Video Gaming, Crime, and Popular Culture (2024)


From the origins of the medium in Cold War think tanks to its current status as global rival with Hollywood for reign over the culture industry (Donovan, 2010), video games have long been surrounded by an aura of promise and progress but also one of danger, deviance, and violence (Kline, Dyer-Witherford, & de Peuter, 2003). Like many new media, video games have been the sources of controversy and sometimes, moral panics, even while they are quietly influencing and changing society. Computers’ abilities to rapidly and reliably produce complex, detailed simulations have changed not only the ways people of all ages play games but also how humans interact with machines.

Video games are now commonplace. The industry generates $22 billion in annual revenues, according to the Entertainment Software Association (2015); 155 million Americans play video games; 51% of all households now contain at least one “dedicated game system”; and 42% of Americans play at least three hours of video games per week.

However, as video games have increasingly found their ways into North American homes and have taken up more leisure time, troubling accusations have been made about the antisocial effects of video game playing, especially on children. Beginning in the 1980s with the emergence of relatively inexpensive home consoles, a generation of non-video-game-playing parents looked over the shoulders of their children as they played these new games and began to ask questions about the levels of mature content being presented to their children. In particular, they became concerned that video games might be exposing their children to graphic violence and sexual situations. For many, the fear and misunderstanding surrounding this new medium was exacerbated by purported connections between video game playing and horrific real-world crimes such as spree killings and, especially, school shootings.

To explore these issues, a brief account of the origins and growing popularity of video games is provided, highlighting a number of games that sparked controversy when they were released. To explore these controversies further, an analysis of political mobilizations around the issues of regulating sales of violent and sexual video games to children within the framework of moral panics is provided. In order to better understand this response, an overview of extensive research exploring the connections between video games, aggression, violence, and crime is provided. Quite apart from their potential role as a cause of bad behaviors, games have presented new venues for criminal behaviors. How some of the fundamental assumptions grounding video game design have led to this situation is explored.

Video Games in Society

To understand the sense of urgency and importance given to these debates, it is important to understand how, in the course of a little more than a single generation, video games have achieved mainstream acceptance and a place in popular culture in the United States and around the world. This section provides an overview of a few of the major milestones in video game development history in the United States. More in-depth analyses can be found in works by Donovan (2010), Dyer-Witherford and de Peuter (2009), and Kent (2001).

Like so many other consumer technologies now permeating everyday life, video games are a product of the military-industrial complex (Dyer-Witherford & de Peuter, 2009, p. 7). During the late 1940s and into the 1950s, as the cost of analog computers and visual display methods decreased, research and development efforts began stumbling toward what would ultimately culminate in the invention of graphical user interfaces. In this process, scientists and engineers began experimenting with new uses for visualization technologies such as oscilloscopes, televisions, and monitors. This work would lead to the development of the first video games (Donovan, 2010, p. 7).

Like a number of important technologies that have reshaped everyday lives, video games were independently “discovered” multiple times (Kent, 2001). In 1958, American physicist William Higinbotham unveiled Tennis for Two, arguably the first video game. Higinbotham created the game as a demonstration of advanced ballistic trajectory calculation equipment for Visitors’ Day at the Brookhaven National Laboratory located on Long Island, New York, a nuclear facility run by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (Dyer-Witherford & de Peuter, 2009, p. 8). Though not quite simultaneously, parallel invention of the medium occurred a few years later, in 1962, when Steve Russell and a cohort of computer scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) created Spacewar.

By the early 1970s, the technology had advanced and interest had grown sufficiently to support the emergence of video games into popular culture with the release of the first set of commercial video games, based primarily in coin-operated arcades. The runaway success of Nolan Bushnell’s Pong (1972) put the spotlight onto games for the first time and helped Bushnell gain celebrity as the “father of video games” (Kent, 2001, p. 48). By the end of 1974, over 100,000 coin-operated Pong games were in operation in the United States alone, making $250 million per year. The game’s release as a home console in 1975 was also a commercial success, with nearly 13 million consoles sold in the United States alone (Donovan, 2010).

Home consoles continued to gain a major foothold in North American markets, with consoles such as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). In part, Nintendo’s success can be attributed to the company securing the rights to Alexey Pajitnov’s Tetris (1984). With the power of such popular titles, the NES would ultimately sell nearly 62 million units (Goldberg, 2011, p. 66).

Wolfenstein 3D (1992) and Doom (1993) ushered in a new era of first-person shooter games. In particular, Doom quickly earned notoriety for both the state-of-the-art graphics and cavalier attitude toward casual, blood-drenched ultra-violence (Goldberg, 2011). The free demo of Doom was downloaded over 1.3 million times in its first five months on the market. The game’s makers, id Software, brought in over $100,000 a day (Donovan, 2010).

