Over at The Well-Red Mage, which you should really be reading if you enjoy thoughtful and well-considered writing about games without sociopolitical showboating, the Mage posed an interesting question.
It’s one we’ve been over many times since the medium’s inception, and yet at the time of writing, it’s once again a hot topic thanks to recent gun-related atrocities and the surrounding discussions.
So let’s talk about it a bit. I am, of course, no expert on psychology, so I’m not going to speak for anyone else; instead, I’m primarily going to focus on my own experiences here, and contemplate how they perhaps came to be. Feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments, and be sure to drop by the Mage’s site to see some other takes on the matter.
First up, I thought I’d establish my position on violent games and other media.
I grew up in a household that was full of computers, gaming hardware and other forms of entertainment. While I’m not under any sort of illusion that I’m the most “well-adjusted” of individuals — a fact which I learned last year can be at least partially attributed to living with Asperger Syndrome without realising it for a good 30+ years — I can at least give considerable credit to my parents for Bringing Me Up Right.
What do I mean by that? I mean the fact that even though I’d go into (primary) school and hear many of my friends and peers talking about movies like Terminator 2, I wasn’t allowed to watch movies or play games that had inappropriate age ratings on them. This sort of material was often in our house, as my brother is ten years older than me and, of course, my parents themselves had the freedom to enjoy whatever they wanted. But 10-year old Pete was not going to be allowed to watch a 15- or 18-rated movie unattended, however much he protested.
This wasn’t a blanket ban, mind; when such movies aired on television I was often allowed to watch them under the supervision of my parents and there were never any instances of them attempting to “shield” me from anything going on on screen. That said, my parents weren’t exactly into Arnie and Stallone movies, so anything 15- or 18-rated I got to watch tended to deal with more non-violent mature themes. Over time, my frustration at not being able to see what were the “big movies” of the time faded, and I found that I wasn’t really missing the violent entertainment many of my friends claimed to be enjoying.
Around the same time while I was growing up, there weren’t many video games that were especially “violent” in the sense the term is typically used today — i.e. featuring heavy amounts of blood and gore. This was primarily down to technological limitations of the time restricting the sort of things that could be adequately depicted in games; to my recollection, the only vaguely “violent” game in this sense that ever crossed my path was Mortal Kombat, and the gore in that was so ridiculously fake-looking that it was impossible to really feel anything profound about it.
In retrospect, there is one interesting example, though; my relative lack of exposure to blood and gore in the media during my formative years meant that when it did show up in certain games and looked vaguely “realistic”, it actually scared me a bit. Probably the most vivid example I can think of in this regard is a peculiar game called Savage from Firebird for the Atari ST. This was a bizarre title that unfolded in three parts that could be played as completely separate games, though completing one rewarded you with a password that could advance you in the subsequent one.
Savage Level 3 (Atari ST) – video via Laarela (YouTube)
The third part of Savage involved the main hero taking control of an eagle as it attempted to negotiate a labyrinth, blasting enemies with magic and trying not to get impaled, crushed or blown to bits. For the most part, it wasn’t anything to get particularly worked up over, aside from one aspect: when you ran out of energy or hit an “instant death” trap, the eagle would let out a very unpleasant screeching noise through the ST’s sound chip before collapsing to the floor and bleeding out all over the platform it landed on.
After experiencing that once, I found it very difficult to bring myself to return to it. I’m not sure if it was the blood, the noise, the fact it was a creature I could vaguely relate to (as opposed to an alien or monster) or some combination of all of those things… but I guess it kind of horrified me at the time. I wasn’t used to seeing a graphic depiction of something so obviously injured; sure, by this point in my gaming career, I’d blown countless aliens to bits, destroyed thousands of spaceships, crashed many cars and swallowed more than my fair share of ghosts. But this… this got to me, as did things like Prince of Persia’s eponymous hero getting impaled on spikes, Lester Chaykin offing himself in numerous unpleasant ways in Another World, or anything else that looked genuinely painful.
Here’s an interesting thing about video game violence: while a lot of games use some form of “violence” as a core mechanic, very few of them are set up to genuinely make you feel like something hurt, or that there were lasting consequences to that violence. The difference between something like Savage’s eagle death and the countless Nazis I eagerly mowed down in a hail of bullets and blood in Wolfenstein 3D a few years later is that the latter set its violence up as a means of making you feel powerful, that you were doing “the right thing”. Nazis exploded into bloody chunks in the same way spaceships in a shoot ’em up exploded into metallic fragments and power-ups; it was a reward of sorts. In Savage, meanwhile, the violence was a punishment; the ultimate punishment, in fact, since you only had one life in that particular part of the game.
The violence of something like Wolfenstein is also relentless rather than something that happens once at the end of your game, and as such its emotional impact is lessened; it’s not long before you simply stop noticing it as “violence” and just accept it as part of the overall “style” of the game. This is not quite the same as being desensitised to violence as a concept, mind you; despite still enjoying Wolfenstein and its spiritual successors Doom, Duke Nukem 3D and suchlike, I still, to this day, find myself recoiling from more realistic depictions of violence in visual media, be it in games, movies or TV, and typically don’t gravitate towards explicitly violent media of any kind.
