Dr. Henry Jenkins Interview: Pt. 2

Today we're happy to present part two of our conversation with gaming advocate and the head of MIT's graduate program in Comparative Media Studies, Dr. Henry Jenkins.  Today. Dr. Jenkins talks with us about his experiences in the media spotlight, rulings against first amendment protection for video games, and industry accountability. 

In case you missed part one of our conversation with Dr. Jenkins, you can find that here. 

GWJ: Recently you appeared on Donahue. Afterward you published an article at Salon.com in which you describe being "ambushed". Do you feel that this treatment is indicative of a mass-media ambush against anyone who defends video games? Have video games become a sacrificial lamb for the violence of society?

HJ: All of this is cyclical. Games went through a spot of negative publicity following Columbine which had largely calmed down. The industry was getting a different order of media treatment following the release of the Sims and it looked for a while that games were going to be covered more or less the same way as television or film with some works proving controversial but others praised for their creativity and innovation. The court cases trying to link games to real world violence were being rejected or overturned and many of the anti-video game activists were retreating.

Then, we had the St. Louis decision, where a judge concluded, on the basis of pretty slim evidence, that games had no constitutional protection since they did not have any actual expressive content. Then, we had the release of Grand Theft Auto 3 which became the poster child for a new wave of media reform rhetoric. At the present moment, it has been extremely difficult for anyone to offer a more nuanced account of the medium. The reform groups have dominated the airwaves and the news media has sandbagged anyone who will speak out on the other side of the topic.

Indeed, few media industry people will go on television at all and those of us who come from the academic side are increasingly reluctant to appear because we know we are not going to get a fair hearing. In all of this, I am reminded of something the political activist Noam Chomsky said: if you are repeating conventional wisdom, it is easy to do it in a soundbyte; if you are challenging it, there's never enough time in most broadcast interviews. It is easy to assert that games are making our kids into psychokillers, harder to debunk those claims within the time frame being offered for most of these discussions.

GWJ: Last year a U.S. federal judge ruled that video games were not protected under first amendment free speech. Do you feel this was an appropriate ruling?

HJ: Absolutely not! That was an absurd ruling! The judge made it primarily on the basis of a sample of only four games, each fairly old, each already the subject of controversy, and even there, he paid so little attention to the games that he mangled three of the four titles in his ruling. Neither side asked him to actually play any of the games: The State showed him clips of cut scenes from games and the IDSA showed him scripts of games. He heard no expert testimony which might place those games in context. He made a ruling which was far more sweeping in its scope than anyone anticipated, deciding not only that those four games lacked redeeming value but that, therefore, it was inconceivable that anything made in that medium could have expressive content. In fact, I think that a good number of games are highly expressive, offer compelling visions of contemporary culture, and would clearly fall into the category of protected speech. I was one of a group of more than 30 scholars, across a range of disciplines, who filed a friend of the court brief to support the appeal of that decision and I remain confident that it will be overturned at a higher level. But, in the meantime, it has given comfort to the anti-video game forces who are using this window of time to dominate media coverage. Almost no major media outlet has covered the statement of the thirty scholars debunking the media effects arguments, yet they have consistently covered the release of every study which claims to support it.

GWJ: When Judge Limbaugh ruled that Video Games were not protected under the first amendment, some video game advocates laid the blame at the feet of the IDSA for poorly representing the industry. Do you have the impression that this is a fair criticism?

HJ: Frankly, I do think the IDSA could have been more effective in the ways they chose to defend the games industry in this particular case. They should have called in expert witnesses; they should have demanded that the judge play games and that he look at a broader sample of materials. In some cases, they might well have been overturned.

In their defense, however, no one really believed that the judge would rule the way he did given the precedence of other cases in this area and certainly no one imagined he would make such a sweeping decision -- dealing not simply with the state's interest in regulating youth access to violence but the constitutional status of the medium as a whole. I suspect we will all go into the next case wiser and better prepared.