New home consoles emerged in the 1990s and early 2000s, offering the promise of better graphics and functionality and adopting new media formats that could play both games and film DVD disks. This created an unprecedented demand and also marked the beginning of convergence with game systems poised to become central entertainment hubs in the American household. Sony’s PlayStation 2, released in 2000, was the first console with graphical processors capable of outperforming comparable home computers (Dyer-Witherford & de Peuter, 2009; Finn, 2002). The PlayStation 2 would ultimately sell over 155 million units, setting a record for console sales that still holds today (Peckham, 2014). Though overshadowed by the PlayStation 2, Nintendo released its next system, the GameCube, in September of 2001. The same year, Microsoft joined the video game market with its release of the Xbox, the first console with a hard drive and built-in Internet connection (Dyer-Witherford & de Peuter, 2009).

With the release of a new generation of consoles in the mid-2000s (Sony’s PlayStation 3, Microsoft’s Xbox 360, and the Nintendo Wii) the formula for success primarily involving bigger, better graphics to draw in dedicated game players was challenged by Nintendo’s Wii. Despite using the least powerful processor and lacking high-definition graphics, the Wii was the most commercially successful (selling over 50 million systems by 2009) largely because of the revolutionary movement-based controller and emphasis on short, multiplayer games that everyone could play (Dyer-Witherford & de Peuter, 2009, pp. 88–89). This represented an unexpected turning point for the video game industry.

With the new technological capabilities of these consoles came a shift in the types of games being offered. Microsoft’s release of Xbox Live, a gaming network that allowed subscribers to play with one another, purchase games through the Xbox Live Arcade, and talk to other gamers in real time, brought online play to the forefront. By 2004, Xbox Live had over 2 million subscribers who, collectively, had logged over 1.4 billion hours playing online (Dyer-Witherford & de Peuter, 2009). Both Nintendo and Sony would soon adopt similar systems for their users as online multiplayer games became many users’ preferred way to play.

In terms of games for home computers (as opposed to dedicated consoles), massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) quickly gained popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Though not the first MMORPG, when EverQuest (1999) became popular, attracting hundreds of thousands of subscribers willing to pay monthly to play a game they had already bought, many within the game industry took note (Lastowka, 2009). Of these, World of Warcraft (2004) proved to be the undisputed king of the genre, quickly becoming the most successful MMORPG following its release, amassing over 12 million subscribers at its peak (Dyer-Witherford & de Peuter, 2009; Peckham, 2013).

Recent years have brought more changes to the video game industry. Nintendo brought the world the Wii U in 2012, while Sony released the PlayStation 4 and Microsoft released the Xbox One in 2013 (Wolf, 2015). All of these systems represent further convergence of media technologies, allowing users to not only play games but also surf the Internet, listen to music, download and watch films, stream movies and television shows, use social media, video conference, and much more. Virtual reality headsets, while having been around for decades, are beginning to find their place within the industry (CBS News, 2015). Similarly, leveraging the power of smartphones and social media websites such as Facebook, casual and mobile games have thrived, often adopting a “freemium” model in which ostensibly free-to-play games make revenues through in-game purchases. In this respect, games like Clash of Clans (2012) and Candy Crush Saga (2011) have been incredibly successful, with Clash of Clans making a million dollars in daily revenue in 2014 (Borison, 2014).

The extremely rapid development and widespread adoption of this technology has meant that the public has often found itself playing catch-up, trying to understand and make sense of the implications of a technology that has nonetheless already permeated everyday life. As a result, the public has often expressed concerns, mirrored and amplified by the media and politicians, that video games are a corruptive force on youth, leading to antisocial behaviors. Almost since the beginning of the medium, these moral panics have surrounded video games and shaped public reception of them (Kocurek, 2012).

Video Games and Moral Panics

In light of the controversial reception of video games since their inception, it is important to remember that, at least initially, every new medium has been demonized. As Miller (2006) explains, “new communication and cultural technologies and genres offer forms of mastery that threaten, however peripherally, the established order” (p. 7). In the 16th and 17th centuries, romances and plays were deemed by many to be “the ‘liturgy of the devil’” (Miller, 2006, p. 6). In the 18th century, the morality and individualism espoused within novels was seen as a threat to group cohesion and social order. From film and radio to comic books, rock music, and television, whatever medium has dominated the attention of young people has been treated, at least for a time, as being immoral or corrupt in some way. More recently, the rise in popularity of social media websites has caused panics regarding privacy, sexual predators, and the solicitation of minors (Roush, 2006; Boyd & Ellison, 2007). Similarly, the rise of Internet-connected “smartphones” with audio, high-definition still picture and video recording capabilities has brought with it fears regarding “sexting,” particularly in terms of minors whose pictures can be deemed child p*rnography (Friedersdorf, 2015).

The controversies surrounding video games can be explained by the traditional model of moral panics (Miller, 2006). As Cohen (1972) describes it, a moral panic occurs when a “condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests” (p. 1). In this formulation, “moral entrepreneurs” like newsmakers and politicians identify a “folk devil” threatening social order and stir up public concern, anxiety, panic, or indignation (Cohen, 1972). The moral panic framework is particularly helpful for understanding the fears that are elicited for some when encountering video games. First, this literature has been utilized to analyze moral panics in different mass media contexts, providing much-needed analyses of some of the infrastructure used to support video games, such as television and the Internet (Altheide, 2002; Altheide, 2009; Ferguson, 2008; McRobbie & Thornton, 1995). Second, the moral panic framework benefits from a robust and diverse set of intellectual, political, and empirical approaches, making the concept highly versatile (Matthew, Rohloff, Petley, & Hughes, 2011). In particular, the emphasis on studying both the object of the moral panic and the reactors to the conceptualization of deviance that is the focus of a specific moral panic (Young, 2011) is helpful for understanding the push-pull dynamics present in the legislative attempts to regulate video games. Additionally, the contributions of moral panic researchers who developed various perspectives on the culture of fear (Altheide, 2002; Critcher, 2011) are relevant frameworks for understanding the various social forces shaping the framing, reactions to, and attempts to legislate and control video games in response to the fears and anxieties they evoke.

