IDEAS | Kelly O’Brien

The epic pixel panic

Orlando Arocena for the Boston Globe

Recently, in an act of nostalgia, I revisited a favorite adolescent pastime.

I walked over to the nearest police station, where a pair of empty cruisers sat out front. I slid into the driver’s seat of one of the cars, and, when an officer approached to remove me, I ran him over.

I hopped out and collected the gun from his dead body, then I got back in the car and roared out of the parking lot. With their engine power and responsive steering, cop cars are a lot of fun to drive.

I veered across a sidewalk. Innocent bystanders flew through the air or crumpled under my tires. Their bodies made comical squishing sounds. My car barely slowed. I didn’t exactly mean to kill them, but I didn’t much try to avoid it either.


Sirens wailed, and police vehicles tried to T-bone me at every intersection. Eventually, one managed to flip my cruiser on its roof. I crawled out before it went up in flames, but now I was surrounded by cops.

I ran and fired my gun frantically. I must have shot at least one officer because I heard the ominous fluttering of helicopter blades above my head — a sure sign law enforcement was taking me seriously.

But the chopper wasn’t necessary. I couldn’t escape the thicket of gunfire on the street. Bullet after bullet slammed into my body, and, then, I was on ground. In thick, red type, the word “Wasted” pulsed in front of an overhead shot of my mangled body.

In the upper right corner of the “Grand Theft Auto III” screen, four out of six icons in the shape of police badges flashed, representing my “wanted level” in the world of the game.

Not bad.

But when I was in middle school and knew a cheat code that would give me a bazooka, I could get all six badges. The military would send tanks after me. It was great. It was also the kind of behavior that spawned congressional hearings and state laws banning the sale of video games to minors.


In fact, while “Grand Theft Auto” was an atypical video game series in many ways, its arc — from irreverent newcomer to controversial blockbuster blamed for corrupting children to a game lauded for its artistic sensibilities — traces the industry’s maturation and, maybe, shows how we as a society have also grown up when it comes to violent video games.

Twenty years ago, the first “Grand Theft Auto” — then called “Race ‘n’ Chase” — was in development at a small Scottish game studio named DMA Design. In its first iteration, players drove through city streets, shown from a bird’s-eye view, in the role of a police officer chasing down robbers. To make the game feel realistic, despite graphics that were blocky even for 1996, developers added other cars on the road, pedestrians on the sidewalks, and traffic lights that blinked from red to green.

But waiting for a digital stoplight to turn green was boring. As journalist David Kushner details in his book, “Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto,” some people within DMA began to think of the game dismissively as “Sims Driving Instruction,” a reference to the popular but uninspired life simulation game.

So developers flipped the game on its head, turning the criminal character into the protagonist. Freed from the burdens of responsible policing, players no longer had to wait at stoplights. They no longer had to follow any rules at all. In fact, they were now rewarded with points for every innocent pedestrian they turned into a pixelated red splat.

When employees at DMA Design’s parent company — including a core of producers who would go on to form Rockstar Games and guide the next two decades of the “Grand Theft Auto” series — got their hands on a demo of the new “Race ‘n’ Chase,” they knew they had something big. And they knew what to do with it.


The team renamed the game “Grand Theft Auto” and structured a marketing campaign around its violent possibilities, seeding tabloid stories that played up the controversy and reveling in the attention that came after a member of the British House of Lords spoke against the game during a legislative session.

It worked, to an extent. Though the original “Grand Theft Auto” was not the sales juggernaut its successors would become, it turned a profit and set its creators on the path to stardom and notoriety.

The decision to add violence to both the game’s design and marketing wasn’t made in a vacuum. The Scots and Brits would have been aware of the ordeal their fellow gamers in America had gone through just a few years before.

In June 1994, the US House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance held a hearing on violence in video games in order to find ways to help parents protect their children from games like “Mortal Kombat.”

Why, exactly, children needed to be protected from cartoonish virtual fighting was more a tenet of faith than a topic of argument. Several testimonies emphasized the unprecedented crime wave that was sweeping America at the time, implying a connection to on-screen violence. Then Congressman Edward Markey of Massachusetts, the subcommittee chairman, mentioned “hundreds of scientific studies over the past three decades documenting the effects of media violence on children,” which he said had come to the conclusion that it “contributes to the problems of violence and aggression in our society.”


The limited research actually cited during the hearing, however, came to fairly narrow conclusions about the relationship between violent media and “lower levels of prosocial behavior” or “increased acceptance of aggressive attitudes.” Much of the research was done on subjects aged 18 and over, making it unclear how much of it also applied to children.

The driving force behind the hearing was not research but emotion, which US Representative Tom Lantos of California aptly summarized when he began his testimony with a “personal confession.”

“I am not a great player of interactive video games,” Lantos said. But he had once seen several of his 15 grandchildren playing a game given to them by a neighbor.

“And these otherwise marvelous little children were relishing the degree of sadism and torture that they could engage in,” Lantos said. “And I decided that it was both a professional and a personal responsibility to do something about it.”

