XXII.1 January + February 2015
Page: 64
Digital Citation

Public policy and violence in video games

Joyram Chakraborty, Nirali Chakraborty

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Public policies can influence many different types of interfaces. Popular topics within HCI that are subject to rules and regulations include accessibility, voting, and healthcare. However, as the HCI community has gotten more involved with the development of gaming systems, it is also important to examine how games are influenced by policies aimed at protecting the greater good.

Due to the creation of gaming industry associations, a ratings system was adopted. In some U.S. states and in other countries, laws have stipulated who should have access to violent computer games, punishable by fines or incarceration. Computer gaming is also one of the rare areas of human-computer interaction where there has been a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. While that ruling upheld the First Amendment right to freedom of speech over the State of California's attempt to restrict the sale of certain games to minors, the gaming industry has voluntarily developed a code of marketing with regard to young people [1]. Our goal here is to review the literature and policies related to violence in computer gaming, provide a description of the various policy approaches that have taken place, and propose an HCI-oriented intervention to increase awareness of the relationship between violent games and aggressive behavior.

back to top  Insights


One of the earliest video games was Pong, released in 1972. This game was popular among arcade enthusiasts and did not include any violence. One of the first video games to incorporate aspects of violence was Deathrace, released in 1976. By the early 1990s, popular computing games such as Mortal Kombat, Wolfenstein, and Street Fighter all revolved around violence. The goals of these games were centralized around three main objectives: wounding, maiming, or killing opponents, and they featured graphics such as blood and sound effects such as screaming. At the time, players found these games to be advanced and very intriguing. Studies have indicated that by the end of the 20th century, gamer preferences for graphically enhanced violent computer games increased significantly, with easy access for players of all ages. The study of fourth graders' gaming preferences found that 59 percent of girls and 73 percent of boys preferred violent computer games [2].

From the field of public health, Sir Bradford Hill, a British physician, proposed a set of criteria by which relationships such as those seen between violent video games and violent behavior can be measured. If one were to apply these criteria (strength, consistency, specificity, temporality, dose response, plausibility, coherence, experiment, and analogy) to this relationship, one would find that approximately half of Hill's criteria are met [3]. Similarly, we could state that playing violent games is neither a necessary nor a sufficient cause of a violent outcome. Not all violence is the result of violent game play, and violent game play alone is not responsible for violence. In spite of an inability to definitively link violent video games with violent behaviors, policymakers have repeatedly examined this problem.

In the court of public opinion, excessive play of violent computer games has been blamed for mass shootings, such as the tragedies at Columbine and Newtown. Conclusive evidence demonstrating that play of violent games is causally linked to future violent behavior does not exist. However, while some meta-analytic studies have found strong relationships between video games and violence [4], others posit that violent video games are only one of several factors that combine to result in violent behavior. These other factors include genetic predisposition, family influences, and the presence of a stressful environment [5].

Existing policies associated with restricting the consumption of violent video games are distinct from those governing other areas where minors may be harmed psychologically [6]. No one cohesive national policy exists. U.S. states have asked for additional scientific evidence to demonstrate causation, notably, a 2008 Joint State Government Commission for the General Assembly of Pennsylvania's Task Force on Violent Video Games [7] and a 2013 commission established by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts [8]. This is in contrast to rules prohibiting minors from engaging in other actions that have not been conclusively linked to harmful outcomes, such as viewing pornography and purchasing lottery tickets. For these actions, policymakers found that the association alone was sufficient to take action; causality was not necessary. In other words, it did not matter if buying a lottery ticket caused direct harm, but the association between a lottery, gambling, and debt for some adults was enough to sway the government to prohibit young people from buying the tickets. In a way, lawmakers are contradicting themselves—in some instances, the association or fear of future harm is sufficient, while in others, such as for video games, a causal relationship is necessary.

To date, two main approaches to protect minors from the effects of violent video games have been tried. These differ in their strength as well as their legality in the U.S. In other arenas, however, policymakers have used additional approaches to ensure that individuals are fully aware of risks they are voluntarily engaging in.

back to top  Policies Related to Gaming and Violence: Two Approaches

Designing and implementing policy can be quite challenging, especially with rapidly evolving technology such as video games. Currently, two broad approaches are attempting to curtail the possible negative effects of violent video games: educating the consumer through the use of a video game rating system and limiting the access of minors to restricted materials.

