TCS Daily

Political Games

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - July 7, 2004 12:00 AM

Legislators around the country are trying to ban violent videogames as immoral. According to this AP report in Wired News:

"Pediatricians and psychologists have been warning us that violent video games are harmful to children," said Mary Lou Dickerson, a Democratic legislator in Washington state who wrote a law now being challenged in federal court -- banning the sale of some violent games to kids. 'I'm optimistic that the courts will heed their warnings.'

"Lawmakers in at least seven states proposed bills during the most recent legislative session that would restrict the sale of games, part of a wave that began when the 1999 Columbine High School shootings sparked an outcry over games and violence."

Actually, other psychologists disagree regarding videogames and violence. And why we should care what pediatricians think is beyond me -- what do they know about this stuff?

But the move against violent videogames strikes me as a bad idea for other reasons. Not only does it represent an unconstitutional infringement on free speech -- as the Wired News story notes, "None of the measures that passed have survived legal challenge" -- but it may actually make America weaker.

American troops are already using videogames in training. Some are fancy custom jobs, like the combat simulators described in this article by Jim Dunnigan at StrategyPage:

"The new "ambush simulators" were done in less than six months. Using existing simulator technology, two different ambush simulator designs were created. Lockheed-Martin is delivering eight simulators based on large video screens, that surround the trainees and replicate the sights and sounds of an attack. Weapons equipped with special sensors allow the troops to shoot back from mockups of vehicles, and they also receive feedback if they are hit. . . .

"One problem with the ambushes and roadside bombs is that not every soldier driving around Iraq will encounter one, but if you do, your chances of survival go up enormously if you quickly make the right moves. The troops know this, and realistic training via the simulators is expected to be popular."

These sorts of things draw heavily on existing technology, most of it developed for consumer-market videogames. (And, in fact, the military uses some of those in training, too.) They also draw on troops' skills at rapidly mastering such simulators, skills likely honed on consumer videogames.

What's more, civilians who play military videogames, at least, may acquire useful knowledge. This may even have political ramifications. When television commentators second-guess things that happen in combat -- often showing an astounding degree of military ignorance in the process -- people who have played military videogames are more likely to see through it. At the very least, they have some sense of how fast things can happen, and how confusing they can be.

In fact, shortly after 9/11 Dave Kopel and I wondered if the spread of military knowledge via wargaming might lead to political changes in the way war is perceived by Americans. We wrote:

"Most people who wargame don't become real warriors -- although the games have always been especially popular at military academies. But anyone who spends a few hundred hours playing wargames (and many hobbyists put in thousands of hours) will soon know more about the nuts and bolts of warfare than most journalists who cover the subject, and most politicians who vote on military matters. . . .

"The Gulf War was too short, and too much of a set piece, for public military knowledge to play a major role. But there's reason to believe that it will be different this time -- especially as the favored geek mode of communication, the Internet, is now pervasive, meaning that geeks' knowledge, and their knowledgeable opinions, will have substantial influence. They will be able to put the military events of any given day into a much broader perspective, and they may be opinion leaders who help their friends and neighbors avoid the error of thinking that the last 15 minutes of television footage tell the conclusive story of the war's progress."

Were we right? You can judge for yourself. But I note that all the anti-videogame legislators mentioned in the Wired News story are Democrats. . . .


1 Comment

As a member of the younger genenration who was weaned on video games, I can't be happier you've done this piece. I've been telling my parents and grandparents for YEARS about the importance of video games to many eye-rollings and "Of course, dears." Thanks for the information I can help use to convince them they shouldn't be banned. It's not just about national defense. Many games are city simulators or role-playing games, relying on a reality-driven economy system. Imagine if they helped devlop business skills without losing large portions of capital? Or dating games mimiced sex-relations? Kids would be able to develop their sexuality safetly and more completely, without the humiliation of failing in front of their peers. The list is endless. If only educators took it serious and more people were studying them. anyway, thanks for the piece!

TCS Daily Archives