Four Suggestions to Improve Your Anti-Videogame Article

On Thursday my local newspaper (The Tennessean) ran a half-page editorial about violent videogames and their effect on children.[1] It focused on the ad campaign for Dead Space 2, in which the developers filmed older women reacting in horror/disgust to the game, cut those reaction shots into a commercial, and put on the end, “Your Mom Hates This Game.” The “point” of this, I suppose, is to tap into that old standby of teenagers wanting to act out against their parents, but I really can’t be sure.

The article takes umbrage at these commercials because “they target children,” and that the publisher is intentionally breaking the rules of the ESRB because it is trying to appeal to young children even though the game has an M rating.

After I read this article, I found myself awash with annoyance and contempt. The article itself is the same fear-mongering, “save the children from the evils of society” rhetoric that old people have been bandying about for thousands of years. (Yes, thousands. See the multiple Roman Senate resolutions that banned theaters because they corrupt society.) But what really irritated me was the slipshod framework of the argument.

Now, I disagree with the claim that violent videogames are dangerous and detrimental to society, but I am willing to engage in that argument. I refuse, however, to come to the table if my opponents aren’t going to muster well-reasoned and supported arguments against me. One cannot carry on a worthwhile debate with someone whose entire logic is “because that’s just what I believe.” So I offer this list, from an aspiring editor and professional arguer, as points where the “anti-videogame” lobby can improve and refine its presentation.

I do not publish this article in jest, or as satire. I absolutely want to elevate the entire dialogue of “society vs. videogames,” because I enjoy intellectual debate and want to foster it. If one side offers a well-reasoned, logically supported argument, then it can effectively be countered by a better-reasoned, better-supported argument. If both sides predicate their claims on facts and conclusions, that creates a genuine debate that can be won. Whereas if one side simply attacks the other without support or logic, and couches its attack in the nebulous language of “protecting the children” and “saving society,” then the other side cannot effectively respond.

Therefore I proffer these suggestions to you, anti-videogame lobbyists, as four places where you can improve your rhetoric and refine your attacks into presentable topics for debate.

Suggestion 1. Cite to sources.

Too often I see anti-videogame articles that refer to “studies” and “research” that “has shown” that violent videogames cause injury to children. I do not know if this is lazy draftsmanship or self-proving reference (“It’s well known and accepted that violent games cause violence in children, so there is no need to cite to specific examples.” This logic appeared recently in the statements of Carole Lieberman, who said that violent videogames cause rape, and claimed that she failed to cite any actual studies because “everyone knows this, it’s common knowledge” [2]). In either case, this simply will not due.

If you are going to make a claim as to the detrimental effect of media on a child, you need expert sources to prove that. A journalist’s naked assertion that games are psychologically harmful is as legitimate as a chef’s assertion that string theory is unsupported by the physics. Not only do citations show that your claim is legitimate and not just opinion couched in the language of fact, but it lends the whole argument a sense of scientific credibility.

Frankly I’m always amazed when I don’t see citations in anti-gaming articles. There are innumerable focus groups and scientific studies who are willing to say whatever you pay them to say, so I don’t understand why you would not use them as much as possible.

Other studies will disagree with yours, but that’s just how it works in the field of bought-and-paid-for science. The point is that you need citations to give your argument actual meat, and if you provide such studies, that gives the other side the chance to counter with their own studies, instead of forcing the other side into the impossible task of trying to counter morality-based accusations.

Suggestion 2. Confirm the thing that’s getting your panties in a knot is actually in the game.

This is another point that baffles me when I see it: lobbyists referring to scenes or actions in a videogame without seeing it for themselves. I always assumed it was poor journalism to render an opinion on something you haven’t personally seen and to rely on undocumented hearsay, but such practices permeate the anti-gaming arguments. We all witnessed this in the Mass Effect controversy, where the anti-gaming lobbyists cried foul that your character could have sex with another character. Wild claims of full nudity and graphic sexual acts were the order of the day.[3] And then, of course, the game came out and people saw how innocuous the whole thing was. The once vocal detractors had to admit that they never even saw the scene.[4] They just heard “sex in a videogame” and conjured their interpretations from thin air.

This point really hurts the anti-gaming argument, because it reveals that the lobbyists don’t actually know what they are talking about. It makes you look like a terrible journalist when your source for information about a game is “someone told me about it.” Worse still, it’s easy to avoid this trap. Any juicy or controversial scene in a videogame is going to end up on the Internet, so a quick Google search will bring up the content in question. Five minutes will save you from looking like an idiot, preaching fire and brimstone about something that doesn’t exist.

Suggestion 3. Know what the ESRB does and what the Ratings mean.