Though American sociologists and criminologists tend to focus on the psychological factors involved in moral panics, their UK counterparts have often asserted that moral panics are, in fact, crises of capitalism (Thompson, 1998). That is, for UK scholars like Hall, Critcher, Jefferson, Clarke, and Roberts (1978), moral panics serve an ideological function by mobilizing support for “policing the crisis” or asserting new forms of social control. Jock Young (2011) offers an additional perspective that is particularly useful for understanding the current tensions and debates around video games. In particular, his conceptualization of “rational irrationality” is helpful for understanding how moral panics can simultaneously be tapping into anxieties about social change as well as actively trying to prevent change. In this context, it is worthwhile exploring how the relationship between sex, violence, and video games has been characterized and, perhaps more important, what new forms of social control have been presented as solutions to the crisis.

While violent games existed before Death Race, the public’s reaction to it in 1976 marked a turning point in the reception of violent video games (Kocurek, 2012). Though the graphics were primitive by today’s standards, they were nonetheless more representational of humanoid figures than had been previously achieved. As Kocurek (2012) argues, it was this increased (but still highly abstracted) verisimilitude combined with a lack of acceptable cultural narrative for the violence that sparked the controversy: “the game triggered outrage not merely because it was violent, but because it depicted violence which clearly questioned the state’s monopoly on legitimized violence” (Kocurek, 2012).

The question of decency would be pushed further a few years later with the 1983 release of Mystique’s Custer’s Revenge. Part of a little-known series of p*rnographic games released for the Atari 2600 and other early home consoles (Donovan, 2010), Custer’s Revenge is a side-scrolling game in which players control a pixelated General Custer, naked but for his hat, boots, and cravat, as he runs across the screen, erect penis bouncing as he dodges arrows and cacti. On the far side the screen, he eventually reaches a Native American woman tied to a pole. There, to score points, he rapes her (Kent, 2001). Protesters showed up at the first public exhibition of the game, and Atari even sued the game’s maker in hopes of keeping it off the console (Payne & Alilunas, 2016). This incident made it clear that graphic depictions of sexuality (as well as sexual violence, racism, and cultural imperialism) could spark controversy as easily as certain types of violence.

In 1993, Democratic senators Joe Lieberman and Herb Kohl chaired a series of Senate hearings on violence and video games to determine if video games were corrupting youth (Kohler, 2009). At the center of the debate was really a question about who was playing these games. Based on outdated research claiming the average video game player was between the ages of 7 and 12, public perception still placed video games firmly in the realm of children’s entertainment. However, updated data would later show that the average gamer during this time period was actually 22 years old (Ruggill, 2009, pp. 109–110).

This mismatch between the assumed and real demographics of players meant that initial attempts at industry self-regulation were largely dismissed (Kent, 2001). Fearing these video games were having long-lasting, antisocial influences on children, the senators strongly recommended a ban on violent video games (Kent, 2001). When this proved too drastic a response, Lieberman settled on introducing the Video Games Rating Act of 1994, which forced game companies to work together to establish the Interactive Digital Software Association. This association then created the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB, 2015b) to handle the rating of games, labeling them in such a way that parents should be able to clearly identify content appropriate for the age of their children (Kent, 2001).

Importantly, though initiated through legislation, the ESRB is a “non-profit, self-regulatory body that assigns ratings for video games and apps so parents can make informed choices” (ESRB, 2015a). Publishers of games pay a fee and submit their work for rating. To do so, they fill out a questionnaire regarding content (such as violence, sexual behavior, language) as well as the context for the game, which describes the degree of player control. Also included in the submission is a DVD with video clips of said content. The packet and DVD are reviewed by a group of at least three reviewers who determine a rating. The publisher can either accept this rating or choose to make revisions and resubmit the game for a new rating. As of 2005, the current rating system consists of the following categories: Early Childhood, Everyone, Everyone 10+, Teen, Mature, and Adults Only. While these ratings have no legal standing, because most major retailers now use them to some extent to limit sales to appropriate audiences, most publishers submit their games for rating (ESRB, 2015b). As such, the ESRB is a form of voluntary self-censorship ultimately aimed at deflecting further attempts by agents of the government to regulate the industry. In this task, it has largely been successful. However, that does not mean the industry has been without controversy since the inception of the ESRB.

