The first video game to ever exist, known as ‘Pong' which was released in 1972 is a far cry from the standards of video games now which make the most of the technological advancements in the last thirty years. The game was a table tennis sports game which featured plain and simplistic graphics. Three years after the release of ‘Pong’, the first violent video game was released. Known as ‘Death Race’, this game featured the same simplistic 8-bit graphics, and the player would find themselves playing as a car, with the objective of the game being to run over as many human-resembling pixels on the screen as possible while a timer counted down. The game had a terrible reception at launch, causing outrage from the public due to its violent content which had not been seen in any video games at the time. The developers eventually took the game off the market after the backlash of its release became so severe, with newspapers and other organisations attacking the game for promoting violence in a playable virtual form.
Seventeen years later in 1993, the game ‘Mortal Kombat’ was released and had one of the largest video game launches ever, with advertisements all over the TV, and the date of the release being called ‘Mortal Monday’. The game was the first to feature lifelike and realistic violence, being called the “most violent video game ever” at the time, as players could horrifically “finish” opponents with ripping the heart out of the fallen enemy, or tearing their head off, and hold it up as a trophy being just a few examples. Even though ‘Mortal Kombat’ was intended for mature audiences, there was no law which prohibited minors from playing or accessing the game which led to denunciations of the game by politicians and many news outlets. On December 1st 1993, American Senator Joe Lieberman gathered the Washington press corps and showed them recorded tapes of the most gory elements of the game, announcing his intentions to introduce a game age-ratings body to prevent what he believed to be the corrupting influence of video games on young minds. A week after the press conference, the senator chaired a subcommittee on violent video games, insisting that the industry needed to introduce a system of self-regulation if it wanted to avoid state regulation. Within five months of that, the games industry established the ‘Entertainment Software Rating Board’, a self-regulating entity which now determines the age ratings for video games. One of its first acts was to give ‘Mortal Kombat’ a “mature” rating making it illegal for people under the age of 18 to purchase it.
The trend of violent video game releases continued, with “Grand Theft Auto” emerging onto the market in 1998. The game caused controversy almost immediately after its release, due to the main missions of the game being for the player to drive prostitutes around town, smuggle drugs, kill lots of people and try to evade the police. The games industry took a major hit one year later when tragedy struck and the Columbine Massacre took place. The students who opened fire had been known to be fans of violent video games including “Doom”, a first-person shooter game released in 1993, and “Grand Theft Auto”. The panic revolving around violent games reached new heights after the shooting, and the families of the victims filed a lawsuit against 25 different entertainment companies, alleging that video games induce violence which in turn caused the deaths of the victims, however in 2002 the case was dropped.
In a ‘Los Angeles Times’ article, Scot Osterweil, creative director for MIT’s Education Arcade said that “there isn’t a lot of evidence to support theories that video games, particularly violent video games, foster antisocial or violent tendencies in young people.” Arguing that while it is true that prolonged exposure to screens can cause negative side effects due to blue light, there isn’t any reason why playing violent games should correlate with violent actions in the future. He then commented that violent crimes in the US have decreased by almost a third in the three decades that video games have existed. In 1991, there were almost 25,000 murders in the US which was the worst it had been. And in 2016, there were substantially less, with a total of 17,250 which is still very high. Osterweil noted that video games are a better hobby than picking up and playing an instrument as they challenge the player to find creative solutions to problems and to exercise their cognitive potential, with the skills that people learn in games helping to become skills that are key in the outside world. A view shared by president Ronald Reagan who once said in an interview on August 8th 1983 that, “I recently learned something quite interesting about video games. Many young people have developed incredible hand, eye, and brain coordination in playing these games. The air force believes that these kids will be our outstanding pilots should they fly our jets.”
Video games can also have positive impacts on people of all ages who play them. In the book ‘The Video Game Debate’, the writers argue that people who play video games show results of a larger and more diverse variety of cognitive and perceptual measures, whether it is from simple low-level visual abilities, to more complex quick decision making and task switching. Scientific investigations which looked into the potential effects of playing video games began in the early 1980s and have shown very evident enhancements in areas such as spatial selective attention, which essentially means processing visual information by prioritising different areas in one’s visual field. This is due to video games giving the player different points of interest on their screen, including the HUD (Heads Up Display) where they can see and interact with key game mechanics such as player health quickly while also keeping their attention focused on what is actively happening in the game.