On Gun Violence and Video Games

Moral panics seem to be part and Parcleforce™ of society throughout history. It happens in an almost cyclical paradigm. There’s a panic, two sides of an argument form, they poke and rattle one another, it reaches boiling point, and the collision results – hopefully – in a greater understanding of ourselves. Unfortunately, the glare of new mediums and technologies seem to blind people from what they have learned from the past.

When Youtuber Pewdiepie destabilized an entire online video industry for doing some nazi jokes, the news that these jokes came from this scary, new media platform seemed to convince some that a line had been crossed, despite having been comfortable with this same line passing them by with TV, Film, Literature, and practically every comedy show and stand-up ever.

The target audience is also a factor. Ever since a young Tom Hanks taught Elvis to swing his hips in front of screaming girls and horrified parents on The Milton Berle Show on June 5th, 1956, new, emergent happenings that become of interest to the youth are blamed for the ills of society. As Catherine from popular Youtube series Elders React chuckled when watching a video of The King, “My parents blamed him for everything I did wrong!”.

Douglas Adams rather humorously and accurately observed:

I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

Of course, it didn’t stop at Elvis. The Beatles, despite being seen almost universally as “loveable, cheeky moptops from Liverpool”, were deemed, blasphemers on account of John Lennon declaring that they were “more popular than Jesus” in 1966 – leading to death threats – from the public and the KKK – and public bonfires where Beatles memorabilia and LPs were gleefully thrown onto flaming pyres by angry Christians.

This was furthered with claims of promoting drug use and satanic messages via their oeuvre of psychedelic music, and “backmasked messages” they allegedly “hid” in songs such as ‘Revolution 9’ and ‘Helter Skelter’ (messages that were interpreted or, more accurately, invented and taken to the extreme by the infamous cult leader Charles Manson ).

The infamous “video nasties” moral panic that occurred in the UK in the late 70s/early 80s due to the unrated distribution of uncensored horror movie videocassettes led to a swathe of criticism from critics, journalists, the public, and religious groups wherein Helen Lovejoy of The Simpson’s mantra “Won’t somebody please think of the children??” abounded unironically.

Films like The Texas Chainsaw MassacreI Spit on Your Grave, A Clockwork Orange, and The Exorcist (as well as many others) were accused of promoting sadistic tendencies and violence by the BBFC and its then head censor James Ferman. They thus fell victim to extreme levels of censorship, or – in some cases – outright bans.

Due to the Hungerford massacre in 1987, and erroneous links between the Rambo film series and the murderer Michael Ryan by the media, Ferman launched somewhat of a crusade against films depicting the use of certain weapons – utterly convinced that they encourage, and cause, violent behaviour amongst children and teenagers.

To put this “crusade” into perspective, Ferman’s distaste for weapons in movies was so fervent that he demanded a scene from the children’s film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Secret Of The Ooze be cut simply because it involved Michelangelo grabbing a string of sausages from a shopping centre deli and using them as a makeshift pair of nunchucks. Needless to say, the outlook for violent films at the time went from bad to wurst (yikes).

Now we come to video games. The horrific escalation of gun violence, school shootings, and killing sprees in America has caused a frenzy of justifiable panic around the world. The cause, however, is hotly debated. Whilst leftists blame a lack of action with regards to gun control, portions of the right – and Trump of course – have decided to place the blame on video games.

This isn’t new. It isn’t a surprise to say that the invention and proliferation of video games didn’t ameliorate parents’ concerns with regard to media influencing their dear, dear children. Whenever a particularly gruesome or violent video game is made, there is a stir in the media about it, a swarm of concerned parents’ letters and e-mails float about, and then it fades away, only to return once again when the next violent video game is made – especially if a killing or mass murder coincides with the release of a game deemed too violent; everything we learnt from the previous outrage completely forgotten by everyone, like the hapless townsfolk surrounding Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

GTA 3

Firstly, in relation to the claim that video games directly cause violent crimes, there has been no evidence to suggest this (and there’s even evidence that video games have many positive effects on people who play regularly). Professor at the University of Southern California Henry Jenkins wrote in his 2005 PBS essay ‘Reality Bytes: Eight Myths About Video Games Debunked‘ that juvenile crime, far from rising as a result of video games, had actually reached a 30-year low. Statistics and graphs concerning the rate of violent crime throughout the centuries almost ubiquitously convey that it has consistently gone down.

