During the wave of school shootings that have taken place in the 15 months since the Columbine tragedy, no group has taken more criticism for contributing to youth violence than the computer game industry. In that time, the US Surgeon General, the National Institutes of Health, and the Senate Commerce Committee all have begun investigating the impact of violence in interactive entertainment. At least nine states have introduced bills aimed at regulating computer game violence. And even President Clinton, in his State of the Union Address, urged Congress to enact the Media Violence Labeling Act, requiring entertainment industries, including game developers, to devise a common content rating system subject to approval by the Federal Trade Commission
Are these actions deserved? Do violent computer games breed violence? Clearly, the issue will be the subject of increasingly heated discussion-particularly now that the industry has reached true mass-market proportions, generating more than $6 billion in revenue last year and perhaps twice that amount this year. Whatever the outcome of the debate, however, what should matter more to the computer game community is that a growing number of reasonable, thoughtful, and powerful people believe that there is great cause for concern and that developers must be brought under control.
Of course, nothing provokes more contempt from game developers-or anyone in the creative arts-than the specter of government regulation and censorship. Indeed, some developers would argue vehemently that they have fulfilled their responsibility to the public by adopting a labeling system that clearly specifies on the software package when a game contains violent content. Others would contend that their creative freedom-and therefore their right to develop the content that they think is appropriate and that their audience "demands"-is a constitutional right.
But these views are myopic, admits Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association and perhaps the strongest defender of creative independence for game developers. "We cannot live in a cocoon of self-righteousness shrouded in the First Amendment," he warned an audience at the recent Game Developers Conference in San Jose. "If we don't try to understand where some of the criticism comes from, if we curl into an us-against-them posture, our industry may face a level of regulation unlike any we've ever seen or imagined."
Violence has a place in games, Lowenstein adds. "But does anyone doubt that some game developers simply max out on the violence just to see how far they can take it-not because it adds a single thing to the game play? With a more diverse market, is there any reason why deeper, richer, and more innovative games can't be made, where the attractions are intellect and cunning, character and emotion, challenges and rewards-not simply violence?"
Now that the computer game industry has come of age, developers need to grow up with it and take greater responsibility for their products. For those who argue against regulation on the basis that it would stifle creativity, but create games that let us resolve conflict only by blowing our enemies to bloody bits, it's time to show us more creative solutions-while they still have a choice.
Phil LoPiccolo: Editor-in-Chief