Won’t somebody please think of the children?
As a teacher, I’m often expected to be some kind of moral compass. Occasionally people are horrified when they find out I play games. Even worse, that I enjoy games. For those who don’t play, games are apparently seen through the eyes of the Daily Mail: ‘murder simulators’ or at the very least ‘ultra-violent’. It’s not hard to see why I suppose, the games that get the most media coverage, other than Fifa, are games like Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Grand Theft Auto. All of those games contain their fair share of violence as a central feature. This seems at odds with the wholesome education I am providing for children. Surely if I play murder simulators in my spare time, I must be a fairly evil person. I can’t imagine Gandhi ever sat down for a spot of murder simulation with his friends, and I’m almost certain Jesus objected to ultra-violence.
During a discussion with a colleague while on a trip to see war graves in Belgium I tried defending my hobby by claiming I didn’t really enjoy the violence, that it was part of the drama. Early Call of Duty games left you with chilling quotes when you died, and protrayed real battles and situations. “They were educational!” I claimed, remembering nearly all of my knowledge of World War Two comes from a mixture of Call of Duty and Band of Brothers. I’m glad on a cold night in Europe Damian Lewis protected us from hordes of Nazi Zombies, or something like that. But try as I might to defend the necessity of violence in these games, the way it recreated adventurous play that has been part of our childhoods for centuries, the way it paid tribute to the real soldiers and their bravery, the way it alerted us to the horror or conflict, I realised I was digging myself into a trench-shaped hole. I had to agree that the eleven year-olds who play the games probably don’t consider the ethical implications of killing your fellow men. They probably don’t stop to consider the emotional and financial costs of a dubious war in a far flung corner of the world on the ambiguous grounds of ‘preventing terrorism’. They like to watch people’s heads explodes. I didn’t tell my colleague this, but secretly I do too.
It feels like a guilty pleasure. In World at War (a Treyarch Call of Duty game) you could shoot soldiers’ arms off. I didn’t find this horrific, I found it hilarious. At some point, in the real war, that probably happened, a real man, or boy, probably got his arm shot clean off. I wouldn’t find that funny, it’s tragic, but in the context of the game it is brilliant. Me and Le Petit Dodo would stand on explosives and see what happened to our poor avatars in the game. The more I think about it, the more nights of hideous sadism I can remember. Getting run over in GTA IV, Tying a woman to train tracks after kidnapping her in Red Dead Redemption for an echievement, ploughing through civilians in Prototype 2 while reviewing it. All of these things were fun, and yet I don’t consider myself a psychopath, and hopefully others don’t either. So what’s going on here?
I think to begin with, we have to remember why there are so many violent games. In Spencer Halpin’s 2007 documentary ‘Mortal Kombat’ it was claimed that the killing in video-games is all related to early programming restrictions. It was easier to delete enemies in order to progress. Memory wise it made sense to have less things on the screen as you went on, it was just simpler to do. Space Invaders almost invented the difficulty curve because as you ‘deleted’ enemies, the game ran faster, increasing the speed of the enemies and therefore the difficulty. This was unintentional, but led to a trend in games that persists even today. However I don’t agree that this is the only reason we have so many violent games. Games by their nature are adversarial; think back to tag, or noughts and crosses, or chess, or Risk, or checkers. Competitions require someone to win and that involves defeating someone else. Representing that in any kind of abstract form requires a symbol of victory. You could have more points than the opponent, as is the case in sports or driving games, or you can remove your opponent from the game.
As far as I’m concerned, the reason games are attractive as past-times is entirely based on the sense of achievement you get from progress or victory. Victory or progress in real life is often slow or difficult to judge. You can join a sports team but then you only play once or twice a week and there is a lot of effort involved in getting to the point where you could win. In a video game I can ‘win’ many times in many different arenas in a single evening. As far as I’m concerned a game of Halo is as pointless as a game of football, the only difference is that a game of Halo is easier to take part in and less physically demanding. So games have evolved as trying to let us win, give us opportunities to defeat enemies. This leads to violence, as how else are you going to remove enemies, other than erasing them?
So why do we enjoy the violence, rather than be horrified by it? I think that comes down to the processes that are involved when you are playing a game. If I play a game where the only point is to inflict horrible acts of cruelty, I won’t enjoy it. At times games do come along where this seems to be the purpose and they rarely get good review scores. No, the games that do well are games where violence is put into a context of winning. In Call of Duty, used as it is by far the best known violent game around at the moment, you are trying to get more points than the other team. You do this by shooting them but that fact is quickly forgotten. Any gamer who plays regularly will know what it is like to get in ‘the zone’. You don’t think about dying or guns or wars, you think about Kill: Death ratios and respawn times. If you die it isn’t painful, it’s an annoyance as it messes up your statistics, your score, and means you have to wait to respawn. When you shoot an enemy you aren’t hoping to inflict pain, you are happy that your score counter has gone up by however many points.
In this context, when you are fixated on the numbers behind the game, the pure competetive aspect of it, you start finding distractions funny. It makes everything very unreal so when I do see a soldiers’ arms blown off it is hilarious because people are bags of meat and that is funny in an abstract way. By removing the ability to identify the soldiers with the idea of people, you can laugh at the funny aspects of morality that would normally be horrifying. Even in non-multiplayer focused games like Saints Row or GTA, the ‘epople’ are just tokens or part of the setting. If you kill them you might get money or experience, or it might clear a path. You do not identify with them as people and therefore things that happen to them are happening to funny shaped bags of meat and blood, not people with feelings and relationships.
If you don’t believe me, play Heavy Rain. In the game each and every person (with the exception of one stupid mansion scene which we will ignore for the purpose of this article) you interact with is a person, and a well developed one. In one particular scene you might kill one of them, and it is horrific. I defy anyone to actually enjoy that, everyone I have spoken to, even the most arden CoD and GTA players, were mortified by what they had just done. That person wasn’t a number, he was a human, and you had just murdered him.
Games don’t always get this right, lots of games do glorify killing, and in lots of games it is mindless and horrific, but in a boring way. I believe games are as much of a valid medium as books or TV or film or paintings or dance or music, and as with all of those, you get some really terrible ones. But these terriblly violent games aren’t going to make your child into a killer. I suppose if your child is already a psychopath, the games may let them dwell on their fantasies, but they are not going to start getting children to think of real people as meatbags unless you start assigning points to the people in your neighbourhood. Contrary to what seems to be popular belief, there has been a lot of research done by professional bodies and whilst they have found some links between violent games and real-life violence, it has consistently been that playing violent videogames actually decreases the likelihood of engaging in real-life violence.
So in conclusion games are violent because we enjoy defeating people. But the difference between videogame violence and real-world cruelty is so vast and distinct, you might as well accuse Chess of encouraging regicide.