In April 1999, two high school students armed with guns and
explosives killed 13 people at Columbine High School. While the country
reeled in shock, the media turned some of its attention to the video
games industry, speculating what part violent entertainment may have
played in the killing spree.
PC games DOOM and Quake were said to be favorites of the two young
Headlines like, "A room full of DOOM: Did Columbine take the fire out of
the splatter games business?" (Time magazine) questioned the industry's
ability to survive the scrutiny.
It seems that whenever an incident of youth violence occurs, video games
come under scrutiny. And even though two years have passed since
Columbine, the industry's troubles are far from over. In April 2001,
families of some of the Columbine victims filed a lawsuit against 25
manufactures and distributors of video games, seeking punitive damages
of $3 billion.
Companies named in the suit include Sony America, id Software, Atari,
Sega of America, Virgin Interactive Media, Activision, New Line Cinema,
GT Interactive Software, and Nintendo.
The case is still pending, so, perhaps understandably, the topic of
violence in video games is not one that the companies want to discuss in
great detail with the media. One industry source, who did not want to be
interviewed on the subject, says that companies are concerned about
liability issues, and would be loathe to enter the debate publicly.
Yet more media pressure
Then came September 11. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, the
industry has once again found itself defending its content to the
"Video games face setbacks after attacks"(Fort Worth Star-Telegram),
"Rules have changed for video games" (Los Angeles Times), and "Video
games call truce" (The Orlando Sentinel) are among the headlines that
appeared above stories that looked at an industry yet again challenged
for supposedly contributing to a culture of violence. Will the video
game industry ever be able to separate itself from a violent image, or
indeed from some of the horrors of the real world?
But then unwillingness to talk about the past does not mean they haven't
learned the PR lessons of Columbine. The video game companies responded
quickly, either delaying or modifying games that might be considered
offensive or that contained images of the World Trade Center.
Activision postponed the release of Spider-Man 2 Enter: Electro until
October 18, and made changes to the content because the game is set in
New York City. "While the buildings in (the game) act only as a
background environment and do not explode or collapse, Activision is
being extremely cautious about any images in our game that might be
mistaken for the twin towers," states Ron Doornick, Activision's
president and COO, in a release.
Crime Patrol, a game published by Digital Leisure that depicted police
officers fighting terrorists and other criminals, was pulled
Bio Soft delayed the release of Tom Clancy's Rogue Spear: Black Thorn
for PC, and no release date has been announced. That game also involves
The strategy was a success in the eyes of the industry. "Because I work
with so many game companies, I have been thrilled to see how quick and
strong their reactions were," says John Foster, VP of the games group of
Bender/Helper Impact. "That is the true voice of the gaming industry,
and a true example of the culture."
Not all video game concerns were related to violence, however. Microsoft
delayed the release of its Xbox system from November 8 to November 15,
and Nintendo waited a week before launching its GameCube on October 3.
Microsoft also delayed the release of its upgraded Flight Simulator
after a retailer in the UK pulled the old version from shelves out of
concern that the hijackers may have used it to train for their deadly
exercise. "It wasn't the right time to launch the next version," says
Matt Pilla, a Microsoft spokesperson. "There had been some association
from the media and the attacks. We wanted to do the responsible thing."
The game was finally released on October 18, with images of the World
Trade Center removed.
Its realism is what makes Flight Simulator such a success. "But at the
same time, and most importantly, you simply cannot learn how to fly
based on this product alone," says Pilla, who is a pilot himself. He
says that the company is working to communicate the difference between
real flight training and the simulator. "The reality is it is not a
comprehensive flight-training school."
Fighting for the industry
Much of the work to counter the perceptions of the industry is handled
by trade groups, including the Interactive Digital Software Association
(IDSA). Douglas Lowenstein, president of IDSA, has testified in front of
a US Senate committee about the entertainment rating system.
A large part of Lowenstein's testimony focused on data that is also
provided on the IDSA's website, countering some of the perceptions the
public may have of the industry. "First, the myth that video games are
played predominantly by teenage boys is wrong," Lowenstein testified.
"In fact, the primary audience for video games is not adolescent boys."
According to research by Peter Hart, 60% of Americans say they play
video games, and the average gamer is 28 years old.
