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.

 

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