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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Video Games: Playing with Ethics?

This panel was co-sponsored by the Santa Clara University Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, the Santa Clara University Center for Science, Technology, and Society, and the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose. It was held at the Tech Museum on Nov. 29, 2005.


Participants included:

State Assemblyman Leland Yee, author of a recent measure to prevent the sale of violent games to minors

Mike Antonucci, tech writer, San Jose Mercury News

Kristin Asleson McDonnell, CEO, LimeLife, a company that develops mobile phone games for women and girls

Caroline Ratajski, an SCU senior, computer engineering major, and video gamer

Introduction by SCU Visiting Professor Susan Leigh Star (computer engineering)

Moderated by SCU Professor Chad Raphael (communications)



MS. LEIGH STAR: I'd like to welcome you all to this exciting and unique event. I'm Leigh Star, president of the Society for the Social Studies of Science and also a researcher and teacher at Santa Clara University in the Center for Science, Technology, and Society, and in computer engineering.

I've noticed, after living in Silicon Valley since there were prunes here, that as a culture, certainly here in Silicon Valley, we tend to be enthusiastic about computing, to say the least. Almost any kind of computing in almost any form. Nanotech will perhaps help cure some of our most deadly diseases. The web mixes retail with eTail, and, according to a radio program I heard yesterday or today, both are benefiting now.

The uses of email, instant messaging, and data mining seem endless. Just a few seem grumpy about the time and loss of handwriting skills involved with computerization, but on the whole, California keeps finding new and better things to do with this unique technology.

Except sometimes. And one of the sometimes is when it comes to video gaming. Here especially parents and spouses I think, maybe friends, are often uneasy, and the uneasiness is, as we've been talking and setting up this panel, comes from three different places roughly at present. First of all, is gaming addictive? And there are all these urban legends springing up about the guy who couldn't pull himself away from gaming, so he just sat in his chair until he melted, basically.

If gaming is addictive, then another set of questions comes. What is it doing to the brains and bodies of gamers? And it reminds me a lot of early concerns about television and films. Will it inculcate violence, especially in young people's minds? It's a kind of catch phrase that is very important.

Finally, do games reinforce gender and race stereotypes with things like inscrutable Ninja warriors, Latino drug cartels, and damsels in distress?
So these are just a few of the issues before us tonight, and we take them all very seriously and don't feel that any of them are resolved yet. We're just starting a much larger conversation, or entering into a larger conversation.
There are three distinct units that put this together-the Santa Clara Center for Science, Technology, and Society, where I was the representative; our Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, where I worked closely with David DeCosse in putting this together; and the Tech Museum, where we worked most closely with Yolanda Canny.

And it was just really interesting to get together and try to think through this, and even more interesting when the "Game On" exhibit coincided exactly with our timetable for putting this on. So it was a kind of once-in-a-lifetime chance to put all of these things together.

I hope that we've prepared a fun evening examining these issues and more, and we have a remarkable panel of experts and advocates-people who feel passionately in many ways about gaming. Our moderator tonight will be Chad Rafael from the Communication Department, who studies gaming. It's his object of study.

We have with us tonight California Assemblyman Leland Yee, the key sponsor for a bill just passed by the California legislature, which prohibits the sale of violent games to those under the age of 18. And we can talk about all the implications of that work.

Mike Antonucci, who writes about popular culture and technology for the San Jose Mercury News.

We have Kristin Asleson McDonnell, who is the CEO of LimeLife, which is a company that develops and publishes mobile phone games for girls and women.

And Caroline Ratajski, a senior at Santa Clara, a computing engineering major and a philosophy student, and really avid gamer who's favorite games are, I hear, Silent Hill II and the Legend of Zelda, the Ocarina of Time.

So with that I'll turn the panel over to the able hands of Chad, and he'll be the timekeeper and the introducer in more detail, I think, of some of these issues.

MR. CHAD RAFAEL: Thanks very much. It's wonderful to see you all here tonight, including some of my students who are very interested in these issues. I'm going to go straight to the panelists here, so I'd like to introduce California Assemblyman Leland Yee.

ASSEMBLYMAN LELAND YEE: Thank you very much. Let me kind of spend most of my time talking about the bill that was recently passed by the state legislature, signed by the governor: AB1179. What that bill would do is to limit the sale of what we call ultra-violent video games to children.

The way in which I got involved with this particular matter is that a staff member of mine brought to my attention these ultra-violent video games. And the game that she brought to my attention was Grand Theft Auto. And, now, I'm a psychologist by training and so I know a little bit about this kind of work.

When I was a graduate student, back in those days there was a lot of concern about kids watching violent TV. And the classic study was a guy by the name of Robert Sears at Stanford, and the experiment that he had was he would show kids a group of youngsters sitting in a classroom and they would be just talking and, you know, doing whatever-playing and so on. In another scene, there would be a group of youngsters and there would be a Bobo doll and these kids would be hitting the Bobo doll.

And the study was to see the effects of kids who were shown a scene where youngsters were just playing in general, versus a scene where youngsters were hitting a Bobo doll. And as you could imagine, those youngsters who saw the scene of kids hitting the Bobo doll tended to report a lot more violence when presented with different conflicting situations.

I realized that there were tremendous problems, back in those days as a graduate student, to start talking about limiting the viewing of youngsters because this is clearly a free society here in California and in the United States, and we don't think too highly of limiting any kind of information to any individual whatsoever, even with children.

And so when this issue of violent video games was brought to my attention, at the initial stage, we were rather reluctant to take on this particular issue, mainly because of the issue of First Amendment. We did not-I did not want to be one individual who went out there and just simply said we should somehow stop the free flow of information to any individual, including children.

