Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Games And Guns

Posted by Rampant Coyote on January 15, 2013

A friend of mine emailed me with the subject “Has the world has gone crazy?” It linked to an article about a good ol’ fashioned book-burning that included video games, and how violent arcade games were getting removed from public rest stops.  The latter one I could kind of understand (I have never seen an arcade machine at a rest stop, but I approve of the idea!), but the former one boggled my mind.

I was a professional game developer when the Columbine High School shooting happened. And for several weeks, the media repeated the message that violent video games were to blame. People believed them. ‘Cuz, I guess, if it’s on the news, it must be correct, right?  It was a rough time to be a game developer. In fact, our publisher and licensor responded with demands that we completely redesign the game we were making for them, a design which had been fine the day before the tragedy. And we had to tone down the violence in general, nevermind that the books we were basing the games on had plenty of violence (and, occasionally, guns). I half-jokingly remark that at the time, I would feel more comfortable introducing myself as a drug dealer than a game developer.

Yet if Doom had not ever been created, would the tragedy have been averted? I really doubt it. Violent video games were a convenient scapegoat at the time.  They are a little less convenient today – time has made them far more ‘mainstream.’ And while some horrible things have happened in that time, violent crime of all kinds has been decreasing steadily in the U.S. since the release of that first big “realistically violent” video game two decades ago. In addition, here in the U.S., video games are now protected under the First Amendment, courtesy of last year’s Supreme Court decision. But obviously they aren’t immune from attack by people desperate to find blame.

When I was about four years old, I went Trick-Or-Treating on a rainy Halloween night with my mom. I was dressed as a character played by Charles Nelson Reilly, which in retrospect pleases me. 🙂 Anyway, at one point, I slipped in the mud and fell, my candy spilling out into the mud. To me at that age, it was a disaster beyond imagination. I screamed and cried. And I pounded at the candy in the mud with my hands. My mother was simultaneously trying to rescue what she could of my Halloween candy, and stop me from driving them deeper into the mud with my panicked reaction. I couldn’t understand. I was frantic. I had to DO SOMETHING.

When a tragedy occurs, people feel powerless. Finding someone or something tangible to blame that they can touch, seize, or even destroy helps restore a feeling of control to a disempowering event. Even if it is unlikely to have prevented the previous event (see the “security theater” at airports we’ve been subjected to for the last decade), or may actually make a bad situation worse, it’s a magical totem to ward off evil. When I hear demands to “DO SOMETHING” immediately after a disaster, I mentally translate it as a call for “mob justice,” to act based on the emotion of the moment before rationality and thought has had a chance to be return.

And yeah, it’s tempting. I’m not immune to the reaction, either.  It’s probably a good thing I wasn’t in charge of things on the evening of September 11th, 2001. A few months ago, my daughter’s school went into lockdown over an anonymous tip, and while I wasn’t informed until the incident was almost over and all children were accounted for, it’s a very rough thing to hear as a parent. I’d have thrown myself headlong into danger if I imagined (even erroneously) it could help. Perhaps pounding candy into the mud, again.

So I’ve refrained from making too many comments about a recent act of shocking violence, because my own emotions can tempt me to make an ass out of myself pretty easily. It’s far, far easier to talk about imagined, fictional evils in magical worlds of computer games than the horrifyingly ordinary face it wears in reality.  But now that a month has passed, I thought I’d share a few thoughts.

A causal relationship between violent video games and violent behavior has never been determined, in spite of numerous studies that have attempted to do so. Blaming entertainment media for horrendous acts is ridiculous. On a personal level, I do enjoy watching action movies and playing first-person shooters. I think, to a point, there’s nothing wrong with them, and they should be made. And more importantly, I don’t think the government should intrude upon their creation or distribution.

I think the most popular  games tend to appeal to human beings on a primitive level. They speak to our ‘hardcoded” mental programming that allowed us to survive as a race. The games that stimulate parts of our “lizard brains,” which result in pleasure when exercised. Hunting (most FPS games). Fight or Flight reflexes (almost all action games). Pattern-matching and gathering (Match-3 games). Mating (The Sims, dating games). Finding / creating shelter (Minecraft, tower defense games), acts of creation (Sim City), and power over the environment (any game allowing lots of destruction).  These kinds of activities are still simulated in sports, have been parts of games since the dawn of time, and will be with us forever.

