A couple of days ago, psychiatrist Carole Lieberman gave a quote to Fox News about the violent upcoming game Bulletstorm. Dr. Lieberman isn't a fan of such games. She thinks the worst of them cause people to do bad things. Two days later, she's been through a storm.
Dr. Lieberman is no accidental enemy of violent and sexual video games, though she seemed today interested in adding some nuance to her Fox News comment.
"The more video games a person plays that have violent sexual content," she said, carefully choosing her words during a phone interview with Kotaku, "the more likely one is to become desensitized to violent sexual acts and commit them."
That's a less direct version of what she said in the Fox News piece, in a comment that sent gamers into a frenzy: "The increase in rapes can be attributed in large part to the playing out of [sexual] scenes in video games."
(Reporters typically trim quotes for space, flow or emphasis; Dr. Lieberman's full quote about sexual violence and games to Fox News was: "Video games have increasingly, and more brazenly, connected sex and violence in images, actions and words. This has the psychological impact of doubling the excitement, stimulation and incitement to copycat acts. The increase in rapes can be attributed, in large part, to the playing out of such scenes in video games.")
She bundled video games with violent movies, toys, and rap lyrics as "modern weapons of mass destruction".
Fox News didn't really get Lieberman wrong. She's been pushing back against what she sees as the harmful influence of violent video games and other violent media for years. In a chapter of a book written for TV host Larry King, she bundled video games with violent movies, toys, and rap lyrics as "modern weapons of mass destruction" that "are causing us to destroy each other - on playgrounds and battlegrounds."
She believes that violent media does encourage more aggressive behavior and says there are "thousands" of studies that support the view she and others share. "The thing is that all these thousands of studies relate violent media,including video games, to an increase in violence in general." She's been wary of the effects of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon in the 80s compelling kids to karate chop each other on playgrounds, and testified to Congress about the impact of violent media. She's seen in the history of people she's studied in her clinical and forensic work an obsession with video games, which makes her wary of the influence of the medium.
Dr. Lieberman couldn't cite a specific study that showed that video games cause rape but she argues that it is a logical conclusion to reach: "That fits under the idea of people becoming more violent or aggressive, the more violent media they consume," she said.
She described her comments, part of a longer interview with Fox News about violent games and media, as "just stuff that's second nature to me. I've been talking about this for years.
And so, games do cause rape?
"I would have to dig into the things I have in hard copy or search the Internet," she said, "But rape [pause] there have been sexual crimes and the video games have become more sexual …"
Kotaku was putting Lieberman on the spot. We called her and she answered. So even though she'd been getting criticized by gamers over e-mail for a couple of days, she didn't have her notes handy. She did, however, wind her way into an articulation of her concern about the changing nature of video games. "They've become more sexual," she said. "And, according to Freud, our impulses… we're born with natural drives toward aggression and sex. The aggression drive is normally socialized, when we grow up, to become ambition. The sexual drive, as we grow up, is connected to love, if we grow up in a healthy way.
"The irony is here are people trying to say video games don't cause people to be violent, but the ones I've read are very violent. They're out of control."
"When people combine sexual and violent images, particularly in video games where you're not just passively watching, you're pushing buttons, you're getting physically involved in this act, it has a particularly stimulating impact. It stimulates the sex center of the psyche and the violence center of the psyche and make the whole effect more stimulating. And so it's natural that the more the violent impulses are stimulated...[she paused] it's not that everyone goes out and kills but people become more aggressive with getting into parking spots or everyday things… so when there are also sexual things, like words in this new game they are using, or images, it stimulates the two centers in the psyche and makes the overall impact linking sex and violence — and desensitizing people to violent sex — more impactful, more inciteful."
Lieberman was demonstrating some familiarity with the game she was describing. Bulletstorm is many things, including both a game we've written positive impressions about and a first-person shooter that celebrates a player's ability to kill multiple enemies with verbal accolades such as "gang bang."
Lieberman is not a gamer, says she's never even played Pac-Man; though she suspects that Jared Lee Loughner, the man who allegedly tried to assassinate a Congresswoman last month, was a player of violent video games, a theory that has yet to be confirmed. She doesn't think games alone trigger any of this. She believes that troubled upbringings are a major factor and explain why so many gamers don't resort to the awful behaviors that concern her.
For the effort of sharing her perspective with Fox News, Lieberman has suffered the brunt of gamers. They've bombarded her with negative e-mails. She plucked one at random for me, a missive from someone who signed their name as JohnnyMassiveHomoCunt
The e-mailer wrote: "I played Bulletstorm demo, and like I felt I need to rape someone. So I went into this kind of deep trance, which caused me to rape 10, 15 years-old girl. [sic] What do I do now? The game made me do it. Please help me. By the way, you look like a fucking deadbeat pornstar. Yours truly, JohnnyMassiveHomoCunt OMG LOL my shift broke. P.S. Playing Mass Effect gave me a sudden need to shoot you in the head. Would you please come here so I can fulfill my needs?"
Lieberman was able to laugh this off as she read the e-mail over the phone. But, she sighed, "The irony is here are people trying to say video games don't cause people to be violent, but the ones I've read are very violent. They're out of control."
She says she can handle this kind of feedback. "That I can take, because if it does save one child or one woman, if more people are alerted to this, even if some people don't agree, I can accept. But what I am sad, or disappointed in — because I never even thought about this is because people have gone to Amazon, I have a new book out called Bad Girls: Why Men Love Them & How Good Girls Can Learn Their Secrets, and wrote terrible reviews." Those negative reviews are sullying that book, a follow-up to a Bad Boys book, both well-researched, she said, and intended "to help people survive the love jungle out there" and have better relationships.
Lieberman noted that nothing like this has ever happened before. Maybe that says something about her statement or about video games and the attitude of gamers or even about the marketing machinery behind the game that has rejoiced in Bulletstorm's shock content. She's not sure. "People don't like to hear that violent media causes violence or desensitization," Lieberman said, "But this has been a particularly violent backlash."
UPDATE: Following the publication of this story, many readers asked how Lieberman could reconcile her reference to an "increase in rapes" with crime statistics from the U.S. department of Justice that reports of rape have in fact declined from 2.5 per 1000 people over the age of 12 in 1973 to .3 per 1000 in 2009. Lieberman said that rape statistics are "known to be variable and unreliable" and quoted, via Wikipedia, a USA Today report that "no other major category of crime - not murder, assault or robbery - has generated a more serious challenge of the credibility of national crime statistics than rape." She did not offer any empirical evidence to support her assertion in the Fox News article that the occurrence of rape has increased as video games have risen in popularity.