I’ve never experienced violence in any real way.
I’ve lived a pretty good life — I was lucky enough to grow up in a nice neighborhood and be sent to a good high school which took me to a quiet suburban college. I’ve lived in cities cities since then, but my experiences with crime have been limited to having electronics stolen from my car. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been in a fight, and of those fights, nobody ever left with more significant injuries than some scrapes and bruises.
I was lucky to find employment and thus was not forced to join the military1. I always participated in non-contact sports. I was a theater kid. Shit, I think I was even involved in Amnesty International at one point?
I have no idea what it’s like to genuinely fear for your life. I’ve never been in a situation where the stakes of the crisis were actual lives. I don’t know what violence is.
But it was always part of my life in some simulated form. I’ve cheered at football games ever since I watched my brother win a state championship for our high school. I’ve seen Star Wars more times than I can truly count. I read adventure books, watched Saturday morning cartoons, saw horrible things in movies, and play-acted some (retrospectively) pretty intense scenarios.
And then there were, of course, the video games.
I was a junior in high school when the Columbine massacre happened. The media had been amped up about violent video games for a long time, but this was the first time it reached a head while I was mentally aware enough to understand the discussion. I remember having a talk with my mom afterwards — she was always a lot more savvy than I gave her credit for, and had a pretty good understanding of the role games and movies played in my life. More than anything, she was puzzled about why I, a pretty good kid who had never really shown aggressive behavior, enjoyed those things.
“I think it’s about having a sense of power, of being able to do something I’m not able to do in real life.” Even then, I was hustling power fantasies and escapism.
“But why would you want to do those things?”
Sorry, mom. I still don’t have a good answer for that one2.
I’ve often taken the position that media is a reflection of a culture more than it is an active agent within it. That it’s an artifact of it’s particular society; that people’s actions are not influenced by it. As with most opinions that I formed when I was a teenager, I’ve come to realize that it’s much more complicated and subtle than that. Even if the wingnut theories about Klebold and Harris mistaking real life for DOOM were just paranoid fantasies, they still lived in a culture immersed in depictions of heroic individualism, often manifested in its most physical acts.
Michael Moore has never really appealed to me — I found him overly bombastic, smug, and often moved to incoherence by a self-righteous belief in his own intelligence.
The night of the 2003 Oscars, he said something that has stuck with me. Most people remember him from that night (if they remember at all) being upset about the start of the Iraq war, and yelling, “shame on you, Mr. Bush!” during his acceptance speech, to the apparent shock of the other nominees who he had invited to come up with him. Regardless of my agreeing or not agreeing with him, this struck me as tasteless, but whatever, it’s Michael Moore and it’s what he does.
But then, backstage, he cooled off a little bit. The interview afterwards is what echoes in me. After a brief attempt to spin the fact that he was booed during his acceptance speech, he posed (and answered) a question:
What was the lesson that we taught the children of Columbine this week? This was the lesson: that violence is an acceptable means to resolve a conflict.
Of course, he’s right. Parents, teachers, religious leaders, and role models take such pains to impress upon children the importance of using their words, of not hitting, of being nice to each other. And then the adults turn around and declare war. And cheer a hard-hitting football game. And laugh at the scene where Indiana Jones shoots that guy who was playing with his sword.
So I’ve never really been a part of violence. And I’ve long felt uncomfortable with the role of violence in my society. But here I am, working in the most readily vilified form of media we have today.
I don’t know what responsiblity we have as game developers. I have a responsibility to my leads to produce compelling work. I have a responsibility to my producer to do it on time. I have a responsibility to the other departments to make their stuff look good. Is it also my responsibility to try and improve the collective psyche of my culture? Is it wild hubris to even think that’s possible?
We, as developers, have plenty of defense mechanisms for skirting our larger responsibilities. We all get the question about violence from people outside the industry — I’ve gotten it from romantic interests, from older relatives, from former teachers, from priests, and from strangers. I usually babble something about the importance of choice, and how providing the option of violence adds weight to player choices, and how we strive to show the consequences of violent choices. I say that I’m personally more interested in other forms of gameplay but emotional and story games are unsolved problems and that’s why it’s a really exciting time to be a designer, et cetera.
But come on, folks. We all know that’s bullshit.
After the Sandy Hook shootings, I found some measure of self-serving relief in remembering that I’d never made a game where the player could use a gun. Not ten seconds later I felt that horrible wave of guilt that follows conscious self-delusion. My games may not have guns, but they’ve included beheadings, crotch kicks, defenestrations, and incinerations, all as direct player actions. And of course, someone with the right magic spell could cause as much mayhem as any school shooter5.
I see trailers for interesting games reduce the wide-ranging gameplay to a highlight reel of inventive murders. I walk down the aisles at E3 and see row after row after row of gun porn and roundhouse kicks.
As developers, we like to point out the violence in films, TV, books, Shakespeare, the Bible, etc, hoping that deflection will absolve games. But even the most hopeful among us has to acknowledge the stark disparity in Percentage of Time Devoted to Violent Acts among the different kinds of media. Even in a summer action flick, the amount of time spent punching and shooting things is substantially lower than it is in the video game tie-in for that same summer action flick. (I don’t have any actual numbers here and am going strictly by my own perceptions; if anyone does have hard data, I’d love to see it.)
I still believe that games aren’t the problem. But every time I say that, and every time I hear another developer say that, it sounds a little closer to the rhetoric of the gun lobby insisting that guns are not the problem. I don’t think guns themselves are the problem either. But I don’t think anybody who isn’t lying to themselves DOES know what the problem is, and in the meanwhile, maybe we could just start asking ourselves questions about why we do what we do?
- I’ve had numerous positive, safe experiences with guns. I think responsible gun ownership is not only possible, but likely even the norm. At the same time, I also think there is no reason for a civilian to have access to a gun only designed for killing large numbers of other humans.
- I’ve had wonderful, empowering, memorable experiences with violent acts in video games. I think most people are capable of distinguishing fantasy from reality and not have their virtual actions bleed over into their real lives. At the same time, I have to ask myself why the things we make are so focused on causing harm to other living things.
The answers are predictable: it’s what we know how to simulate; it’s what people will buy; it’s what players want to do. But these are just answers. Answers are easy. Solutions are hard.
1 In my last semester of college, I made a long list of my options for after school, ordered by my preference. The penultimate one was joining the Army (with aspirations of being an intelligence officer), right above moving back home. It was far from something I wanted to do, but I was genuinely open to the possibility.
2 My mom was famously good at disarming her kids during tough discussions. When my oldest brother wouldn’t tone down his language and exhorted someone to “Turn up the fucking volume!” she looked at him and said “You’re smarter than that. Why would you say that? The volume can’t fuck.” He also didn’t have an answer for that3.
4 We are.
5 Oh my, how would you even regulate dangerous magic spells? Imagine someone barging into a Tamriel classroom wielding Flames. At least in our world it’s possible to control firearms, but how would you protect a world where anyone can learn to literally make fire come from their arms?
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