GWJ: Do you believe that game developers and publishers should be held accountable if a teenager purchases their game, plays the game, and then commits a violent act similar to what they experienced in the game? For example, if a teenager were to play a game like Grand Theft Auto and after playing carjack a vehicle, should the developer or publisher be culpable?

HJ: Absolutely not. I understand the impulse of parents who sue game companies when their children die tragic deaths. If my kid was killed, I'd be looking for every possible explanation for what had happened and I would be particularly vulnerable to easy answers. But there's an enormous body of research looking at how consumers respond to or make meaning of media texts and it suggests that the outcome is largely unpredictable. People use media contents as resources for actively shaping their fantasy lives and what media they choose and how they make sense of it has always has more to do with their own life experiences and emotional state than with the actual contents of the media. They may choose to act out something that they saw in the media -- though this is relatively rare. Yet, they will have seen millions of acts of all kinds performed in media representations and we still need to account for why this particular act proved to be so inspirational.

This is not, however, to say that games have no cultural and social impact or that game companies should not make ethically responsible decisions about how they deal with violence. I am concerned about the state of violence in games not because I think game companies are evil and corrupting American youth, but because most game violence is banal and formulaic and they are wasting the potential of their medium to foster a serious reflection on the place of violence and aggression in our culture. Every storytelling medium in the history of the world has included violent content; we expect art to give meaning and expressive shape to human aggression, to help us cope with meaningless tragedy by rendering it morally legible. So, it is stupid to talk about getting rid of media violence. We should be debating what kinds of meanings get attached to violent representations in our media. What's the violence about? Right now, most game designers use violence but they don't have anything to say about violence. That isn't evil; it's just lazy and it sells their medium short.

In that context, it is no wonder that judges have trouble finding expressive content and political speech in games. I believe, however, really asking hard questions about the meaning violence carries in games might force game designers more generally to push their art to the next level of development. It is a conversation we should be having not because the Lion and the Lamb folks have a gun to your head but because you want to see games be as rich and diverse a medium as it possibly can be.

GWJ: Has the video game industry done enough to police itself? Should retailers be required to verify that customers are of an appropriate age to purchase mature or violent video games? Who should be held responsible if a violent video game gets into the hands of a child?

HJ: There are two issues here -- policing one's self at the point of production and policing one's self at the point of sale. Policing one's self in terms of the development of game content is a largely negative way of thinking about what's being done. It points us towards removing things, restricting things, and what we need to be doing is producing things. As long as we frame this negatively, games are doomed to become more banal and lifeless. When we debate violence in cinema, for example, it is relatively easy to defend artists like Scorsese or Tarantino because it is clear that their films have something they want to say about contemporary culture and they are using violence to say it.

Certainly, I'd love to see more games made which target younger consumers or which offer appeals other than violence. The industry is overly reliant on violence and it would be good for the industry to diversify its genres and its markets. Policing one's self at the point of purchase is a seperate question, but again, I think we are approaching it the wrong way. Ratings can serve two functions -- one educational (letting us know what's in the game), the other regulatory (preventing kids from consuming inappropriate content). The more you reduce the rating to a simple letter grade which can be easily enforced the less real information you can provide parents about the actual contents of that game.

I believe that parents should take responsibility for the media that they consume and that the industry should provide them with as much information as possible about the actual contents. My model would be more like an ingredients list on food packaging which counts on consumers to decide not to buy the Chocolate cake mix if they are allergic to chocolate or if they have tendencies towards being over-weight but gives them consistent and reliable information about the actual contents and its nutritional value. I think where the industry has fallen down is not in enforcement per se but helping parents to realize that they have to actively make choices about what games are appropriate for their children. Right now, the Federal Trade Commission has found that 85 percent of games purchases are made either by adults or by adults and kids together. What if every time you checked out of a game store or Walmart, the clerk was instructed to say, "Just so you know, this game is rated M" and if the games industry used secret shoppers to enforce this much as the fast food chains will fire an employee who doesn't ask if you want fries with that order. This doesn't depend on enforcement at the point of sale; it depends on re-enforcement of the ideas that games are rated and parents are responsible for making informed decisions which are appropriate for their own families.

