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What is a violent game?

Shooting in schools and other public places has made headlines quite often, sparking heated debate about the causes of this phenomenon and what public authorities and civil society could do to prevent such incidents.

Violent video games are often cited as factors that would encourage shooters to plan attacks. As a result of this association, the regulatory mechanisms of the gaming industry are often questioned and controversial measures are suggested, ranging from the increasing rigor with which these products are marketed to their complete ban from the market.

There are studies that seek scientific proof that such games would be associated with a greater propensity to delinquency. Although these studies have not reached a consensus, it is necessary to develop a universal definition of what violent games would be to deal sensibly with consensual issues, such as the need to prevent children from accessing such content.

However, cataloging an electronic game as violent goes far beyond mere taxonomy. We must consider how exactly violence is identified, that is, what kind of images, sounds, plots and interactions destabilize the player or arouse aggressive behavior in him. Here is a very rough terrain to cover, because if we define, for example, the existence of weapons in the game as a synonym for violence, the presence of a slingshot would suffice to meet this criterion. Consequently, we would have to treat the Angry Birds mobile game as a violent game:

Another difficulty is establishing those responsible for making the classification as objective as possible, given the conflicts of interest of industry, legislators and the public. Since 1994, it is the game developers themselves, through the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), that rank their titles.

Although the choice may seem biased, the ratings of this association have worked seemingly well, including shaping society’s behavior, as in the case of the Night Trap game:

The game, originally offered for the Sega CD video game, was one of the first to receive the “Mature 17+” rating after the ESRB was established in 1994. After 25 years, the game was relaunched for modern platforms, like Playstation 4, under the name Night Trap – 25th Anniversary Edition, but now reclassified as “Teen”:

This emblematic case indicates that, within a quarter of a century, customs and practices have jumped so far that the label of “violent game” no longer identifies the same type of product.

It seems unlikely, therefore, that we will be able to establish a universal and inflexible criterion for labeling or banning violent games. The best safeguard available to consumers so far is industry self-regulation, which needs to be more widespread and debated to increasingly reflect collective interests.

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