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.
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