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.




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