Dr. Henry Jenkins Interview: Pt. 1


In 1999 the United States Senate held a series of hearings in the aftermath of the shootings at Columbine, at issue youth violence, the media, and not the least of which, video games.  Having published two widely read books on mass communication, Textual Poachers and From Barbie to Mortal Kombat, Dr. Henry Jenkins was invited to testify before Congress, and step into the heart of what many consider to be a losing battle.  He took the stand and defended 'youth culture'. 

Since 1999, Dr. Jenkins, along with heading a graduate studies program at M.I.T., has been a vocal expert in the legitimacy of video games.  He has opposed rulings that rejected first amendment protection for video games, has appeared on national television under hostile conditions, has published articles, and has worked with numerous software developers.  If Game Culture has a folk hero, it may very well be Dr. Henry Jenkins, and he's been kind enough to take a few minutes to answer some questions for Gamers With Jobs.  Today, Dr. Jenkins talks with us about how his work relates to gaming, and why video games have become such a mainstream target for social ills, while Part 2 of our interview will be available Thursday.

GWJ: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me, Dr. Jenkins. Could you take a moment to explain your work at M.I.T.? What is Comparative Media Studies and how does it relate to the video game industry?

HJ: The Comparative Media Studies Program is a new Masters program which deals with issues of media content, change, and convergence from an interdisciplinary perspective. We are trying to train students who may enter industry, public policy, journalism, arts curatorships, educational technology, or academic life but who want to develop the big picture about the social and cultural impact of media. Our interests range from the anthropology of oral storytelling to the aesthetics of computer games -- and everything in between -- theater, literature, cinema, broadcasting, recorded sound, etc. We have been actively engaged in fostering diversity, experimentation, creativity, and ethical responsibility in the games industry. Our activities have included: hosting two major national conferences on computer games which brought together theorists, critics, and designers; conducting a series of creative leaders workshops with Electronic Arts or at the Game Developers Conference designed to encourage experimentation in game design; consulting on the development of the Game On exhibition in London; getting involved in the public policy debates about game violence; and perhaps most importantly, running the Games to Teach project with Microsoft, a project which we hope will become a major catalyst for encouraging the development of games with a stronger educational content. We are also developing a large number of students who double major in Comparative Media Studies and Computer Science and then enter the games industry.

GWJ: What sort of interaction, through research or privately, do you have with computer entertainment? Do you 'play' video games?

HJ: I was one of those people who raced out and got a Pong system the minute they went on the market. I had played Atari games when I was an undergraduate and then when Atari collapsed, I put away my interests in games, went off to graduate school, and started a family.

When my son turned 5 or 6, he, like every other boy in America, wanted a Nintendo system for Christmas. I remember so vividly turning on that machine and seeing the world of Super Mario Brothers for the first time! There was such extraordinary improvement over those "dark ages" when I wasn't paying any attention to the medium. What hooked me, I now know, was the inventiveness and artistry of Shigeru Miyamoto. But I knew the moment I turned on the machine that this was now a medium which demanded close attention.

I have been playing games, badly, ever since. I have rather poor hand-eye coordination and not very rapid reflexes which puts many hardcore games outside my competency, though I work through them with students so that I get some first hand experience with them. My own taste runs more towards casual games, puzzle games, and trivia games than towards shooters or sports games. I have also spent a great deal of time reflecting on, writing about, talking about, and tinkering with issues of game design.

I was asked by Brenda Laurel to do some consulting on the development of the Purple Moon games for girls. Out of that experience came our conference -- and later, book -- on gender and computer games. And this has opened up many more opportunities. We have done workshops at GDC and E3 talking with game designers about the creative challenges confronting their industry, but also about the ethical challenges of how to deal constructively with violence. I have helped plan and run a series of Creative Leaders Workshops with Electronic Arts, again designed to promote creativity and diversity in game design and content. And we have formed a research team at MIT which is exploring the pedagogical potential of games. We have benefitted enormously from having top game designers come visit our lab, interact with our students, and critique the design work we have been doing.

