Dabe Alan

It’s healthy, and important, to discuss our culture of video game violence after a tragedy

It’s healthy, and important, to discuss our culture of video game violence after a tragedy

The media will find a link between the perpetrators of violent acts and video games. This isn’t particularly hard; this is the modern world of smart phones and tablet computing. Like it or not, we’re all gamers. Video game consoles are a common part of most home entertainment systems, and even toy stores are filled with products that operate as links to popular video game franchises.

There is a certain amount of self-loathing that goes on whenever we’re placed under the microscope. The gaming press is quick to give every critic of video games a giant mouthpiece, and we breathlessly repeat their word. Sure, we may laugh and mock in the comments, but we’re our own worst enemy when it comes to boosting the signal of the small minds who draw a straight line from an M-rated video game to a real-world act of violence. We listen attentively. We give them a place to share their views, and we embed their videos. The data rarely agrees with their opinions.

The truth is we’re so quick to become defensive that there is little room for self-reflection. Video games don’t lead to violence in the same way that heavy metal didn’t lead to violence, and Dungeons & Dragons didn’t lead to violence, and neither did pinball or jazz music. There is always an easy answer out there somewhere and, when you combine that easy answer with an art form that most people in the media misunderstand, you have a recipe for poor, exploitative coverage.

That doesn’t mean there’s not a conversation to be had in the wake of tragic events in our country.

Still, there is something to be said here

Let’s not worry about what violent games are doing to our culture, or our children. Let’s set that aside for a bit. The best-selling game in the United States is a hyper-violent take on modern warfare. It’s scene after scene of people being shot. This isn’t a passive experience, it’s not something we watch. We participate. We pull the trigger. The video game industry is in this weird place where video game violence is almost a meta-topic, and we’re beginning to explore what it means to be this entertained by violence.

It would be fair to say this allows us to have our cake and eat it too.

We like to argue that games are a powerful art form, and then when something terrible happens and the violent culture of games is put under the microscope we fall back on the argument that this is simple entertainment. It doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t change how we think or act. It’s fair to say that video games can’t make us do anything, but they can change how we think, in the same way movies, books, and music change us. Video games make us feel things, good or bad. And the most popular games take place in wars, or they allow us to virtually murder our friends in graphic detail, over and over.

Every morning I send my kids to school and now a part of me is scared that they won’t come back. Yesterday I dealt with that fear by putting on headphones and playing Far Cry 3. I killed many people. I participated in a culture that fetishized guns. It made me feel better.

Here is a fun thought experiment: if you could do anything, be anyone, or have any power, what would you want to do? Fly? Swim to the bottom of the ocean? Be an officer on a starship and explore space? Make love to a beautiful or handsome man or woman? How far down the list is the fantasy of killing someone? Yet when we open up Steam or walk into a video game store, the killing fantasies are the most popular, and generally the most advertised.

We should question how and why that’s happening. I would imagine more of us dream of flying than killing, but how many games allow us to feel like birds, and how many simply ask us to pick up guns?

There’s a reason people open games like Just Cause 2 only to explore the countryside or pilot the planes. People create videos of using the landscapes of games to have an adventure, and this often happens by ignoring the “point” of the game, and turning our back on the gun play and the bad guys. Minecraft would have been considered a poor investment by most publishers; a game that only asks you to create needed to come from outside the industry. The players made it popular, and then it was given magazine covers.

These are complex issues, as are all questions of pop culture. When I was younger and went to LAN parties to marathon sessions of Counter Strike I would stagger back into the light of day and find it hard to re-adjust to normality after being plugged into the game for so long.

I would walk down the street and fantasize about what I would do if I were holding a gun in real life. It was fun. This is where I would hide. This is where I could stand behind a window and be under cover. It was an idle fantasy, but when you spend ten hours in a violent game it takes a bit for you to leave that reality and cease seeing the world in terms of violence. It changed how I thought, if only for a brief time.

These things are okay. I didn’t hurt anyone, and my thoughts were squarely in the realm of fantasy. But when something terrible happens there is nothing wrong with taking a moment to reflect on the culture in which we are surrounded.

Saying that it might be a good idea to take a break from violent games for a day or two doesn’t have to be an admission of guilt about the culpability of video games. It’s okay to want to re-examine why so much of our entertainment is made up of guns and violence, and to make sure we’re aware of why we enjoy it, and to be comfortable with the decisions about what we put in front of our eyes, under our fingers, and in our brains.

Let’s not worry about what games are doing to the other person. It’s okay to look at our own habits, and to check in with ourselves. There is nothing wrong with enjoying violent pop culture, be it video games, films, or music. But we have to be active participants in that culture.

We can’t just let it wash over us, and claim it means nothing. I’ve been told that those of us who claim that advertising has no effect are the easiest to convince to buy a certain brand of toothpaste. Sometimes we need to take a step back, and look around. We need to make sure we’re doing okay, and to take steps if we’re not. Someone in the mainstream media asked me if parents should worry about school shootings when buying gifts for their children this Christmas. We were discussing video games.

No, you shouldn’t worry about school shootings, but you should always pay attention to the games your children play. You should talk about them. You should play games with your children. It may seem wrong that this question only came in the wake of a terrible moment in our history, but now we’re talking about it. If this can help get parents involved with the games their children are playing, that’s a step in the right direction.

You can argue about this issue or that cause being politicized in the wake of recent events, but we’re all out of our seats. This is a good time to take a look around and see where we are, and if there is a better way of doing things.

It’s not heretical to admit that being washed in violent media may not be the healthiest thing, and that doesn’t mean claiming that games cause violent behavior. We have to stop being instantly defensive about our hobby, and begin to open ourselves up to conversations about the violence in games, why it’s there, what it means, and why we’re so attracted to it.

“We have a responsibility for the experiences that we create,” Jake Solomon, the designer of XCOM: Enemy Unknown told me via Twitter. “The extent of that responsibility is an important conversation.” I’d argue we also have a responsibility for the experiences in which we participate. These are worthwhile conversations to have, and it won’t happen if we mock everyone who openly worries about violence in our culture.

We don’t need to come to a conclusion or leave violent games behind. We don’t need to cease enjoying violent entertainment or feel defensive about our decisions. But it’s a good idea to talk about all these things, and take responsibility for the games we create, buy, and play. That can only happen if we pay attention to criticism, discuss the state of the industry, and leave room for debate and reflection.