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While studies loom, vidgame biz can use some sensitivity training

The nation and its politicians are desperately seeking an answer for a horrific event that no sane mind can grasp. And that’s leading to calls for studies. Unfortunately, some parties are announcing the results they’re hoping to find before they’ve done any research.

In the days after the Dec. 14 Sandy Hook school shooting, Sen. Jay Rockefeller said, “Recent court decisions demonstrate that some people still do not get it. They believe that violent videogames are no more dangerous to young minds than classic literature or Saturday morning cartoons. Parents, pediatricians and psychologists know better.”

He called for a deeper dive into the effect of videogames on youth. Several studies have already made this connection. The problem is that several also have discredited a correlation between vidgame violence and real-world aggression.

“As a videogame violence researcher and someone who has done scholarship on mass homicides, let me state very emphatically: There is no good evidence that videogames or other media contribute, even in a small way, to mass homicides or any other violence among youth,” wrote Chris Ferguson, professor of psychology and criminal justice at Texas A&M U., in an essay on Time magazine’s Website.

When Rockefeller mentioned “recent court decisions,” he was referencing a 2011 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down a California law that attempted to restrict the sale of violent games to minors, citing (in part) the lack of proof that games breed violence.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, “California relies primarily on the research of Dr. Craig Anderson and a few other research psychologists whose studies purport to show a connection between exposure to violent videogames and harmful effects on children. These studies have been rejected by every court to consider them, and with good reason: They do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively.”

Violence in videogames is nothing new. Players have been shooting enemies since the arcade heyday of the 1980s. What has changed in that time is the graphical capabilities of game systems, which make the violence seem more realistic. Last June at E3 — the vidgame industry’s annual trade show — violence was one of the chief topics of discussion. I spoke with several vidgame execs, asking whether the industry might be reveling a bit much in its then-newly blessed First Amendment protection. Not surprisingly, they didn’t think so.

Yves Guillemot, CEO of Ubisoft, maker of the “Assassin’s Creed” franchise, said, “We must not forget it’s a virtual world. It’s just a way for us to change reality… to do things we don’t want to do in real life.” Strauss Zelneck, CEO of Take-Two Interactive Software, publisher of the “Grand Theft Auto” games, stated, “My barometer is not ‘Is there throat-stabbing?’ It’s ‘Why is there throat-stabbing? Does it create an emotional response?’… We’re in the art business and I stand behind that.”

Given how much shooters are in the spotlight today, it might be easy to think they dominate the industry. But they don’t. In 2011, shooters made up just 18.5% of all vidgames sold, according to The NPD Group. Among PC game sales, the category held just a 13% market share. And “Mature” rated games made up just 26.5% of game sales.

To put that in perspective, sports games made up 14.8% of sales and family entertainment was 11% on the console side. On the PC side, strategy games made up 27.6% of sales, while role-playing was 21%.

While the vidgame biz has learned many lessons from Hollywood, it hasn’t learned some important ones. When news of the Sandy Hook shootings broke, studios moved quickly to postpone parties for films like “Jack Reacher” and pulled new episodes of television shows that might upset viewers.

It wasn’t an acknowledgement to the inevitable criticism about media violence. It was a show of respect — to the families of the victims and the nation. But ads for gun-intense videogames continued to play.

There’s a rule in radio when a plane crashes: Ad traffic coordinators are instructed to pull airline ads off the air for a period of time. Perhaps it might be worth considering implementing a similar rule for violent videogames after a mass shooting incident.

As with Hollywood’s actions, it wouldn’t be any sort of admission, but it would be a decent thing for the industry to do.

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