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The Long and Winding Road: Video Games and Society

/ Dec 3rd, 2012 1 Comment

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2

Call of Duty: Black Ops 2

Humanity and violence go hand in hand, and if you were anywhere around a major retailer on Black Friday, you know exactly what I mean. On what is basically the holiest day of the year for a cult dedicated to the Gods of Commerce, masses of people take pilgrimages to the surrounding retail stores, fighting each other, shoving pregnant women, all to get a white hunk of silicon and plastic. It’s even sadder when you see people brawling around the bargain bin. The bargain bin.

The funny thing is, while people sometimes die in the course of the annual sacrifice to Walmart, you never hear anyone blaming video games for causing the violence. No, the media saves that only for the worst cases of violence, the Columbines and the Virginia Techs. In the wake of the Columbine High massacre in 1999, video games were some of the first things to be scrutinized and blamed for twisting the minds of the two young shooters. In Russia, authorities are looking into restricting or banning certain games, citing the ultra-violent 2003 game Manhunt as one of the causes of a shooting that left six people dead.

Granted, when you’ve been playing enough Call of Duty, it’s not hard to see how easy it is for media to demonize games. During the course of Black Ops II’s campaign, I stabbed more people in the neck than I care to remember, shotgunned entire enemy squads in record time, all without breaking a sweat. With the exception perhaps of the main antagonist, I just don’t care about any of the people I’m killing. Do they have kids? Are they struggling to pay off their home loans? Maybe they like tossing a few beers back after work with the other guys. Well, none of that matters to me. In shooters, more obviously than in most other genres, players are basically janitors charged with scraping all the enemy filth off the screen. First-person shooters are the most visceral experience of all games because they put you squarely behind the gun. You aren’t ordering your minions to do the killing, you are the killer.

The ESRB was created in 1994 to address concerns from parents and advocacy groups about violent games like Mortal Kombat and Doom. The basic idea, then as now, was to make sure that six-year-olds weren’t playing games where they were ripping people in half or blowing people’s heads off every five seconds. Now, how well the system works is open for debate, considering the preponderance of pre-teens on Xbox Live, but the idea isn’t a bad one. Now, what is bad is the attention the media gives video games after every high-profile mass killing.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

A few years back, nearly every gamer in America knew who Jack Thompson was. One of the most infamous anti-game activists ever, he is best known for his moral crusade against the Grand Theft Auto series. By attempting to link killing cops in the games to real-life killings, he earned the derision of pretty much the entire gaming community, but he also got a fair amount of publicity and support from conservative advocacy groups. Attempting to connect a bunch of nonexistent dots, Thompson attempted to blame video games for the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, even after evidence surfaced that shooter Seung-Hui Cho did not play violent games. It all amounted to nothing though: in every case that Thompson tried to demonize video games, his suit was basically thrown out of court, and in 2008 he was permanently disbarred. While we may never see another frivolous lawsuit or eminently quotable gem like “…this is not rocket science. When a kid who has never killed anyone in his life goes on a rampage and looks like the Terminator, he’s a video gamer”, the fact that he was able to garner so much support for his ridiculous crusade speaks volumes to the image that video games still have in much of the public eye.

Over the years, video games have matured into a multi-billion dollar industry, now on an equal standing with other forms of popular entertainment. Despite this, they are often still considered among many groups an underground hobby, morally subversive and potentially dangerous. It doesn’t help that the games that have really made it into the public eye are often the violent ones, like Gears of War and Call of Duty. The recent flap over then Maine State Senate candidate Colleen Lachowicz’s World of Warcraft alter-ego wasn’t just an attempt to discredit Lachowicz, but an attack on gamers in general, painting us as irresponsible, fantasy-obsessed basement dwellers out of touch with reality. (Check out Gaming in WoP (The World of Politics) for more on Lachowicz).

The good news though, is that video games are old enough that they are being assimilated into the popular consciousness. According to a 2011 ESA study, the average American gamer is 37 years old, and over 70% of Americans ages 6 to 49 play video games in some form. Video games aren’t accepted on the same level as say, pop music, but as the same kids who spent hours in darkened arcades feeding quarters into Pac-Man cabinets grow up and become established members of society, the stigma associated with games is slowly disappearing. Now used in physical rehabilitation as well as parties, video games aren’t just a form of fantasy escape, played by antisocial geeks and misanthropes; they’re a genuinely useful and valid form of recreation that can provide social benefits far beyond what hysterical front page headlines ascribe to them.

No widely accepted scientific study has ever correlated video-game violence and real-world violence; as tempting as it might be for someone who has never sat down and gibbed a dozen Locust with a Lancer chainsaw to criticize Gears for promoting violence, it really doesn’t translate to anything concrete. Over the years, I have racked up hundreds of thousands of virtual kills, so if there really was a direct correlation, I personally would have gone on a shooting spree years ago. The fact that violence among youth has generally decreased instead of increasing over the past two decades should be a pretty clear indicator about the effect that video games are having on society. While obviously you couldn’t say that video games are directly responsible for this trend, they do have the obvious side effect of letting passive-aggressive teens channel their anger into Halo instead of into physical violence.

Gamers are everywhere. We’re doctors, we’re businessmen, we’re soccer moms, we’re college students, and we’re scientists. We live in trailer parks, in mansions, and in apartments. We’re not just, and never really were, greasy basement dwellers using video games to replace the real world. We go out drinking together, we have LAN parties with thousands of players, all coming together to celebrate our common pastime. So pay attention, politicians and mass media. We are legion, and we’re not going anywhere.

Dustin Liaw

Dustin Liaw

Contributor at Gaming Illustrated
A polymath in every sense except for that of reality, Dustin Liaw is a historian, critic, writer, musician, poet, dreamer, scientist, programmer, linguist, bureaucrat, and all-around geek who happens to enjoy tabletop RPGs, anime, and video games in his spare time.
Dustin Liaw

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  • dtzortzis42

    Very well said…!

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