I have been outraged, however, by efforts to paint me as a paid apologist for the games industry. I have paid my own way to Washington and New York to testify as a concerned citizen without any kind of organization behind me. I find the idea that one can't constructively work with industry to try to improve the quality of our culture without somehow being corrupted by that experience to be simple-minded in the extreme. Such logic serves to justify throwing rocks from the sidelines but not actively changing the kind of media that is being produced and consumed. Such charges make me seriously question the actual commitment of such moral reformers to anything other than self-righteous postures.

GWJ: Do you feel there is scientific evidence of a causal relationship between video games and violent behavior?

HJ: For the moment, let's leave aside my serious methodological reservations about the media effects tradition. The reality is that almost no reputable researcher would make such a direct and unqualified claim about the impact of media violence on society. There have to date been relatively few studies of video game violence compared to the research done on television violence. We have to assume that there is some significant difference between the two given how many of the studies of television violence emphasized the problems of passive consumption and the inability to expel the emotional energy built up in kids from watching violent acts. Many of the studies which have been done have been inconclusive and thus have received relatively little reporting.

Of those which did indicate some relationship, many found only correlation. That is, they can't tell whether people who have violent tendencies are more apt to consume and enjoy violence or whether the media violence actually causes the violent tendencies. Many of them are making other kinds of claims, dealing with such questions as whether young kids can distinguish real and fantasy violence, whether young kids experience nightmares after watching media violence, whether consuming media violence makes us feel like the world is a more dangerous place than it was. Note these last two would indicate the exact opposite of the oft-made claim that media violence desensitizes us to real world violence. It might, in fact, hypersensitize us to real world violence.

Many of the studies measure not real world violence but whether having consumed a steady diet of media violence, kids will play with their toys in a more aggressive fashion. In other words, the studies show us that aggressive play leads to more aggressive play without ever addressing the core question of whether we do things in our play and fantasies we would not care to do in our real life. What has happened, however, is that media reformers take these rather qualified claims by media researchers, strip aside most of the qualifications, lump together studies of very different kinds and results, and present them in the most bald-faced fashion imaginable to political leaders. Political leaders further simplify those claims and present them at hearings. The news media further simplifies those claims and presents them to the public. And the public further simplifies those claims and acts on them in making decisions impacting the children of the country. So, all you are left with is a monkey-see, monkey-do hypothesis that no real researcher would endorse.

What we have got to do is broaden the range of funded research in this area to include researchers from many different paradigms and methodologies (given that most other research fields have some problems with the work of the Media Effects tradition) and educate the public more fully about the complexity of these issues.

GWJ: If there is no overwhelming evidence linking video games to violent behavior, why do you think so many people have lept to that conclusion? Why not violent movies, or television? What makes video games such a cultural anathema for so many?

HJ: Two points: First, one of the few findings of the media effects tradition which does make sense to me is that the prevalence of violence in the media produces a certain degree of anxiety within the public. Studies have found, for example, that most people believe the crime rate in their neighborhood is four or five times higher than it actually is because they see news reporting of crime as sampling the actual violence rather than reporting most of the violent acts. Similarly, after the few highly publicized school shootings, there is a tendency to believe this is an epidemic problem when in fact most of us could name the majority of such cases in recent years and the rate of juvenile violence in the United States is at a record low.

So, the moral reform groups play on this anxiety to provoke reactions and they have helped to create an atmosphere of moral panic surrounding youth's access to digital media. In many ways, this is a not surprising response to a period of time of enormous change in the media environment. And that brings us to the second point. Games are singled out here at the moment because they are a media that were not part of the childhood culture of many of the current generation of parents. Historically, children and especially teens are new adapters and innovative users of emerging communications media, parents tend to lag behind and be concerned because they don't really understand what their kids are doing, some incident sparks moral panic, and there is a legal and political backlash. This has happened over and over throughout the twentieth century with each new medium and so games are the current scapegoat for everything about kids that parents don't like.

GWJ: How did you become involved in the 1999 hearing before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee? What are your impressions of that hearing?

HJ: My book, From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games, included an essay dealing with the place of games in boy's life and offering a more nuanced cultural explanation for the persistence of blood and thunder imagery in games. When it came time to choose witnesses for the Commerce Committee hearings, my name was put forward by the Interactive Digital Software Association as a scholar who was relatively sympathetic to the interests of the gaming community. And so I got called to Washington.

