This is the beginning of what I hope will be a series of articles wherein I discuss various distasteful topics that have been explored and as-yet unexplored in video games across the late-last and early-current centuries.
WARNING: I will be discussing topics that are potentially offensive in nature. Being borderline taboo, this article may contain ideas and concepts that offend or trigger. Please keep that in mind.
Without further ado, please enjoy the following product of raw unrestricted opinion.
Because of the recent rash of shootings and other gun-related incidents in the U.S.A., political and social movements have once again taken to advocating for stricter gun laws and more thorough background checks. Insane or violent people are able to cause the massacres and commit the murders that they do in-part because of the ease with which firearms and ammunition can be LEGALLY purchased. Thus, making it harder for insane or violent people to legally purchase firearms is a reasonable start to prevent massacres and murders.
So, where do video games fit into this rather political post thus far?
Imagine, if you will, that it is not taboo to make video games where the player perpetrates massacres and murders. However gruesome it may be to fathom where and how far video game developers could take such a premise with next-gen consoles, please stay with me here and mull this over for a few seconds (or however long you want).
Do you take offense to such ideas? Would you act on that discontent by contacting the developer(s) or by not even buying such a game? Do you know a relative, or friend, or relative of a friend, or anyone else that was a victim of a massacre or murder, or knew someone that was?
Hold that thought and let’s pause for a second: do you remember the great controversy over the airport massacre level in 2009’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2? Y’know, the one where you go around a Russian airport as part of Makarov’s inner-circle and shoot innocent civilians and security as an act of terrorism.
Remember it (or know about it now)? Maybe you also remember that Infinity Ward, Modern Warfare 2’s developer, made it an optional level instead of forcing players to shoot the people in the airport, and even made it so that the player doesn’t have to shoot anyone innocent if he/she does choose to go through it?
With that background info that you may or may not have already known, do you remember the 2011 Norway attacks by 32-year-old Norwegian right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik? Responsible for the deaths of 77 innocent people, Breivik said he trained for the attacks using Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 in addition to target practice at firing ranges.
The actions of a paranoid schizophrenic who used a video game to prepare for the massacres he perpetrated seems to justify the taboo against massacres and murders in video games, and yet there are many, many more forms of media that toss that taboo aside. Books, movies, anime, manga, cartoons… at least one product that is classified as one of these contains some form of violence or other inappropriate and socially-unacceptable action.
So why aren’t these other forms of media also attacked and ridiculed as much as video games? Perhaps the reason why is the interactivity and level of involvement that sets video games apart from these other art forms.
Being able to actively choose the actions that are played out on a screen, rather than being a passive spectator is, and, unless television or anime becomes more interactive, always will be more “fun” than other forms of entertainment in terms of having control over the visual and auditory inputs we receive (although The Avengers was still one heck of an amazing movie, can’t deny that). However, doing so is also conducive to less-than-tasteful uses, as Breivik has so fatally proven.
Speaking without a claim to expertise on the subject, the problem is not the themes presented in video games. It is rather in my opinion biological factors that predispose someone to mental issues. The next step (or sole problem, in some cases) is sociability, specifically that people are, either by misfortune or biological reasons, left feeling alienated and unequal among peers, friends, and even family.
A seed of instability, if left untreated or unknown, may then sprout into a full-blown belief that mass killing or the murder of another person or people is justified, permissible, and the right or only course of action.
Several research studies trying to find a correlation between violent video games and violent tendencies and/or aggression are discussed in this BBC News article, including one that found that violent tendencies are linked to task incompetence. In this particular study, researchers used a nonviolent version of Half-Life 2 where players tag enemies to make them evaporate instead of the original shooter version. The true variable in the experiment was whether or not players were given a tutorial before starting the game.
Those players who did not get a tutorial felt less competent and, as a result, displayed a higher level of aggression than those who did have a tutorial. In the article, Dr. Andrew Przybylski from the Oxford Internet Institute stated that these feelings of incompetence violate a basic human psychological need to feel dominant.
The aggression that this can generate is not, however, the main motivation to play violent video games. That is, according to these results, people do not play violent video games just to feel or vent aggression. University of Rochester Professor Richard Ryan, who co-authored the study paper, further stated that the findings of this study does not mean that violent content does not still have some sort of effect on players.
I would like to emphasize that, although playing video games is correlated with short-term aggression, there is no direct causal link found as yet between playing violent games and acting out violence.
It seems as though there are just as many studies indicating that there is no link as those that indicate there is. The only constant among the relatively-few studies done concerning violence and video games is their lack of consistency in terms of research methods. You truly won’t lack for differences among them, ranging from how they measure aggressiveness and mood to if and how they controlled possible variables.
Video games are, first and foremost, a form of entertainment. As such, the simulations of both real life and fantasy they portray ought to be “fun.” While violence and killing in video games should not be considered fun, such themes in video games have arguably become an outlet for stress-borne bloodlust. I myself love the Assassin’s Creed series, and it is chock full of stabbing, shooting, and causing general mayhem.
And yet, the silver lining amongst the violence and killing that permeates most, if not all, video games is the other themes and moral lessons they attempt to impart on players.
Journey, for example, depicted how the outbreak of war among cloth people, for lack of an explicitly-stated name, destroyed the great progress and prosperity that they once enjoyed, nearly exterminating the species entirely in the process. The cryptic and mystical ending of Journey showed how thatgamecompany tried to emphasize that despite the great loss, there is and always should be hope to pick up the pieces and rebuild.
Lastly, even the recent installments of the Call of Duty franchise (Modern Warfare 2 and 3, Black Ops, Ghosts) try to glorify, beyond the satisfaction of outsmarting the AI, the value of brotherhood, loyalty, vengeance (albeit an iffy subject morally), and nationalism. The latter theme, however, both alone and in combination with religion and/or greed, has been the motive behind terrorism and war-making for millennia (The Crusades and the World Wars, to name a few).
While nearly all video games contain some form of violence and/or killing, they should not be considered a source of the violent tendencies or fuel for mental issues that are often the motivation(s) behind massacres and murders.
After all, where’s the fun in just playing a simulation of something you can do (legally) in real life?