I do feel that media informs and can shape the culture. People imitate modeled behavior. I don’t feel excessive violence (or other negative behaviors) on movie screens or game screens is healthy for us as a culture. I am concerned as game-makers, filmmakers, TV studios, music labels, and everyone else seems to be competing as to who can “push the envelope” the most at the edges of public tolerance. This isn’t a healthy trend, and I hope that indies can help lead the way on this on the game front. No, there’s not a direct link between this and violence, but I do believe that in the long term, it can color (or desensitize) perceptions and behaviors. I can’t believe that games can be a great training tool on the one hand, yet have absolutely zero influence on the other. I do believe we need to behave responsibly as creators… and as consumers.

Because of the above, I also feel it is the height of hypocrisy for the people who promote (and make huge profits from) the “gun culture” to turn around and try and attack and lay blame on the very culture they work so very hard to build up. (And seriously, while I can’t speak for the criminal culture(s) in the United States, I can tell you that the ‘gun culture’ – at least the subset I’ve been associated with – is nothing like it is portrayed in Hollywood. And… speaking of hypocrisy…  how sick do you have to be to make [or enjoy] a game about assassinating the NRA president with a sniper rifle?  No, I’m not providing a link…)

The biggest school massacre in the United States was in 1927, committed with explosives. This was long before video games, TV, and even before film really caught on as an entertainment medium (or showed anything close today’s graphic level of violence).  However – as a weird point of fact – it was committed by a politician, bitter over his defeat. My wife collects ghost stories, many based on real events of very horrible people who did horrible things to destroy many innocent lives, either all at once or one at a time, generations or even centuries ago. Evil is evil, sickness is sickness, and both have been with us since the beginning, and there is no magical cure no matter what we ban or burn or regulate.

What matters is that we make sure that Good has the tools to prevail over Evil.

In the area of video games, I believe that games have a power for good, as well.  Games can and do educate, make people think, and share what is good and wonderful about the world. They can comfort. They can distract and provide a temporary escape (and well-needed break) from the pressures of reality. They can provide a safe, fun, and even constructive outlet for aggression. They can allow us to feel like larger-than-life heroes – and, perhaps, learn to imitate those virtues a little bit. I hope game developers will bear that in mind, make continue to make games that are a counterpoint to darkness, and that we gamers – as consumers – can support that.

Based on the wild, imaginative, sometimes goofy and often experimental indie games that have been successful in the marketplace over the last few years,  it looks like this is exactly what’s happening.  Developers are pushing boundaries that have nothing to do with shocking sensibilities, but instead on expanding horizons. No, not all are successful. But I like the trend.


Filed Under: Geek Life, Politics - Comments: 8 Comments to Read

  • Jacob said,

    I worry about people trying to artificially limit stories we can tell, whether in games or any other medium. It’s through story that we work out the extreme cases of morality and behavior–in a place where we can safely explore without having to undergo the damage of the real thing. In story we answer questions about what it means to be the bad guy and how you might respond given different circumstances and resources. Even those stories that “glory” in violence or come from the perspective of extreme evil (I think of games that take the perspective of mass killers) can be beneficial to some individuals (by, for example, compartmentalizing acts of extreme violence into an unreal space).

    Giving into the urge to DO SOMETHING can be its own act of evil by encouraging us to employ force to limit the harmless actions of others. Add that you could be taking away the means of exploration that are needed for a healthy culture and the damage of “doing something” can be much heavier than doing nothing at all. In the end, I find that “doing something” more often leaves us more vulnerable to future tragedy, not less.

    Yes, it is important to ask the question “what can we do to prevent this from happening in the future” but everything has a cost and all actions include trade-offs. The fantasy that “no cost is too high” is a pleasant one, but an ultimately dangerous one if it leads us to ignore important offsetting values.

  • OttoMoBiehl said,

    Living in Montana I’ve been around the ‘gun culture’ most my life too. When I was 9 I was enrolled in hunter’s safety where I learned the proper way to load, unload, handle, shoot and store a gun. This has served me well through out my life because I knew what the consequences were for being reckless with a firearm. Once that trigger is pulled there is no way to get that bullet back. It seems to me the most common sense thing to do would be to educate people on firearms. Not everybody wants to learn how to shoot them but there seems to be a stigma surrounding firearms and I don’t think that’s a good thing.

    Now, as far as games go. I remember the Columbine shootings very well and I remember the anti-video game trend that happened too. It seems there were tons of studies to find out if video games cause violent behavior. If I recall correctly the studies proved they didn’t. I guess this stuff dies down a bit until the next dingbat decides to take up a firearm and shoot up a school.

