Fears of a Medium: Video Games and Violence

From oddities made out of radar equipment to the unending quest of a red-clad plumber to save the princess, all the way to the stories of a psychopath driving recklessly through traffic, video games have had a long and storied history.  They’ve been around for a few decades now, and have drastically evolved from their primitive beginnings to provide worlds that are stunning to the eye and pleasing to the mind.  But their rapid growth has generated some concern about their effects on youth.  I’m talking, of course, about the debate on video game violence.

You don’t have to know me personally to guess where I land on that debate.  Being a gamer myself, I have watched the debate with personal interest.  I’ve heard the statements made by politicians and the like.  I remember when Jack Thompson was a well-known figure in the debate over video games.  And for as long as I can recall, most court cases involving video games have ended in the industry’s favor, the court ruling  that video games are protected mediums of expression under the first amendment.

But that doesn’t stop people from insinuating that these games are corrupting young people by making them commit violent acts.  Any time there’s a horrible shooting incident, and a video game is found in the culprit’s home, many political advocates will latch onto that, calling the video game industry morally corrupt and crying out for harsh legislation on the sale of these games.  Even though these people never seem to succeed in their crusade, it still worries me.

The first time I played an M-rated game (games for those seventeen years old and up), I must have been like twelve.  Indeed, I was not of the recommended age to have been playing a game of that level, but I like to think that I turned out fine.  I understand that by saying this, I am using anecdotal evidence to combat anecdotal evidence, but the burden of truth has always lain with the ones making the claim.  In this case, it would be the people claiming that video games corrupt children and cause them to become violent.  To prove their case, they would have to show that video games have a negative effect on pretty much all children.  And since I never became irrationally violent from playing that M-rated game before I was supposed to, I stand as living proof that their argument is fundamentally flawed.

And I must say, I resent the implication that I am nothing more than an amorphous blob shaped by whatever society throws at me.  I like to think I have some free will.

But what about those cases where the criminal act does mimic a video game?  Well what about the numerous supposed copycat crimes that were committed in the wake of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers?  Natural Born Killers was a movie about two people who had traumatic childhoods and grew up to become serial killers glorified by the media.  There were accusations that the movie caused many copycat crimes, including the Columbine High School massacre.  The movie was highly controversial, due to it using highly graphic violence to prove its point.  But what was never proven was that the movie had such a negative effect on people, and it was allowed to exist because it was protected under the first amendment.  The same goes for video games.  You can’t hold the medium responsible if a person decides to mimic what it portrays.

Besides, I don’t see children running around jumping on turtles and trying to throw bombs at cracks in the wall.

I am a firm believer that you have to let art be art for its own sake.  If you want something to truly come into its own, you have to let it explore any and all avenues of expression.  Sure, the results may not always be pretty and likable, but we have to be able to test the waters to figure out what works and what doesn’t.  It’s true that there are games out there that are morally reprehensible.  Take the game Ethnic Cleansing for example.  This is a game that is literally all about running around with a gun and killing all people who aren’t white. It’s ugly, disgusting, and just plain despicable.  But it exists to serve as an example for the video gaming industry, to show that there are lines one shouldn’t cross.

But there’s one thing that casts major doubt on the argument that games cause violence.  There’s one simple fact that renders most, if not all, of the anti-video game arguments moot.  Because if it wasn’t for this little fact, the idea of fiction would never have evolved into our culture.

Human beings have the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality.

Our brains are capable of telling the difference between what is fake and what is real.  It is true that the lines are sometimes blurred (like with The Onion, a satire publication that SO many people still fall for), but in a general sense we know when something didn’t really happen.  We know that when we are playing a video game, that the events unfolding on-screen are not real, even if they have been based on real events.  We know that D-Day isn’t really happening again when we play Call of Duty 2.  We know that the people who are hapless victims of our attempts to use the sidewalk as a highway in Grand Theft Auto are not actual living, breathing humans, but mere collections of data and pixels.

The idea of escapism is a powerful one.  Fiction exists as a way to relieve stress, to allow ourselves to become immersed in a world not our own.  It exists because we are able to distinguish fantasy from reality, and indeed, we even take pleasure in being able to spot a fake rumor or news story.  Being the one that can say “well that’s obviously not true and here’s why” is a point of pride for some people.  In those cases where violent acts mimic a video game, I would argue that there has to be other factors at play.

