Lentis/Grand Theft Auto: Violent Video Games and Controversy

Do violent video games cause players to act violently? This chapter studies the controversy over violent video games, like the Grand Theft Auto series. It presents the two opposing viewpoints in the controversy and then discusses some scientific studies done in this field.

Brief History of Violence in Video GamesEdit

Violence existed in video games long before the development of Grand Theft Auto. In 1976, an arcade game titled Death Race attracted controversy for allowing players to run over "Gremlins" who many perceived to be pedestrians.[1] Since Death Race, innovations in electronics gradually made video games available to a larger audience, and media scrutiny of violent games increased considerably. Following media outcry over the horror game Night Trap and fighting game Mortal Kombat, U.S. senator Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) sponsored senate hearings on violent video games in 1993.[2] Alarmed by the possibility of federal video-game regulations, the game industry founded the Entertainment Software Rating Board, and created a rating system for games based on the level of violence and nudity.[2] As of 2011, video games have achieved mainstream status in the United States, and in-game violence is more realistic and ubiquitous than ever.

Critics of Grand Theft AutoEdit

Social Groups opposing Grand Theft AutoEdit

Jack Thompson speaking at a debate at California University of Pennsylvania

The first Grand Theft Auto was released in 1997.[3] But it was not until the release of GTA III, the first 3-D title in the series, that Grand Theft Auto series achieved widespread recognition. The ability of the protagonist of the game to hire and kill prostitutes drew criticism from various interest groups, most notably the National Organization for Women. N.O.W. put out an action alert urging its members to pressure Rockstar Games and Take Two Interactive into removing GTA III from stores.[4][5] GTA: Vice City, the next installment in the series, was condemned by Miami's Cuban and Haitian communities for featuring violence between Cuban and Haitian gangs.[6] In 2005, Senator Hillary Clinton urged Federal Trade Commission to launch a probe into GTA: San Andreas to find whether the game lets users access "graphic pornographic and violent content".[7] Mothers Against Drunk Driving also criticized GTA IV for allowing the player character to drive while drunk.[8] Jack Thompson, a lawyer and prominent critic of violence in video games, has been the leading activist against the creators of Grand Theft Auto. Before his disbarment by Florida Supreme Court, he was involved in several high profile teenage murder cases.

Case: Dustin LynchEdit

In 2002, Dustin Lynch, a 15-year-old from Ohio, was charged with first degree murder for the death of JoLynn Mishne. Attorney Jack Thompson was initially advising Mishne's family. Upon learning that Lynch played GTA, Thompson requested to become his defense lawyer. In a CNN interview with Anderson Cooper, Jack Thompson claimed that Lynch played GTA for 3 hours every day.[9] However, Lynch rejected Thompson's request, and denied being influenced by GTA. He claimed, "I killed JoLynn Mishne for my own personal satisfaction, not because of a video game".[10] Lynch was convicted, and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

Case: Devin MooreEdit

In 2005, 17-year-old Devin Moore, killed three people including two police officers while in custody for suspected car theft.[11] He was an obsessive GTA III player, and after his arrest, he said, "Life is just like a video game. Everybody's got to die sometime".[11] Jack Thompson filed a $600 million wrongful death lawsuit against Take Two Interactive in 2006 on behalf of the families of Moore's victims.[12]

Case: Cody PoseyEdit

In 2006, Cody Posey from New Mexico was convicted of killing his father, stepmother and stepsister. He was 14 years old at the time of the murders. Jack Thompson brought a suit against Sony Corps, Take-Two Interactive and Rockstar games, referring to violent games like GTA as "virtual reality murder simulators."[13] Thompson said that "Posey essentially practiced how to kill on this game. If it wasn't for 'Grand Theft Auto,' three people might not now be dead."[14] According to Posey's criminal defense attorney Gary Mitchell, Thompson urged him to highlight the role of Grand Theft Auto in Posey's Defense. Mitchell found no merit in Thompson's claim.[13]

Apologists of Grand Theft AutoEdit

Some parents, lawyers, and other activists claim that Grand Theft Auto induces a penchant for violence in its players, and therefore they attack the selling of violent video games to minors. Two social groups which oppose this assertion and defend violent video games are organizations promoting freedom of speech and companies with a stake in the sale of video games. The first amendment allows companies like Take-Two Interactive and Rockstar Games to publish video games centered around violence and to market these games to whomever they wish.