The release of Grand Theft Auto III (2001) put allegations of video games causing violence back in the headlines. More so than any popular video game before it, Grand Theft Auto III celebrated and rewarded simulations of criminal behaviors by asking players to take on the role of a street criminal as he went about New York trafficking drugs, consuming p*rnography, soliciting sex workers, and engaging in drive-by shootings and gang warfare (Donovan, 2010). After a school shooting in Paducah, Kentucky, in 1997 that left three dead and five wounded, Florida-based activist attorney Jack Thompson filed the first of a series of lawsuits alleging that video games had caused violent criminal behaviors. Claiming games like Grand Theft Auto III and Doom (alongside violent films and Internet p*rnography) had caused the shooter, 14-year-old Michael Carneal, to lose the ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality, Thompson sought $130 million in damages on behalf of the families of Carneal’s victims.

In this and subsequent lawsuits, Thompson alleged that video games had equipped mass shooters with the skills required to perpetrate their crimes. He claimed that, much in the same way a pilot might practice in a flight simulator, a mass murderer might practice in a “murder simulator” (Grossman, 1998; Leonard, 2009) like Doom or Grand Theft Auto III. Using some variation on this logic, Thompson argued at least five such cases between 2003 and 2008. The courts were not impressed with his reasoning and ruled against his clients in every instance. The courts were not impressed with his methods either and, in 2008, he was disbarred by the Florida Bar Association for a variety of offenses including lying under oath, personal misconduct, libel, and slander (Fahey, 2008).

With the media attention garnered by the Columbine High School shooting in the unincorporated Jefferson township near Littleton, Colorado, 1999 was a year in which moral panic surrounding video games rose to new heights (Frymer, 2009; Birkland & Lawrence, 2009). Media coverage was quick to note that the shooters had been avid video game players and when it was revealed that Doom was one of their favorite games, and that they may have even created a map of their school in the game, Thompson’s “The Games Made Me Do It” defense was bandied about, often uncritically. In fact, following the Columbine shootings, the most common storyline news reports focused on was not the backgrounds of the killers or issues of gun control, mental health, or bullying but instead the role of violent media, including video games, in desensitizing these young men to violence (Leavy & Maloney, 2009). This established a pattern of media coverage that placed video games front and center in the discussion of school shootings.

In each of these cases, the connection between playing games and the crimes committed was ultimately dismissed by investigators; the final report on the perpetrator of the Sandy Hook shooting, Adam Lanza, would suggest he actually preferred nonviolent games (Ferguson, 2015). However, the sheer volume of reports making this accusation perpetuated the idea. Looking at the reporting surrounding Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook alone, nearly 5,000 news articles in some way discussed video games in the context of the shootings (Markey, Markey, & French, 2015, p. 2). Even the American Psychological Association (APA) adopted an official resolution on video games, warning of links between them and violent behavior (American Psychological Association, 2005). Only as of August of 2015 had the APA changed its position regarding such games once calls were made by researchers to review the research (American Psychological Association, 2015).

In 2000, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) went so far as to link playing video games to the “typical” shooter profile (Sternheimer, 2007). However, the FBI’s inclusion of “fascination with violence-filled entertainment” (Cumberbatch, 2004) in threat assessment materials for school shootings did not imply a causal connection but simply a correlated risk factor. The FBI saw this as an important distinction because it could find little to no evidence that video games have such an effect. A 2001 Surgeon General’s report on youth violence concluded that the strongest risk factors for youth violence and school shootings center on the child’s home life and his mental stability, not media consumption (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001). Further challenging this causal argument, Markey, Markey, and French (2015) looked for connections between game sales and changes in crime statistics. They observed no relation between the release of a new violent video game and an increase in crime. If anything, crime rates went down slightly when a violent game was released, perhaps suggesting that violent games operate as either cathartic releases for aggression or effective alternate venues for violence for people already so inclined (Markey, Markey, & French, 2015).

Despite this countervailing trend emerging in the research, within a year of the Columbine shooting, several states and local municipalities sought to pass legislation preventing access to the violent video games by minors. Presaging arguments that would be repeated by numerous appellate courts, in his opinion in American Amusem*nt Machine Association v. Kendrick (2001), Judge Poesner challenged the underlying assumption that children should be protected from violent media, writing, “Violence has always been and remains a central interest of humankind and a recurrent, even obsessive theme of culture both high and low.” He went on to argue,

It [violence] engages the interest of children from an early age, as anyone familiar with the classic fairy tales collected by Grimm, Andersen, and Perrault are aware. To shield children right up to the age of 18 from exposure to violent descriptions and images would not only be quixotic, but deforming; it would leave them unequipped to cope with the world as we know it.

A number of additional attempts, including the Protect Children from Video Game Sex and Violence Act of 2003, the Safe Games Illinois Act, and the Family Entertainment Protection Act were proposed, but ultimately failed or were overturned on appellate court challenges (Protect Children from Video Game Sex and Violence Act of 2003; Office of the Governor, 2005; Gerstein, 2015; Peterson, 2015; Walters, Weston, Garrou, DeWitt, & Walters, 2011). Legislation regulating game sales was passed in California, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Louisiana, and Oklahoma (National Coalition Against Censorship, n.d Cal. Penal Code § 1179, 2005; Office of the Governor, 2005; MI Penal Code § 722-685 Sec. 15, 2005; Minnesota Restricted Video Games Act, 2006; LA Penal Code § SB340, 2006; OK Penal Code § 1040.75-1040.77, 2006).