And besides, video games don’t accurately reproduce reality.  They don’t teach you how to drive.  They don’t teach you how to deal with recoil when firing a gun, despite the insinuation that shooter games are “murder simulators” (hiding behind an object will NOT automatically heal bullet wounds, just saying).  They don’t even show the real life consequences of committing a crime.  Once you evade the immediate cops in Grand Theft Auto, you’re home free.  They don’t stay on the lookout.  You simply vanish from their mind’s eye, all memories of your crime erased.

Realism in games has always been a tricky thing, because above all else most games are meant to be fun.  Real life isn’t always fun, so most games don’t attempt to reproduce it to a great degree.  Games are meant to be enjoyed, not feared.  Calling video games “murder simulators” shows a complete lack of understanding.  And as we all well know, it’s far too easy to judge what you don’t understand.

And that’s all I have for this week.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post, which will be full of senseless and rampant violence committed by yours truly.  Until then, have a great week everybody.



The Value of Atmosphere

I emerge from the forest shrouded in darkness.  A large, red house stands before me, light streaming through the windows.  Is someone home?  The front door creaks, echoing its reluctance off the walls of the old house.  Strange portraits of unknown people gaze down at me.  They almost seem angry, as if I have trespassed here, as if my presence here violated some ancient accord.  It seems somehow darker inside than it appeared.  An old grandfather clock rests by the stairwell, silent and waiting.  I have only taken a few steps inside when a persistent thudding catches my attention.  Footsteps…is there someone upstairs?  I head towards the wooden stairwell, dread in my heart, not wanting to go on but at the same time knowing that it is necessary.

Impressive, considering all this happened in a game that looks like it could belong on the original Nintendo game system.

Say hello to The Last Door, a point and click horror game.

Say hello to The Last Door, a point and click horror game.

I want to talk today about atmosphere, something that isn’t inherently necessary to a medium, but can greatly enhance its power.  If you’ve ever read a book, or watched a movie, and said to yourself “wow, I actually feel like this could be a real place” or “I feel like I’m actually there”, then the atmosphere has done its job.  The central purpose behind atmosphere, whether its in a game, book, or movie, is to draw you into its world.  It wants to make you feel the setting, to let it wash over you.  It’s an incredibly powerful tool.

Let’s take, for example, the video game Bioshock.  Bioshock is a game that takes place in an underwater city, born out of the mind of a man who wanted to create his idea of the perfect society.  Inevitably, of course, things go wrong and by the time you show up, everyone has descended into what are essentially drugged up mutants.  I mention this game because the actual gameplay of it wasn’t all that great.  The guns felt like they had little to no heft behind them.  Hitting enemies with a wrench didn’t feel very satisfying, and the abilities you got weren’t always very useful or practical.  But it was the game’s story, and its atmosphere, that kept me going through it.  Gazing up into the water, tinted green by the neon lights of the underwater city, was quite the experience.  It was an amazing feeling, just gazing out of a small window into the watery abyss beyond.  The distant calls of whales and other undersea creatures sometimes reached me as I wandered around the ruined utopia.  It sold the setting in ways no dialogue ever could.

I feel the same way when I play Myst, a game I’ve mentioned quite a few times on this blog.  Just sitting still in that game, listening to the waves beat against the shoreline, can have such a powerful effect.  The game has a powerful feeling of isolation, but also of intrigue.  It makes you want to know more about this mysterious place, and the secrets it conceals.

Atmosphere isn’t solely relegated to the realm of video games.  Movies and books make use of it too, using artful shots or descriptions to draw you closer to the place they are trying to portray.  But I feel like video games stand in a unique position to utilize atmosphere in ways that no movie or book ever could.

A lot has been said on the nature of interactivity when it relates to video games.  Usually, this is mentioned when the debate about the effect of violent games on kids springs up, and it is usually used in the sense that the interactivity of games makes them inherently different and therefore they should be scrutinized far more than other mediums.  It is precisely this interactive nature that makes an atmosphere in a game so much more powerful than in a book or movie.  When you watch a movie or read a book, your engagement with the setting is relegated to those specific details that the director or the author wants you to pay attention to.  But in a game, that is largely removed.  In a game, you are in control (most of the time), and you get to engage with the setting in your own way.  Sure game creators will use certain techniques or tricks to draw your attention to something, but there are so many small details that go into crafting a believable setting for a video game that chances are you won’t notice them on your first time through.  Unlike in a movie, you can pay attention to every insignificant sign or read any little poster pinned to the wall.