The IDSA quotes similar data that counters assumptions about the
For example, it reports that 70% of games produced in the US are rated
E, meaning they are appropriate for everyone.
Women also make up 43% of those who play. According to the IDSA, games
like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire are more popular in sales than many
violent games. Lowenstein also said that people over age 18 purchase
nine out of every ten video games.
After the attacks on New York and Washington, DC, Lowenstein issued a
statement to publicly urge game companies to "go through a process of
self-examination and questioning that is different than ever
What was acceptable on September 10 may not be acceptable ever
While Lowenstein was not available to comment for this story, the IDSA
did provide answers to e-mailed questions. "The IDSA has developed a
communications program that focuses on providing information about the
industry to the public and the media," writes Carolyn Rauch, SVP. "We
feel that significant progress along these lines has been made since
1994, when the IDSA was formed." She adds that both members and the
association need to be involved in the initiative.
In a continuing effort to demonstrate its concern for the victims of the
attacks, the IDSA devoted its annual "Nite to Unite - For Kids"
fundraiser in San Francisco. The group used the event to raise money for
the relief efforts, in addition to its usual recipients (Boys & Girls
Clubs of America, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and other
Under increased scrutiny
The International Game Developers Association (IGDA) is also concerned
about the industry's violent image, and set up a violence committee a
year ago. "We are trying to take a more proactive or positive approach
to building awareness," says Jason Della Rocca, the IGDA's program
Della Rocca says that the industry is frequently the target of
misperception, citing a recent study by a Japanese group that said video
games do not stimulate the frontal lobe of the brain as effectively as
mathematical exercises. The story appeared under the headline, "Computer
games stunt teen brains" in The Guardian, a UK newspaper, and was
covered in other media around the world. Della Rocca says the IGDA might
have been able to dispute the findings, but as far as the media is
concerned, "the damage is already done."
With hard data on its side, and vocal industry players poised to discuss
them, it is not clear why the video game industry continues to be a
target for criticism during times of crisis in America.
But some in the games business do not think the coverage following
September 11 was particularly unfair. Tina Vennegaard, SVP at Golin/
Harris, worked on the launch of GameCube, and says that retailers are
starting to see increased interest in people looking to games as
alternatives to going out, during a time when many people prefer to stay
close to home. "We are looking to illustrate how the video games
business is part of what is happening, and helping facilitate what
people are looking for right now," she says.
Kirk Owen, president of Octagon Entertainment, an agent for game
developers and publishers, says some players in the industry need to
grow up, and start really caring about what the major media is saying
about them. "We are kind of an immature industry in a lot of ways, only
about 20 years old," he says.
Big companies like Nintendo and Sony consider themselves mass-market
players, he says, but some of the smaller companies still think of
themselves as niche companies and are only concerned about getting
coverage in the gaming trades, like ie Magazine or PC World. "As we are
competing with more PR-savvy industries for entertainment dollars, we
will become more savvy about how we market what we do."
But Owen admits general media outlets often aren't interested in the
games industry, even though it generated $6 billion in sales in
"As a whole, we are not really newsworthy. Only if they are looking at
something sensational." And therein lies the PR problem: It is tough to
stimulate journalists' interest in the benefits of gaming (and who's
really playing), but a story blaming violence on violent games will
always sell newspapers.
ENTERTAINMENT SOFTWARE RATINGS BOARD "M" TITLES
Titles rated "M" (mature) have content not suitable for persons under
age 17. These products may include more intense violence or language
than products in the "T" (teen) category. In addition, these titles may
also include mature sexual themes
Company: Eidos Interactive
Format: PC CD-ROM
Features: Animated blood, gore, and violence
Company: Fox Interactive
Features Animated blood, gore, and violence
Company: Electronic Arts/Bullfrog
Format: PC CD-ROM
Features: Animated blood, gore, and animated violence
CONKER'S BAD FUR DAY
Format: Nintendo 64
Features: Animated violence, mature sexual themes, strong language
AN ELDER SCROLLS LEGEND: BATTLESPIRE
Company: Bethesda Softworks
Format: PC CD-ROM
Features: Animated blood, gore, and mature sexual themes