That 28 congressional hearings on violent media took place between 1954 and 1996 (Cumberbatch, 2004, p. 6) suggests that the legislative response to violent and sexual content in video games in the United States largely attempted to frame the problem as a public health issue like those caused by smoking or industrial pollution. For example, the California law went so far as to assert that video games caused psychological and neurological harm to children (Cal. Penal Code § 1179). In the 1980s, the belief that video games have caused the “dumbing of America” was exemplified with a New York Times article claiming that video games are “cultivating a generation of mindless, ill-tempered adolescents” (Cravenson, 1982). News stories would shift more toward the connection between video games and violence in the 1990s (McKernen, 2013).

However, this public health analogy would not prove legally compelling. Like Indianapolis’s city ordinance, one by one, these laws were challenged in the courts and, ultimately, struck down. The courts’ rulings in each of these cases came down to a question of First Amendment rights to free speech. As such, it was a matter of time before the question was put to the highest court in the land. When the Ninth Circuit Court ruled against the California ban in Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association (2009), the state of California petitioned the Supreme Court of the United States to review the issue. With the future of the rapidly growing video game industry hanging in the balance, a wide range of stakeholders took notice and provided amicus briefs to help educate the Court about the issues at hand. Included in the 26 amicus briefs in support of the Entertainment Merchants Association are statements by such industry heavyweights as Activision Blizzard, Inc.; ID Software LLC; and Microsoft Corporation in addition to statements from a host of game developers, free speech advocates, and media associations. In 2011, the Supreme Court of the United States declared the California law unconstitutional by a vote of 7-2 (Brown v. Entertainment Association, 2011). This ruling set a precedent that would shape the legal discourse surrounding video game violence for years to come. However, as a legal precedent, this decision did not fully quiet societal suspicions about games. As such, it is important to briefly explore the large body of research exploring “media effects” related to video games.

Video Games, Aggression, and Violence Research: Discussion of the Literature

At the heart of the moral panics surrounding video games was a deep-seated concern about protecting children from the antisocial impacts they might have. In almost every instance, reference is made to a body of scientific research demonstrating that video games do, in fact, lead to increased aggression. As an empirical question with significant social (and economic) impacts, an exploration of this research can be fruitful.

The amount of studies on media violence is staggering. Assessing the state of the field in the early 2000s, Cumberbatch (2004) estimated that 3,500 academic studies have been done on so-called media effects. A number of these have been commissioned by the U.S. Congress, which has spent millions of dollars trying to understand the issue. Importantly, much of this research has operationalized the effects of media consumption in terms of aggression. For example, Anderson and Dill (2000) found an association between violent video games and aggressive thoughts and behavior. Following in the footsteps of classical studies of social learning theory conducted by Bandura in the early 1960s with Bobo dolls, this research primarily focused on experimental designs in which juvenile subjects were exposed to violent or sexual content and then were monitored for signs of aggression afterward. Additional research, including a meta-analysis of 35 different studies found negative correlational effects between violent video game use and prosocial behavior (Anderson, 2004; Anderson & Bushman, 2001; Anderson et al., 2010), as well as a negative correlation between violent video games and physiological response to violence after playing such games (Carnagey, Anderson, & Bushman, 2007). The results of such studies seemed so conclusive that, in 2012, Anderson and Warburton would confidently declare that it can no longer be claimed the “jury is still out.” In fact, they would argue, “violent video game effects are larger than the effect of eating calcium on bone mass, of asbestos inhalation on related cancers, of condom use on reducing HIV infection numbers, of taking aspirin on reducing heart attacks and a range of other very important phenomenon” (Anderson & Warburton, 2012, pp. 67–68). Framing thusly as a matter of public health, these researchers advocated an official, government response.

However, despite this wealth of research, as evidenced by their rulings, U.S. courts have not been compelled. Neither have other researchers examining the issue. Because of methodological limitations, though most studies have shown a connection between video games and aggression, the nature of that connection—especially whether it is causal or correlational—remains unclear (Ferguson, 2015). In part, this is because many of the studies show nonsignificant findings, which are sometimes then overstated. Worse, studies that did find significant results often seem unreliable, inconsistent, and even contradictory of one another (Gunter & Daly, 2012; Ferguson, 2015). Some longitudinal studies have even shown no effect at all (Williams & Skoric, 2005). In fact, as a number American justices and judges have noted in their decisions, many of the studies’ authors themselves explicitly caution readers against assuming a causal link. Likewise, because of the limitations of their studies, many of these authors shy away from generalizing their findings (Cumberbatch, 2004; Jenkins, n.d.; Ferguson, 2015). Other researchers have commented upon the possibility that aggression is correlated with violent video games not due to their content, but rather to the competitive element of play (Adachi & Willoughby, 2011). Likewise, Juul (2013) has mentioned that video games may be associated with aggression because of the “paradox of failure,” which is the concept that humans generally avoid failure, the act of failure occurs when playing video games, and that games are still sought out regardless of said failure (p. 2).