What took me by surprise was how severe the violence was. And in addition to that, this is not any passive watching anymore, but rather this is active participation in-you all know this industry a lot better than I do. When I went to school, I knew computers when they had light bulbs, and so that's how antiquated I am. So I never play these games whatsoever.

But I saw the scene and I understand how it works, and so literally when you are pushing a button you are literally then killing and hurting, maiming an individual. It is that interactive nature that really concerned me, and so I started to get into the literature-psychological literature, psychiatric literature, and other types of literature. And we saw a body of knowledge that indicated that, in fact, that these kinds of games teach children, you know, how to hurt, how to stalk, how to hurt and maim individuals.

It is based on that set of information that we started to move this particular bill. And what we found was that there was a tremendous opposition to this particular bill. Clearly the industry was really not happy. What is rather interesting is that this industry-the violent game industry, or the game industry-is becoming such a tremendous economic force that it's even overtaking the movie industry and the video industry.

The video game industry is becoming quite a powerhouse, so as you can imagine, any time you try to take out a market share of a particular industry, they don't take that too kindly. And so we were facing some tremendous opposition to this particular bill. We did not get this bill out the very first year that we introduced it. It was in the second year that we tried it again.

What happened with us was that luck was on our side. The summer of this year there was an issue-and you probably know more about it than I do-what they call Hot Coffee. It is a modification to the Grand Theft Auto game in which you can customize sex scenes, you know, in that particular game.

The game industry, the game developer, the game company said that they had nothing to do with it whatsoever, that it was someone who went into their game and started to manipulate some codes and manipulate the program. That's what caused it and in fact had nothing to do with the game itself.

When we heard about that, we initially started to investigate it a little bit more. We started to monitor some of the chat rooms, and it became apparent to us that Rock Star Video, the company that developed Grand Theft Auto, in fact knew about what was going on. They had put that scene inside that particular game, and the rating industry had not a clue that that information was there.

So what happened were two things. One, people began to wonder whether or not, in fact, the rating system, the rating industry, the rating board, could, in fact, appropriately rate any game whatsoever if they, in fact, didn't even know what was going on in these particular games. And then secondly, when the game industry then ultimately 'fessed up that they lied about the fact that they knew nothing about that, it then created a tremendous credibility problem within the gaming industry and Grand Theft Auto.

It was based on those sort of fortuitous situations that we were able to get many of the members that were initially reluctant to go ahead and support our bill to then come back on board and ultimately we were successful.

We don't-I don't plan to continue trying to be too restrictive on the gaming industry. It is because of this particular subset of situation that caused us to move in that particular direction. And again let me just emphasize that these are games in which you teach children how to stalk, how to maim, how to kill, how to hurt individuals, how to urinate on people, and most times these [victims] are women, these are minorities, these are poor people, and those should not be the lessons that we teach our children. Thank you.

MR. CHAD RAFAEL: Thanks very much. I want to tell people that after each of the speakers has had their time to speak we'll have a question and answer period. Sherrill Dale has got index cards that she'll start passing out now, and we invite people to write down questions in response to some of what you've heard here for the panel as a whole. She'll then gather those up…and we'll read those questions. So we encourage you to write questions.

Next will be San Jose Mercury News journalist, Mike Antonucci.

MR. MIKE ANTONUCCI: Thanks, Chad. Thanks, Assemblyman. If you hear me choke on my words, it's because I'm at the tail end of being sick. I could tell you it was because I've been spending the last 70 straight hours in my underwear drinking Jolt Cola and playing Perfect Dog Zero on the new Xbox 360, but since they're recording this session I also have to say that's a joke. Okay?

As a journalist who does have a forum for opinion on video games, I can't tell you that I don't have some strong feelings, but I'm more interested and more concerned about the context of this discussion than I am about arguing with anybody. And I do hope that what Chad said just before I got up here does really dominate the evening-which is an interaction with you.

I think this topic can get so broad, so diffuse, that it will be more profitable to see what kind of specific questions you have and how each of us from our own areas of expertise can respond and create a dialog.

Let me use my little bit of time then to emphasize and to describe what I mean by having the right context. I think the assemblyman actually hit on a very important area of public concern when he introduced his bills and eventually got one through. I'm not a fan of that specific legislation, but I'm also not particularly concerned about it, because the courts are going to punt it into irrelevancy just as they have in every other state where something like this was passed.

But the underlying concern that motivated him is more than legitimate and something that I hear from people inside the video game industry, from gamers and parents. Sometimes I hear it with a sense of frustration that the tone of the discussion is wrong, but one way or another this topic is percolating, and it's very useful to have both discussions like this, and to have it in the politic arena so that it can play out as a community decision.

So I think he hit on something that's going to remain relevant fora long time. And what I'd like to do tonight is set this context for it. I think it's very hard to separate video gaming from the rest of the popular culture and entertainment industries, and what I worry about most is that, while video gaming has some unique aspects and has some unique technological potential, and I think potentially some unique literary potential, it is still best viewed in the context of all the entertainment industries, which share a lot of these problems. 

So one specific that I would cite: There've been over 1,000 serious studies on the effects of television violence on people. I guess graduate school students and professors, if they have to do some scholarly research, find it more fun to deal with television than some of the other possible topics. But there have been that many studies, okay? And one of the most compelling responses to all the laboratory research that suggests that television violence has a detrimental effect on people are American crime statistics, which are at record lows for youth as well as the general population.

And this kind of disconnect comes up all the time throughout all the entertainment areas. I wrote a front-page story a couple of weeks ago, I think-time compresses on me-about a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study showing this dramatic increase in the amount of sexual content on TV across the broadcast channels, across the cable networks, across all hours of the day. And their concern specifically cited was the inevitable belief on their part that this had to have some kind of social influence.

I wrote the story just about the study, just about their statistics, and just about the fact that there was a shared concern about this. I didn't get into the issue of how much provable worry there is, but I got emails from sociologists who pointed out that all kinds of things like youth pregnancy rates, abortion rates, and STD rates are also at record lows.

There's a constant disconnect between the notion of the media's inevitable detrimental influence and what actually seems to happen by things that…you can measurably evaluate across society. So I think that provides some of the context.

I'd also suggest that video gaming, while increasingly important as an entertainment experience, is not nearly as pervasive or accessible as things like television content. I turned on an 8:30 p.m. sitcom last night and, leaving aside the sexual innuendo that was in the show-because that's another hot spot, right? What are we going to talk about, risqué stuff or violent stuff?-there was a series of jokes at that 8:30 hour about inebriation, about really dangerous amounts of alcohol intoxication, all done with levity. I think that's a far more worrisome trend. Television remains a much more pervasive influence than video gaming.

So I think context as we discussed all these things is pretty important, and that we sometimes lose sight of it. And the one thing I would caution is that by talking only about video gaming, we run the risk of demonizing it. I don't want to let it off the hook where it has flaws, but let's keep it in the context of the popular culture would be my suggestion.

MR. CHAD RAFAEL: Having moderated panels before, I could tell you this is a highly disciplined group here who knows how long seven minutes is. Next we're going to hear from LimeLife CEO, Kristin Asleson McDonnell.

MS. KRISTIN MCDONNELL: So I feel a little out of place here because I actually create mobile games for women and girls. So our kind of content is very different from what we're talking about. I think that one of the things...that we need to just consider is that when we talk about video games and interactive entertainment, we're talking about a huge industry, where the majority of the users and the customers look more like me or Caroline.

It's primarily women who are…over 40 that are the primary interactive entertainment software consumers in the United States today. So if you look at the statistics of who's playing games on the Web, it's primarily women, you know, with wrinkles.

So, the type of content that we're talking about tonight is, you know, for a much smaller audience in some respects, but that small audience does drive a lot of revenue to the video game industry.

So if we think about the various issues that are at hand with these video games, in terms of gender, if we think about what is it that men like to do with video games and what is it that women typically like to do with video games, it's very different. And within the games industry-I've been in the games industry since 1993-it's pretty well known that there are very different interests by men typically and by women typically.

Men tend to like competition, action, destruction, being timed, being the winner, high scores, all those things, whereas women prefer cooperation, collaboration, aspiration, and personalization. And so there's just been…this kind of polarization in terms of what the genders like, and I think that what we're talking about is what has typically been more of a masculine play pattern.

And what we've seen over the history of the game industry is that, if we think back to the early 90s-and I don't know if anybody here was playing games back then, but-to Sierra On-Line. Does anybody remember Sierra On-Line creating King's Quest? Games that really tapped your imagination and did not have a lot of these violent aspects to them….As you know, then…one of the first Sims came out, and it was really almost a gender-neutral type of market.

But as technology increased, we started to see more and more 3D, which starts taking us into more of the masculine play patterns. And so that's where we started to see that games like Castle Wolfenstein, Duke Nukem; things like that started to happen. And as those evolved, they just kind of kept pushing…the envelope. And I think that it has been pushed pretty darn far.

So I didn't realize that Congressman Yee had passed this bill, but it does seem reasonable to me that if minors cannot get into R-rated movies or rent X-rated films from Blockbuster, and if [a parent can lock them out of] Pay-Per-View…I think that having a bill like this does make sense. You're just limiting the sale to kids who can't really make the decisions themselves.

I have three young girls, and…I do notice that there is a fascination for things on screens. And that if you allow them to sit there and watch it, there's just more of this, like, "I want to see more, I want to see more." And so sometimes I think that there have to be limitations, especially when kids are outside the control of their parents, you know, when they're in the store and the parents aren't there with them, that…the laws or whatever have to start to help protect kids against that drive to consume.

In terms of addiction I think that, in general, media is addictive. You know, I know a lot of guys who can watch football for hours or movie-you know, and women. But I think media in general is addictive and…video games are no different, and…people who do have those addictive behaviors are going to use it more and more and more….We even see it with web gamers…that 65-year-old online Scrabble player can get addicted to it.

And so I think that when the type of content that they're consuming, though, is so violent that there are causes for concern, that, you know, they're consuming that kind of content for hours at a time. So overall I think that, again, we need to think about the industry as a whole….We shouldn't say that the whole games industry is corrupt and horrible because there are a lot of great things that are happening in interactive entertainment.

But there is kind of this isolated group…of content that does create cause for concern, and I do think that we have to address how do we limit access to that kind of content in the same way that we've limited access to that kind of content in other media. Thank you.

MR. CHAD RAFAEL: Our last speaker will be Caroline Ratajski, again, the Santa Clara senior, computer engineering major and philosophy student, and an avid gamer.

MS. CAROLINE RATAJSKI: First I'd just like to open by saying that I'm just feeling really honored and privileged to be sitting here on this panel. I mean [with] people so noteworthy and successful, and I'm just a student. I just play games. So I'm just so honored to be here.

So, yes, I play games. Board games, card games, PC console, I play tabletop RPG. I've tried every genre I can think of. I just try to be really broad in what I do and, you know, give everything a whirl. And I like games because there's a certain fantasy aspect. You can travel through time and space. You can travel into the imaginations of people who never truly grew up. And it also gives you a good deal of beneficial skills. It improves hand/eye coordination, and it gives you problem solving skills. You can track multiple variables in real time.

When I was little I played Mario and I played as Link in the Legend of Zelda. I traveled through the Mushroom Kingdom and through Hyrule, championing the ways of good. As I grew older I started playing more action-based games -Metroid-and now I even play Halo and I play World of Warcraft. And as I grew, my games grew with me, but, yes, I play violent video games. That's something that I can't deny. It's just something that I do. I do enjoy the competition of a violent video game.

I don't play these ultra-violent video games, although I have to admit that I have played them once. But there's just something so, I don't know, so fun about the competition, but I can separate the fantasy from the reality. I can say the world of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is not the world in which I live, and the things that I do in this game are not the things I do in reality.

I wouldn't want a five-year-old playing Halo. I wouldn't want a 12-year-old playing Grand Theft Auto. Not every game is appropriate for every age. And we have the Entertainment Software Review Board, the ESRB, who rates these games so that parents can know what their children can and cannot play. And it was brought up that perhaps we can't have complete security in the ESRB, that games can have content that will slip under the radar. If it doesn't get told to the ESRB, it doesn't get rated appropriately.

Well, this game, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, with this Hot Coffee mod, as it was called- the rating changed from Mature to Adult Only. Mature rating requires that the player be 17 years of age or older. Adult Only requires that the child, that the person be 18 years or older. So there was a huge kerfuffle just to get one year of difference in the ratings.

So I think that overall if parents just paid attentionto the rating and didn't let their 13-year-old child who's clearly under 17 play Grand Theft Auto, that I think we'd be better off. And with 82 percent of the parents claiming they're satisfied with the ratings and 5 percent even saying that the ratings are too harsh, I think the ESRB is actually doing all right.

Now some would say that the gaming industry has a certain social responsibility, and I agree that it does. Every media does. The music industry, which brings you lyrics glorifying gangster violence-they have a social responsibility. The movie industry, which brings you films like Half Baked glorifying drug use-they also have social responsibility.

I'm not trying…to direct your attention elsewhere. All I'm saying is that every media industry has a social responsibility, and the industry who is responsible for making Halo is socially responsible, as is the parent who gives their child $50 plus tax to buy the game, and the $300 to buy the console.

In creating the ESRB, I believe the industry has taken a big step in fulfilling their social responsibility, even if it was back in the '90s in response to a backlash against Mortal Combat. What remains to be understood, however, is how children are getting these games and how parents are letting them play these games and not monitoring their child's behavior.

I fully believe in the bill that children should not be playing these games. They should not be able to acquire these games. They should not be watching violent movies. They should not be reading books that condone violence, or listening to music that condones violence. A young mind that can't decipher between fantasy and reality shouldn't be subject to these things until they are emotionally ready for it. But mature adults, on the other hand, can. And they can choose their entertainment responsibly, even if it's going head-to-head in Counterstrike or playing the scandalous DOA Beach Volleyball.

And, yes, it's true that there are games that are scandalous and ill representative of women, portraying them as weak or merely as sexual objects. And to be completely honest, I'm actually ambivalent on this issue. Part of me, as a woman…I get offended when I see, you know, girls scantily clad running around, you know, tee hee, the damsel in distress, these sort of images.

I get up in arms about these oversexed women that you see in video games. And yet at the same time one of the draws to a video game that I like, Resident Evil IV, is that Leon Kennedy, the main character, is easy on the eyes. I like playing Kilik in Soul Caliber II partly because he's very easy to play, and partly because just he looks good.

So I don't know if I can honestly say that these things upset me because I see the other side of the issue as well. And it's a common theme in all media. Sex sells. It's just as true in video games …as it is true in TV, as it's true in movies. It's true all over the place. And…as I said, I myself fall victim to it, too. So can I really be upset with an industry for following a trend older than I am?

However, I do recognize that, regardless of this, sex really shouldn't sell, and that many women are insulted by this. And I would say…that not all games perpetrate this sort of imagery of women. For example, Jade in Beyond Good and Evil [is a] very strong woman. She's tamely dressed and she looks good, but doesn't look over-sexed. Not as if this clears the industry of any charges. Obviously those games still exist, but there are [other] games out there and perhaps if we support those kinds of games, maybe we'll see a rise in them.

So the last topic that we were here to discuss is addiction. I can only speak on this as someone who was once addicted to games for several months, and as someone who has friends who are currently addicted to games. Basically the games these days are so hard to just pick up and then put aside. They require hours, even days of commitment. And I mean logged days-24-hours logged over a month or something like that.

And as I said earlier, they're escaping to a fantasy world. But why was I addicted? I was seeking to escape a reality that was dissatisfying to me. Why are my friends addicted? They're going through the traumas of life and they're escaping it through video games. They recognize that they're addicted. They don't fool themselves on this. And to me it appears to be a symptom of a problem rather than a problem in and of itself.

Perhaps instead of saying we're getting addicted to games, there's something wrong with games, maybe we should say we're getting addicted to games. Maybe there's something just not right. Maybe we're confusing the symptom with the illness.

It was suggested to me that as a nice wrap up I should talk about a video game that made me think about ethics or really challenged my perception on the world, and I was actually hard-pressed to think of one. The first that came to my mind was Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, where you can choose to go with the light side or the dark side based on choices you make throughout the game.

But there need to be more games like this. People are so often turned off to philosophy and ethics because they think of, you know, leather-bound volumes and they think of stodgy, old professors trapped in ivory towers just sitting there thinking. They don't think of it as a living, breathing, active thing that we can participate in.

And as Assemblyman Yee said, games do teach our children things. Children learn how to read better by playing role-playing games and reading all the text in them. They teach hand/eye coordination using Tetris and other such puzzle games. I myself am learning a bit about economics by playing a massively multi-player online game. So they can teach a lot of things. 

Our nation's army has created a game developer-oh, I'm getting caught up-I have, like, two sentences left. Can I say them, please? Sorry. I guess I'm not as disciplined as everybody else-results of being a student.

The military has created a game developer, America's Army, which uses games to recruit and train people for our military, and I believe with this power we can get people to think about ethics and to think about philosophy. Games have a huge untapped power and I sincerely hope that we see it used to its full potential. Thanks.



MR. CHAD RAFAEL: Thanks very much to the panelists and to all of you. Boy, you people have a lot of questions. What I've tried to do is organize them into a couple of common themes, eliminate duplicates, so that if you don't hear the exact wording of your question, hopefully the issue is being raised in another question that somebody else asked.

Let me start with a question that I think is primarily for Assemblyman Yee. Under…the law that you've passed, how are violent games goingto be determined? Will the ESRB be involved in determining that?


ASSEMBLYMAN LELAND YEE: No, the responsibility of defining what is an ultra-violent video game is in the statute. The determination as to whether or not a game meets those criteria within the statue rests with the developer of the game, the distributor of the game.

MR. CHAD RAFAEL: Okay. A follow-up on that one: It seems like the new bill is making an effort to define a specific term of ultra-violent video games. The law would ban the sale of a game to minors in part if it contained violence that caused the game to lack literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. How can this be determined given the long history of violence as a theme in children's culture, such as classic fairy tales? If we shield children from all representations of violence, how will they be equipped to deal with the real world?

ASSEMBLYMAN LELAND YEE: We, in our bill, have learned the lessons of some of the other states, you know, like Washington, like other jurisdictions, like in St. Louis…where similar bills have failed. We've narrowly tailored this particular bill. We've also utilized some of the pornography language to really help buttress this particular bill.
So we're really narrowly tailored it. We tried to look at community standards to address all of those issues. …Let me comment on the last point. One need not utilize these ultra-violent video games to talk about how you develop skills as an adult or as a child growing up to deal with the pressures of life.

Now, as a child psychologist, I find it a sad commentary on society that we are going to turn over the child rearing responsibility to video games. What about parents? What about brothers and sisters? What about extended family? What about human interactions to teach how we deal with conflicts?

MR. CHAD RAFAEL: Now, I want to remind the other panelists that you're welcome to respond as well if you'd like to. Just let me know, if you would, to any of the questions. Okay?

Another question follow-up: Is there a possibility that violence in video games is used as a scapegoat to cover up for a lack of responsibility on the part of parents? Common question often asked.

ASSEMBLYMAN LELAND YEE: That, you know, that's a common issue. In the body of laws that we have in our society, the state has a responsibility to come in when, in fact, those individuals who are responsible for our children don't take those responsibilities seriously.

In the early 1900s, in the late 1800s, many parents told kids you should go out and don't go to school. Go and work in factories. Sometimes they may be dangerous. It may cause you to lose a finger, lose a limb, maybe to lose a life. That's okay, because it's extremely important that you go out there and earn a couple dollars to help the family so that we can survive.

Eventually the society in general, government in general, felt that that was not appropriate. You should not, in fact, jeopardize kids' lives. You should not waste their future by having them not go to school, not learn, but instead just simply earn money. That's why we have child labor laws. We have laws that say, kids…you shouldn't go and buy cigarettes and you should not go buy pornography and you should not go and buy alcohol, even though your parents say it's okay. You should not do that because society has deemed that those are inappropriate things.

So there are ways that we can, in fact, limit individuals' First Amendment, and when you have established some state interest, and we've established that in our law, that we can, in fact, do what we did.

MR. MIKE ANTONUCCI: Let me jump in without arguing about the definitions in the assemblyman's bill and about the constitutionality. If you're interested, this is easy stuff to Google. And while I think the assemblyman is absolutely right, that his bill's language represents an at least incremental if not significant evolution over the language of some bills in Missouri, the state of Washington, Indianapolis, I don't think it is meaningfully different than the language which is in the Michigan bill that recently was thrown out by the courts as well.

I think the underlining tone of these questions about the vagueness or subjectivity and constitutionality of some of these standards is going to be settled pretty soon. You can do that research yourself.

What I actually want to agree with him about, however, is that there is an underlying issue, which we're all participating in in this discussion, which is more important. And that is what's healthy for society and where does self-restraint on the part of the industries come into play? And the one thing I'll concede is that, while I personally strongly disapprove of dealing with these things by legislation, I'm equally critical of the absolute thrown-to-the-wind abandonment of self-restraint by almost all the entertainment industries.

And I take some small issue with some of the other panelists on the notion that this idea of social responsibility is equal among all of them. Let's talk about the broadcast television industry. That's a publicly licensed business. That is something that you, as citizens, have oversight of through regulatory bodies. They actually have a higher responsibility than many of the other industries to show some kind of regard for general public sentiment.

And while I'm not actually in favor of harsher penalties, I'm pretty critical of, for instance, things that happen before ten p.m. on television, which is still the dominant mode of entertainment in the United States. I think that there is a real problem in terms of the entertainment industry basically spitting in the eye of whether it's a majority or minority of very strong concern about what kind of taste and violence standards we have in entertainment.

Just as a practical view of the question about "Isn't this really the responsibility of parents?," how many of you are parents? So maybe 10 percent. So practically speaking it's extremely difficult to be with your kid 24 hours a day, and it's actually not healthy for them to have you with them 24 hours a day watching what they're doing.

And I just have an anecdote of my oldest daughter when she went on her first play date when she was three. It was the first drop-off play date, and she comes home and…I said, "What did you do?" And she said, "We watched Snow White." That was really, really scary. That was, you know, horrible and Snow White was dead and…you do lose control of your kids for a few hours at a time or maybe for a whole day. And I think that increasingly, unfortunately, parents are trying to really tether their kids to them and watch what they're doing and not let them go to the playground and play.

And I think the more that the media is out there pushing violence…on them without restraint and without the parents feeling comfortable, that there are some limitations in terms of what kids can access when you're not right there with them. I think it just causes a lot of problems, and that we need to start putting restraints in place so that our children can be freer and not feeling that their parents are just constantly looking over their shoulder.

With that said, I do think that in terms of content that is in your own home, that, yes, parents do need to take a lot of responsibility for that content that is in their own home, but just recognize that kids aren't with you all the time.

MS. LEIGH STAR: This is another issue that I'm kind of on both sides about. I'm not a parent, so I can't look through a parent's eyes, but I can look through the eyes of my own parents as far as how I was raised. And I know that when I was younger I did have the opportunity to play a good deal of violent video games.

A friend of mine had an older brother who liked to play Castle Wolfenstein, Doom, and those games were available on his computer. And, you know, my parents said, "I really would appreciate if you didn't play these types of games." They told me, "We don't want you doing these things. We don't want you seeing R-rated movies before you're 18. We don't want you doing these things."

And by them having told me this and having, you know, raised me with the certain values that they did, when it was offered to me I said, "Eh, you know what? I don't really want to." I just had the self-restraint to say no because of the way I was raised. And that's just because my parents took an active role in the type of media that I took in.

So, but at the same time, I do think that there should be some more restraints on what is on TV. I totally agree. Some of the stuff that's on TV right now-I don't actually watch TV so I can't even say. I just don't like television anymore because it is too oversexed and too over-violent and there-it's just not, to me, entertaining anymore. I watch the Discovery Channel when I watch TV. Myth Busters is a great show.

But as a child who has been raised, I think that if parents just say "I don't want you doing this" and not, you know, shaking their finger at you, but saying "I would appreciate it if you didn't do this. I don't think it's appropriate for you and I just wish you wouldn't do these things," that maybe children will step back and say, "You know what? My parents asked me not to, and I think I'll respect that because I respect my parents."

So, like I said, I'm kind of on both sides about this.

MR. CHAD RAFAEL: Okay. A next question: Are movie theaters fined for allowing kids into R-rated films? More accurately, is the Motion Picture Association of America, their self-regulation and assigning of ratings to film, enforced by legislation or is it self-regulation, voluntary by the industry? If it is self-regulated why is there a need for a different system for the game industry?

ASSEMBLYMAN LELAND YEE: That's another issue that was raised when we were talking about our bill. One needs to understand the social context in which movies take place. If you have a child walking into an adult theater or an R-rated movie, you're going to find that there's going to be a lot of glare towards the adult bringing the child or towards that particular child. Probably individuals are going to complain to the manager. So there's a lot of social pressure.

But when you purchase a game, you go in there, you take out or you ask, and in a matter of seconds that transaction happens already. So there's not a whole lot of social pressure. And that's why the voluntary rating system in a movie is far different in terms of its effect when you're comparing it to a video game.

MS. KRISTIN MCDONNELL: I just think that it's a little unfair to say that because of the fact that we have social pressures for these movies that they don't need to be regulated otherwise, because what if those social pressures evaporate? You know, and here we are, we have this sort of double-standard where we say, well, we're not going to fine movies but we're going to fine people who sell, you know, these video games to minors.

And I think that if we're going to put restrictions on media, we shouldn't just target and demonize specific forms of media, but we should look at all media and everything that we take in. And, yes, there are going to be people glaring and people complaining if, you know, you have a child who is in an R-rated movie.

But at the same time in a game store you're going to have demos set up, and if you see a five-year-old playing the demo of Halo II, that, you know, came out last year, I believe it was, you're going to have a lot of people looking, going why is that kid playing Halo? You know? Just because a transaction is momentary doesn't mean that…I just don't think it's fair to rely on social pressures alone.


MR. MIKE ANTONUCCI: Just as a point of reference, the legal challenge to the assemblyman's bill is not just based on the First Amendment. It's also based on the Fourteenth Amendment and about equal protection under the law because, for instance, he's asked for a restriction on the sale of video games but he hasn't asked for restrictions, for instance, on the sale of an unrated DVD. A movie that was maybe PG-13 in the theaters but now you have the unrated version with additional scenes.

So the legal challenge is also partially on those grounds. What's interesting is not to continue to challenge them on the equality of the bill, but to talk more about, I think, his underlying concern that the interactivity of games puts them in a special category. That's really the issue for all of you to be talking about.

MR. CHAD RAFAEL: Want to comment on that one before we go on?

Mike's a good proponent for me.


MR. MIKE ANTONUCCI: Are we really recording this?

MR. CHAD RAFAEL: I'm going to put together two questions that are on the same topic here. Can't we say that a celebration of violence is morally repugnant even without any provable consequences in terms of real-life violence? Let's suppose the video game industry is right and that the vast majority of players, child and adult, won't be directly inspired by these games to go out and commit violence.

Still, is it ethical for some game companies to give people games that encourage players to commit these symbolic acts of violence, perpetuate racist and sexist images, and legitimate this as a form of entertainment? Is it ethical for some to make millions from catering to humanity's worst instincts rather than encouraging our best?

Well, this is where…I put on sort of my First Amendment hat. You know, is it ethical? I don't think it's ethical. But do I want to do something about it by limiting it? I don't really want to do that.

I do believe in the freedom that we have. I do believe that it's extremely important that we exercise some self-discipline on that and let the market forces play themselves out. While, you know, my bill does, in fact, sort of curtail First Amendment, you know, I do that very cautiously. I would not take the same stance towards violent TV shows. I would not take the same stance with violent video games. It is this particular subset of what we call interactive violence.

And part of it is that the laws in this country are very, very clear. Just because you don't like it, just because you are offended by it, is not enough for you to curtail people's First Amendment. You've got to have some body of information that this-that states-that the state has an interest in terms of curtailing individual First Amendment. And we've got to be very, very clear about it.

It is an extremely slippery slope when you start asking the question: Is it okay for me to use my standard as to what is appropriate and what is not appropriate? What is appropriate and not appropriate for me is clearly maybe the opposite of someone else, and is it then okay for me to say that my standards should prevail?

MR. MIKE ANTONUCCI: We're going to have to switch chairs here.

ASSEMBLYMAN LELAND YEE: See, that's why we, you know, we play on each other. He's really Leland Yee.

MR. CHAD RAFAEL: There actually is a question here that seems to be pushing Mike to run for state assembly here. The first part of the question I think you've answered, Mike, which is: Are you concerned about violence towards women in extreme games? But the second part asks you to think a little bit more as a policy maker. Are there any limits to what we should let children buy?

I always get hung up on the question. It's so broad that I don't have an instant answer to it. You can't ask a question that open-ended without finding some scenario where I would agree that there ought to be some kind of limitation.

I'm going to pass on that without a more specific example.

Okay. Let's turn now to some of the gender questions that people have asked. This is a question addressed particularly to the two women in the panel from the person who wrote this question.

What would an envelope-pushing game specifically designed for women look like? What topics would be addressed?

Shopping. Come on. Pornographic shopping. You know…credit card without a limit. Beautiful. An envelope pushing…I stand with my first answer. Shopping. I think that, you know, women don't have the interests in violence and sexually graphic material and all those things that tend to be more on that masculine play pattern side of the spectrum. So, you would just have to think of, you know, maybe it's Barbie….I think that it would be those things that…would be stereotypical descriptions of women in terms of Prince Charming and materialism or whatever it may be.

But I don't think that Assemblyman Yee would be limiting its sale. So I don't know. I'm stumped.

Well, I guess I'm not exactly a typical female because, as you said, typical male play patterns are more competitive and I actually like competition. Just last night I was playing World of Warcraft, and one of the proudest moments for me was that I trounced a warrior who was a higher level than me. And I was…bragging to everyone….I just kicked some major butt. It was awesome.

MALE VOICE: What level are you on?

MS. CAROLINE RATAJSKI: I have a level 42 warlock, is what I was playing. Gnome.

MALE VOICE: 42 out of 60, right?

MS. CAROLINE RATAJSKI: Yeah. 42 out of 60. I also have a 46 gnome rogue, smattering of alts. I play a little bit.
But, yeah, I'm kind of an atypical-

MALE VOICE: You've got serious credentials.

MS. CAROLINE RATAJSKI: But, yeah, I'm just not a typical female. I mean I enjoy competition. I also enjoy cooperative play. So I think the types of games that more typical women would like to play are probably puzzle games. My first game that I was just majorly, majorly into was Dr. Mario. If you guys don't recall, it's the one with the little pills that drop and you line them up. It's sort of like Tetris except a little different.

And I just played hours and hours and hours of this game on my little Gameboy, and I just loved it. Games that require cooperation. So I think MMOs are going to be -are-huge for women. A lot of women play MMOs because you can't solo through it. You have to get in parties; you have to work cooperatively with people. You know, you have to have someone who's keeping all of you alive and someone who's, you know, taking all the damage and, you know, you have to work cooperatively to play in these types of games.

So I think puzzle and MMO, but I don't know that they're necessarily envelope pushing because they're, you know, preexisting genres. Games that I might like to make someday because I'm interested in designing games, are, like I said, games that push ethical questions, which make you think: "Am I doing what's right? Am I doing what's good? Should I be more of a hero or more of an anti-hero?…Does the end really justify the means?" That sort of thing.

But I don't know that necessarily women will be specifically interested in this, but I think people would be. So men and women both kind of thing.

MR. CHAD RAFAEL: Briefly is there anybody on the panel who has an example of a game like you've just mentioned, that does raise ethical questions throughout the game and kind of spurs that kind of thinking?

MR. MIKE ANTONUCCI: There are quite a few games like that. The problem is that gaming is entertainment. It is interactive. So you want to be doing something. And doing ethical choices is always the weakest, the least engaging part of the game entertainment experience. It's always a transitional step between a lot of the more basic racing, fighting, and sort of, you know, flinch-based activities.

There's a game called Fable, which I didn't want to spend 80 hours playing, which is similar to what Caroline described in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, where each choice you make for the character not only begins to push the character into a darker or lighter personality, but shapes how people and situations around him evolve.

There are games that try to get at this, and in fact there's a really-you know, I think probably the Sims is the game that's always held up as the game that raises the most kinds of real life moral possibilities, real life moral choices. And the creator of that game is working on an unbelievably interesting game called Spoor, which is some time away, which starts with the concept of taking what amounts to a one-cell organism, an amoeba, and gradually evolving it through individual states, social states, to civilized states, eventually into leaving the planet into extraterrestrial exploration. This game suggests a lot of interesting possibilities, but we're far away from seeing how it will actually develop.

MR. CHAD RAFAEL: Maybe they want to sign up the Ethics Center as a consultant on that game. Kirk, think about that.

Next question. Some people have criticized games designed for girls for reinforcing traditional gender roles as much as violent games for boys do, even if they do so differently. For example, Barbie Fashion Designer teaches girls that their role is primarily to decorate themselves, be interested in fashion, and doesn't involve much complex play with the computer. Do designers have a responsibility to offer a broader range of ways to be female in these games?

MS. KRISTIN MCDONNELL: Yes, if the target audience showed interest in that. So with Barbie Fashion Designer, for instance, if you take a group of a hundred five-year-old girls and you put a bunch of dress-up stuff in one corner and a bunch of, you know, doctor kits in the other corner, about 90 percent of them are going to be over in the dress-up corner.…I have three daughters and I don't feel like I'm doing anything to steer them one way or the other, and…it's in the DNA for some reason. So I think that, you know, that on I'm sure that they have…Callie Girls, they have the girls that are riding horseback, they have probably a doctor in there. 

