In a Socratic fashion, I'm going to pose some questions about a subject which has been on the forefront of my thoughts for some time now. I want to clearly address an issue that grows into a roaring flame of controversy from time to time. The use of violence in video games has often been a favorite topic of various news programs, opinionated shows, and other mainstream venues. And there is a clear divide in the response. One side labels the use of violence (and sometimes sex) as an obvious problem; these outlets state firmly that it is a terrible and disastrous thing that will inevitably cause people to become murderers and irresponsible psychopaths. The other side, always on the defense, claims that the use of violence is harmless in video games; they are steadfast in their view that it does no harm at all.
One may be lead to wonder whether or not either side is correct in the first place. Why is that we're left with only two sides to take on the matter? Either video game violence is the digital devil incarnate, or they are nothing to worry about in the slightest. Is there some room in the middle perhaps?
These days, I find myself questioning the use of violence in games more than I ever did. In fact, I never did in the first place.
I suppose that I began to wonder about the violence in these games when I noticed that the "big sellers" were games that didn't just have the PC shooting at zombies or aliens, but at "real" people. Their prime objective seemed to rest in emulating real combat situations, and often ones that our current armed forces are fighting now.
I have to stress here that I'm not making a statement about these games; I'm just posing questions.
Current games have a different face than they did not too long ago. Look at the big sellers now in 2012, and compare them to 2002. Also, the amount of people playing these games has changed considerably--and specifically the type of people; you won't be surprised to hear a high school varsity football team talking about their last Call of Duty match. It used to be that if you spoke too loudly about video games (or anything nerdy) you'd find yourself stuffed in a locker by one of those varsity jocks.
Times have changed, and it truly seems that the emphasis on the forms of violence has been altered as well. Compare Call of Duty to Halo. One is about a science fiction/fantasy exploration of fighting aliens to save the world. The other is a digital manifestation of what is occurring in the Middle East right now. Recently, I had seen an ad on a web page for what I truly thought was a video game--but the Marine’s logo was on it and the link didn’t lead to any developer site. No, instead, this is where it took me: http://www.marines.com/operating-forces/equipment/weapons/javelin-law-at-4-smaw-tow Does it not seem at all strange how “video game like” that page appears. We have a 360 degree rendering of this weapon. We have “stats” and videos of it and weapons like it being used. And this is not for a game. These are weapons that the military builds--not for fragging--for killing.
Getting back to the games, what does it say about a culture that wishes to have war represented, in its most realistic fashion, in their entertainment? And, of course, are these things "healthy" for us? Again, I'm not trying to make statements. But do we even want this stuff in our games? Or are we just accepting what developers put on the market? Are we afraid perhaps to criticize any amount of violence for fear of sounding like the conservative extremes who never play the games themselves yet rail about the terror they will unleash upon society if left unchecked?
Of course the argument has been made that the violence in games is an outlet for frustration sometimes. Or that it is a more tame practice of basic human nature. But does that make it any better? If someone genuinely has some built up angst and suffering, is it the wisest course of action to have them engage in digital forms of things they may be visualizing in their heads and wishing to carry out in real life? Are there healthier and more peaceful alternatives to dealing with frustration and anger?
Lately I’ve been trying to take a more global perspective on various issues. Thus I have begun to wonder at the oddity that we here in the Western world see gun stats in a video game as something to perk our interests. We exchange terms like "head shot" and "killing spree" freely (often without a second thought as to what the words really imply). We play games where bombs are dropped on villages and we obliterate opposing forces--all with the excitement of entertainment and now in the form of “realistic” war simulators
But on the other side of the world, there are people really living in the reality our pixels and polygons are trying to put on display. There are people who the sight of a soldier fully armed doesn't fill their minds with hours of online tactical "fragging", but rather a primal urge of "run for your life." There are people who have learned to discern the difference in sound between a passenger plane, and one that is ready to drop bombs over them. In their world, the sound effects are unbelievably real. And the origins of these war sounds are not a safe recording coming through your nice 7.1 surround system, but a real source of pain, fear, and death.
Should we be concerned about this? Should we rethink our policies of what is acceptable in entertainment?
Now you can’t talk about this without mentioning games like Grand Theft Auto (and the ones that pretend to be GTA), which aren't about war, but about criminal violence. I recall my short lived time working at a Gamestop in which we had to be blunt about the content of these games to parents. We often had to say: "In this game, you can pick up a prostitute, have sex with her, then kill her and take her money" to a anyone who was curious about whether or not this game was appropriate for a child. Moments like that are almost as eye opening as reading the literal passages of violence in a holy book. The shock of "this is what is really in our games" can sting a little. And it also brings up questions such as whether employees of such stores don’t allow those of young ages to purchase these games because they’re to young, or rather because they don’t want to get hit with a heavy fine.
Now of course violence is in movies, films, books, and every other form of entertainment and has been around since afternoon tea of the first day of existence (things were quite peaceful until Eve double dunked her tea bag and burnt the crumpets--because Adam and Eve were British, don’t ya know?)--so this can expand to a critique of all such things in that case--but again, what does that say about our culture?
And when it comes to violence in games, there is also a unique double standard in these games. Allow me to engage you in a quick thought exercise:
Grand Theft Auto 5 is just around the corner. Let's say one of the alternate characters in this title is a prostitute. As the player, you have to avoid being hurt or raped, and then ensure that your customer doesn't then try to kill you to take your money. You’ll play mini-games where you have to remain on whatever addictive substance you’ve become dependent on. Additionally, you’d have to raise enough money to avoid getting beat by your pimp. Would you play this game? Something with themes like this:
Maybe not...but as long as we're not playing that character, we seem to be alright.
There are no children or teenagers in GTA games. Would you play a GTA game as a child growing up on the streets of San Andreas or Liberty City where you have to avoid being abducted by criminals looking to sell you into forced sexual labor? Or be inducted into brutal gang initiations? Ya know, like this:
We know that the media would jump all over such possible games. But what would gamers themselves say?
All of the scenarios do happen in real life--daily. They’re most likely occurring in a backstreet as I type this. And at the same time, someone is engaging in the digital form of it in the quest for entertainment.
I'm not advocating censorship (which is in my opinion is one of the highest forms of tyranny), nor am I damning these games. And I do play them myself. I'm simply trying to inspire thought and question of the status quo. Because if anyone is to call into question the use or levels of violence in video games, it should be those who play these things to start with.
What do you think?