Don’t blame the game

With tragic shootings taking place in Aurora, Winsconsin and Newtown in recent years, along with the 2 bombs set off at the Boston marathon in 2012, people are naturally asking the question, “why are these things are happening?”, and questioning what’s happening in the world generally, particularly, was there anything influencing these people to carry out the attacks and behave in the way that they did? This inevitably brings the subject of violence in video games into the spotlight. This isn’t new, people have been pointing a blaming finger at video games for years now, and scientists have been looking at whether there is a link between one who play the games and the tendency to become violent. But is violence in video games really the problem? Would banning them prevent these atrocities from occurring?

When I first wrote this blog, I gathered some viewpoints from friends on Facebook and from forums. I will be quoting many of these comments throughout this piece and they will be in italics, along with my own views. So lets get underway with one of those viewpoints;

“It all depends on what you mean by violence. Is a hedgehog curling itself into a ball with razor sharp spikes and rolling into ‘baddies’ violence? Is street fighter 2 violence? Is purposely fouling Messi on FIFA or Pro Ev in the last minute to take a red card violence?”

This seems almost too obvious a question to ask, but what do we mean by violence in video games? Most campaigners who want to ban violent games point to games like Call Of Duty and Gears of War. These are ‘shooters’ from either a first or third person point of view where the aim is to kill aliens or humans to save the world.  First person shooters are very popular, with the likes of Call of Duty and Halo selling in their hundreds of millions with each release. There are other genres like fighting games, that have extreme violence.

Mortal Kombat was one of those fighting games that had quite a bit of blood and gore, and at the end, if you won, you could perform a finishing move which changed depending on the character. End moves included decapitation, setting your opponent on fire, or sucking out their soul. It sounds very gruesome, but there are other fighting games with less gore, but the aim is still to beat your opponent into submission. We could move on and look at games like Angry Birds; effectively firing birds from catapults into blocks of wood, concrete and TNT to kill pigs. Cartoon Network PTE XL has players take control of cartoon characters and beat each other to death. Battleblock Theatre has very cartoon-like graphics and gameplay, yet the players can throw discs which cause players to explode in a shower of bones. Let’s not forget Conkers Bad Fur Day with it’s adult language and innuendo.

The majority of video games have some kind of violence in it so the more major issue seems to be the level of realism and gore that is featured. One fear seems to be that because they are so realistic, players will want to act out what they see. As I have mentioned previously, Call of Duty is immensely popular, and often wins awards for its graphics and gameplay. Just how realistic are they though? Danny O’Dwyer from Gamespot took a look at this from the perspective of how Nazi’s are shown in video games and whether they are desensitizing us to the horrors and impact of war. His conclusion was quite startling to me; games like Call of Duty aren’t de-sensitizing us to war, it’s just reflecting how de-sensitized we are already. [1]

My favorite game series is Halo where you play as an enhanced super soldier in green armor and you are trying to save the galaxy from a race of aliens called the Covenant who are intent on wiping out humanity. Now, this  to me doesn’t sound particularly realistic. Games like Grand Theft Auto however, has the player stealing cars, robbing shops and killing passers by; real world events all in the name of entertainment. If you were to take these actions out of the video game context, they would become horrific acts of violence and/or assault, but that’s just it, it would be out of context. To suggest that playing these games influences the players to act out as though they cannot tell the difference is to insult those players intelligence. To quote a few of the responses;

“I regularly play a game where the aim is to wipe out humanity. That doesn’t mean people think you should try and kill all humans.”

“Healthy individuals view violence in fiction as what it is – violence in fiction. I am an avid gamer and I shoot and kill things on a daily basis. I celebrate getting head shots. I laugh when I sabotage an Atlas and make it decapitate a Phantom. That’s not because the idea of imaginary violence pleases me. It’s about the puzzle and the challenge and the skill. I celebrate when I hit a virtual target with a virtual weapon because it means my skill level there is good. The majority of gamers are mature, confident and intelligent people.”

“We know we’re not building cities on Sim City. We know we’re not firing birds at other birds…etc. what they are are challenges. Different games have different challenges in different scenarios. There is no way anyone translates anything other than problem solving skills into their real lives from video games. Violence in games is not violence in any realistic way.”

