Before I get started, I want to be clear—violent video games can inspire acts of real-world violence. Of course they can. To argue otherwise would be naive at best and dishonest at worst. This blog post isn’t a discussion about whether or not we should keep violent games out of children’s hands (of course we should!), but rather a counterargument to the unfair misconception that violent games are inherently corruptive and devoid of cultural value.
For the last few weeks, the buzz in the gaming industry has been all about violence in video games. On January 11, Vice President Biden sat down with executives to start up a dialogue on the industry’s social responsibility. The New York Times reported:
With the Newtown, Conn., massacre spurring concern over violent video games, makers of popular games like Call of Duty and Mortal Kombat are rallying Congressional support to try to fend off their biggest regulatory threat in two decades.
The $60 billion industry is facing intense political pressure from an unlikely alliance of critics who say that violent imagery in video games has contributed to a culture of violence. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. met with industry executives on Friday to discuss the concerns, highlighting the issue’s prominence.
No clear link has emerged between the Connecticut rampage and the gunman Adam Lanza’s interest in video games. Even so, the industry’s detractors want to see a federal study on the impact of violent gaming, as well as cigarette-style warning labels and other measures to curb the games’ graphic imagery.
Though the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary has not been linked to violent video games, that hasn’t stopped some from taking aim at the industry. In Southington, Conn., just a 30-minute drive from Newtown, the local community organized a buyback of violent video games, which they later burned. The Guardian reported that the group doesn’t blame video games for the Newtown tragedy, but believes that violent games desensitize children to acts of violence.
Last week, President Obama announced new measures to curb gun violence, including a call for Congress to put $10 million into a study commission on the relationship between video games and violence.
It’s unlikely that we’ll see any meaningful legislation come of all this, but it’s obvious that violent video games are a concern for many—be they parents or politicians.
But both parents and politicians suffer a fundamental misunderstanding about violent games, borne of the fact that they themselves don’t play video games. For most parents, listening to a gamer defend violence in games is like listening to a crack whore defend cocaine. In their minds, we become part of the evil that must be stamped out in order to protect their children.
Well, I may not be a crack whore, but I am a gamer, and I take offense to that.
Not All “Violent” Video Games Are Created Equal
One reason the idea of video game regulation worries me is that no one really knows how legislators are going to define what qualifies as a “violent video game.”
California’s failed 2005 attempt to prohibit the sale of certain games to minors defined a “violent game” as one “in which the range of options available to a player includes killing, maiming, dismembering, or sexually assaulting an image of a human being.”
Games that fit that description: Street Fighter, Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, Skyrim, Halo, Soul Calibur, Sonic the Hedgehog, Grand Theft Auto, Final Fantasy, League of Legends… I think you get the idea.
These games have nothing in common except that they all require the player to mash a combination of buttons in order to attack something. I think there should be a dialogue about violence in video games, but I hope we can all agree that slapping the “violent” label on any game that involves killing or maiming is not the way to go.
And of course it’s only killing and maiming human beings that makes a game violent. Massacring space aliens, orcs, Pokemon, robots, zombies—that’s all perfectly fine. Natural, even.
The most important phrase in the California law is right there at the beginning: violence is part of a range of options. The player doesn’t have to commit violence unless he or she chooses to. Even in games that encourage and reward violent choices, it is possible to avoid walking the killer’s path.
The textbook example of this is the 4-year-old who surprised his father when he chose to have his Grand Theft Auto character fight crime and drive injured citizens to the hospital instead of beating hookers with a baseball bat.
Which leads me to my next point…
Modern Video Games Are Immersive, Emotional Experiences That Leave the Choices to the Players
The best games are those that challenge the player to make tough ethical choices when lives are on the line.
Morally conscious players will make morally conscious decisions in-game. Likewise, morally corrupt players will make morally corrupt decisions in-game. It is not the real world that imitates the game, but rather the game that imitates the real world.
To illustrate my point, let’s take a look at two of the most celebrated games of 2012.
Both games could easily be called “violent,” as their storylines necessitate that the player shoot and/or stab to death literally hundreds of enemies, often with liberal doses of animated blood and gore.
But neither game treats bloodshed lightly, and I would argue that it’s only because of the graphic violence that these games are so emotionally powerful.
