Professor participates in video game violence debate

Enough Internet research may lead someone to find that a University of Miami professor is at the forefront of one the most hotly contested debates involving new media today.

He is not, however, a communications theorist or a practitioner of media law; rather, he is Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr., a professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning in the School of Education and the issue is the effect of video games on children.

Provenzo is involved because, as an expert in the educational possibilities available through interactive media, he believes video games may have deeper effects than previously thought. He stated that, in order to achieve victory in a video game, the player must learn the game’s lesson.

The problem at hand is what happens when the lesson involves violent or socially deviant behavior. Titles like the “Grand Theft Auto” series, where gunplay and theft are a necessity for winning, have been singled out by Provenzo and others as unacceptable for children.

“What’s happening is you have a behavioral reinforcement system that conditions you to respond in a certain way fairly automatically,” he said. “The fact is we’re not looking at these as training systems but we’re looking at them as games-and they’re more than just simply games.”

That is the argument Provenzo has applied to his recent work in the field.

In the past he has written articles examining the nature of video games and books, such as 1991’s “Video Kids: Making Sense of Nintendo.” He had some involvement in the establishment of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), which rates and suggests the maturity level based on the content of each game. He has even brought his findings to the U.S. Senate.

Provenzo garnered more attention with the release of games like “Grand Theft Auto”, serving as an expert witness on behalf of Jack Thompson, a controversial Coral Gables lawyer, in order to restrict the sale of such games to minors.

The debate is whether or not games in the vein of Rockstar Games’ “Grand Theft Auto” series or their recent release, “Bully”, contribute to the violent behavior of minors, and whether or not similar games should be available to them.

“I think under certain circumstances, I have to know their individual case, but in point of fact the involvement of an individual with video games can be a mitigating factor,” Provenzo said of video games and their relation to violent crimes. “It doesn’t excuse crime, but may explain some of what was done and some of the behavior of the individual. The question is: Does the company who manufactured the game and released it to a minor have any responsibility for the death of the individuals?”

Although he stressed playing video games is no excuse, he said that being exposed to such behavior might be important in determining the length of sentence or the type of incarceration that the perpetrator receives.

However, Provenzo maintained he is an ardent defender of free expression. His stance is that games with particularly mature content should not be played by developing minds and that ESRB ratings are not always accurate.

Nevertheless, Provenzo supported Thompson’s attempts to have “Bully” declared as a public nuisance in Miami-Dade County and have its sale halted.

“The court decided [that attempt] was an interference with fair and free trade,” Provenzo said. “I think that the court judgment that was made was not the correct one, but that’s what the legal system is for, so we will come back and debate that some more. But I think that some of the attempts to block this stuff from a legal point of view are perfectly justified.”

Sam Terilli, an assistant professor of journalism and an expert on media law, does not think such a ban is likely to be upheld.

“I think a video game as a form of entertainment would be a protected form of expression,” said Terilli, former general counsel of the Miami Herald Publishing Company. “I think the courts are troubled by being put into the position of being the editors, the sort of entertainment police for the country. That’s not the role that they want; it’s not a role for which they’re particularly well-suited.”

A bill recently introduced in the Senate, the Family Entertainment Protection Act, seeks to concretely establish the ESRB ratings as enforceable law and ban the sale of their “Mature” and “Adults Only” games to minors. Similar laws in California, Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota have been ruled unenforceable.

Terilli said there is a precedent for such a policy.

“I don’t think that you should ban any video games,” he said. “I think that that’s very different from perhaps requiring that video games carry parental advisory warnings or some sort of disclaimer or not allowing merchants to sell certain types of video games, just as you wouldn’t want them selling cigarettes or certain types of adult entertainment to minors.”

While it remains to be seen how the new medium of video games is treated, Terilli is not sure even a federal statute would resolve the issue.

“Part of the reality of the situation is that many of the kids who are interested in playing these games are going to be far more sophisticated than the parents who might be interested in policing the content,” he said. “That you’re not really going to get around in any way; the most you can do is have fair disclosure so that parents know about it and parents have an opportunity to monitor it.”

Provenzo believes that a balance can be reached.

“In the United States we value our democratic tradition, so we tend to say it’s an issue of freedom and civil liberties,” Provenzo said. “But you know, as someone who’s been a strong defender of First Amendment rights, that doesn’t mean we can’t restrict materials and still maintain First Amendment rights. [We could] restrict the access of certain age groups and it could also just be a matter of taste.”

Nate Harris may be contacted at