Free Speech OrganizationsEdit

The First Amendment Center is a nonpartisan organization which promotes discussion and education about the rights granted by the first amendment.[15] While it informs the public about issues related to the First Amendment, it does not get involved with any cases. An article published in July of 2011 discussed the Supreme Court's ruling on a California law.[16] The Supreme Court decided that California cannot ban the sale of violent video games to minors because it violates their first amendment rights. Justice Scalia likened banning violent video games to banning gory fairy tales and violent Saturday morning cartoons.[16] Other articles on their website demonstrate how the first amendment dominates legislation related to Grand Theft Auto and violent video games. The courts have decided that ads for violent video games cannot be banned,[17] and other states are losing or have lost the battle over restricting the sale of violent video games.[18][19][20] The First Amendment Center also reports on statements and lawsuits against violent video games, staying impartial while informing the public.

Other free speech social groups, like Media Coalition, actively protect the first amendment rights of Americans. Media Coalition defends the right to "produce and sell books, movies, magazines, recordings, DVDs, videotapes, and video games."[21] That includes violent video games. It lobbies federal, state, and local governments, and it challenges laws it believes violates the First Amendment. Organizations like the Entertainment Software Association and the Entertainment Merchants Association comprise Media Coalition.

While there are numerous free speech groups which defend the rights of minors to purchase and play violent video games, they all have one thing in common. They all believe that restricting the sale of violent video games is unconstitutional. Currently, the government can restrict obscene media from being sold to minors, but the definition of "obscene" includes mostly sexual materials, not violent ones.[22] These free speech organizations have fought for years to keep this paradigm unchanged. The recent case from California solidifies their position and arguments.

The Video Game IndustryEdit

The companies which make and distribute video games have a financial stake in the controversy, but they are frequently blamed for any wrongdoing resulting from children playing violent video games. In 2003, William and Joshua Buckner shot Aaron Hamel and Kimberly Bede and told police that Grand Theft Auto III had inspired their actions.[23] The families of the victims hired Jack Thompson, who then sued the developer, Rockstar Games, the publisher, Take Two Interactive, the distributor, Walmart, and the maker of the PlayStation console, Sony Computer Entertainment, in order to "send a message to video game makers."[23] The video game industry has the right to make and sell violent video games, and it defends that right because violent video games are profitable.

Psychological Research on Media and AggressionEdit

There is a significant body of scientific research on the link between viewing media violence and aggressive behavior. However, Bushman and Anderson (2001) found that between 1970 and 2000, news reporting on this phenomenon decreased slightly, even as the evidence for it was increasing.[24] One very recent study by Engelhardt, Bartholow, Kerr, and Bushman (2011) found several short-term causal effects of playing violent video games.[25]

"This is your brain on violent video games"Edit

In their experiment, Engelhardt et al. had participants play either a violent or nonviolent video game for 25 minutes. Following that, while wearing an electroencephalogram cap to record brain activity, they viewed a series of neutral and violent photographs from the International Affective Picture System designed to elicit emotional responses. Finally, they performed a task that measures aggression.[25]

The participants were told that they were competing in a reaction time test against another person whom they could not see. For 25 trials, they would race to be the first to press a button, and the loser would receive a blast of white noise. In reality, there was no opponent and everything was controlled by a computer. Before each trial, they would set how loud the noise would be for their opponent (no noise or between 60 and 105 dB), and how long it would last (from 0 to 2.5 seconds). Aggression was defined as the loudness they selected on the first trial, because after the first, they would trend towards choosing the same values that they thought the "opponent" was choosing.[25] This task a variation on one that has been shown to accurately measure aggression.[26]