I joke that I am not an expert on media violence; I simply play one on television. Violence was not the central focus of my interest, though I have dug deeper and deeper into this debate in subsequent years and have become something of an expert on these debates and their historical context. In any case, the hearings themselves were a horror show. Moral panic ruled the day and all of the Senators announced before the hearing began that they had no sympathy with contemporary popular culture and no real interest in understanding what place that culture played in the lives of American youth. There were, for example, no young people invited to participate in a hearing focused on the impact of media violence on youth.

One of the Senators described it as a show trial for the entertainment industry and that's pretty much what it was. Nothing I said there had any consequence though ironically, the fact that I have said it there has opened up many more platforms for discussing this issue.

GWJ: In your opinion, do you feel there is a significant rise in youth violence over the past decade?

HJ: This is not a matter of opinion. This is a matter of record. The rate of youth violence has declined steadily across the past several decades -- with the exception of last year when there was a SLIGHT increase. There has been some increase across the board -- and again, a pretty slight one -- of public shootings where the shooter uses weapons which allow them to get off many shots without having to reload.

GWJ: What are your impressions of recent news that Congress will try to resurrect The Protect Children from Video Game Sex and Violence Act? What sort of ramifications do you think would stem from the passage of such legislation?

HJ: I remain skeptical that Congress is going to pass any kind of regulation which will significantly restrict the content of the American entertainment industry. These governmental hearings have little legitimate purpose. On the one hand, they are not truly investigatory -- since they have predetermined what they want to hear before the hearings ever start. On the other hand, they are unlikely to result in actual legislation -- historically being merely a form of intimidation designed to coerce various sectors of the entertainment industry to tighten self-regulation.

What they do, however, is add credibility to some pretty outrageous claims made about the immediate impact of consuming media, claims which are then acted upon locally by parents and school boards. The entertainment industry has little to fear, but teenagers across America are being punished for the media they consume and these political leaders are unwilling to speak out against these violations of core civil liberties. What makes such hearings a farce is the fact that politicians are discussing materials which they have not directly examined based purely on broad descriptions on index cards handed them by their staff. Frankly, I am pretty glad that our top national leaders don't spend vast amounts of time playing video games, but surely, this ignorance disqualifies them from playing such an active role in trying to police our culture.

GWJ: In the past many types of media have taken the blame for societal ills, from rock and roll to violent cartoons. Do you suspect that as time passes the focus will move away from video games? Do you believe this trend is already beginning as video games become increasingly mainstream?

HJ: I think video games are at a crossroads. The question is whether we will walk down into the bowels of the earth to buy games, the way we currently buy comics, or whether we will walk up to consume them, the way many of us go to the movies. By this I mean, will games be a narrow niche media which you never even see unless you are already a gamer or will it become a broad mass media which has high visibility even to those who go infrequently?

Right now, the industry loves to brag that the American gross sales of video games is close to or surpasses the gross domestic box office for Hollywood films. This is indeed impressive economically but realize, given the price differential, that this still means that something like ten times more people buy movie tickets for every game sold. As long as games remain a niche medium, they will be susceptible to this moral panic rhetoric. And as the comic book industry found in the 1950s, if they give in to that rhetoric, they probably will forever lose out on the chance to become a mainstream media.

Media in fact are most susceptible to such attacks at the moment when they are moving to diversify their markets but the public still perceive them as primarily targeting children and youth. In the 1950s, comics were aiming older with horror and crime comics and they got slapped down by media reformers accusing them of selling violence to kids because most of the public had not kept up with the changes in their content and demographics. The same thing is happening now. GTA3 reflects the older slant of the game market but it is being read as if only kids played games. This is a very dangerous situation which demands a real commitment to public education if it is going to change.


You can find part two of our interview here, or hit the forums if you'd like to discuss violence in video games, or even the future of the medium.

- Elysium


It's an interesting read - this is the guy that got attacked by Phil Donahue, correct?

(Would it be possible to get this formatted a little differently? It's a little hard to tell the difference between your questions and his answers currently...)

Sure, I can play with it a bit.  And yes, this is the guy who was ambushed on Donahue.  He talks about that experience on Thursday.