    The one thing that really does worry me is censorship. I really, really hope nobody decides to start censoring games, the kind of games, what can or cannot be in a game, etc. If people are worried about what kids consume in their leisure then parents need to parent up and watch what their kids watch/play/ingest.

    Anyway, it is easy to fly off the handle on this topic and I’m sure there are many heated debates going on about it at this moment.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yeah, I worry about flying off the handle myself. And this is a subject where I certainly can’t speak with much authority, and don’t want the community here to blow up over it. I guess I know far more about video games than your average TV reporter or politician, but that’s hardly an uncommon qualification.

  • Greg Squire said,

    Great post Jay! Sorry to have started the avalanche. 😉 Here’s my two cents.

    Long before video games, people have always looked for scapegoats to blame their troubles on. If your crops aren’t growing, then it must be because that weird lady down the road is a witch. If your business starts tanking, it must be because of the “infidels” that just moved in next door. Etc. It’s an unfortunate part of human nature. The problem is when we get riled up and take action based upon incomplete or misleading information. A lot of people believe violent video games cause violence so it’s an easy scapegoat. It’s one of the witch hunt mentalities of our day. There have been many studies to try and prove this belief, but all of these have been inconclusive (and some have problems with how the research was done). One extensive study (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Theft_Childhood) found a slight correlation between violent media and violent behavior, but it couldn’t prove a causal relationship. It could simply be that violent people were more likely to prefer violent games, rather than violent media causing violent behavior. It’s also worth noting that they even stated that looking at just violence in games was overly simplistic as there are tons of other factors (usually bigger factors) that lead to violent behavior (such as involvement with gangs). Also they found some evidence that that it was the “extreme loners”, whether they played games or not, that were more likely to engage in violence. Something about interacting with human beings helps keeps us “grounded” apparently.

    I personally feel that games, like other media, do have an influence on us for good or bad. But it is only an “influence”, and not a “mind control”. We are still the “master of our own ship” and we can choose how that media will effect us and also choose whether to engage in more or less of that type of media. A game that contains violence isn’t neccessarily bad; I believe that the context of the violence is more important. In other words are we playing as the good guy to vanquish evil, or are we playing as the evil guy? Also is the violence realistic? Is it fantasy violence? Jedi vs. the Sith, Knights vs. the Dragons, etc. Or is it real world violence? Drug dealers killing cops, serial killers killing prostitutes, etc. This is a very complex issue and I think is so little is understood about how media influences ourselves and our society. I agree with with Jay that we need to behave responsibly as creators and as consumers. Hopefully we can all choose to use this new media for good and the improvement of mankind. I think it holds some great untapped possibilities.

  • Steven Fletcher said,

    It’s the same with sex as it is with violence. There’s a book from the 1800’s that is worse than RapeLay. I’ve never read it, but I read about it on Wikipedia. Unfortunately, I can’t recall enough information to provide a title or a link, but there are certainly other books like this.

    I’m tired of people acting arrogant because they feel that the medium they get their fiction from is better. That may be a bit off topic, but English teachers act all snobby because they read “literature” instead of playing video games or whatever. Your time is wasted no matter where you get your fix from.

    And real life is even more messed up. Since when do women get gang raped on the bus in video games?

    The sex and violence in fiction, regardless of whether it’s a book, movie, or video game, is inspired by the sex and violence in real life, not vice versa.

  • Albert1 said,

    [politically incorrect]
    You Americans are on a very bad way: from the USSR 2 (former European Union) I read you’re going to seriously limite your constitutional right of carrying a weapon, I also read that now Government decides how&when you should take care of your health. In countries where weapons are limited, like the one I live in, the only ones carrying guns are government and criminality and, after some time, you’ll find very hard to distinguish between the former and the latter – ah, the miracles of corruption and uncontrolled public expenditure! The fear of armed&ready to fire citizens is the only thing that (partially) prevent even democratically elected governments from becoming (complete) tirannies!
    [/politically incorrect]

  • Ruber Eaglenest said,

    How many degrees burn the videogames?

    It’s important that that kind of fascist groups does not get too much power.

  • Ruber Eaglenest said,

    Sorry, I used that word, But I hadn’t, it’s improper, because:

    “the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless … almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist'” George Orwell.

    Again, sorry.