Another way to explore the connection between games and violence is to look at the relative growth or decline of juvenile criminal offenses during the period in which games became increasingly popular. Sales figures provided by the Entertainment Software Association have shown a dramatic increase in sales of video games from the mid-1990s to the present, growing from $2.7 billion in game, console, and accessories sales during 1994 to $22 billion in 2014 (Entertainment Software Association, 2014). For comparison, researchers at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice have analyzed FBI Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) data on violent crimes committed by youth ages 10–17 from 1980 to 2008 (Butts, 2013). Their findings indicate that violent crime among this population group has declined dramatically since the mid-1990s. Currently, there is a 32-year low in the violent crime rate among youth (Sickmund & Puzzanchera, 2014). Specifically, “after 2008, the arrest rate fell sharply again. In 2008, there were approximately 300 violent youth crime arrests for every 100,000 juveniles in the population. Between 2009 and 2012, the rate of violence plummeted nearly 40% to fewer than 190 arrests per 100,000 juveniles” (Sickmund & Puzzanchera, 2014, p. 50).

Additional sources such as the annual report of juvenile offenders and victims confirm this downward trend in highly violent crimes. For example, juvenile homicide victimizations reached their peak in 1993, but have been steadily decreasing to reach some of their lowest levels, down 49% from the peak in the mid-1990s (Sickmund & Puzzanchera, 2014). This trend is present in nearly all measures of youth violence. Across different patterns of offending from property crime, to aggravated assault, to robbery, homicide, vehicle theft, and weapons violations, juvenile offending numbers have been at historically low levels since the 1980s (Sickmund & Puzzanchera, 2014, pp. 120–133), the same period of time in which video game sales were growing. Additional analyses controlling for various media influences have found a more significant relationship between the number of young people in a given population and criminal activity than that associated with the presence of media. For example, Ulmer and Steffensmeier (2014) provide a comprehensive overview of the variations in the positive correlations of age and criminal activity over various historical periods.

As has been demonstrated, a substantial body of research has explored the connections between video games, aggression, violence, and crime. However, this research has produced mixed results. On one hand, a group of researchers reports an increase in aggression and possible decreases in empathy linked to video game playing (Brockmyer, 2015; Carnagey, Anderson, & Bushman, 2007; Funk, Baldacci, Pasold, & Baumgardner, 2004). On the other hand, another group of researchers has challenged these findings by critiquing the methods and logic underpinning it. Though both sides claim to have the final word and each is able to provide compelling evidence to support its perspectives, it is important to remember they are effectively having two different conversations. While the answer to the question of whether playing violent video games is linked to an increase in aggression seems to be “yes,” the answer to the question of whether such increases in aggression lead to more violence or crime seems to be “no.” As a result, it can be useful to remember this debate can be fruitfully reframed in terms of the type of societal response implied: increased government regulation or parental responsibility.

Crime in Video Games

While the research does not support the claim that video games cause violence or crime, such behaviors occur within video games nonetheless. Indeed, given the extent to which video games have achieved mainstream status and the prominent place in society of online multiplayer games and even virtual worlds (presented in massively multiplayer online role-playing games [MMORPGs], for instance), the last decades have brought to light increasing numbers of accounts of real crimes occurring in or because of video games. While these are mostly sensationalistic stories evoking the old journalism aphorism of man bites dog, and though these cases are often exceptionally rare, some illustrate ways virtual worlds have become the “scenes” for the same types of crimes people commit against each other in the real world outside the game. Other cases illustrate how virtual worlds make possible (or even facilitate) crimes that could not easily be reproduced in other venues.

Accounts of “crimes” within video game worlds are almost as old as shared, online virtual environments themselves. In his famous Village Voice article “A Rape in Cyberspace,” Dibbell (1998) first challenged the public to consider whether violations against an avatar, a player’s digital stand-in on the screen, could or should be treated as violations against the player at the controls. In particular, he looked at an incident that occurred one night in LambdaMOO (1990), a text-based virtual community. Through the use of a voodoo doll, a subprogram with the purpose of “attributing actions to other characters that their users did not actually write” (Dibbell, 1998, p. 15), an avatar named Mr. Bungle forced other users’ avatars to perform various sexual acts with him and each other. Studying the community reaction to this incident, which eventually led to Mr. Bungle being “toaded” or banished from LambdaMOO, Dibbell noted that players did not experience the assault as a property crime. One of the violated users stated rather plainly, “He hurt us both” (Dibbell, 1998, p. 18). They experienced it as an assault. In fact, they claimed they had been raped.

This response was in line with McLuhan’s (1967) assertion that each new medium extends the senses in new ways, such that technologies are perceived simply as parts of our selves rather than as distinct prostheses. Like film and television extended sight and radio extended hearing, through their interactivity, video games extend “touch” (agency) into new (virtual) worlds. While the virtual rape case of Mr. Bungle set the stage for starting to think about avatars as extensions of players rather than as their property, this tension would emerge in a dramatic way in 2008 in a case of “virtual murder.” When a Japanese player of the game Maple Story (2003) logged in to find her online husband had divorced her avatar without any warning, she decided to get revenge (Schulzke, 2010). Given that she had acquired his identification and computer password while they were a couple, she logged into his account and deleted his avatar, effectively “killing” him in the game (McNeill, 2008). Though the emotional pain and psychological distress that had driven her to these actions clearly attested to the blurred line between player and avatar, no laws existed to deal with such a virtual murder. Instead, she was arrested for “illegally accessing a computer and manipulating electronic data,” a property crime for which she faced as much as five years in prison (Associated Press, 2008).

