy always miraculously survived point-blank shotgun blasts to his bill.). At the other end of the opinion spectrum are people like Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., who find absolutely no redeeming value in visceral games. Lieberman, who has made a political career out of slamming video game violence, recently released his 1997 Video Game Report Card, in which he accuses a small, but very significant, portion of the software industry of developing and releasing “digital poison.” At the top of the senator’s hit list is Postal, a game in which the player is encouraged to delight not in the killing of monsters, but the slaughter of innocent people. In one particularly gruesome scene, players launch napalm onto an unsuspecting high school marching band blissfully parading through town. If Postal proves one thing, it is that no amount of vacuous hype or gratuitous violence can elevate a game above its own squalid mediocrity.
The Theory of Provocation