Virtually all people who play video games know they are dealing with fiction and fantasy, and are able to compartmentalize accordingly. They are not getting joy out of killing, they are getting joy out of the skill and teamwork required to complete a game. This is why I like to play online; to play with others, form tactics and then execute them. It is rewarding when a plan you put together works. It does take the right people though, and gamers currently don’t have the greatest reputation for playing nice online, but that’s another discussion for another time. All of the above mentioned views are mostly about adult gamers. That seems to be who plays computer games though, with the average age of a game player being 30 with an average playing history of 13 years [2]. The majority of these concerns are about younger people playing these types of games. It is a valid concern which is why games come with an age rating. Currently, there are 3 main classification boards in Europe and the US;

Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB)
Pan European Game Information (PEGI)
British Board of Film Classification (BBFC)

These games provide ratings for who the game is aimed at, and who shops can sell the game to. Virtually all the games that get picked on are rated Teen/Mature (ESRB) 16/18 (PEGI) 15/18 (BBFC), so no one under these ages can legally purchase the game. The average age of someone buying computer games is 35. This means if under 18’s are getting hold of 18 rated games, they are being bought for them or the store has illegally sold it to them. The ratings are there to provide a guide for parents to decide whether they want their children to play them. A study conducted by the Entertainment Software Association found that 73% of parents believe that the parental controls available in all new video game consoles are useful. Further, parents impose time usage limits on video games more than any other form of entertainment. [3]

From the same study, 30% of game players are women aged 18 and over, compared to 18% being boys aged 17 and under. This is significant when looked at in the context of studies into video games. To quote one;

“Although the findings indicated that playing violent video games also can be linked to impulsivity and attention problems, the overall amount of time spent playing any type of video game proved to be a greater factor. This was the case regardless of a child’s gender, race or socioeconomic status.” [4]

Parents may impose time limits, but they do not seem to take note of the actual game. Nearly every person who responded commented that virtually no parent takes notice of these ratings. As one parent put it to me;

“My son (now almost 20) and his friends are gamers – and he says that I was the only parent he knows of ever to even pay attention to the ratings, let alone use them to restrict the games anyone was allowed to play. This matches my own conversations with parents – most don’t even notice game ratings and those that do tend to give up after their kids hit the age of 12 or 13 so the upper end of the ratings scale matters even less.”

If the guidance that the industry is providing is being ignored, what else do you expect them to do? There’s a wonderful but disturbing scene in the movie Inside Man. I feel a clip of it will do it more justice than a transcript;


Video games are not the only medium to feature violence, and whether these other mediums are more responsible for the de-sensitizing Danny O’Dwyer alluded to in the above clip (not just about war, de-sensitizing in general) is a debate that continues on today. Looking at all the statistics, comments and my own experience though, I do not see how banning video games is going to prevent these tragedies from happening. If people are being influenced by what they play, then serious questions need to be asked as to whether they should be playing video games at all, especially if they are prone to outbursts or other mental disorders that could endanger themselves or others. I am not saying video games have no impact; anything the brain is subjected to can have an impact, and discussions on what people are subjected to in the various mediums is a very valid one. But there is a reason why controls need to be put in place and indeed are in place. I do feel that blaming video games is diverting attention from a very fundamental question; what about the parents? If teenagers are being influenced by games, surely the parents would and should be the first to notice? There is also the issue of parents purchasing inappropriate games for their children, which as the statistics suggests, is happening. Information on games, their ratings and reasons are freely available for anyone to read. Parents have a responsibility and whilst I appreciate it is not easy, and teenagers may not like it, monitoring is sometimes necessary and it’s the parents job to do it.

If they choose to ignore the guidelines, then there is no point blaming the game for the consequences.



Did reasonable doubt fail Reeva Steenkamp?

I’ve been debating with myself for the last few months whether to write a piece similar to this, and over the last few days on whether to actually publish this very blog. I have tried to be mindful about getting this right or will it just be another example of a man not getting it and being complicit in the abuse women have to suffer. I guess I have to leave that judgement up to you.

The last couple of days have been mostly focused on the trial of Oscar Pistorius, as the verdicts on the charges of murdering Reeva Steenkamp were delivered by Judge Thokozile Masipa. Oscar Pistorius was cleared of murder but found guilty of culpable homicide (manslaughter). Essentially, it was ruled he did not set out to kill Reeva Steenkamp that night but his actions caused her death. Given the surrounding accusations that Reeva Steenkamp was afraid of him, there has been rightly a lot of focus on women and patriarchy and how women are regarded; not just in South Africa but in around the world. The fact he was cleared of murder has been met by some as suggesting Reeva Steenkamp didn’t matter and that the perpetrator is once again being protected. Let me be clear; patriarchy, misogyny, sexism are all very real and result in women being abused and men justifying that abuse. But in this court case, Reeva Steenkamp has not been failed by the patriarchy system, she has been failed by reasonable doubt.