Other cases have offered additional illustrations of the lived, social realities of virtual fantasies. When a couple who had met in Second Life (2003) broke up in the real world, Kimberly Jernigan attempted to kidnap her former boyfriend (Associated Press, 2008). Jernigan drove from North Carolina to his Pennsylvania home, where she broke in armed with a pair of handcuffs, a BB gun, her dog, and duct tape (Rivera, 2008). The man fled and called the police, leading the woman to be arrested and charged with attempted kidnapping, burglary, and aggravated menacing.

This was not the only case in which virtual events led to real-world crimes. In 2005 in China, Qui Chengwei murdered Zhu Caoyuan over the theft of virtual property. Both were players of the MMORPG Legends of Mir 3 (2004); Qui had lent a dragon saber to Zhu, who then sold the virtual item to a third player for 7,200 yuan, the equivalent of just over $900 (Madary, 2014). When Qui went to the police to file a report, Chinese authorities told him that no crime had been committed. Frustrated, Qui took matters into his own hands, finding Zhu and stabbing him to death (BBC News, 2005). Qui would later plead guilty to manslaughter (Watts, 2005).

Though courts in the United States or elsewhere have yet to reconcile the law regarding avatars and virtual worlds with the social reality, they have been more willing to venture an opinion on the question of virtual property. In 2006, Marc Bragg purchased a virtual island in Second Life for the sum of $300. After his purchase, Linden Labs claimed the estate had been purchased through an exploit and took away the property. Moreover, the game company froze his account, “effectively confiscating all of the virtual property and currency that he maintained on his account with Second Life” (Bragg v. Linden Research, 2007). Bragg sued for the return of his property. After Linden failed to have the case thrown out in 2007, the company settled with Bragg out of court, restoring his access to his Second Life account (Caramore, 2008).

After this incident, Second Life removed any discussion of ownership of virtual property from its website, repositioning itself simply as a service for which subscribers pay a monthly fee and, as such, a service that can be cut off at the whim of the provider (MacLean, 2012). Before then, Linden Labs had asserted that users “retain full intellectual property protection for the digital content they create, including characters, clothing, scripts, textures, objects and designs” (Linden Labs, 2003). This property could be purchased or sold, with said property rights transferring when purchased, making it the first virtual world to do so (MacInnes, 2006). This policy change sparked a class-action lawsuit by Second Life users who claimed they had been promised ownership of their virtual goods (MacLean, 2012). However, in most countries, including the United States, the courts have yet to make a definitive ruling on rights to virtual property.

The debate over virtual property has very real consequences because currency exchanges exist for almost every virtual world, allowing players to exchange real money for virtual currency and vice versa (Castronova, 2005). Where game companies restrict this exchange, black markets pop up. As a result, video games and virtual worlds are presenting individuals with new venues in which to commit crimes. As Goodman (2011) notes, these new criminal opportunities are wide-ranging and include economic crimes aimed at manipulating virtual currencies through hacking and exploits, financial frauds aimed at manipulating other players through confidence tricks and social engineering, as well as using virtual worlds to launder money or even for extortion.

For example, EVE Online (2003) players have been victims of several Ponzi schemes. In 2006, a player going by the handle “Currin Trading” managed to steal 30 billion ISK (EVE Online’s virtual in-game currency), the largest known theft in EVE Online history (James 315, 2012). The same year, the EVE Intergalactic Bank was created by user “Cally” and used to steal 790 billion ISK, the equivalent of $170,000 (MMOStories, 2010). In response, while CCP Games agreed that it would keep an eye on the perpetrator’s account to make sure that the funds were not sold on the black market for real-world currency, the company otherwise refused to intervene. Similarly, in 2009, Ebank, another player-owned and -operated bank, would see its CEO, user “Ricdic,” steal 200 billion ISK and exchange it for 6,100 Australian dollars (Ocampo, 2009). In 2011, two users under the name “Phaser Inc.” managed to steal over 1.8 trillion ISK from thousands of players (Jones, 2011).

While the buying and selling of ISK is against EVE Online’s EULA (End User License Agreement), CCP Games has become known for its “laissez-faire approach to both business and the law,” which “has allowed EVE players to enact spectacular scams, with other players paying the price” (Chambers, 2011, p. 383). Before the EVE Intergalactic Bank scam, CCP had “turned a blind eye” to it (Adrian, 2010, p. 646). In the Ebank scandal, Ricdic was not banned from the site for stealing the funds from the bank. He only received a lifetime ban after selling the ISK for real funds. Because EVE Online is not tied to any government’s financial system, unless stolen ISK is sold on the “black market,” CCP is not required to do anything.