Provide a rating system. When possible, many public policies utilize existing industry or international standards; the regulation of violence in video games is no different. The main method of regulation adopted by most state and local governments who enact video game legislation is to defer to the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) for age-controlled appropriateness [9]. Created in 1994, the ESRB is an industry self-regulatory group that assigns age-based labels to video games, ranging from "C" for early childhood, "E" for everyone, "T" for teen, "M" for mature, and "AO" for adults only. For example, the Matheson's Video Games Ratings Enforcement Act, H.R. 287, would make it illegal for anyone to ship, distribute, sell, or rent a video game without an age-appropriate label for the ESRB [10]. This bill was introduced in the U.S. Congress in January 2013 and has been referred to the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade [11]. Most legislative bodies rely on retailers and parental education for the enforcement of these regulations. The sanctions for violations of the ESRB range from fines to felony convictions.


The challenges associated with video games and violence are not specific to the U.S. In the U.K., the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA) was formed in 1989 with the objective of bringing the content of video and computer games to the attention of the government [12]. In 1993, the Video Standards Council (VSC) was created to develop an age-restricted video game rating system [12]. The European Union (EU) created a new rating system called the Pan European Games Information (PEGI) with the objective of creating a unified rating system across the majority of the EU countries [13]. The PEGI has eight categories: age-level appropriateness, violence, bad language, fear, sex, drugs, discrimination, and gambling. It uses symbols easily understood by parents, children, and retailers.

Computer gaming is one of the rare areas of human-computer interaction where there has been a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Restrict sales. Over the past two decades, several local and state laws have been passed to attempt to control the sale and distribution of violent video games to minors. In 2000, the city of Indianapolis attempted to enforce an ordinance that forbade any video game operator with five or more machines to allow a minor to play without the supervision of a guardian. In the same year, St. Louis County in Missouri passed an ordinance making it illegal for anyone to distribute violent video games to a minor without the consent of a guardian. In 2003, Washington State banned the sale of violent video games to minors. In 2005, the state of Illinois banned the sale or rental of violent video games to minors. In the same year, Michigan and California also passed legislation banning the sale of violent video games that had the potential to harm minors. In 2006, Oklahoma amended existing legislation for crimes against public indecency and morality to include the sale of material such as violent video games to minors. The same year, Minnesota passed the Minnesota Restricted Video Game Act, which made it illegal for a person under the age of 17 to rent or purchase age-restricted material knowingly or unknowingly. In 2007, New York passed legislation that would make the dissemination of indecent video games to minors a felony and also required equipment allowing video game console owners to prevent the display of violent video games to minors. Very little empirical work has been carried out to determine the effectiveness of these legislations.

Each attempt at enacting legislation in the U.S. has met strong opposition from gamers, industry leaders, and First Amendment advocates. Federal courts have consistently invalidated these legislative efforts to restrict minors' access to violent video games based on their content as a violation of the First Amendment. The federal appellate courts heard the constitutional arguments for 10 years before the Supreme Court ruled on the issue. In 2011, the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association by upholding a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that invalidated a California law prohibiting the sale of violent games to minors [1]. The Supreme Court and every prior federal court that has considered the issue, with only a few exceptions, have held that video games enjoy full First Amendment protection and that state efforts to regulate them must therefore survive strict scrutiny [14].

Adults, who have easier access to restricted materials, are also vulnerable to the effects of these games.

back to top  Future Direction for HCI Researchers and Practitioners

Due to the sensitive nature of violence in gaming, and due to the growth of gaming and HCI's increased involvement, it is important for our community to become aware of these issues. Video games themselves are evolving; they are no longer tied to arcades, desktops, or laptops. Devices such as smartphones and tablets are making video games ubiquitous. In addition, the effects of violent video games are not restricted to minors. Adults, who have easier access to restricted materials, are also vulnerable to the effects of these games. This will make the implementation of any future policy more challenging.

An incremental solution for HCI researchers and practitioners might be the use of informative, easy-to-read warning messages at the beginning of the video games. Similar to messages warning against video piracy used in DVDs, these messages could warn players of potential fines and felony charges for the possession of age-restricted material. These video-game-based messages could also serve as an education tool, informing players of the potential risks associated with continued long-term exposure to elements in video games such as violence. The messages could be developed using a combination of easy-to-understand symbols and words translated for the target audience. To ensure user acceptance, the messages should be developed using gamers' participation and pilot tested thoroughly with the appropriate end users to determine their effectiveness. These warning messages could be placed on the cover of the video games as well as in the game upon loading. Similar in functionality to DVD messages, this warning should display for approximately 30 seconds, and the option to skip through it should be disabled.