If you haven’t played these games and intend to do so, AVERT YOUR EYES!
THERE BE SPOILERS BELOW!
DISHONORED — You play Corvo Attano, a royal bodyguard wrongly accused of murdering the Empress he was sworn to protect. While the people of Dunwall grow sick and die in the streets under the blight of the Rat Plague, you must confront those who framed you and help the Empress’s young daughter Emily take her rightful place on the throne.
This game earned a place on almost every single “best games” list for 2012, not least for the visionary game mechanics that alter the storyline based on the player’s actions. Dishonored makes you suffer for your decisions, both the good and the bad.
If you rely on stealth and cunning to win battles, and if you treat your enemies mercifully, the empire is restored, the Rat Plague is ended, and Emily ascends the throne to become a wise Empress well-beloved by her people.
But if you play a Corvo driven mad by grief and hungering for vengeance, if you revel in the dark powers gifted to you and hunt down your enemies one by one until the corpses pile high…well, I’ll let you see that ending for yourself:
It isn’t glorified. It isn’t redeeming. It is bitter and hollow, and it leaves the taste of ashes in your mouth. It warns the player that in a world where every action bears a consequence, violence is not an easy way out.
FAR CRY 3 — This game deals with the psychological stresses of being forced to commit violence to protect the people you love. After his friends are captured by pirates on an isolated tropical island, Jason Brody must learn to walk the path of the warrior to rescue them. Far Cry 3 tackles sobering real-world issues: the slave trade, drug trafficking, post-traumatic stress, and so much more. Jason turns into a hardened killer, actually enjoying the violence, and his friends begin to worry that he’s losing sight of himself.
In the end, the player decides whether Jason is able to stay true to himself and return home with his friends, or descend into primal rage and give himself to the jungle, sacrificing his girlfriend Liza in a bloody native ritual.
It may seem gruesome, appealing to a player’s depraved inclination toward cruelty, but those who choose the violent path are not rewarded with the eternal life and power that were promised to Jason in exchange for his friends’ lives. Instead, the tribal leader stabs Jason in the chest, and as he lies dying, she whispers in his ear: “You won.”
Not exactly an ending that condones violence.
Even if you choose the “good” ending, Jason doesn’t leave the traumatic experience behind without scars. After leaving the island with his friends, Jason’s last words in the game are: “I’ve killed so many people I’ve lost count. I can’t come back from this. I’m a monster. I can feel the anger inside me. But I am still, somewhere inside me, more than that. Better than that.”
That’s the message that this “violent” game leaves the player: You did what had to be done, but inside you can rise above it—a poignant reminder that…
Violence Isn’t Pretty, But Sometimes It Is Necessary—Both In-Game and in the Real World
Too often, we forget that violence isn’t always an act of evil. Yes, gangsters, serial killers, and alien bounty hunters from another galaxy all have violent occupations, but so do police officers, soldiers, and corrections officers—the real-world heroes who deal with violence every day to keep the rest of us safe.
Critics of violent games claim that players become desensitized to violence, essentially doing away with whatever part of the human psyche would normally prevent a person from committing murder. But if that’s true, and a familiarity with violence implies an inclination toward violence, then why don’t all war veterans who survived mortar shellings and roadside bombs come home and murder their neighbors?
Experiencing violence—real or in-game—does not make a person more likely to commit violence, nor is every act of violence condemnable.
Would you argue that a man who kills another to protect a child should not have done so? Or that a soldier authorized to kill in the interests of national security is a psychologically depraved murderer?
The man protecting the child and the soldier defending national security are the protagonists of Dishonored and Mass Effect 3, two “violent” games.
Do these heroes deserve to be vilified?
Violence is a part of our world, whether we like to admit it or not. I believe that a person can benefit from a realistic education about violence, and that such an education can include the playing of violent video games, provided that:
- we’re taught the difference between right and wrong.
- we learn to distinguish between reality and make-believe.
- we understand that our actions have consequences.
As the technology improves, video games are going to become more realistic imitations of the real world, reflecting both the beauty and ugliness of human nature. To censor violent video games is to pretend that the ugliness does not exist, but that will not make our world any more safe. Instead, we should accept that in video games, as in real life, each person is given a choice of paths, and we should teach our children that it’s in the choosing that we define ourselves.