The whole case has been tried within the very well established practice that the accused is innocent until they are proven guilty. In the words of Judge Masipa; “The onus is not on the accused to prove that he’s innocent but on the state to prove that he’s guilty” With many attacks on women, it is done in private with no witnesses and often the accusations come down to “the mans word versus hers”. The patriarchy would say that the woman did something to provoke the man therefore deserved it. The legal system would say “we need more than just your word”. The woman can’t win either way. There is no justification, regardless of whether the victim is a man or a woman, for beating someone. Sadly, the testimonies of women show a clear picture that the police don’t always seem to take accusations from women that seriously and ask questions to suggest that she did something to provoke him. The cases very rarely get to court.

Oscar Pistorius was in court though to face charges of murder, culpable homicide and other gun related charges. It was never in doubt that Oscar Pistorius shot his gun at the bathroom door and as a result of her injuries sustained from those gunshots, Reeva Steenkamp died. The question that the court had to decide on was did Oscar Pistorius deliberately shoot Reeva Steenkamp through the bathroom door knowing it was her and intended to kill her, or was it an accident where Pistorius believed it was an intruder which is the explanation he gave.  According to the CPS website:

Subject to three exceptions (see Voluntary Manslaughter below) the crime of murder is committed, where a person:

  • of sound mind and discretion (i.e. sane); 
  • unlawfully kills (i.e. not self-defence or other justified killing);
  • any reasonable creature (human being);
  • in being (born alive and breathing through its own lungs – Rance v Mid-Downs Health Authority (1991) 1 All ER 801 and AG Ref No 3 of 1994 (1997) 3 All ER 936;
  • under the Queen’s Peace;
  • with intent to kill or cause grievous bodily harm (GBH). [1]

As is his legal right, he had a hearing in front of a judge to make the decision on whether his actions fell into the above. For it to be deemed murder in the legal sense, it has to be premeditated. If he did not intend to kill her, then he cannot be found guilty of murder. As I stated above, it was down to the prosecution to prove “beyond reasonable doubt” it was deliberate. Pistorius did not have to prove his version of events to the court. How though do you prove beyond reasonable doubt that an act that was deliberate when the only 2 witnesses involved were the accused and the woman that he shot and killed? It seemed proving premeditation was always going to be difficult. And so it proved. Whilst delivering her judgement,  Judge Masipa says “the state failed to prove its allegation that Oscar Pistorius deliberately murdered his girlfriend after an argument, providing…. only circumstantial evidence which was not strong. …..his actions were not consistent with someone who intended to commit murder.”  There is outcry at the decision, many see it as another case of a mans word being taken over a womans yet again and there are experts who believe the judge came to the wrong decision etc. But I see it as Reeva Steenkamp being failed by the way the legal system is set up. We want to believe the victims, we want to side with them, we want them to get justice. We can voice our views freely and rally around them. Judges don’t have that luxury and that is not what they are there to. They are there to listen to the case, listen to the arguments, determine the facts, look at what the law says then make a decision. As former judge Willem Heath put it:

[Many] lawyers think that she missed the point, that she did not interpret the law correctly, that she did not analyse the facts correctly, but when you consider the judgement, it is evident from that that she considered the facts, that she considered the law, and that’s all that she’s required to do. There’s a lot of criticism, they thought she should have convicted the accused of murder, therefore there’s a lot of unhappiness. But I’m of the view that that’s really subjective. If the lawyers would apply their minds as they’re supposed to do, they should analyse the circumstances and find themselves in the same position she found herself in,”

Pierre de Vos, Cape Town University law professor tweeted: “The law is not an exact science. Reasonable people can disagree on how it should be applied in a case” and legal experts (and non legal experts) will debate this endlessly I suspect. It’s very easy to sit on the sidelines and theorize what we would do if we were the judge.  I think my friend may be being a bit harsh when he posted “From what I’ve gathered the main problem was Pistorius being judged not guilty in a court of law, rather than guilty by the mob rule expressed on Facebook. I didn’t realise the good people on here were such experts in the fine detail of South African trial law…” but I think he’s right; we can judge using our emotions, law judges can’t. Oscar Pistroius still faces a potentially lengthy prison sentence for being found guilty on the (admittedly lesser) charge of culpable homicide, so I can’t buy into the argument that him being found not guilty of murder shows that women don’t matter. Not guilty doesn’t necessarily mean he is innocent, just that there wasn’t enough evidence to find him guilty.

