Video game researchers weigh in on Supreme Court ruling

Rich Ryan Scott Rigby

Although the Supreme Court ruled yesterday in favor of the video game industry by a vote of 7-2 to overturn the controversial California state law that would have punished retailers for selling “violent” video games to minors; a pair of experts in the violent video game research field don’t believe the debate is over. Rich Ryan, PhD, and Scott Rigby, PhD, co-authors of Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound, say the debate may rage on, but they don’t think that’s a bad thing.

“The debate isn’t over, but I believe we’ll see a more refined debate moving forward on violence in video games,” said Ryan. “I believe we’ll see people hone in more on what issues there might be for violent games for children. There remain a lot of open questions.”

Rigby believes the Supreme Court made the right call by not setting a precedent based on inconclusive facts.

“I’d like to see more research done on violent video games,” said Rigby, who has spent the better part of a decade focusing on this very topic. “The reason this battle between game makers and politicians and parent groups has existed is because there’s been a vacuum of understanding about the psychology of games. I agree with the court’s decision with respect to their interpretation of there not being conclusive research that necessitates putting games in a separate class simply because you’re interacting with violence in the game. Our research is consistent with the fact that it might not matter if the violence is happening.”

Ever since the dawn of arcade games like Midway’s Mortal Kombat and console games like Sega’s Night Trap, there has been controversy between outspoken parent groups and politicians on one side, and the video game industry and fans on the other. Over the past decade, as games have become more realistic in their depiction of violent content and the Internet and digital distribution has made accessing games easier for those of all ages, this debate has erupted at the state level. Lawmakers, bowing to parents’ outcries, have focused on retailers in an attempt to ban the sale of what they deem violent material.

But Rigby and Ryan have written numerous reports and studied the impact of violence on gamers over the years. They’ve also done extensive interviews with game developers in an attempt to discover what it is about games that keeps players interested in interacting with these characters and virtual worlds.

“As a father and a psychologist, I wanted to take a critical look at violence in games,” said Rigby. “I was more interested in why I’d catch a bug in my house and release it outdoors, but in Call of Duty or Gears of War, I’ll do a headshot or chainsaw an enemy. Our research found that blood and gore provide an informational feedback loop that satisfies the underlying need for autonomy – one’s account for basic need satisfactions — and you can turn the blood and gore off and people will still enjoy the experience.”

In fact, Ryan said that their research actually found the opposite of what many game makers have thought. Just because a Gears of War game sells well and has violence, doesn’t mean a Bulletstorm will also become a bestseller. During the studies that the researchers conducted, more gamers were more open to games that didn’t have excessive blood and violence.

Gears of War 2 screenshot double chainsaw kill

Bulletstorm is a game that illustrates the importance that what really makes a game interesting is its ability to satisfy core needs like autonomy – having meaningful options to pursue,” said Rigby. “The ability to creatively kick people into cactuses and use a whip to torture enemies wears off after the first hour and then you realize there’s not anything else there. No matter how exciting or violent the game is, it’s not really the violence that matters. Modern games have to satisfy multiple needs in a deep way, and Bulletstorm failed.”

Rigby and Ryan used mods of video games from Half-Life 2 to illustrate these points. Some games had blood and violence, while others required a player to tag an enemy rather than shoot them.

“Our research shows that even when you tone down blood and gore in games it doesn’t take away from the enjoyment,” said Ryan. “In contrast, when you turn up the blood and gore in the same types of games, it turns off elements of the audience. Violence doesn’t have to be gory to attract gamers. If you shoot an adversary and you can see that he’s hit, there’s an immediate sense of satisfaction even with blood.”

Medal of Honor Airborne

For most of its existence, Electronic Arts’ Medal of Honor franchise retained a Teen rating and didn’t show any blood to depict the violent confrontations of the Second World War. In Germany, where gore is not allowed in any video games, gaming remains the number one pastime for Germans.

“I do a lot of research on parents and in a way the Supreme Court is putting the responsibility of monitoring what their kids are playing on the parents,” said Ryan. “Parents should be monitoring what their kids are exposed to and should set limits on what they can play. They should talk to kids about what they play. It’s just like with movies, where parents need to accompany a child to watch certain movies.”

And now, thanks to the Supreme Court ruling, gamers old enough to play anything won’t have the government trying to censor or dictate what’s deemed violent or not.

(Top image courtesy of Richard Baker)

Get our Top Stories delivered to your inbox: