The video game bullies

U.S. senators and conservative groups want to ban "Bully," citing fears it could cause another Columbine. But research on kids and violence -- and the game's own merits -- expose just another round of political gamesmanship.


Farhad Manjoo
November 11, 2006 6:09PM (UTC)

The enchanting and addictive new video game "Bully" is set in an imposing red-brick and ivy-covered Northeastern boarding school, that familiar launching pad for so many adolescent epics. Like Holden Caulfield, Jimmy Hopkins, the game's blank-faced teenage antihero, is a mess of internal impulses. He's a bad kid. Your job, unexpectedly, is to help him do good. In a typical early mission, for instance, Algernon, one of the neediest nerds at school, has been set upon by a gaggle of bullies. Rotund, whiny and afflicted with an overactive bladder, Algernon is the archetypal outcast. You've got to escort Algie to the bathroom before he wets himself, fending off all the bullies who want to harm him along the way. If you get the fat kid safely to the john, you'll gain some respect among the nerds and your standing in school will climb.

Does this sound like a task one might find in a game that critics have taken to calling a "Columbine simulator"? "Bully" was released to the public on Oct. 17, but it's been the subject of raging debate for more than a year now. The debate illustrates the precarious political and cultural position that the video game industry finds itself in. A bipartisan gang of politicians (from Hillary Clinton on the left to Sam Brownback on the right), school officials, child-rearing experts, and family-values types blame games for inducing all manner of delinquent, antisocial and dangerous behavior in children. It's an old claim, and there remains scant scientific proof for it -- but that seems to matter little in the fight over "Bully."

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"Bully" was bound to spark controversy. For one thing, it's made by Rockstar Games, the company that produced the indulgently violent and hugely popular "Grand Theft Auto" series. For another, "Bully" is set in a school. Critics have long feared the worst from it -- that "Bully" would be "Grand Theft Auto" on campus, encouraging every long-suffering adolescent malcontent to live out his nihilistic revenge fantasies on school grounds.

Since long before its release, "Bully's" critics have suggested the game might cause irreparable harm in teens. In March, the Miami-Dade school board passed a resolution urging local retailers not to sell the game, warning that it could "serve as a violence rehearsal simulator on which teens will prepare, either wittingly or unwittingly, for acts of violence in schools." The nonpartisan National Institute on Media and the Family, one of the many national organizations that aim to clean up pop culture, says "Bully" encourages antisocial behavior. Experts at the Bullying Prevention Program at Clemson University fear that the game might exacerbate schoolyard altercations,and have encouraged boycotts. Days before the game's release, the industry's most relentless opponent, crusading Miami lawyer Jack Thompson, took his case against "Bully" to court, arguing that the game violated Florida's public nuisance laws (usually used to prosecute environmentally unruly corporations). In response, Judge Ronald Friedman ordered Rockstar's parent firm, Take-Two, to show him an advance copy of "Bully" so that he could determine its legality; after reviewing the game, he quickly ruled that "Bully" posed no nuisance.

Yet the very idea that a court screened a game before its release chills many in the industry. The move is in line with legislative efforts offered in a handful of states (including California, Illinois and Michigan) that aim to bar the sale of games like "Bully" to minors. In March, Clinton and fellow Democrats Joe Lieberman and Evan Bayh proposed just such a measure in the Senate, seeking to fine retailers for selling "mature" games to people under 17. But because federal courts have previously struck down similar state bills on the grounds that they violate the First Amendment, the Democrats joined with Republicans Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback to push through a measure calling on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study how video games affect children. The move was considered a way to solve the constitutional problems that have so far bedeviled attempted bans on selling games to minors -- if the CDC can prove that games cause violence in kids, then courts might agree to overlook free speech concerns.

But can anyone prove that games pose enough danger to warrant prohibition? Politicians often quote the views of leading scientific and medical groups, many of which have adopted tough-sounding views against games. In 2005, the American Psychological Association declared that exposure to violent video games "increases aggressive behavior, increases aggressive thoughts, increases angry feelings, decreases helpful behavior, and increases physiological arousal." The American Academy of Pediatrics has adopted a similar view.

But scientists who've looked into the research are critical of these conclusions. The main problem, they point out, is that it is exceedingly difficult to design psychological experiments that show how games work on the adolescent mind. Making a kid play a game for 15 minutes in a psych lab is a very different experience from playing at home for hours. And how do you measure "violence" in such a setting -- is the game harmful if it makes a kid more likely to hit a doll (a measurement used in several experiments)?

As a result of such difficulties, studies have yielded various views as to whether and how video games affect kids. Some show that violent games make kids more aggressive, while others show they do not increase aggression. One meta-study that reviewed a number of experiments into violent games found that they slightly increase aggressive behavior, but another meta-review found that the longer kids play such video games, the less tendency there is for the games to affect behavior. "The fact is that there isn't a lot of very good research to back these claims up," concludes Jonathan Freedman, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, Scarborough. "The argument is very weak."

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Lost in the political debate and scientific struggle, meanwhile, are the dazzle and complexity of the games themselves. "Bully" -- whose basic storyline has the main character fighting, cajoling, tricking, befriending and escaping the school's various cliques in an effort to upset the established order -- re-creates a labyrinthine virtual world, one even more layered than the legendarily deep environment of "Grand Theft Auto." But "Bully" is remarkable not only for its sophisticated artificial environment but also for the sheer cleverness of its plot and the striking originality of its characters. Here is a game that's funny, that you play for the biting satire of its storyline as well as the action.

After watching a Rockstar rep play "Bully" for a couple of hours, Judge Friedman summarized the game this way: "There's a lot of violence -- a whole lot,'' he said in court. But, Friedman added, "less than we see on television every night."

Considering this, maybe we shouldn't be talking about banning "Bully." Instead, given its depth and smarts, maybe we should be applauding it.

You need play "Bully" only for a short while to see that by the standard of "Grand Theft Auto" -- and indeed by the standard of many movies, TV shows, pop albums and shelves full of contemporary fiction -- it is essentially tame. The game allows you to fight other kids with your fists, your feet and a small arsenal of weapons, including baseball bats, a slingshot, garbage can lids and firecrackers. There are no guns, however, and the game's physics and an elaborate system of consequences for using violence limits the damage you can inflict. For instance, your baseball bat disintegrates after you use it a few times. Or, when you shoot your slingshot at a young student, you get more or less immediately busted. It is impossible to go on a school rampage in "Bully." The fighting feels, for the most part, cartoonishly unrealistic -- there's no blood or death. Instead an enemy meets his end in classic forms of high school humiliation: You make him punch himself, you rub spit in his face, you force him to say he's sorry. When you've done wrong, you get taken to the principal's office, have your weapons confiscated, and are forced to endure genuinely mind-numbing chores, like mowing the lawn and cleaning up chalkboards.

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Critics allege, however, that even if "Bully" is less graphically violent than other things kids might play, watch or listen to, its specific storyline sounds alarm bells. Among the social messages that a player might take away from the game is that a good way to handle bullies is to fight back. That's a dangerous lesson, says Barbara Coloroso, author of "The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander," a kind of self-help book for victimized kids and their parents. What Coloroso -- who lives in Littleton, Colo. -- worries about is "the bullied bully who strikes back" after years of being taunted. "And when you begin to look at Eric and Dylan, you see that's what happened," she says, referring to the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, which has become the trump card for the anti-"Bully" lobby.

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were fans of "Doom" and "Quake," two of the most violent video games of their time. Their rampage provoked a spasm of commentary on the possible dangers of video games. Critics of violent video games, both scientists and activists, believe that games not only encourage a latent tendency toward violence but also may teach specific violent acts. Craig Anderson, a psychologist at Iowa State University who is among the leading researchers on the topic, argues that video games are "excellent teaching tools -- a video game captures attention, maintains attention, requires practice to improve skills in the game, and keeps people motivated." Anderson doesn't mean this as praise: Games can teach you bad behavior, he and other critics say -- they function as simulators. In this light, "Grand Theft Auto" isn't just a game about life in the 'hood -- it shows you how to steal, to shoot innocent people and police officers, and to treat women badly.

In the same way, this line of thinking goes, "Bully" teaches you how to beat kids up (use a baseball bat or a slingshot, and when they come after you, hide in a trash can). In one scene cited by critics, your character, Jimmy Hopkins, sits up in a tree with his slingshot and aims at football jocks practicing on the field. David Walsh, president of the National Institute on Media and the Family, told the Boston Globe that the scene pits you as a "sniper," saying, "It glamorizes and rewards the kind of antisocial behaviors that teachers struggle with every day." Coloroso -- who isn't a gamer, but who had her 28-year-old son buy the game and give her an account -- pointed to one scene that involves Jimmy Hopkins visiting an adult book store. Then there's the part where "in order to get some of the tools you need, you have to beat up a homeless man," she said. "You're getting a reward for doing something negative."

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But there's a little too much agitation here. To suggest that shooting a slingshot at jocks is akin to the mission of a sniper is either to misunderstand the power of firearms or to exaggerate the lethality of a kiddie weapon. What about beating up a homeless man? Early in the game, Jimmy and his friends do go to fight the hobo who lives on campus behind an abandoned school bus. The scene looks like it's going to mirror something from a "Bumfights" video -- and if it had played out that way, it might have been not only disturbing but, perhaps worse, clichéd. The folks at Rockstar are too smart for that. Instead, as you approach the homeless man, your friends run off in fear, and rather than fight him, you talk to him and discover that he's actually quite a character. The hobo is a Vietnam vet, and he loves working on old radios. And if you help him get radio parts, he'll teach you some badass fighting moves to use against bullies.