GWJ: Much is made of the possible negative effects of video games, both violent and otherwise. Is there evidence that video games can also be a positive experience?

HJ: Certainly. Several years ago, I bought my son a campaign simulation game which allowed you to pick presidential candidates, map their strategy state by state and day by day through the campaign, choose topics for discussion, do opinion polling, pick advertising slots, plan debate strategy. At the end of the game, the outcome was determined by the electoral college. After a few sessions with the game, he wandered into the living room where I was watching CNN and told me why Dole was in California, Gore was in New York, Clinton was in Ohio, etc. realizing that those key states had a high point value in the game. It was a powerful teaching tool which got across some of the more arcane details of how American politics works.

He took it to his school where there is a rule that you can play software on the computers but not games and a harried librarian took one look at the box and decided it was a game and thus had no educational benefits. If he had brought a book that covered the same territory, she would have been delighted.

Schools are turning their backs on what may be the most effective educational technology ever developed and game designers are punting the ball in failing to make design decisions which enhance the pedagogical benefits of their games. People constantly tell me that educational games don't sell and I respond by citing Sim City, Civilization, Railroad Tycoon, etc. as existing games on the market which have real educational value. Kids are learning things from games every night -- even if it is the strengths and vulnerabilities of different Pokemon creatures or the kinds of spells you use to defeat an Orc. I think you can combine real educational value with compelling game play, create games that enable learning without dampening fun.

The core goals of the MIT-Microsoft Games to Teach Project, which I head, is to explore the educational potential of game genres and technologies. What we have found so far is that many games currently on the market can be effectively used in the classroom, if we develop curricular materials to support them. My associate, Kurt Squire, has been exploring how Civilization 3 can be used in schools to get students to reflect on the logic of historical development. Most students have trouble thinking that history might have turned out any differently than it did, since they mostly experience it as facts in textbooks and not as a series of problems or choices which confronted civilizations at particular historical junctures and with particular configurations of territory and resources. Playing a game like Civ 3 can allow them to enter into history in progress and to think through why certain spaces had strategic or tactical advantages or why control of resources has consequences in the unfolding of historical events.

Yet, teachers in the classroom need to understand the strengths and limitations of these games and to teach students to reflect upon their game experiences. Playing Civilization will no more turn a kid into a historian than playing Quake will make them a psycho-killer. Moving beyond games already on the shelf, we are exploring how existing game genres might be deployed to enable the exploration of core concepts at the secondary and early college level and we are developing playable models of those games which we will start testing in classrooms this coming term. We believe that such games will help motivate learning, will enable concepts to come alive for players who can intimately engage with things they could not observe in the real world, will enable complex modeling of real world processes, will foster problem-solving skills, will encourage peer-to-peer learning, and will help concretize the actual impact on the real world of abstract ideas presented in the classroom. All of these are things games are doing right now but for the most part, the designers are not thinking in terms of the educational benefits of using realistic content nor are teachers fully embracing these games as a means of fostering learning. So far, the responses from both the gaming and educational community have been enormously positive.

GWJ: Given that the mainstream media has bought into a 'games are evil' attitude and don't seem to think the public wants to hear an opposing viewpoint, what would you say is the best forum in which to counter this perception? Is there a way of reaching the masses with the other side of the story?

Moral panics are cyclical. They lose energy over time. People start to pull back and question the rush to judgement. They tend to get most of their results in the first burst of activity and then lose momentum. The hysteria post-columbine was largely pushed aside by positive media coverage about the Sims and other titles. But the Limbaugh decision brought some of these groups back from the dead and Grand Theft Auto 3 gave them a bigger than life target to rally against. I think we have to brace ourselves in the short run, do what we can to educate the public, but also accept that the games industry is going to take some hits for a bit. Then, regroup.