- Elysium

i would love to go to bat for video games.  bring it on donahue!  ill tear your sensationalism down with reason, personality and a good dose of denial medicine.

show me shocking clips of GTA3 and hear the gasps.  then lets analyze the core mechanics of the game.  then lets look at the big capital M on the box.  then lets hand hold parents through the voluntary rating system.

im waiting for a call phil!

Cool, thanks for the updated layout

Great interview, guys! I've read his take on his Donahue appearence, it gives a pretty good summary of what that kind of television is like. Can't wait to read part two.

Media in fact are most susceptible to such attacks at the moment when they are moving to diversify their markets but the public still perceive them as primarily targeting children and youth. In the 1950s, comics were aiming older with horror and crime comics and they got slapped down by media reformers accusing them of selling violence to kids because most of the public had not kept up with the changes in their content and demographics. The same thing is happening now. GTA3 reflects the older slant of the game market but it is being read as if only kids played games. This is a very dangerous situation which demands a real commitment to public education if it is going to change.

I find this part particularly interesting. However, I would like to interject one major difference between the 1950's Comic industry and the current Game industry. The current Game industry gets alot of its content from overseas, namely Japan and Europe. Japanese developers would be less likely to be influenced by Americal moral panic, especially if they could still make thier money in Japan. European developers could also make money in thier home country on mature themed games. I think the Game industry is less likely to cave in to moral panic because of the diverse nature of the development community, whearas the 1950's American comic industry was much more localized, and didn't connect with other countries comic industries as much.

Also, Im wondering if the Comic industry has "forever" lost out on the chance to become a mainstream medium. Maybe not anytime soon, but forever is a long time, especially when you're talking about something like entertainment.

i agree pyroman about the comic book issue.  it may have stalled in the 1950's due to the circumstances mentioned.  however, it has made several strong pushes in the last 10 years towards mainstream.  i mean rap music was also supposed to be a fad right?  how many comic book movies are being released/have been released in recent years?

This was really excellent!


I would love to hear what Dr. Henry thinks about and if he has had any experience with Senator Joe Lieberman.  I can't stand this idiot, and I loved how he was sitting by Hillary Clinton last night.  OMG what a pair.

And that other idiot who was a general or something in the military that runs around the country saying the governement uses games to teach military personnel and says there is a direct link between games and vilolence.

I really like this Dr. Henry, he has a good head on his shoulder, compared to the other idiots.

I think Dr. Jenkins makes a valid comparison with the comics industry, when he describes the cross roads of the industry. Interactive (electronic) gaming is still under the popular perception that it is either a phase that children go through (and get over after puberty), or is the past time of anti-social, immoral post-pubescent miscreants.

While we would all (gamers) hope that electronic gaming takes the right hand turn to fame, fortune, and glory as a cornerstone of modern culture, it must be realized that there are many people whose well-being depends on electronic gaming being relegated to the shady corners of a comicbook-like shop.

Such direct competitors of electronic gaming include: popular moralist political figures, television networks, and hollywood movie studios. No sane individual would want to be at odds with any of these behemoth industries, yet as electronic gaming surges in popularity, we find this to be the case. Unfortunately movies, TV, and politicos already have the ear of the vast majority of the older US population. They have, and will, try to denegrate electronic gaming, in order to bring it under strict, stifling controls.

On the bright side, electronic gaming has the children on their side. From my experience, when given the choice, today's average child (who has been brought up, since birth, in world with electronic games) would rather play an electronic game than engage in a form of passive entertainment. As we all know, these children will one day be parents themselves. So if we are successful in fending off the vultures, war-mongers, and marketers for the next 10-20 years, I believe that we can set electronic gaming in place as the keystone of our new culture, and we will find a radical shift in society as we move from the passively entertained, to the actively entertained.

Thank you to Dr. Jenkins, for providing an outspoken voice for the unheard majority of America's youth, and for speaking out to those of us who are older, to whom popular opinion dictates "we should know better," when in fact, we know better than they.

Good interview.

I would however, like to point out that it was the comic book industry itself that put the final nail in the coffin by creating the comics code authority volentarilly and thus caving into the pressures of the moral crusaders.