The experimenters found that the participants who had played a violent video game were more aggressive than those who did not. In addition, those who played a violent game in the beginning of the experiment and those who had previous experience with violent games showed less of a neural response (desensitization) to violent images.[25]

"Effects of violent video games on aggressive behavior"Edit

Anderson and Bushman (2001) performed a meta-analysis of 35 studies of violent video game-playing and subsequent aggression.[27] In a meta-analysis, the authors pool a number of different data sets and treat them as one, then perform a statistical analysis on them. These 35 studies contained 54 independent samples with a total of 4,262 participants.[27]

Across all the studies, higher exposure to violent video games was positively correlated with aggressive behaviors, aggressive thoughts, aggressive moods, and physiological arousal (increased heart rate and blood pressure). It was also negatively correlated with prosocial behaviors such as helping others.[27]

"Joint Statement on the Impact of Entertainment Violence on Children"Edit

The AAP, AACAP, APA, AMA, AAFP, and APA issued a joint statement in 2000 on the effects of media violence on children.[28] They asserted that media violence has a "measurable and long-lasting" effect, but that it is complicated and does not affect everyone exactly the same. Nevertheless, there are several ways that it typically presents. These include a belief that the world is violent and that violence is acceptable, and also emotional desensitization and greater aggressive tendencies later in life. However, they go on to state that media violence is not the only or the most important cause of aggression. They issued the statement not to ask for censorship of media violence but to spread awareness of a problem in order to work towards solving it.[28]


There are several lessons that can be learned from the controversy over violent video games. For one, the actions of one high-profile person can impede a movement with an otherwise reasonable argument, just as Jack Thompson's extremely unprofessional behavior hindered other activists against violent video games. In addition, scientific research may be ignored by those who disagree with it or do not want to hear it. Even though scientific evidence links violent media with an increase in aggression, most people still seem to agree that violent video games are a perfectly acceptable form of entertainment without psychological consequences.


  1. A History Of Virtual Violence, Forbes.com
  2. a b Brief History: Video-Game Violence, Time.com
  3. IGN Presents: The History of Grand Theft Auto, IGN
  4. Feminist Media Round-Up: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, National Organization for Women
  5. Playing A "Good" Game: A Philosophical Approach To Understanding The Morality Of Games, International Game Developers Association
  6. Outrage over game urging Haitian, Cuban killing, CNN
  7. Clinton seeks 'Grand Theft Auto' probe, USAToday
  8. attacks 'Grand Theft Auto IV', MSNBC
  9. Violence, Sex in Video Games Under Fire, Again, CNN
  10. Boy who killed girl:'I did her a favor', wnd.com
  11. a b Can A Video Game Lead To Murder?, CBS News
  12. Grand Theft Auto sparks another lawsuit, GameSpot.com
  13. a b Relatives of Posey's Victims Say Video Game Helped Turn Teenager Into a Killer, Albequerque Journal
  14. Video-game maker blamed in '04 killing Albequerque Tribune
  15. About the First Amendment Center
  16. a b High court: Calif. can’t ban violent video-game sales, First Amendment Center
  17. Federal judge halts Chicago Transit ban on ads for violent video games, First Amendment Center
  18. Court strikes down Ill. video-game law, First Amendment Center
  19. Mich. video-game law put on hold, First Amendment Center
  20. Washington video-game law in suspended animation, First Amendment Center
  21. About Media Coalition
  22. Could violence become ‘obscene’ in law?, First Amendment Center
  23. a b Did Video Game Drive Teens to Shootings?, ABC
  24. Media violence and the American public, University of Michigan
  25. a b c d This is your brain on violent video games: Neural desensitization to violence predicts increased aggression following violent video game exposure, ScienceDirect
  26. Construct validity of a competitive reaction-time aggression paradigm, Wiley Online Library
  27. a b c 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, Iowa State University
  28. a b Joint Statement on the Impact of Entertainment Violence on Children, American Academy of Pediatrics