Video games and the online communities surrounding them have also provided new contexts for bullying, griefing (targeting someone online with unwanted attention), stalking, and other predatory behaviors (Goodman, 2011). Gray (2012) has expanded on racialized practices of online bullying and harassment of players in online multiplayer games such as the Call of Duty series, Halo, and other first-person shooter games. This “trash talk,” used by players against one another on the voice chat feature, is often based on voice profiling, with players using disparaging language against players based on race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.

Perhaps the most talked-about recent example of these behaviors has been GamerGate. This ongoing controversy ostensibly began with a concern about the ethics of gaming journalism. In August 2014, following the release of Zoë Quinn’s game Depression Quest, ex-boyfriend Eron Gjoni wrote a blog post accusing her of sleeping with a video game journalist in exchange for a favorable review. Under the guise of a discussion about journalistic integrity, conversations quickly emerged on social media sites such as Reddit, 4chan, and 8chan, collected under the hashtag #Gamergate (Stuart, 2014). When participants in these discussions began to decry the progressivism and social commentary beginning to play a more prominent place in gaming journalism, harassment of several prominent women in the gaming industry began. In addition to having her personal information, including photos and her home address, posted publicly online (through the practice of “doxing”), Quinn began to receive threats of rape and even murder (Stuart, 2014). When others came to defend her, expressing dissatisfaction with the misogyny in the video game industry, they too became targets. Game designer Brianna Wu, media critic Anita Sarkeesian, and actress Felicia Day were all subject to such harassment, receiving anonymous threats including ultimatums that mass shootings would occur if they did not cancel public speeches and discussion about their experiences (Stuart, 2014; Kamen, 2015).

Although these incidents are rare and the coverage of them often sensationalistic, each is suggestive of the ways video games have provided new motives, means, and venues for criminal behavior. More than anything else, the responses of victims (and sometimes the courts) suggest that video games and the virtual worlds they present have become parts of our everyday lives that we experience as being both real and meaningful (Rowlands, 2012).


Perhaps suspicions about the connections between video games, aggression, violence, and crime should have been expected. From the beginning, many of the types of interactivity central to video games have been premised on metaphors of violence. This, in itself, is not usual:

Every storytelling medium in the history of mankind has included violent themes and stories, because we depend on stories to help us sort through our conflicting values and our mixed feelings about aggression. We turn to violent entertainment for the same reason moral reformers turn towards apocalyptic rhetoric—because it gives us a sense of order in a world which otherwise can seem totally chaotic. We fantasize about a lot of things we’d never want to do in real life, and through fantasy we bring those impulses momentarily under control.

(Jenkins, 2002)

Like other forms of popular entertainment, video games are not simply escapist entertainment. They actively respond to social needs and desires.

As it turns out, violent exchanges are also some of the easiest interactions to program. In the if-then logic of a game’s exchange of blows or laser fire, for instance, the computer calculates if the trajectory of an attack will hit its target, then, perhaps with modifiers for attack strength, the defender’s armor, resilience, or ability to dodge, if it was a glancing blow, etc., the computer calculates the results: the successful attack subtracts X amount of health, lives, or hit points until the target reaches zero and is removed from the game. This jump-and-punch or point-and-shoot mechanic is much simpler than attempting to program a realistic simulation of persuasion, intimidation, or seduction, for instance. Compared to violence, these transactions are much more subtle, nuanced, and fuzzy, thus making them more difficult to translate into the inherently quantified, rationalized language of video game code.

As Koster (2005) explains, the elegant simplicity of violent interactions in video games is reinforced by the fact that such games largely rely on the activation of primal problem-solving skills. These include the skill sets that equipped countless generations of (pre-modern) humans to survive in almost every environment on the planet and include the timing and aiming required for hunting, the pattern recognition needed for gathering, and the techniques of projecting power required for territorial expansion and maintenance. That is, despite their rapid technological advances, video games continue to present messages suited to humans living in an earlier time, prominently conveying messages about “blind obedience to leaders and cultism, rigid hierarchies, binary thinking, the use of force to resolve problems, like seeing like, and its converse, xenophobia” (Koster, 2005, p. 68).

That is, despite the increasingly widespread cultural acceptance of video games, many experts believe the medium still has yet to mature (Duncan et al., 2015). Critiques in this vein have decried not only the medium’s reliance on the most basic of interactions (violence) for problem-solving but also its implicit and often unchallenged celebration of heteronormative masculinity and whiteness (Garner Ray, 2004; Gray, 2012; Schmieder, 2009). While a growing body of literature is pointing to the pro-social uses of video games, researchers also caution parents, suggesting they monitor their children’s video game playing to avoid exposure to inappropriate conduct and provide context and discussion when it does occur (McGonigal, 2011).

Video Gaming, Crime, and Popular Culture (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Velia Krajcik

Last Updated:

Views: 6438

Rating: 4.3 / 5 (54 voted)

Reviews: 85% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Velia Krajcik

Birthday: 1996-07-27

Address: 520 Balistreri Mount, South Armand, OR 60528

Phone: +466880739437

Job: Future Retail Associate

Hobby: Polo, Scouting, Worldbuilding, Cosplaying, Photography, Rowing, Nordic skating

Introduction: My name is Velia Krajcik, I am a handsome, clean, lucky, gleaming, magnificent, proud, glorious person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.