But this power is also a weak point.  If a game creator is not careful when crafting  a setting, or they simply don’t care, then the atmosphere can work against the immersion of the player.  If the details don’t line up right, or the player manages to get outside the created space (which usually involves falling into a never-ending black void), then the believable sense of the world can shatter, revealing it for the artificial construct that it is.  In a movie or book, certain tricks can be used to conceal the fact that the setting or events are not real.  Cameras can use certain shots to cover up details that would break the immersion of the viewer, and authors use the flow of their words to guide a reader along.  We artistic types tend to engage in deception, using trickery and artifice to convince you that the worlds we create are real or believable, when they are in fact the product of our own fevered imaginations.

Power and responsibility go hand in hand.  The creators of fictional worlds must be willing to make their creations seem real, or else their target audience won’t be willing to invest themselves in it.  This is what atmosphere is all about.  It drives and pulls someone forward, enticing them to come and explore more of this fascinating story or world.  Everything has an atmosphere to it.  It doesn’t matter if it’s happy, sad, or just quirky and ridiculous.  Every story or work of fiction has one, even if it isn’t inherently obvious or necessary.  Whether we want it or not, it is already there in our works to begin with.  It is our decision whether to sharpen it into a powerful razor, or leave it as a dull stone.

That’s all I have for you this week.  As always, tune in next Wednesday for another post.  Until then, have a great week everyone.






Misplaced Priorities: The Failures of Our Education System

When I was in my tenth grade history class, I noticed something odd.  There was a span of about two weeks or so where we talked about World War Two.  We talked about D-Day, Hitler, Mussolini, and so on.  We went through the various battles, the two theaters of war (Europe and Pacific), and all the famous leaders of that time.  But then when it came time to talk about what came after, we spent literally a day talking about Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War.  One class period, and that was it.  It was then that I started to realize something was amiss with our education system.

And it wasn’t until I was older that I realized the problem was more complicated.

Many people of my age like to criticize our education system for perpetuating a narrow-minded, patriotic worldview.  They condemn it for focusing too much on the “good” parts of our history, and glossing over the bad.  While this is true in a lot of respects (as with my personal experience above), the problem doesn’t just lie there.  Our education system, I feel, isn’t doing a great job preparing students for the real world.

When I look back at what classes were required for us to take in high school, I notice some things.  I do feel that high school does a decent job at providing its students with a general knowledge base to work with, but there are some areas that could use some work.  For example, I remember taking a high finance class in my freshman year.  Basically we talked about things like budgeting, writing checks, managing a checking account, and so on.  For someone my age, it was really useful information and advice considering most of us will end up with a checking account because it is almost essential to function in our society.  But you know what?  I believe that the class was an elective, as in it wasn’t required course material. But really, how many kids are going to take a class called “High Finance”?

What it comes down to is that schools are very good at giving us theoretical knowledge (math formulas, reading comprehension, scientific processes), but they let us down when it comes to things of a more practical nature.  Math classes are fine and all, but after a certain point the knowledge becomes useless to all but a very particular group of people.  Same with science classes.  It might be interesting learning about the different scientific theories and laws, but chances are that unless you’re a science major in college most of this information is going to be fairly useless to you.

And going back to the subject of history, the way we focus our lens of history in high school is really questionable.  While its true that we can’t cover all of history with the same attention to detail, we could spend a little less time talking about things like World War Two (WWII).  We all know that D-Day happened, and we all know that the Holocaust was a horrific event that should never be forgotten.  These are important subjects that deserve covering, but there are other aspects of history that have so much richness to them that we just gloss over.

For starters, there’s World War One (WWI), otherwise known as “the war to end all wars”.  I was aware of the existence of WWI, but I never really understand just how earth-shattering it was until my British Literature class in college.  The advent of WWI drastically changed the way humans saw the world.  It heralded a massive shift in arts and literature.  No longer was war a courageous and noble thing.  War became ugly and decrepit.  War became a nightmare.  War became the bane of humanity.  In short, war sucks.

But I had to wait until college to learn about this.  I barely remembered how we talked about WWI in class, because my memories are overshadowed by the over-saturation of WWII lectures.  All I really remember was that WWI was mentioned, and that it started with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria.  It may have been mentioned how brutal it was, but the details were skimmed over in favor of moving on to WWII.  And it is there that the critics of my generation are right.  The schools do have a tendency to focus more on parts of history that make the United States look favorable.

And even in eras of history where we did horrible things, history classes tend to gloss over them.  We talk a lot about the Revolutionary War, but we barely talk about how we treated people who were called “loyalists”, people who favored the cause of the British in the colonies.  People like that had their businesses destroyed, their livelihoods ruined.  Some were tarred and feathered, then paraded around and made an example out of.  The worst part?  Tarring and feathering was literally what it sounds like, with hot tar being poured on a person’s body then being rolled around in a pool of feathers which would stick to them.  The aftermath was that if a victim tried to remove the tar, a portion of their skin came off with it.  Not only that, but their skin would blister and burn, and they were often left susceptible to infection.  I never heard that part in school, and I’m betting most of you reading this didn’t either.