While this may not be the ultimate solution to the possible effects of violent video games, it does provide policymakers and HCI practioners with a low-cost, incremental solution while suitable policies are determined. The solution with the warning messages could be implemented with minimal costs to game developers. Showing the message for 30 seconds could ensure that the video gamer was made aware of the possible consequences of long-term exposure, thereby allowing them to make an educated choice.

There is a significant gap in the literature with regard to video games and violence. Very few empirical studies have been carried out to determine whether a causal relationship exists between violence in video games and individual acts of violence. Most of the reported findings draw conclusions using interviews or surveys of video gamers who have played a predetermined amount of video games. Though the findings from these studies are accurate according to the parameters of the study, they cannot be generalized to the public due to the limited sample size and the predetermined set of video games used.

The HCI community can make significant contributions to assist policymakers by understanding video gamers' behaviors and preferences toward various aspects of violent video games—for example, by studying gamers' intensity preferences for violent gaming elements such as blood or blood splatter, weapons, or style of killing. Other preferences that could potentially be determined include duration of game play and sound or haptic feedback. Using longitudinal data collection of video gamers' behaviors and preferences, it could be possible to draw conclusions about the causality of video games and violence. The findings from such studies would be of great assistance to policymakers in the implementation of carefully crafted legislation based on scientifically determined findings.

back to top  References

1. Ferguson, C.J. Violent video games and the supreme court: Lessons for the scientific community in the wake of Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association. American Psychologist 68, 2 (2013), 57.

2. Anderson, C.A. and Bushman, B.J. Effects of violent video games on aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect, physiological arousal, and prosocial behavior: A meta-analytic review of the scientific literature. Psychological science 12, 5 (2001), 353–359.

3. Hill, A.B. The environment and disease: association or causation? Proc. of the Royal Society of Medicine 58, 5 (1965), 295.

4. Anderson, C.A. An update on the effects of playing violent video games. Journal of Adolescence 27, 1 (2004), 113–122.

5. Ferguson, C.J. The school shooting/violent video game link: Causal relationship or moral panic? Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling 5, 1–2 (2008), 25–37.

6. McCollum, B.J. Violent Video Games and Symptoms of Distress and Trauma. Thesis. Georgia Southern University, 2014.

7. Committee, A. Comprehensive analysis of violent crime and mass shootings. 2013;

8. Brownsberger, W.N., Hecht, J., and Lawn, J.J. Commission to investigate video games as a form of media and as a training tool. 2013.

9. Chang, J. Rated M for mature: Violent video game legislation and the obscenity standard. Journal of Civil Rights and Economic Development 24, 4 (2012), 3.

10. Sasso, B. and Kasperowicz., P. Dem lawmaker introduces bill to ban sales of violent video games to minors. The Hill. Jan. 17, 2013;

11. Matheson, J. Video Games Ratings Enforcement Act, 2013.

12. Barlett, C.P. and Anderson, C. Violent video games and public policy. In Wie wir spielen, was wir werden: Computerspiele in unserer Gesellschaft. T. Bevc and H. Zapf, ed. UVK Verlagsgesellschaft, Konstanz, 2009.

13. Pan European Game Information;

14. Dunkelberger, J. The new Resident Evil? State regulation of violent video games and the First Amendment. BYU Law Review (2011), 1659.

back to top  Authors

Joyram Chakraborty is an assistant professor of information systems at Towson University. Previously he was an assistant professor of computer science at the State University of New York, the College at Brockport. He collaborates extensively with IBM T.J. Watson and Intel Research on internationalization and cross-cultural research.

Nirali Chakraborty is the research advisor at Population Services International. She received her Ph.D. in international health from Johns Hopkins University. She was also a consultant for the World Bank and Broad Branch Associates, specializing in health systems and performance-based financing, and has expertise in quantitative research methods.

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UF1Figure. Labels warning gamers to the potential risks of long-term exposure to violent video games can be placed on the cover or displayed upon loading the game.

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