When an anti-gaming lobbyist refers to the ESRB, it’s usually to use the Board as a strawman to show that games are not regulated and that the supposed regulations don’t actually do anything. Or the Board is characterized as some sort of moral police, tasked with keeping sex and violence out of videogames and out of the hands of children (which, according to the lobbyists, it invariably fails to do).

The ESRB (http://www.esrb.org) is a ratings board that reviews all videogames to be released in North America and assigns each one a rating. The ratings are designed to alert potential consumers as to the content of the game and what demographic it is meant for. These ratings are particularly aimed at parents, so that they can understand at a glance if a game is appropriate for their children. If a game is Rated M for Mature, it is not appropriate for a child under the age of 17. While the Board does not have legal authority to impose sanctions on retailers who sell Mature rated games to minors, it does work closely with the retail market to train employees and raise awareness about enforcing the ratings.

The ESRB occupies a position similar to the MPAA in the film industry. Both provide ratings for their respective media, and both seek to warn consumers of potential mature content. Neither have the legal authority to enforce their ratings; it is up to retailers and consumers to follow them. It is not the responsibility of the MPAA if a parent decides to take a child to see an R rated movie, just as it is not the burden of the ESRB to stop a parent from buying an M rated game for a child. It is on the parents to understand the ratings system and to protect their children as they see fit. If a parent is so neglectful and disinterested as to not at least learn the ratings, and simply buys whatever videogame the child wants without checking its content, I fail to see how that is the fault of the ESRB.

The next time you start to write an anti-gaming article, and you want to attack the ESRB for letting a violent videogame get into the hands of a child, please don’t. The Board is not the morality police, nor is it a surrogate for parental control of a child’s entertainment. Oh, and if you’re going to fault them for not imposing sanctions or enforcing their rules, do be so diligent as to learn what their rules[5] actually are to see if there was a violation that merits citation.

Suggestion 4. Try not to fabricate evidence, or in the alternative, try not to get caught fabricating evidence.

Along with Suggestion 2, I assumed this was self-evident. I recognize that sensational journalism exaggerates information and twists minor incidents into full-scale crises, but I always (naively) thought that such reporters would not outright invent evidence. After all, if you get caught making up the controversy you’re talking about, it destroys whatever modicum of credibility you have.[6]

My advice, obviously, is to avoid fabricating facts, but if you simply must do it, try to not be so bad at it.

As someone who genuinely wants legitimate argument, I feel I must tell you that you cannot hope to hold a tenable position when you offer as proof facts that you (obviously) pulled out of thin air. It leaves gamers unable to respond, and leaves you looking unethical and dishonest. If you are willing to be unethical and dishonest in your crusade against videogames, at least do a better job of trying to hide it. You’re not helping your position by brazenly creating controversy. Stick to real facts surrounding a real controversy, and your arguments will carry a lot more weight.

As I have said, I offer these criticisms as constructive advice as to how to refine and improve your anti-gaming arguments in order to elevate the disagreement into a genuine debate. Logic cannot prevail over emotion, just as emotion cannot refute logic, and at the moment the anti-gaming argument consists mostly of emotion with a light sprinkling of science. If this debate is going to get anywhere, it is necessary that both sides rely on the same methodologies and evidentiary rules. If you follow these tips, we may yet achieve some parallel in argumentative style, and we can finally begin having a real and productive argument as to the desire for artistic freedom versus the necessity of maintaining societal well-being.

  1. [1] Tate, Deborah Taylor. (Feb. 24, 2011). Violent games marketed to kids. The Tennessean. Retrieved Feb. 25, 2011 from http://www.tennessean.com/article/20110224/OPINION03/102240361/Violent-games-marketed-kids.
  2. [2]Chalk, Andy. (Feb. 14, 2011). “Games Cause Rape” Psychiatrist Defends Her Position. The Escapist. Retrieved Feb. 25, 2011 at http://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/107764-Games-Cause-Rape-Psychiatrist-Defends-Her-Position.
  3. [3]Fox News Smears Mass Effect. (Jan. 22, 2008). GamePolitics.com. Retrieved Feb. 25, 2011 from http://gamepolitics.com/2008/01/22/1993
  4. [4]Alam, Junaid. (Jan. 29, 2008). Fox News Commentator Apologizes for Mass Effect Comments Following Blowback. The Escapist. Retrieved on Feb. 25, 2011 from http://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/81009-Fox-News-Commentator-Apologizes-for-Mass-Effect-Comments-Following-Blowback.
  5. [5]Principles and Guidelines for Responsible Advertising Practices. (n.d.). Entertainment Software Rating Board. Retrieved on Feb. 25, 2011 at http://www.esrb.org/ratings/principles_guidelines.jsp
  6. [6]Fahey, Mike. (Sep. 25, 2008). Jack Thompson Disbarred. Kotaku. Retrieved on Feb 25, 2011 at http://kotaku.com/#!5054772/jack-thompson-disbarred

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