Ass Backwards on Video Games

In the wake of the atrocity in CT, another wave of anger has rang out against violent video games. Joe Lieberman, senator for CT and erstwhile next-vice-president-of-the-US, made a statement speaking of the link between video game and movie violence and violence among young men, particularly what he called ‘vulnerable’ young men.

And predictably the entertainment software industry reacted with its well-rehearsed counter that, according to all the available research, violence in video games does not cause violence in real life. A position it has polished after every gun attack since Columbine.

Who’s right?

Now, let me say that the entertainment software industry paid my bills for good chunks of the last two decades. I’ve worked on technology for violent video games, and been remunerated with their profits. I’ve written books that detail how to simulate ballistics in games, how to simulate dead bodies (known euphemistically as “rag dolls” in the trade), and how to create characters who follow realistic military tactics. So any moral culpability is mine as much as anyone’s.

So it might seem a relief (if not a foregone conclusion) that — as far as I can tell from the research — there is no direct causal link between violent video games and real-world violence. On the strength of the evidence, the games industry is right and the politicians are scape-goating, again.

Except that is ass-backwards. Everyone is arguing the wrong point, the real point is being missed. I think.

The issues isn’t cause. The issue is condonation.

The pursuit of realistic violence in video games, the increase in fidelity of gun models, sound effects, tactics and splattering blood animations is real and obvious to anyone with an interest in the industry. Pick up any games magazine in the store and count the proportion of pages with a picture of someone heroically brandishing an offensive weapon. I’d be very surprised if you’ll find any with less than 50% of all pages (including editorial). Even in so-called highbrow mags aimed at old-fart gamers like me (Edge, for example), it can be as high as 90% (from a quick survey of my back copy pile). Type some variation of “Best Games of 2012” or “Most anticipated games of 2013” into YouTube and you’ll get hours of commercials filled with mass murder and gun violence.

Violence in video games might not be a direct, isolatable cause of violence in real life, but must take its share of the responsibility for creating the milieu of glorification of killing which is all pervasive in media aimed at men. It both responds to the obsession and fuels it. Demand for these games draws the biggest budgets out of publishers, and the addictive experiences they provide, drives demand for the more. Games didn’t create the problem, but they feed it.

I can’t help but see the games industry as morally culpable in letting themselves be drawn by profits into supporting a culture where murder is routine. Where it solves problems. Where guns provide power, and bigger guns are rewards for progress. As the fidelity ratchets up with each cycle of game designs, there is no moral absolution from studies that show no direct causal link.



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10 responses to “Ass Backwards on Video Games

  1. TWF

    That’s an interesting perspective, Ian. I’m a minor gamer (as in I play a little, not that I am young), but I tend to favor strategy games over shooters. Still, I’ve slain my share of zombies.

    Anyway, I am having some trouble getting behind your view. Maybe it’s because I’m nowhere near as up on my gaming knowledge as you must be, but it seems to me that while there are many, many gun-slinging games out there, most of them, perhaps even the overwhelming majority of them, have you playing the role of a hero fighting off the cliche “bad guys.” It seems to me to be a very difficult mental leap to go from killing virtual bad guys to slaughtering innocent children. So I find it difficult to put much culpability on the gaming industry, other than the rather vague tie-in that violence-is-a-solution.

    For what it’s worth, which isn’t much, I think the impetus of the intent should carry the bulk of the culpability.

  2. Ian

    Thanks TWF. I think my point is that the person wielding the gun is the hero killing off the bad guys. By virtue of the fact that you sympathize with them: those who resist are bad guys, and killing bad-guys is heroic. That is the underlying cultural assumption that is the problem, I think. One that wasn’t and isn’t caused by games, but one that the industry exploits and feeds, so cannot wash its hands of.

    I think there is a level of culpability involved in perpetrating a system where the default solution to a problem is lethal violence.

  3. Notwithstanding our disagreements about Jesus Christ, I very much appreciate what you’ve said here including the self-disclosure involved in saying it.

  4. Pingback: What Might Video Games Have To Do with the Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre? | Current Events in Light of the Kingdom of God

  5. TWF

    I think I understand what you’re saying Ian. I am not quite convinced, but maybe I just need to think about it more. Perhaps there is something to the “hero” portrayal. I appreciate your insider’s perspective here.

    On the other hand, at least in my head right now, I think that organizations like the NRA are ironically more likely to wield the condoning influence. That’s not to say that the NRA as a whole is bad, or that the 2nd amendment is bad, just that some of the sub-culture withing the NRA is disgustingly gun-glorified. For example, check out some of the comments after this news story, if you have the stomach for it. (That’s not a slight against you, but rather just that some of the comments there nearly made me sick.) That kind of mentality seems a little more culpable to me as I consider the situation now.

  6. Good to hear confessions from someone who supports the horror.
    No such games in our house — my kids can use them after they are out of our place and their brains a bit less vulnerable. I am convinced (damn any ‘research’), that a mind soaked in violence (games, movies …) tends to express it self in the images it marinates in. I could be wrong, but I will act like I am not.

  7. I just came back to check — thought I did not check the “follow” button. but I see you have not commented on TWF or my comment.

  8. Ian

    Sabio – no offence was meant by not commenting. I have a nasty habit of wanting to get the last word in sometimes. Both comments were excellent. I’m also rather stuck how to take the discussion further since a) I’m not sure what I think is actually reasonable, and b) I’m not sure what I should do about it, if it were.

  9. Ah, a comment like that is enough. You don’t have to put the last word in, but just let us know you heard. I also do the last word thing often. I know what you mean, but I like folks to know I am reading — otherwise, they may not bother to comment again thinking they are ignored, or worse, disvalued. And trust me — that is exactly the feeling I want to give to some commentors.
    thanx for replying. (no need to reply to this!)

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