The National Assembly of Venezuela passed a law this month that will outlaw the sale of violent video games in the country. Journalist Clive Thompson says bans like these have more to do with political gamesmanship than preventing violence.
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BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. Back in the '90s, I visited Caracas, Venezuela to report on a story about violence in the barrios ringing the city. The murder rate was so high that one barrio mayor issued shotguns to residents as protection against criminal gangs. At the time I thought that was the most futile anti-violence policy the country would ever see. But, I didn't anticipate President Hugo Chavez. Having failed to deliver on his promise of safe streets, Chavez has signed a hastily-drafted law banning toy guns and violent video games and imposing jail terms for those who sell or possess them. Technology and society writer Clive Thompson is our go-to guy on such matters, and he joins us once again. Clive, welcome back.
CLIVE THOMPSON: Good to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, this is a broad category of games, but depending on how you define violence it can go right down to, I don't know, Super Mario Brothers?
CLIVE THOMPSON: [LAUGHS] Yeah, well, it didn't help that when Chavez talked about the law he said, well, you know, we're very worried about video games, and we're worried about “the Nintendo” affecting our children.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Like “the Google.”
CLIVE THOMPSON: Yeah, I'm not exactly clear that the legislators here [LAUGHS] have any acquaintance at all with the games that they're banning.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, fill us in on the scholarship on this subject. There have been some correlations made between media and violence. How do the data look?
CLIVE THOMPSON: There’s a whole bunch of stuff that’s out there. A lot of it looks at aggression, not so much violence ‘cause, you know, they can't really set up an experiment where you’re actually violent to someone else. But they've definitely looked at aggression levels and they've found that you can get these elevated levels of aggression sometimes. They've certainly found that kids that already have trouble with their tempers and with aggression can be drawn to these types of games. But there’s been no smoking gun, really. It’s all pretty open-ended stuff that no one’s ever really closed the loop on, because there’re so many different things that might be affecting people’s behavior. There are so many different confounding factors.
BOB GARFIELD: Is it fair to say that there is nobody who thinks that video game violence is a major factor in the kind of out-of-control murder culture that is afflicting this country?
CLIVE THOMPSON: I'm not aware of any serious social scientist that thinks that the violence levels that you see in a place like Venezuela could have been produced by video games. In some respect, the law against video game selling down in Venezuela is more of a symptom of a kind of a political problem they've got, where Chavez came into power saying, okay, I'm going to control this violence level. And after all these years it’s just gotten worse and worse and worse, so he’s kind of got to deflect the attention somewhere else.
BOB GARFIELD: One possible positive outcome of this is that if this law is actually enacted it will create the world’s largest laboratory for video game deprivation, and I guess we'll be able to track the violence in the country to see if there is any measurable effect.
CLIVE THOMPSON: You’re right. It'll be one of these classic sort of freakonomic-style studies where in the real world you get a policy change that suddenly makes one country slightly different in a significant way to the country next to it. I'm willing to bet any sum of money that even if they can [LAUGHS] enforce this ban, it’s not going [LAUGHING] to affect the violence levels there at all. But like I said, it’s a very interesting glimpse into the level of panic that the government must be feeling about this because, you know, the joke I've always made about blaming video games for social ill is that whenever you see a politician reaching for that one, that’s the last card they've got. It’s just like in an election; when the candidate who’s trailing starts hammering the media, you know it’s over. And this is the same type of thing. It’s almost like a heat signature of political failure. When someone is blaming video games for social riot, stick a fork in it. Their government is ready for collapse.
BOB GARFIELD: So, if banning Ratchet and Clank doesn't do the trick -
CLIVE THOMPSON: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: - where does that leave the government of Venezuela?
CLIVE THOMPSON: They'll run this little cultural experiment, it'll fail, and they'll have to figure out what actual policies they can pursue that can solve their problem. I mean, it’s really interesting, looking at how politicians across the world, not just in Venezuela, can decide that video games are to blame for a social riot. And I think we might be getting to the end of this pretty soon because, you know, we no longer hear politicians talking about TV as corroding society. I mean, you had Dan Quayle basically blaming Murphy Brown, remember? Nobody really talks about TV anymore. I think they've just moved on to realize they've lost that argument. And video games sort of moved into the cultural blame victim there around the late '90s, but I think they're starting to fade, and I think it’s because people who played video games when they're young are now in their late 20s or 30s, or even early 40s, which means they're now part of the political class that votes and sort of starts to run the country. And this stuff is just going to start to fade, in the same way that TV faded and comic books faded before them. These bogeymen just stop becoming bogeymen. I'm sure there'll be a new bogeyman. And I'm sort of interested to think about what that might be [LAUGHS] and what the -- what we are going to start blaming for cultural riot after video games have just become completely part of everyday life for most people?
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BOB GARFIELD: Well Clive, as always, thank you so much.
CLIVE THOMPSON: Not at all, happy to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: Clive Thompson is a contributing writer for Wired, The New York Times Magazine and Fast Company.