Video game violence is a more complicated and nuanced issue than most people think. Let’s take a closer look at the various types of violence in video games and see what parents might consider when choosing games for their kids.
Some people let their kids play only games that have no violence whatsoever:
Some people let their kids play only games that have no shooting:
Some say shooting is okay if you’re shooting inanimate objects like targets—or, like, holes in walls (Portal) or ink to slide on (Splatoon):
Others say shooting’s okay if the game looks like a cartoon or if you’re shooting robots, zombies, aliens, monsters, or other nonhuman creatures:
Or it’s okay if you’re a soldier, as in Call of Duty, and you’re shooting other soldiers, or if the game has a fantasy or science-fiction theme:
Or it’s okay if the violence is really over the top and cartoony:
Or it’s okay if it’s educational, as in Civilization:
Or it’s okay if it examines moral issues around violence, as in Mass Effect or Spec Ops: The Line:
Or it’s okay if it’s social satire:
We all have our own views on this. (Personally, I don’t play realistic military shooters because they scare me; I don’t play Grand Theft Auto games because I don’t enjoy their depictions of sexually charged, extreme, and realistic violence.)
The point is that violence in video games is a lot more complicated than most people think it is.
The Question of Causation
Lots of people still believe that video games cause violence. I don’t think so. I think video games are like any other media. They can be inappropriate for some people (especially kids) and they should be consumed wisely. But the preponderance of the evidence, common sense, and the Supreme Court all argue against blaming video games for violent behavior.
That said, parents still have—and always will have—the responsibility to determine what’s appropriate for their minor children. Sometimes kids don’t like parental rules, and there will be conflict. Parents should know all about the flavors and types of violence in video games so they’ll be able to make informed decisions and feel confident saying no. Or yes.
How ESRB Ratings Deal With Violent Content
Most parents know about the ESRB ratings (they’re on the box!): EC (early childhood), E (everyone), E10+ (10 and over), T (13 and over), M (17 and over), and AO (adults only). EC rated-games have no violence; M- and AO-rated games may have lots. Here are the descriptors pertaining to violence that may be displayed on the box:
- Animated Blood—Discolored and/or unrealistic depictions of blood
- Blood—Depictions of blood
- Blood and Gore—Depictions of blood or the mutilation of body parts
- Cartoon Violence—Violent actions involving cartoon-like situations and characters. May include violence where a character is unharmed after the action has been inflicted
- Comic Mischief—Depictions or dialogue involving slapstick or suggestive humor
- Fantasy Violence—Violent actions of a fantasy nature, involving human or non-human characters in situations easily distinguishable from real life
- Intense Violence—Graphic and realistic-looking depictions of physical conflict. May involve extreme and/or realistic blood, gore, weapons and depictions of human injury and death
- Sexual Violence—Depictions of rape or other violent sexual acts
- Violence—Scenes involving aggressive conflict. May contain bloodless dismemberment
- Violent References—References to violent acts
Many parents don’t pay much attention to ESRB ratings. I’d like to see that change.
The ESRB offers great information on their website. There you can read the Rating Summaries, which give you context. The best way to find these Rating Summaries is to search on Google like this: ESRB <name of game> synopsis
Pixelkin’s descriptions offer even more context. Here’s a description from our Game Library:
Violence: Violence is a major component of Grand Theft Auto. It is impossible to complete the games without perpetrating many murders. Additionally, players can kill civilians at a whim; the police will be put on alert, but there are ultimately no in-game repercussions. There is blood spatter in all of the games. Gore and dismemberment are minimal, but can occur. In GTA V there is an extended graphic torture sequence that is required to complete the game. In GTA: San Andreas, a large purple dildo is used as a weapon.
How to Evaluate Video Game Violence: A Proposal for Parents
Okay, so I’m going to propose a procedure to help parents sort this out. It involves looking carefully at games to understand both the extent and the context of the violence.
1. For EC, E, and E10+ ratings, consider saying yes if kids fit within the age rating on the box.
For these ratings, I think it’s generally safe to follow the rating recommendations. For example, if the game is rated E10+, and your kid is 10, you can be pretty darned sure it’s okay. For example, Minecraft is rated E10+ for fantasy violence. I don’t know any 10-year-olds who can’t handle the level of violence in Minecraft (usually it consists of shooting at zombies made of blocks). If I had a 10-year-old who wanted to play Minecraft, I would say yes, partly because that level of violence doesn’t bother me and partly because kids can learn so much from Minecraft. Of course, if you’re a parent who wants to avoid any form of media violence, you might decide to say no, even to Minecraft.
If your kids are younger than the rating recommends, you should do some research: the ESRB Rating Summary, Pixelkin’s reviews and articles, Youtube videos, etc. After that, you may decide that a game actually is okay for your kids to play. Or better yet, play the game—even a little bit of playing will increase your understanding a lot. And if you’re playing with your kid, you can use the gaming session as a learning opportunity and conversation starter.