Lantos also laid out the tactics he and other video game critics would use to win the public relations battle, taking a lesson from his own subcommittee’s fight several years earlier to reform child labor laws. “We attempted to deal with the worst violators of child labor laws on the basis of persuasion, and we failed,” he said.

“So we will go the route of exposure” to fight against violent video games.

There was plenty to expose. The violent crime rate peaked in 1991 at 758 crimes per 100,000 people. The same year, 1991, also saw 24,700 murders, the most in American history. By comparison, in 2014, those numbers were 376 violent crimes per 100,000 people and 14,249 murders. Crime rates remained high throughout the 1990s.

Some of those criminals played video games. Some of those murderers were young. The combination was political tinder, and rhetoricians eagerly lit the match.


David Grossman, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who became a professor of psychology at West Point, invented a field he called “killology” to study humans’ physiological responses to killing each other. He co-wrote a book titled “Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill,” in which he repeatedly referred to video games as “murder simulators” and made much of the parallel climbs of America’s crime rate and the amount of violence on television.

In 1997, a high school freshman in Paducah, Ky., carried five guns into the school lobby and killed three of his classmates participating in a prayer circle. A year and a half later, a lawyer named Jack Thompson filed a $130 million lawsuit on behalf of the three victims’ parents against the makers of video games “Doom” and “Mortal Kombat,” among other companies.

“We intend to hurt the video-game industry,” Thompson said in a press conference, alleging that the shooter was inspired by media.

Eight days after Thompson’s press conference, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 people at Columbine High School in Colorado. When it came out that the pair were also avid “Doom” players, the connection between violent video games and school shootings was lastingly forged in the public imagination.

“The conversation has almost always been thoroughly hijacked by school shootings,” said Douglas Gentile, an associate professor at Iowa State University who has a doctorate in child psychology and studies the effects of violent media. “Because that’s the only time it shows up in the public dialogue, that’s what people think scientists are talking about. And that’s the wrong time to talk about because that’s not where the effect is.”

In fact, research has nearly nothing to say on the potential connection between violent video games and school shootings. The problem is one of sample size.

Many millions of children play video games that contain violence, but very few murder their classmates. Every school shooter is an extreme outlier, pushed to action by a confluence of agitating forces and a lack of soothing influences. Some shooters’ biographies share elements, including an affinity for video games, but their small number and unique circumstances make it nearly impossible to separate important influences from trivial ones, or causes from effects.

The same logic applies to violent acts more generally, according to Gentile. Violence, defined as something like a physical act meant to kill or severely injure another person, is an extreme occurrence — even in 1991, only about 0.75 percent of Americans committed a violent crime — and extreme occurrences require a combination of risk factors.

Pinpointing any particular video game as the cause of any particular act of violence is like saying a pack-a-day smoker died of lung cancer because his childhood home had asbestos in the walls. It didn’t help, but there were probably more important factors at play.

What the research does support, according to Gentile and to a review of the scientific literature published by the American Psychological Association in October 2015, is a connection between violent video games and aggression.

As opposed to violence, aggressive behavior is usually not criminal. It can range from a nasty online comment to a playground shoving match. Aggressive thoughts or feelings — “cognition” in the academic parlance — are even more common among both kids and adults.

The APA looked at four meta-reviews completed before 2009 and found a “consistent relation between violent video game use and heightened aggressive behavior, aggressive cognitions, and aggressive affect.”

The APA also reported that 12 of 14 studies published since 2009 that tested the connection between violent games and aggressive behavior found a positive correlation. Thirteen of 13 new studies that looked at games and aggressive cognition found a correlation there as well.

Gentile points out that, although not as sensational as a connection between games and school shootings, an increase in aggressive behavior and mindset among kids is not trivial for millions of families. Far more children will be negatively affected by an increase in bullying than will ever be the victims of physical violence.

But even the connection between aggression and violent video games has its limits, according to the APA report. The task force found few longitudinal studies of gamers and could establish a link between violent games and increased aggression only “over at least some time spans.” Furthermore, while a significant amount of research has been done on adolescents — an improvement over the situation in 1993 — children under 10 years old are rarely studied.

The APA could not determine whether children are uniquely susceptible to the effects of violent video games, an oft-repeated tenet of “Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill,” which assumes kids are inherently unable to distinguish fantasy from reality.

Even while much of the nuanced research the APA report cites was underway in the 2000s, the public debate around violent video games generally, and “Grand Theft Auto” in particular, was becoming ever less subtle.

Things culminated in 2005 with the uproar over “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.” A hidden scene, uncovered in the game’s source code by a hacker in the Netherlands, allowed players to control the main character while he had sex with his girlfriend. It wasn’t exactly hard-core pornography, since the main character remained fully clothed throughout, but the addition of sex to the violent backdrop of the game proved too much for American parents and politicians.

The Federal Trade Commission launched an investigation into Take-Two Interactive, the company that owned “Grand Theft Auto,” which was later settled without Take-Two admitting wrongdoing. A class-action lawsuit from buyers of the game would eventually cost Take-Two $20 million in settlement payments.

Hillary Clinton, then a US senator in New York, filed legislation that would prohibit stores from selling games rated “Mature” or “Adults Only” to children under 18. In her press conference announcing the bill, Clinton compared exposure to violent video games to lead poisoning and said they were “stealing the innocence of our children.”