In focusing on examples of how "Bully" might act as a "simulator" of violence, its critics have overlooked its social and narrative complexity. There are at least 80 individual characters in "Bully" -- students, teachers, townies, prefects and others, each with distinct voices, singular motivations, and ever-changing relationships to each other and to your own character. They're all different, and they all bear the mark of Rockstar's wit. There's the nasty lunch lady, Edna, whose date with the chemistry teacher you've got to keep students from ruining; or Earnest, the nerd who's running for class president, whom you save from embarrassment during a campaign speech by shooting kids (with a slingshot) who want to throw eggs at him; or Mandy, the queen of the cheerleaders, who will cotton to you if you paint over the naughty posters of her that have been plastered around town (posters whose distribution, in the tangled world of "Bully," you bear some responsibility for in the first place). And that scene involving the adult bookstore? It reveals the incongruity of appearances: Jimmy's buttoned-up boarding school is located close to a den of sleaze, where he runs across the gym coach, Mr. Burton, lurking outside.

Considering all that goes on in the game, attacking "Bully" for its depictions of physical violence is a narrow maneuver; it's akin to banning "Huck Finn" because it uses the word "nigger" throughout the book. That's not to say "Bully" is on the level of Twain, but it's certainly in the tradition of entertaining fiction -- it keeps you engrossed while at the same time putting forward a distinct point of view.

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And what is that view? It's starkly negative. "Bully" is a world where the fat kids get teased, where the gym coach encourages you to mount a panty raid, and where money and athletic prowess inevitably lead to fortune. As Clive Thompson put it in Wired News recently, the game revels in the "cliquishness, unfairness and brutality of everyday society."

Across the country, school officials are rushing to take measures against "Bully." As Dennis McCauley, the editor of the fine blog GamePolitics.com points out, the game industry's credibility with parents and educators was shot in last year's "Hot Coffee" scandal, in which gamers discovered that Rockstar had hidden secret sex scenes inside "Grand Theft Auto." "Frankly it's just a very bad time for the game industry in terms of image," McCauley says.

In this regard, it's understandable why a school official might err on the side of caution, says Arielle Maffei, who participated as a nonvoting student representative on the Miami-Dade School Board when it considered its anti-"Bully" motion in March. The adult members of the board, she says, faced constant pressure from activist groups to take a hard stand against video games. Maffei, now a freshman at Vanderbilt, opposed the "Bully" measure because, she says, "I felt it crossed the line -- who is the school board to tell people what to do with their time?" Yet she says she can see why the board condemned "Bully." "They were looking at it from a safety point of view -- they really wanted to make sure that nothing bad happened in one of their schools."

Yet, even those psychologists who are most concerned about the possible dangers of video games stress that a game, by itself, isn't going to drive anyone to violence. They point out that there are a variety of known risk factors for violence -- among them poverty, abusive parents and substance use. Exposure to media violence, according to Craig Anderson, falls somewhere in the middle of this list, neither the biggest nor the smallest possible factor. Meanwhile, researchers who question the science behind the idea that entertainment media can drive people to violence point out that if video games pose any risk, it must be extremely small, because youth violence has been falling dramatically for more than a decade -- a period in which video games have seen a huge upsurge in popularity. In 2003, there were half as many incidents of violent crimes in school than there were in 1994; today, despite hyped-up news accounts, there are far fewer homicides at school, far fewer kids carrying weapons, and far fewer kids who report fearing for their physical safety than during the 1990s.

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According to a recent study by Nielsen, 117 million Americans routinely play video games. More than half of these people are of voting age. Yet polls suggest that for politicians, there is no downside to campaigning against video games -- the tactic turns parents on and doesn't necessarily turn young people off.

In campaign ads this year, Clinton has been highlighting her work to "shield" children from violent video games. At the same time, according to a recent survey by Young Voter Strategies, her popularity among people under 30 years old is rising. Danny Goldberg, the music executive who wrote a book chastising the left for attacking pop culture, says that although he doesn't agree with Clinton's criticism of games, he can see why young voters might not care much about her stance toward pop culture. They're justifiably less concerned about censorship, he says, than about "war and peace, and what we're doing about what happened in New Orleans."

Indeed, it was those issues -- and not concerns about video games -- that propelled young people to vote in record numbers last Tuesday. But Democrats haven't proven any less eager to attack pop culture than Republicans -- remember Tipper Gore? So game lovers, beware.


Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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