the vast majority of games, even the shooters, cast the player in a moral role, a part in the story that in a movie would have been played by John Wayne or Gary
Yesterday's post got into the current gun control discussion, and I promised to finish with my take on whether censoring video games should be part of the answer.
I didn't have a computer when I was growing up, mainly due to the fact that I was not a NASA scientist or a student at MIT. :) But I was always into games. I had all the old cardboard Avalon Hill wargames and loved them like a cheap toy with mortars and half-tracks that nobody else cared about... which they were. At an even younger age I had cap guns, squirt guns, home-made rubber band guns (remember those?), and plenty of similarly armed friends to play "war" with. We used to romp around vacant lots or horse pastures peppering each other with imaginary bullets and using dirt clods as hand grenades. All the kids did that--the boys, anyway. It wasn't the only thing we did--we played baseball and collected insects and ruined our shoes playing in the creek exactly as we had been told not to--and there was nothing particularly different or special about playing "war", "spies", "cops and robbers", "cowboys and Indians", or any other pastime that involved simulated weaponry. We didn't think of it as literal killing. We did it because it was fun. And to the best of my knowledge, none of us was ever inspired by that horseplay to gun down real people.
There are some parents out there that don't let their children play with toy guns (and I respect that, though I don't agree with it), but most reading the above will view those boyhood antics as harmless. Many of those same people, however, find themselves mortified at the explicit carnage they see in video games. And they conclude, with conviction as ironclad as though they were social scientists with a solid clinical study proving the point (which they aren't), that such play necessarily warps the mind and leads to mass murder just like marijuana leads to heroin.
People with that belief all have one thing in common: they're not gamers themselves. They will concede, the majority of them anyway, that chucking dirt clods at your schoolyard friends and yelling "kaBOOM!" is just normal kid stuff, but they view playing a video game with molotov cocktails made out of pixels of light as a moral hazard. (Word: I'd rather be fragged by a rocket-propelled grenade in a computer shooter than beaned in the head with an actual dirt clod. For reals.) All that video violence HAS to have a deleterious effect, they're sure--to them it seems self-evident. Their perspective is perfectly understandable--and completely wrong.
As evidence, they'll point out that many of the disturbed young men who have carried out mass killings in the past few years were avid video gamers. And this is entirely true. It's bound to be, because the vast majority of kids these days ARE avid video gamers. The fraction of them, even the fraction of those who favor weapons-oriented games, who go on to shoot people in real life is infinitessimal. The alleged cause-and-effect simply isn't there. Healthy, mentally balanced people do not commit senseless murder--whether they are gamers or not. Those who do perpetrate such atrocities are almost always afflicted with some form of psychopathology--again, whether they are gamers or not. Video games may focus the morbid tendencies inside the already sick minds of those individuals, I can't say that they don't. But games will NOT turn a normal human being into a frothing killer.
We have laws against the possession of guns by people who would represent an inordinate risk by having them--children, felons, and the mentally incompetent. We restrict access to certain ingestibles and forms of entertainment in a similar way. I support that approach, and see no reason why it shouldn't extend beyond movies, magazines, alcohol and tobacco to include games as well. I also see no reason games should be carved out of that mix for especially severe treatment. I play a lot of computer games, and I can tell you I've never seen anything in a game that surpasses the brutality in movies like Braveheart or A Clockwork Orange, to name two completely random examples. Yet people who would never support banning that kind of motion picture feel it's blatantly obvious that the exact same content should be forbidden in games. How are they able to hold these objectively inconsistent views? Because they're not gamers. Because they're making assumptions regarding something they know nothing about firsthand.
The common argument for singling out games is the element of participation. Again, this is a misunderstanding of the medium arising from ignorance. The opposite is actually true. I find violence in movies much more offensive and emotionally stressful than in games BECAUSE of the participation element. Just because I can hack a computer character to bits with a machete doesn't mean I will, and in fact I have played through Far Cry 2 dozens of times having never once hit an enemy with my machete or the flamethrower. I even feel bad when I hit them with a bullet anywhere except the head, which produces an instant and presumably painless fictitious kill. The game doesn't make me someone I'm not, in fact I conduct myself morally even though I'm completely aware the events on the screen are not real. That's the style of play I find enjoyable. By contrast, when brutality happens in a movie, I'm helpless. There's not a thing I can do about it except sit by and watch, turn it off, or get up and leave. In a game, I can actually influence things for the good. And while many non-gamers may not be aware of this, the vast majority of combat games cast the player in a moral role, a part in the story that in a movie would have been played by John Wayne or Gary Cooper, Mel Gibson or Orlando Bloom.
I'm not a blind advocate on this issue and I concede that games can have a desensitizing effect. Something that seems horrifying the first time you experience it doesn't have the same impact the 20th time down the road. But the same is true of any cultural influence--movies, song lyrics, oil paintings, real-world war coverage on CNN. Games are not some special case where this effect is singularly onerous. And again--as with every other stimulus mentioned in today's and yesterday's posts--this desensitization does not make murderers out of mentally healthy people. Most rap music fans don't shoot police officers or beat their girlfriends and most gamers don't go on killing sprees. In both cases, the few who do are psychological outliers--and this, not their choice of entertainment, is where our concern belongs.
Games are not the problem. Guns are not the problem. Games and guns in the hands of the mentally ill are the problem. And that's where solutions must aim. The idea of taking Halo and Far Cry off the market in response to incidents like Aurora and Newtown is just stupid. Worse, it has no chance whatsoever of fixing the problem. For every lone, sick kid who plays Hit Man and then shoots up a school in real life, there are millions of kids who find such games entertaining and go on to peaceful, productive lives. And we should focus this discussion where the real problem lies. Indiscriminate censoring of video game content would make a lot of (clueless) people feel good, but it wouldn't actually do good. It would merely punish lots of positive, well-adjusted players who enjoy this truly harmless pastime. - Mark