But, for whatever reason, the majority of the market goes toward self-adornment, which goes back to that feminine play pattern of personalization and customization where you are dressing yourself up. And I think that both women and men do show that. I would imagine a lot of games you play that there's a lot of personalization, even in the violent games where you're personalizing your character and you're putting on helmets and swords and all that stuff.

So I think in terms of responsibility to show a wider range of possibilities to some extent, but I think that also it wouldn't get played as much as just kind of going with the flow of what females tend to like.

MR. CHAD RAFAEL: Mike and then Caroline?

MR. MIKE ANTONUCCI: One interesting possibility here is, those of you who are familiar with games know that one of the hottest areas of game technology is character creation. Okay? And the more games incorporate that creatively and you build a character from scratch, including gender, the more the player, the consumer, will actually help do what you just asked if should developers do.

MS. CAROLINE RATAJSKI: Once more, just kicking back to the fact that I guess I'm just a really atypical female, I mean when I went home this weekend for Thanksgiving, I sort of went through my closet going, okay, I have to…look nice. What nice clothes do I have? Because for the most part, for me, I'm just a t-shirt-and-jeans sort of [person] and my hair is in a ponytail. I don't really wear jewelry, very little makeup. I'm just a really plain type of girl.

And I think that also throws back to how I was raised. My mother is a doctor-turned-businesswoman, my dad is an electrical engineer, and so I was raised with a lot of science and a lot of math and a lot of reading. And I was given, I think, one Barbie when I was five and I didn't know what to do with it so I started, like, coloring her with a marker and I cut all her hair off, and then I put her in the microwave because she was cold.

So I'm not exactly a typical girl. That was…the first and last Barbie I ever got, and I didn't really play with her. I also liked just popping off the limbs to see how they worked when you put them back in and see how she was connected. And I think honestly that if girls were shown that this sort of thing is okay, that this should be nurtured, because definitely in school all the girls played Barbie and I played with the boys because I played with Tonka trucks and Transformers. And this is because I was shown that this is okay at home.

And I think if we, as a society, tell girls, you know, it's okay to have these more masculine interests, it's okay to be competitive and, you know, not just with other females-with men, too. It's okay to stand up and say, you know, I'm strong and I can fight for myself.

And, you know, back to character customization. I totally agree. I spend hours making characters in Warcraft and then just deleting them just because I like making characters. In Halo I spent forever making my Spartan armor, and I made it pink because that's actually my favorite color. One of the few girly things I have.

And, yeah, I think if we had these sorts of games that not necessarily were violent, but that weren't so stereotypically female that show girls that it's okay to be competitive. They can Warcraft. There's PVP-player versus player. And girls-some girls actually really enjoy that. A couple of my friends and I, we like to go into territory that we just really shouldn't have been going into and, you know, picking fights with-there are two sides, the alliance and the hoard-and we're alliance and we're picking fights with the hoard in their territory and just, you know, just running around being competitive and just having a great old time.

And I think if girls see that this is okay…they might actually start going towards that. Of course it's a huge risk because if they don't buy it, then you can be sunk, so I can understand the industry's need to balance what they would like to do with, you know, not going bankrupt. So it's kind of a hard balance.

MS. KRISTIN MCDONNELL:…The industry did start more that way. I brought up the King's Quest, where it was more of this kind of gender-neutral fantasy world where men and women felt equally comfortable…and I think it's as the industry has evolved that…the content has made women feel more and more [uncomfortable] playing those types of interactive games, and that women have kind of fled to the solitaire and spades and all that as opposed to doing more of the role playing games that have become, you know, less gender neutral.

MR. CHAD RAFAEL: We have time for one last question and very brief answers from each of the panel, which I think is probably what is best called for by this question anyway. Which is more offensive to you ethically-the damsel in distress or the sexy female fighter?

MS. CAROLINE RATAJSKI: Mine is the damsel in distress because the sexy female fighter, she's powerful and, you know, she's…taking care of herself and probably taking care of a few other people as well. So whereas the damsel in distress does, I think, kind of reinforce those stereotypes of you're hurting, and you need some help, and a guy is probably somewhere around here that's going to help you out, too.

MR. MIKE ANTONUCCI: Okay, well, now I'm thinking about getting home and in my underwear for Perfect Dog Zero again. So I guess the damsel in distress is more offensive as well. And let me make a straight point that's also very quick. How many people here have seen the movie Run, Lola, Run? Okay. Those of you who haven't and want to sort of deal with that issue about the image of a woman and see the influence of video games on other art forms, go rent Run, Lola, Run.

ASSEMBLYMAN LELAND YEE: As a father of two daughters, I've taught my kids, my daughters, if any guy messes with you I'll take care of that, okay?

MS. KRISTIN MCDONNELL: I guess I'd have to agree with the damsel in distress, although I will say that the oversexed fighter is a bit disconcerting to me as well, only because it seems that universally if a female is strong she must also be just exceedingly, you know, sexy looking. That you can't have a female who is both strong and just average. That somehow-I don't know. So both, but more the damsel in distress because at least [the other] one can fight can take care of herself.

MR. CHAD RAFAEL: Okay. Let's thank the panelists for their presentations tonight. Again we owe a debt of thanks to the Center for Science, Technology, and Society at Santa Clara, the Markkula Ethics Center at Santa Clara, and the Tech Museum for organizing all of this. And in the interest of getting Mike home and into his underwear we'll call it a night.

Nov 29, 2005
Internet Ethics Stories