One with the inclination to agree that video games cause violence would also be inclined to agree that the more popular video games are across the populace, violence would follow suit. One of biggest gaming countries in the world is South Korea wherein more than 60% of the country’s population avidly plays video games. Not only is the rate of crime in America, of almost any delineation, double, triple, quadruple, even octogintuple that which occurs in South Korea, but roughly 20% fewer people play video games in America. Considering the sheer number of shootings that occur in the US, and also taking into account the fact that video games are available and popular around the world, it is clear that whatever is happening in America gun violence-wise is unique to America.

With the release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, there was a hubbub surrounding a sequence near the beginning of the game where you, as an undercover CIA agent posing as a member of a rogue Russian terrorist group, reluctantly participates in gunning down a crowd of civilians in a Russian airport. It is horrible, anxiety-inducing, and brutal – and was criticised by non-gamers as such. But that’s how you were supposed to feel.

You’re supposed to feel the gut-wrenching moral dilemma of the CIA agent with regards to how far you’d be willing to go to establish the trust of a terrorist organisation in order to achieve a greater good. In this sense, video games often get the same treatment as taboo comedy. People assume that jokes or games that involve contentious subjects are, by default, making light of them or condoning poor moral behaviour when often they are exploring the contentious subjects, criticising them, satirising them or simply portraying them.

The GTA series, for example, as anybody who has played these games knows, is an obvious satire of American culture. It’s as much of a parody of the US as The SimpsonsBioshock isn’t just a horror FPS where you murder people with a wrench in an underwater, art-deco failed utopian city, it’s also a critique of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist politics.

Video games are judged at face-value by those who are unfamiliar with the medium. To be honest, this is true of all mediums. Film critic Mark Kermode explained in a 2009 Guardian article how nay-sayers of video games (Kermode himself admits it’s a medium in which he has little knowledge or interest) sounded uncannily like the nay-sayers of video nasties: “If there’s anything which I recognise about the modern video games market, it is the ominous sense of ill-informed outrage which takes me back to the heydays of the “video nasties” scare”. Just as gamers would argue with Bioshock and GTA, Kermode would also point out that Dawn of the Dead isn’t just a zombie movie, it’s a critique and commentary on consumerism.

To witness a complete and utter miscomprehension of video games as a medium, look no further than this infuriating segment on Channel 4 News wherein a bewildered Jon Snow blithers from one uninformed question to another whilst an increasingly exasperated Charlie Brooker tries to calmly answer, before being talked over by either Snow answering his own question, or him asking yet another uninformed question i.e. “Do people meet up and get married because of these games? Of course, these people who play games probably don’t get married because there’d probably be no women (playing games)”.

It is as ridiculous for Snow and people of that anti-gaming ilk to assume that a few headlines and 5 minutes of watching footage of CoD are enough to gain a complete understanding of video games as it is for an anti-film person to only watch The Human Centipede and think they have a complete understanding of cinema. It’s simply cherry-picking – pure and simple.

Only controversial video games are known to people who don’t play video games. Based entirely on headlines and rather cringey news segments wherein the anchors or presenters show their age (the type where they profess to be fans of The Legend of Zelda but then constantly refer to Link as Zelda, for example), parents know about CoD, GTA, Assassin’s Creed, etc, but do they know about Flower; a game wherein you control a breeze that carries flower petals through the sky across a luscious, dream-like landscape? How about Stardew Valley where you, in a retro-cutesy 16-bit style, raise a farm and interact with a quaint village community? Or the game To The Moon where you explore the memories of an old man on his deathbed to help him remember the love of his life and finally achieve happiness in his last moments. But no, sure, video games are evil.

Journey Game

Video games have consistently been demonized through the years, even in recent years, despite its obvious success and legitimacy as a platform. It is still dismissed by mainstream and traditional media as some sort of weird, fringe waste of time activity that has little or no intrinsic value to society or to art. See the slew of Jimmy Kimmel Live! videos on Youtube where he “discovers” Let’s Plays, and mocks it as a form of entertainment, despite the fact that is watched by a wider audience than US late-night shows like his. How can a medium be so evidently popular, and yet be perceived as seemingly “underground”? I have a hypothesis.

Movies, TV shows, plays, literature, music; all of these mediums can be experienced passively. All you require to access the content of these mediums is to be within the vicinity of said platform, a functional brain, and your senses. You sit there, the medium is shown to you, and all you have to do is absorb it.

As a result, it is accessible to anyone. Also, usually, things are unfamiliar to people due to its lack of visibility or popularity. Video games, however, are different. By definition, you have to “play” them.  Along with being near a console or PC, having a functional brain, and your senses, you also have to have a basic understanding of how video games work, a basic ability to use a controller or keyboard and mouse, as well as skill to progress.

