Why Aren’t We Discussing Videogame Violence?

Everyone? We need to talk.

I didn’t feel right playing Far Cry 3 the day after the awful, disgusting, utterly tragic shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. I didn’t at all.

I think that says something. I know that says something. But what? That’s the important question, and I’m disheartened to see that very few people are discussing it.

But I know why we’re not discussing it. That’s the easy part. It’s because that’s the sort of thing the enemy talks about. “Videogames cause violence,” they hoot and holler, pitchforks aloft atop their dusty dinosaur steeds. “The medium just belches out puerile filth that teaches our children how to kill. All games should be banned forever. Period end.”

The most recent last straw in a string of straws that have broken the camel’s back a million times over came when the US’ National Rifle Association primarily blamed violent media – games, Hollywood, etc (but especially Bulletstorm and 1989 beat-’em-up Splatterhouse for some reason) – for the recent school shootings. To say that the NRA’s stance was rooted in horrifyingly willful ignorance is the understatement of the century, but the fact is, they said it. On a national stage. And the NRA has some pretty serious lobbying power to boot. So what happened next? The same thing that always happens: everyone got super pissed off.

The NRA has quite an affinity for fireworks, and boy did it ever get them. And honestly, it deserved them. It deserved to be publicly denounced by longtime supporters and verbally tarred and feathered for what was frankly a disgusting, opportunistic display in light of such a terrible tragedy. But suddenly, the attention was on them and how completely, incontrovertibly wrong they were. Because that’s what always happens: opponents of the gaming industry fly off the handle and end up in Cuckoo Land on the goddamn moon. Whether it was politicians denouncing Mortal Kombat back in the day, Jack Thompson a few years ago, or the NRA now, there’s rarely any logic or reason backing their claims. Just loud, knee-jerking agendas and spittle-soaked shouting. They may go on and on and on about how they despise games and all they stand for, but their favorite game of all time is clear as day: the blame game.

So naturally, we take up our tower shields and defend gaming’s honor. I mean, I know I do. I love this medium. It’s provided some of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had in my entire life. Of course I’m going to speak up when it can’t speak for itself. Unfortunately, in this scenario, there’s rarely room for compromise. If gaming’s detractors say one thing, we say the opposite. Gaming causes violence? No. There is absolutely no problem with the fact that most big-budget games spill enough blood to make the Red Sea’s name literal. None whatsoever.

But can we just drop the fever-pitch finger-pointing and be honest with ourselves for a second? Forget the nutty politicians. Forget the “studies” that have been tailored to say whatever people want them to say. Just breathe, count to ten, and look inward. We take tremendous joy in virtual violence. We squeal with glee when life-giving liquid squirts out of men’s necks. Does that cause violence? Probably not. I don’t have any concrete reason to believe so, anyway. But it gives violence an active, constant role in our day-to-day lives. We can’t just ignore that. We shouldn’t ignore that. It’d be outright irresponsible to do so.

And really, that’s what this comes down to: responsibility – whether you’re a game-maker or a simply a player. Again, I don’t think gaming causes violence, but it would be impossible for frequent immersion in violent scenarios – fictional or not – to not have some kind of effect on us. We’re humans. We’re molded by our environment. Between games and movies and TV and commercials and billboards and everything else, Western (and especially American) culture treats violence like it’s perfectly normal. It’s just… there. All the time. For me personally, there’s still certainly a line between fiction and fact (I could hardly even move after I heard about the shootings in Newtown; I just sort of stared at a wall for a while), but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t affected people in other ways.

What I’m suggesting, then, is that it’s up to us to be aware. Examine yourself. Understand the effect – if any – that violence has had on you and those you care about. Don’t let your judgement be clouded by the fact that dumb people believe games to be the new rock ‘n’ roll comic book devil as heralded by literate people who – gasp – weren’t landed gentry. That’s not the point, and this certainly isn’t conceding defeat or anything like that. But gaming’s still a young medium. Heck, the modern world’s still young as, well, a thing that exists. It may move at a million miles per hour, but that’s no reason to avoid slowing down and taking the time to understand it.

This is something the industry stands to benefit hugely from, too. For one, big-budget gaming’s in a thematic gutter. Relentless manshooting gives even the best creators a pretty limited pallet to work with, so we just see the same strokes over and over again. Lo and behold, things finally get interesting when games examine themselves in a truly critical light (see: Spec Ops, etc) or do something new entirely. This is important. This is healthy. This is how an art form grows.

But also, knowing violence’s place in gaming and what it really does to us can help us turn these sudden outbursts against the industry from wars of words into semi-level-headed discussions. Yes, the tide of public perception is turning in gaming’s favor, but organizations like the NRA still have a lot of pull. And who knows? Maybe they’re too far gone. Maybe we can’t convince them of anything, and they’ll cut a swathe through portions of civilized society in some horrible, backward way. But it’d be utterly – and here’s that word again – irresponsible of us not to try. Reasoning with people (especially fundamentally unreasonable ones) doesn’t always work, but it’s incredibly depressing how often people opt to skip that step altogether.

But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. And that’s why I’m going to start at square one. Within the next couple of days, I’ll be publishing a followup piece to this one in which I’ll take a very close look at the places where games and violence have intersected with my life. From blissful, naive childhood all the way up to right now. Sure, the whole exercise will be inherently biased, but is there any other way to do it? And if I end up being completely full of shit, please – by all means – tell me. I want to start a discussion. Whether that means you end up contributing your own anecdotes, tearing mine to shreds, or doing something else entirely, that’s great! Regardless, I think it’s high-time we talk about this topic in an open, frank manner. So, right then. Pause your games of Far Cry 3. Let’s get to it.

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