The games industry is far more effective when it has a positive story to tell than when it is backed into a corner and forced to defend its most extreme products. What the games industry needs to do is to make sure it can point to positive changes which are being made. The IDSA needs to do what it is doing now -- refine and clarify the goals of its ratings system. You then want to demonstrate a diversification of games content. You want to be able to show games which encourage players to reflect on the impact of violence or which have other ethical stakes. You want to be able to show how games can and are being used in education. You want to be able to show how families are being brought together to play games which have content appropriate for all ages. You want to be able to show that games are fostering creativity and leadership. You want to point towards the ways games are being played together by kids around the world. All of this had better be real and credible. It can't be a smoke screen. Real results in these areas would diversify the games market and ensure a broader base of support for the medium. They will also result in material advancements in the art of game design which will enable the games industry to achieve the full potentials of this still emerging medium.


Again, I would like to personally thank Dr. Jenkins for taking the time to speak so eloquently with us.  He's done outstanding work for the interests of the video game industry, and to represent those who are sometimes without a voice.   We encourage you to visit our forums to further discuss the issue!

- Elysium


Excellent interview Elysium, very nice work.

Great interview, Elysium.  I would love to see some eighty year old judge curling his arthiritic hands around a X-box controller.  How is it that they let people with absolutely no knowledge of a medium make sweeping decisions about that medium?

Ok, I know why.  But it still sucks.

Great interview, Elysium. It was a good read. Also, I applaud Dr. Jenkins for taking the request seriously and clearly putting a lot of thought into his answers.

I think it is pretty clear that games can be used to educate, even in an entertaining way. Movies also have this ability. Part of the problem I see is that people don't seem to be interested in being educated. There's a reason we see the same old drek being shoveled out of Hollywood each month. It's easy to produce since it's all been done before, and people will still pay to see it.

Following the path of resistance to the Almighty Dollar in a competitive market ultimately results in one thing, cheaper drek. It does not promote revolutionary, ground-breaking, alternative, genre-stretching stuff. Every now and then a game/movie/car/consumable flies contrary to all of this and succeeds. Whatever motivates that to happen is what we need more of in order to fight the cheap garbage problem.

In the case of, say, Civilization or The Sims, the motivating factor seems to be the involvement of a visionary. The visionary's goal doesn't seem to be revenue (though they may end up with buckets of it), but rather the product itself. Focus on the product instead of the business model and you end up with a product of a high enough quality that even an inferior business model can sell. Focus only on the business model and you end up with hype. Hype disappoints, as anyone in these forums will tell you.

Another way you break the cycle is by removing the Almighty Dollar as the ultimate goal. Actually, it's the same as the visionary who doesn't see the Dollar as being the goal, but this method doesn't need the visionary. If money was free, the game would not be a means to an end, but rather the end in itself. I know you think this is impossible, but I suggest it has already been done. America's Army, though still another shooting game, was lauded for its quality even though it was a free game. The government funded the project, and, while I'm sure there were plenty of budgetary constraints, the developers were permitted to focus on the product. Take away the Dollar and the focus switches to more important things.

How all of this theory goes from existing as a bunch of words to becoming an intelligent, even educational, game in your library (school, public, or personal) I'm not sure. Hopefully the government will use the success of America's Army to launch another experiment. What if come election time, every family got a free copy of a game such as Dr. Jenkins described his son playing? I might actually understand what a caucus is. At the same time, we need to encourage the visionaries of the world. Give people some freedom to pursue the genius they're capable of.

Sorry for rambling. Thanks again for interview!

You should have asked Dr. Jenkins what he thought about Certis being carded for DOA Volleyball.

Great article, it is dissapointing how few people talk out to say that video game violence isn't directly causing real violence.

For the games in schools, When I was in school we had games on the apple II series computers. They were what I looked forward to in class. Games like Maniac Mansion and one where you played as a black slave escaping from the plantation. And of course one cannot forget the great Oregon Trail! We had games that made us solve all kinds of different problems great and small. There was violence in them, though slight, I remember having to pick up a large knife and pepper as a black slave to aid in my escape. We also had games to help in hand/eye coordination, playing as a triangle racing ever faster through two lines that would eventually get closer and closer. Oddly enough the oldest teacher there was the best at it! Games have come a long way since then and have become so much more educational it is a wonder they aren't incorporated into more schools.