When it comes to cases that reach court though, I’m not sure what the options are. Less than 1% of rape and abuse claims have been shown to be made up so the odds of a woman lying about it is extremely remote so do we re-define what reasonable doubt means? Do we push the emphasis onto the defendant to prove their innocence? Whilst mindful of the slippery slope fallacy, I don’t like where those would potentially lead.  We may not like it but people being accused of things are entitled to a fair hearing, where their version is heard and all the evidence is brought together to be ruled on by a legal expert or before a jury of their peers. As I put above, there is often not much additional evidence beyond the victims word. Is declaring someone guilty, and all the consequences that come with that, solely on the word of their accuser and dishing out punishment where we want to head?

The conclusion of this case has left us exactly where we started really. Women are still being beaten, abused and killed because they are women; men and women are told they must act in a certain way in order to be a man and a woman and are bullied (or worse) if they do not conform to society’s demands. All the while society doesn’t see anything wrong in that because it has always happened. There is a massive re-education project that needs to happen to get society to open its eyes and do something about it. Whilst excuses are made, nothing will change and waiting for these instances of abuse to reach court is far too late. We need to do more than reduce abuse cases by putting abusers in jail, we need to change everything about the way women are seen and treated, and the way men feel they have to act in order to be men.

I get the anger at the decision, I get the comparisons to defenses men have made to justify their actions when abusing women; but I’m also a big believer in judging each case on its merits. Reeva Steenkamp was failed because the prosecution was not able show beyond reasonable doubt on premeditation which they were required to do under the eyes of the law. Judge Masipa did not rule that Reeva Steenkamp caused it to happen, the blame lies squarely at the feet of Oscar Pistorius.


Internet; the game changer

The internet is still extremely young. It was first developed in the 1960’s and 70’s as a method of computers passing information to each other. But before then, information was passed from person to person by writing letters, or by going to a library and reading a book (ah the good old days). Most of the books written about religion were done so by scholars, as they were usually the only ones who could get published on the subject. These scholars usually studied at such a high level that many could not grasp the concept of their practices. Many people got their questions answered by their local vicar; they’d turn up, sit in a pew and accept what they were being told. The sermons they heard were just be focused on what can be taken from scripture and how they should apply such lessons to their lives. Each church and denomination could control what their congregation was exposed to, not always deliberately, but I’ll come back to that. It was much harder to hear (and express) different views in those days.

The internet changed everything. Information was suddenly freely available and freely exchanged; it connected the world in a way that had never been seen before. Suddenly, people were faced with a multitude of views that not only differed from their own, but they were hearing opinions that they never knew existed. Information that was reserved for scholars flooded in at an approachable level and really changed the entire landscape of theological discussion; and many were not prepared for it. It got people thinking and threw up questions of what were their churches not telling them. It has caused people to turn away from the Christian faith, it has caused others to re-evaluate everything they thought they knew about the Bible. Questions of history, inerrancy, what it means to have faith, even what it means to be part of a church, all came under scrutiny. This is before we even get into the unleashing of atheistic views, which brings about its own set of challenges.

Like many things, the internet has its good and bad points. It really has opened up the discussion of religion, and allowed people to engage with other viewpoints to help understanding. It’s also helped people to understand where their faith lies and indeed strengthened it. However, there is a lot of misinformation on the internet regarding many things; the internet is largely unregulated and the only knowledge you need to publish something is to know how to turn on your computer. It is very difficult pulling out the correct information – due to the anonymity that the internet provides, people can write/promote what they want without worrying about the consequences and are not slow to do so (especially if they think you’re wrong) Sadly, many Christians think this gives them a free pass to say what they want as well; I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been branded a heretic or not a true Christian for speaking my mind, and more than once I’ve been told I’m going to burn in hell for my theological views; and this is nothing compared to what some are subjected to. It’s a very challenging place to be.

Beyond just allowing information, the internet has questioned and changed what it means to be a community. People are spending more time online than ever before and it’s changing how we interact with each other. Many Christians are now members of online churches rather than walking into a church building. The internet is also a bit of a paradox; whilst it promotes itself as a place of free speech, it doesn’t always allow the space and time needed for people to wrestle freely with their issues. People have taken the “circle the wagons” mentality, where only their viewpoint is valid and should not be questioned by others on the internet. This is not restricted to Christian sites either. It puts the focus on where we differ as people rather than sharing what we have in common; this is something that’s probably permeating my blogs a bit of late.

You can’t escape the information and critiques now and churches need to do more to interact with what people are asking, if they don’t, someone else will. There is now an atheist hotline, and it’s things like this that Christians now have no choice but to acknowledge that we must truly engage with the questions and not just trot about our doctrinal mantra. We also need to be encouraged to ask questions – we can’t answer a question before we’ve asked it ourselves.

The internet has changed the world, it’s here to stay and yes, it is rather apt to use a website to comment on the internet, this has not escaped me.