Games, Crime, and the Law

The regular media of the US have often shaken the scary bugbear of violent games making players act out their violent behavior in real life, usually when a researcher makes new claims of causality. I wrote at length on whether the “jury was still out” about this linkage at the end of 2009 in a three-part series, so my perspective is easy to ascertain. (My apologies about the formatting of the old articles there; the content has not changed but pictures and fonts did not always migrate successfully when Library Journal moved from Reed Business to MediaSource.) I did not find the arguments persuasive then, and I do not now.

Today, an article entitled “US Crime Figures: Why the Drop?” from the BBC correspondent in Washington DC is making the rounds of the gaming community. Addressing ten possible factors influencing the 20-year-long drop in murder and robbery rates nationwide (1972-2010), the article includes this:

    9. A study released last month suggested video games were keeping young people off the streets and therefore away from crime. Researchers in Texas working with the Centre for European Economic Research said this “incapacitation effect” more than offset any direct impact the content of the games may have had in encouraging violent behaviour.

However much I might be pleased to see this instead of another breathless “oh noes killer video games” article, this is not news. FBI statistics have tracked a steady and signficant decrease in violent crime, and in youth crime especially, at the same time that video games have seen increasingly widespread adoption across all demographics.

I can’t say whether this study is good science or not — some commenters are already saying it is not particularly scholarly and is rife with loaded phraseology. I concur on the latter point. I am not equipped to address the former but I am quite sure the academic community interested in games will prise apart the inner workings for validation or refutation, and offer a more nuanced analysis.

Pro-gamer I might be, but I would certainly not ascribe the rise of video games as a major cause of decline in US crime rates. That’s not just a jump, it’s a leap to hyperdrive. Also, the tagline about video games decreasing violence because those inclined to violence are self-selecting to stay indoors and play games instead of going out to commit a crime — the same could be said for any indoor activity, any game, from Wii Fit to scrapbooking.

Gamers have shown a strong preference for gaming socially, and neither the BBC nor the Centre’s study address the FBI’s observation that criminally-inclined youth are not involved in social, interactive hobbies. Being part of a social group — any social group — requires being able and willing to adhere to cooperative amd shared social norms — not the strong suit for most criminals. The benefits of social activities are one reason we have after-school programs and community social clubs, and one of the reasons it is so important for libraries to create a welcoming environment for teens and adults alike. Whether you’re a gamer or if you participate in the local afterschool sports program as coach or player, or in fact any group activity, then you have something else to do than go bash in someone’s French doors and run off with their flat screen TV.

And the other nine reasons in the BBC article all seem at least as powerful in potential impact as the prevalence of video games, violent or otherwise. Falling crime rates cannot be easily ascribed to any one effect, and probably not to a short list of ten.

Expect an explosion of commentary, pro and con, about video games, violence, censorship, minors’ rights, and probably crime as well — as soon as tomorrow, but certainly in the next week. The Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Schwarzenegger vs. Entertainment Merchants Association early in November last year.

Right now, it is the oldest case on the current docket, a fact that has raised eyebrows and questions about the difficult nuances of the case which is likely to have considerable impact no matter how it gets decided. An entertaining discussion and analysis of the original arguments before the court (with full text of the court transcript for you to read for yourself) can be found at the article “Objection! #6: Analyzing the Supreme Court’s EMA Hearing.” The author, Eric Neigher, is unreservedly pro-game in his assessments, but he does apparently come equipped with an actual law degree and courtroom practice experience.

Like most gamers, I’m keeping an eye on how this decision gets handed down. You should too.



  1. […] I wrote about Games, Crime, and the Law last week, I said to expect an explosion of commentary when the Supreme Court handed down the […]