That’s the problem.  Our education system has such a narrow focus on subject matter that once we get out of high school, we realize that a lot of the information we possess isn’t inherently necessary to function in our modern society.  Not only that, but we’re constantly pushed by educators to figure out what we want to do with our lives before we’re even finished with high school.  We’re told that it’s important to find the college you want to go to now, and that waiting is bad.  You know what?  I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life or what my major was going to be until the second year of my five-year stint in college.

Waiting isn’t a bad thing.  With something like this, its best to take your time and think on it, rather than jumping in headfirst.  As the old cliché goes, think before you leap.

This is where our education system needs to change.  High school students need more practical knowledge rather than theoretical.  They need to be exposed to views besides “America is great and amazing”.  There are still plenty of problems in our society even today that could be addressed but aren’t.  Progress doesn’t mean ignoring our past sins.  Progress means accepting our mistakes, acknowledging and owning them.  This is where our education system can change, by providing us not only with practical knowledge but with the knowledge of our faults.  We are not perfect.  No one is.  Accepting that is an integral part of life.  Illusions weigh us down, but the truth sets us free.  History may be written by the victors, but that doesn’t mean it has to be skewed.

And that’s all for this week.  Tune in next Wednesday for a new post as always.  Until then, have a great week everyone.



The Creative Struggle

From the beginning of this blog, its purpose was to give me a place to focus my creative energies.  From the outside it might just look like a place where I go on long-winded discussions about a bunch of different topics, but that is secondary to the blog’s true purpose.  The primary purpose of this blog is to allow me to practice my writing skills and to keep me writing.  Any creative-minded person knows that sometimes it is incredibly difficult to gather up the will to just write, draw, create, or whatever.  It’s not a hard and fast field, where there can be only one true answer.  Instead, it’s a nebulous arena of disjointed thoughts and feelings, interposed onto whatever canvas we choose.

The struggling or tortured artist is almost a bad cliché at this point, but there is a certain point to it.  In some ways, being a writer or a musician or so on can be far more difficult than being an engineer or a mathematician.  Instead of living in a world of concrete problems to solve, people like us live in a world where we constantly struggle to find our place, to find an outlet to throw our voice out into the world.  For the most part it tends to be thankless work, because generally we rack our minds infusing our work with pieces of ourselves, draining our energies without really knowing if it will matter in the end.

So why do we do it?  Why do artists bother creating if there’s no certainty for their work to be showcased or even recognized as an object of expression?  Wouldn’t it just be easier to work a paying nine to five job for the rest of your life to live in financial security?  In a lot of ways, that would be the smarter thing to do.  But that’s not what it’s about.  In a lot of ways, it is more of  a “need” rather than a “want”.

People like me tend to feel a certain need to create something, to find an avenue of expression beyond the typical.  Some people in the world are wired so that they can be happy with their lives if they work in a job that gives them financial security and allows them to live comfortable for the rest of their lives.  They’re content with routine, worrying more about their paycheck than anything else.  We are not that kind of people.

We are driven to be different, driven to create.  We are often dysfunctional, and slightly psychotic.  We are strange, off-putting, and at odds with the general milieu around us.  We live on the inside, cultivating vibrant imaginary landscapes and worlds deep within our minds.  We do not have an on/off switch.  Inspiration comes in fits and starts, and sometimes we have to try to jump-start the process.

But it’s not always about the work.  Sometimes we recognize that we need to take a break and recharge.  Sometimes all we really want to do is sit back and enjoy the day, without worrying about the problems of the world (which is sometimes incredibly difficult given how connected the world is today with the internet among other things).  Sometimes we don’t really want to talk to people who much, but would rather be alone with our thoughts.  And sometimes, we want the company of another human being to remind us that we are not alone in our struggles.

Please understand that this post is not some cry for pity.  I don’t need anyone’s sympathy, because I am fine with who I am.  It took a long time, and a lot of work, but I become someone I can be proud of.  I was never very comfortable with myself in high school (along with probably everyone else), but it still continued into college to some degree.  I had very little direction and didn’t really understand where I was going for quite some time.  In fact, it wasn’t really until my second year of college when the idea dawned on me to try to pursue a career in writing.