If you don’t know how to play video games, you won’t be able to access the content of the video games. For those who don’t play any video games then, practically the entirety of video games, as a medium,  is cut-off to them. This creates a rather unique situation wherein only people who can play know about video games and those who can’t don’t.

It is my contention that this is why the medium is both wildly popular and yet seen by non-gamers as a niche activity – especially an anti-social one. I recall a segment on a news show wherein the weather lady lamented her son playing video games all weekend before boasting unironically about watching an entire season of Keeping Up with The Kardashians in two days. The mind boggles.

A point that is never discussed in this debate about how video games affect the morality of those who play them is how gamers typically behave within these video game worlds. Sure, we’ve all lured the creepy butler into the walk-in freezer in Tomb Raider II, and of course, we’ve all delicately led our Skyrim companion to the edge of the highest peak of the Throat of the World and then fus-ro-dah-ed them into the sky, and, more sinisterly, in The Sims we all definitely sent people into the swimming pool and then removed the pool’s ladder and watched them drown.

But do we do these things exclusively? Of course not. We do them having done petty much everything else that was intended first. A point that is never discussed is how, if the average gamer is playing a game that includes moral decisions or a morality system (à la the Fallout series, the KOTORThe Witcher trilogy, etc), gamers universally tend to choose the morally virtuous decisions despite the fact that it’s just a game, isn’t real, and has no actual consequences.

In the game Gone Home where you explore the new home of your parents whilst they are away to uncover the location of your missing sister, it was amusingly pointed out by the developers how they noticed gamers testing the game would close cupboards and drawers and turn off room lights when leaving rooms they had investigated – despite it just being a video game.

Innocent lives composed entirely of code and pixels are protected and valued by gamers in story-based games. This speaks volumes.

Fallout 4

Well-regarded film critic Roger Ebert during a Conference on World Affairs panel discussion called “An Epic Debate: Are Video Games an Art Form?” asserted that “Video games don’t explore the meaning of being human as other art forms do”. He is right, but not in the way he thinks. Clearly, he is suggesting that art forms explore the meaning of being human but that video games don’t do this.

I agree that video games don’t explore the meaning of being human in the same way as other art forms do; they explore it in a completely different way. In my opinion, video games can explore the meaning of being human in a much more intimate, visceral way than almost any other art form can. Why? Because it demands your personal interaction. It’s all well and good to read a book – Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment for example –  wherein a character deals with their own internal struggles and mistakes, whilst you – an invisible, omniscient observer – watch idly by as the events unfold.

With video games, however, they demand you to decide on moral dilemmas where, in some situations, no option is “good”. You have to dirty your own hands.  You’re not just reading about or watching a series of events, you’re living through them and growing as a person from it.

Take 2013’s indie game Papers, Please for example. You are the border control officer of a fictional, corrupt, dystopian Eastern Bloc country of Arstotzka. You spend the game processing immigration documents for people who wish to enter the country. The totalitarian government watches you for the slightest slip-up with the wide-eyed, steely intensity of Pierluigi Collina.

The rules and regulations change and multiply with exponential complexity every day, letting through people who have incorrect papers (or not letting through people who do) gets you a citation warning that lowers your earnings that day. This is money you use for rent, heat, food, and sometimes medication. Most of the time, you can only afford two of these things.

As a result, you are often faced with impossible moral dilemmas. On multiple occasions, a person who doesn’t have the correct papers will beg you to let them through because they want to visit their dying mother, or visit their terminally ill child, or leave their war-torn country to be with their lover who just went through.

Of course, letting them through “just this once” is the nice thing to do, but what if your child back in your apartment is sick and needs medicine, and that one citation makes you unable to buy some? Do you accept a bribe knowing there’s a chance you could be caught? Do you help an underground resistance running the risk of being imprisoned yourself? You’re making these decisions by the way. No director or author or writer is. If that doesn’t explore the human condition, and the meaning of “being human”, I don’t know what does.

Yes, video games such as Call of Duty or Doom can be mindless fun and can let people indulge risk-free in the worst aspects of humanity, but not too dissimilar to films like Saw or TV shows like Geordie Shore. The ability for video games to be violent doesn’t mean it is promoting violence any more than The Outsider by Albert Camus promotes violence.

Like with the best of literature, the best of TV, and the best of cinema, video games can help you grow, learn, and evolve as a thinking person. And, to be quite frank, in my experience, the primary cause for the world’s ills is ignorance, and the only ignorance being shown in this debate are those keen to shut down and blame that which they don’t understand. The answer is exactly that: to understand. And what’s the best way to understand?

Play.