I’ve been trying to pin down what exactly is the reason I feel so differently about the two approaches, and I think it’s to do with the purpose and context. In the case of Wolfenstein, the violence is part of the mechanical aspect of the game — the Nazis are obstacles to be overcome, and the violence is a clear audio-visual signal you’ve defeated them — while in Savage, the eagle’s death is a “narrative” moment of sorts; it is the end of its journey.
This distinction is perhaps made even more clear and explicit in many role-playing games, where the “violence” (albeit typically without gore) inherent in the very gameplay structure feels like something completely different to any “violence” depicted as part of the narrative. In something like Dungeon Travelers 2, MeiQ: Labyrinth of Death or Final Fantasy XV you kill hundreds, even thousands of enemies over the course of the game, usually in the name of “grinding”, and your friends and allies might get hurt or even killed as part of this process… and yet all this is purely mechanical, an abstract part of the game. If someone gets a smack in the mouth or a knife to the gut in a cutscene, though, you feel it. It’s still “violence”, but its reason for being there is totally different and distinct — and consequently has a very different emotional impact. Some games, like Nier and its sequel Nier Automata, even play with this distinction by blurring its lines somewhat, which is what makes them so interesting.
An awareness of this distinction would perhaps go some distance to explaining why one of The Fruit of Grisaia’s bad endings (you’ll know which one if you’ve read it) was so genuinely horrifying and traumatic to me, and yet I can play something like Bayonetta without flinching; why I find Corpse Party’s Wrong Ends so sickening (yet oddly compelling) but Shock Troopers with its “Brutality mode” turned on is darkly humorous.
For me, it’s all to do with whether that violence carries emotional weight and narrative meaning; whether there’s a connection of some sort between me and the victim. Consider something like Telltale’s The Walking Dead games; there are a number of moments in that where you have to shoot someone by pulling the trigger on your controller, the exact same movement you’d do in a Call of Duty to shoot someone. And yet the emotional impact of that simple twitch of the finger is quite different; in Call of Duty, like Wolfenstein so many years earlier, you’re simply overcoming an obstacle, while in The Walking Dead, you’re making the choice to end a life. A virtual life that doesn’t really exist, yes, but with the way our brains tend to respond to particularly engaging fiction, many people’s emotions react in the same way as they would if the situation were real.
What does this mean for the “video games cause violence” debate, then? Well, it’s difficult to say, because everyone responds to these things a little differently. From my own personal perspective, though, there’s always been a clear distinction between what we’ll call “mechanical violence” and “narrative violence”, with the former being something I know only exists in video games, while my default perception of anything violent happening in front of me in the real world is that it is inherently part of a “narrative” of some sort.
The problems arise when people are unable to make that distinction for whatever reason; where they feel no connection with the people they are inflicting violence on and perhaps even derive pleasure or a sense of “reward” from it. Can we blame video games for this? Not really, since the way a person behaves is the product of so many disparate influences and stimuli that it’s very rare for there to be just one single thing that causes them to do something. To suggest a direct causal link from video games to, say, a school shooting is a gross oversimplification, and rather irresponsible.
One thing I think it’s important to raise with regard to this whole debate is that education is extremely important. Parents, teachers and other carers out there need to be aware of what media the children and young people they are responsible for are consuming, and be ready to talk about it with them if they have concerns — or just if they want a way to connect with their young charges.
This isn’t a whole “think of the children” thing, mind; if a caregiver believes that a child is mature and responsible enough to handle something rated as only suitable for older individuals, then that’s their call. What’s arguably more important is that those caregivers understand the media in question and educate themselves accordingly if they don’t.
It’s this latter aspect in particular that isn’t really happening at the moment; while we live in an age where a lot of parents and teachers grew up with gaming and understand what it’s all about, there are still plenty of other caregivers out there who don’t have a clue about it all — and in some cases seemingly no real interest in learning, either. That’s a real shame, since such discussions have the potential to enrich everyone’s lives; the youngsters get the opportunity to think a bit more critically about what they are engaging with as they discuss it with someone, while the caregivers might even find themselves discovering a whole other medium of entertainment they hadn’t previously explored before.
It’s important we all learn to talk about the things we’re engaging with in a non-judgemental fashion, even when we disagree; different things are important to different people, and everyone responds to stimuli in different ways. Understanding that is something we could all do a bit better at.
Do video games cause violence? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean we should all just take the media we consume for granted. I’m not saying everyone should suddenly start feeling wracked with guilt each time they plug Mercy with a headshot from across the map or topple a Nergigante alongside three of their friends, but it is worth occasionally taking a moment to think about what you’re doing, why it’s important to you and why you enjoy it. You’ll often find yourself coming away with a deeper appreciation of the things you love.
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