The reality is that it might take me a long time to even get my foot in the door.  But you know what?  I really don’t care.  I would rather be pursuing my dream and be poor than be rich and unsatisfied with my life.  Because after all, isn’t one of the ideals of this country to be able to pursue your dreams?  Are we not allowed to express ourselves in whatever manner we see fit?  I’m pretty sure one of the amendments talks a lot about that (cough cough the first one cough).

So despite the challenge of my chosen profession, I have determined to keep moving forward.  After all, you only fail when you stop trying.

And that’s all I have for this week.  Thanks for reading my ramblings, and I hope you enjoy the rest of your week.  As always, a new post will be posted next Wednesday at noon.  See you then.


Religious vs. Personal Freedom

The Supreme Court made a very interesting decision this week in the Hobby Lobby case.  For those of you who don’t know what that is, let me summarize.  Essentially the case was about a company known as the Hobby Lobby, along with a furniture store, who were petitioning the Supreme Court to be allowed to refuse to pay for insurance coverage on certain contraceptives (birth control) under religious grounds.  The motion just barely passed with five voting for the motion and four voting against.

Ostensibly this ruling is only for “closely-held” corporations, but there is some debate on what that term actually means.  Supposedly it means corporations owned by five people or less, companies that are typically family owned.  I have my own view on the ruling itself, but what interests and concerns me more than the actual ruling is the precedent it sets.  The Hobby Lobby ruling has opened the door for more organizations to petition and protest for more freedom to make policies and rules based on religious grounds, which could be a problem.

The Hobby Lobby case is an example of religious freedom clashing with personal freedom.  It’s actually very similar to the fight over that law in Arizona a few months back, the one where businesses were trying to make it legal for them to refuse service to people based on their sexual orientation (i.e. homosexuals).  What it all comes down to is whether religious freedom trumps personal freedom.

Personally, I don’t believe it does.  The separation of church and state and the freedom of religion clauses within our constitution basically state that religion and the government should never intersect.  But what a lot of religious people seem to ignore is that freedom for religion is also the freedom from religion.  People have the right to be free from any sort of religious motivation or ruling, which is something our country seems to forget all too often these days.  More and more political platforms seem to be made on the “America is a Christian nation” bandwagon, which is an incredibly dangerous and erroneous position.

The founding fathers may have been hypocrites in some ways, but they weren’t stupid.  One of the reasons why they made the decision to split off from Britain was the oppressive religious influence they had over the colonies.  The theocratic nature of it led the founding fathers to establish the freedom of religion clause under the very first amendment.  Because they knew that the one thing you don’t do when splitting off from another country is to establish a country that is exactly like the former one.  They knew the dangers of giving one religion power over all the others, and so they chose to try to avoid that.

That’s why this ruling concerns me so much, because it opens the door for more and bigger corporations down the line to try to swing the system around to favor religious freedom over personal freedom, thus making the religious beliefs and affiliations of the employer that of the employee as well.  This is the exact point that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made in her dissent from the ruling, being one of the four who opposed the motion.  It’s not a clear, set in stone deal that this is going to happen, but it definitely begins paving the way and makes it easier to make that argument from now on.

I hear the phrase “family values” thrown around a lot from prominent figures in the religious right, but that’s just a convenient generalization made by the kind of people who believe that you can’t get morality from anywhere except the Bible.  It’s a smokescreen, thrown up to cover the fact that in reality what they’re really asking for is the right to use their personal beliefs to push other people around.  That was the case with the Arizona law, and it seems to be the case now.

As always, I’m not saying that religious freedom is a bad thing.  Religious freedom includes the non-religious, which includes me, so it is an important issue to me.  I might sound like a broken record, but I’ve found that if I don’t say that, some people will tend to take my words as a personal attack on their beliefs, which isn’t true.  The best way to combat that impression is to head it off before it even begins.

Much of the Supreme Court decisions end up with long periods of debate about the interpretations of amendments and the precedents a ruling either way would set.  The Hobby Lobby decision will be an interesting one to follow, as it directly refutes the obligation of smaller companies under the Affordable Care Act to pay for contraceptives for their employees.  As a country, we must be cautious with setting precedents, because the ramifications of such a thing may not be felt for years to come.

Religious freedom and personal freedom both have their place in our lives, but we have to be careful not to let one eclipse the other.  Right now, religious freedom is butting heads with personal freedom.  Lines have to be set somewhere, but there is danger in doing so.  If we set the line too far to one side, there may not be any coming back from it.

That’s all I have for this week.  Absorb next week’s post directly through your fingertips.  Until then, have a great week everybody.