Though Clinton’s bill went nowhere, similar laws passed in states like California, Michigan, Illinois, and Louisiana. It was a dangerous time to be a maker of violent video games in America.

But all of those laws were overturned by courts in the years after they passed. By 2011, the California law had made it to the Supreme Court, which declared that “violent speech” in video games is protected by the First Amendment, even when those games are sold to children.

Furthermore, the court rejected the evidence California presented to underline the connection between games and real world violence, finding that the studies “show at best some correlation between exposure to violent entertainment and minuscule real-world effects, such as children’s feeling more aggressive or making louder noises in the few minutes after playing a violent game than after playing a nonviolent game.”

In those half a dozen years, more than just the legal landscape had changed.

America’s violence rate, which had begun to decline in the late 1990s, was now at its lowest level since the early 1970s. Middle-schoolers who had played early “Grand Theft Auto” games were adults, and they were not obviously more violent than previous generations.

Video games were no longer a novelty but an established part of America’s media intake. The APA report estimated 97 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds had played some kind of video game.

And while violent games were no less prevalent, at least some of them had evolved past their adolescent zeal for carnage.

“Grand Theft Auto IV,” which was released in 2009, eight years after “Grand Theft Auto III,” takes place in the same fictional Liberty City but is different in both plot and gameplay.

Instead of the thinly developed criminal character from “GTA III” — who escapes from a police wagon after being arrested for bank robbery and jumps right back into the mob-controlled underworld — players of “GTA IV” are cast as Niko, an Eastern European immigrant fleeing a war-torn country and a haunted past.

He comes to Liberty City, this time closely modeled after New York, because his cousin brags about his American lifestyle. But the cousin is lying. He’s actually a struggling cab driver in debt to a host of low-level loan sharks increasingly desperate to collect. Niko sleeps on his grimy pullout couch.

The situation forces violence upon Niko, who tries to protect his cousin, even as he’d rather be taking a new acquaintance out on a date. (A mission you can actually fail by driving too recklessly.) Movie-style scenes within the game show Niko’s frustration when he can’t avoid physical violence, something that never happened in earlier installments.

Those rampages I enjoyed so much in middle school, which never had anything to do with the game’s plot anyway, are also a lot less fun.

“GTA III” encouraged mayhem through physics. Cars went fast and mostly bounced off obstacles; dead pedestrians hardly slowed them down at all. Two or three punches would usually kill strangers on the street and leave a glowing green orb of money floating above them. It was easy to kill and hard to die.

In “GTA IV,” however, Niko’s world is more realistic, full of sluggish, rundown cars that drive even worse after being rammed into a light post. Strangers on the street fight back, leading to unpleasantly bloody and drawn out slugging matches. Even the cops seem to have gained some experience. In my attempt to max out my wanted level, I could only get two out of six badges flashing and never even got my hands on a gun.

Despite its dreary tone and the limited opportunity for the kind of gleeful violence that made its predecessors stand out, critics loved “GTA IV.” It has a 98 out of 100 rating on Metacritic.com even though a number of reviews note that the graphics, driving controls, and on-foot movements lagged behind other games of the period. Professional reviewers called Liberty City “a living, breathing work of art” and compared the experience to screening “The Godfather” in 1972.

The national conversation around violent video games and school shootings has also evolved toward nuance in the past decade. The reaction to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012 provides a useful foil to the rhetoric of the 1990s and early 2000s.

When Connecticut officials released their final report on the shooting, it contained a list of video games found in the home of shooter Adam Lanza, including two “Grand Theft Auto” titles and several first-person shooter games. Investigators also found a “computer game titled ‘School Shooting’ where the player controls a character who enters a school and shoots at students.”

Of course, a number of media outlets, including the New York Post, led their stories with that revelation. The Daily Mail later published a story about the 83,496 “kills” Lanza had reportedly amassed in an online game called “Combat Arms.”

But many other publications questioned the importance of the video games. The Washington Post crunched the numbers on mass shootings in the 10 countries with the biggest video game markets and found no correlation between shootings and game sales.

The Hartford Courant published an op-ed by a psychology professor titled “Lanza’s Violent Video Game Play Overblown,” which pointed out that “his particular interest was in nonviolent games like ‘Dance Dance Revolution.’ ”

Although US Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia introduced legislation that would mandate a study of the impact of violent video games on children, even that moderate bill fizzled and never came to a vote.

In other words, a connection between violent video games and the killer of 20 kindergartners prompted less public outcry than a pixelated soft-core sex scene had prompted half a decade earlier.

None of this is to say that we’ve put moral panic behind us, even in the realm of violent video games. The next stage of gaming is sure to include virtual reality, which will boost the realism of any violence that players witness or participate in.

There is little research so far on how virtual reality violence affects children, but when it comes, it will undoubtedly reach the kind of nuanced conclusions that are easily blown out of proportion in the public sphere. Let’s just hope we can all be grown-ups about it.

Kelly O’Brien can be reached at kelly.obrien@globe.com.