2. When it comes to the T rating, consider digging a little deeper.
The ESRB uses the T rating to mean it should be okay for anyone 13 or over to play the game. Examples of T-rated games are World of Warcraft and Destiny. WoW is pretty cartoonish, but it does show explosions and red blood. Destiny is more realistic but doesn’t have red blood.
Context is everything, here. Is it okay to allow 10-year-olds to play World of Warcraft? I think the answer in most cases is yes—especially if you’re playing with them or monitoring their online interactions. But opinions on this vary. Again, the best thing to do is find out more about the game—its story and its gameplay. You might also want to consider whether to the violent content is balanced out by benefits your kid might be getting from playing an online strategy game—leadership skills and critical thinking, for example.
3. If you’re looking at M-rated games, you might consider digging a lot deeper.
Some people consider a variety of factors and let their younger teens play certain M-rated games. For example, lots of parents allow some of the Halo-series games because they have science-fiction themes and they involve shooting aliens. Here’s a list of questions you might want to consider:
- Is video game violence materially different from movie violence or television violence? Can you draw a distinction that makes sense? For example, if you allow your teenagers to watch James Bond films, can they handle a little Grand Theft Auto? If you let them watch the gritty science-fiction television series “Battlestar Gallactica,” can they handle Halo?
- What particular effects do shows or video games seem to have on your particular kids? Do they seem to have nightmares after playing? Does their behavior seem to be affected? Do you have kids of various ages, stages of development, with different temperaments or personality types, and can you make different rules for each of them?
- How graphic is the violence? Is there blood, for example, and is it red? Do bodies explode? Is there torture? Where do you want to draw the line on media containing these categories of violence?
- Is the violence directed toward characters that appear human and realistic? Or is it directed toward monsters? How much does that distinction matter to you and your family?
- Is the violence sexually motivated? Is it directed specifically against female characters? Is sexually motivated violence worse than violence that isn’t sexually motivated, even if it’s “only a game”?
- Is the violence perpetrated against “innocents”? Or against enemy combatants or bad guys? Is that a distinction that matters to your family?
- Are there factors in the game that make it worth playing even considering the violence?
- Are important social issues explored?
- Are you learning something from the game (for example, history or strategy or even hand-eye coordination)? And is the learning enough to justify or mitigate the effect of the violence?
- Does the game approach the violence as social satire? If you had heard about a game in which children are eaten by adults, you’d be horrified. But if you were a lit major, you might recognize the trope of Jonathan Swift’s classic satirical essay: “A Modest Proposal,” which suggested to the British populace that a logical answer to the famine in Ireland was cannibalism. Are some topics acceptable in literature but not in films, TV, or video games?
- Do you think a game can be used to explore or examine natural aggressive feelings? All humans have them, after all. Some kids (and adults) say “blowing off steam” in a video game relaxes them. Others say they feel an increase in aggressive feelings, but studies say much (or all) of that effect may come from the competitive aspect of the game rather than the violence itself. A comparison I often make is to watching violent films. Did “Kill Bill” make you feel aggressive? Or did it just make you wonder what was going on in the mind of Quentin Tarantino?
How Online Play Figures In
One thing I haven’t talked about in this article is that kids play online games a lot these days. You can don a headset and jump into a Halo or Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto game and hear little kids playing along with adults any day of the week. This is a side note, really, because the violence isn’t necessarily amplified by online contact—but the language is. Kids may hear stuff from adults over a headset in a game that they’d never be exposed to otherwise. I think parents should pay special attention when kids play games online.
Here’s the bottom line:
- Know your kid. Some kids can handle games rated for older kids. Some just think they should be able to. Being well informed will help you have a good talk with your kids about video game violence and set appropriate limits for individual kids.
- If your kids are between 13 and 16 (and sometimes even younger than 13), they may want to play M-rated games (rated 17+). Just as you might let your teens watch certain R-rated movies, you might decide to let your teens play certain M-rated games. But you should know what’s in them.
- Consider online interactivity and monitor it.
- Talk about the issues with your partner, with other parents, and with your kids, as appropriate.
- Think about your family’s values and how they relate to the consumption of all media—including video games. But consider that it’s an option to discuss the problems you see in media rather than banning something outright. Applying critical thinking and analysis to all media is an important skill, no matter what the content.
- If you possibly can, try playing the games your kids want to play. Although you can tell a lot from watching and talking about gameplay or watching a Let’s Play video, playing a game is the only way to experience exactly what your kids experience when they play a particular game.
And the big takeaway? You get to decide. But if you learn more about the nuances of violence in video games, you can make better decisions.