Violence in Games and it’s (lack of) effect on players

I’m kicking myself for not saving the article, but every time I think of it, it makes me want to drop in out of the ceiling an Air Assassinate someone want to calmly sit down with uptight anti-video game nuts like Jack Thompson and put 6 rounds perfectly through his head with my full Dead Eye meter explain to him that video games don’t actually promote violence in children but the business-end of my Masamune does.

The popular argument is that viewing violent acts (like in movies or on TV) or worse, participating in “mass-murder simulators” (code-speak for video games, which suddenly makes Sesame Street: Cookie’s Counting Carnival sound like the next installment of Grand Theft Auto) leads to people emulating that behavior in real life.

Hide yo kids, hide yo wife

These crusaders take up tragedies like Columbine and tout that if it weren’t for video games, it never would have happened. For years, the rumor has remained in circulation that the shooters at Columbine had created a replica of the school in Doom, and used it for ‘practice’. This is, of course, not true at all, but people always try to search for meaning in meaningless acts. Nobody wants to think that a kid who goes on a shooting rampage at school had less than a happy life, because nobody wants to think that kids lead unhappy lives. They want to find something to blame, something that could take what appeared to everyone to be a normal child, and turn them into a monster.

Many years ago, that prime target was fiction novels. After that, it was movies. After that, it was television. Now, it’s video games.

People fear the things that they don’t understand, and in many parents’ cases, the things they don’t understand are ‘everything the kids are doing these days’. My own grandmother barely understands Facebook and longs for the days of typewriters, so any technology from about 1989 onward scares her. Every time I take out my cell around her, she asks ‘What’s that now?!’ as if I’m going to stick it in her face and ask what the combination to the bank vault is. Every text I send, she wants to know what I’m saying, because if she doesn’t know, I could be texting the nuclear launch codes to my Jihadist accomplices right under her nose. And when I tell her that I only texted ‘Sure’ or ‘XDDDD’, she rolls her eyes and asks why I would bother texting that. I love my grandma, though, so I don’t have the heart to quip back ‘Why would you bother asking?’

When I visited her for Christmas, I dreaded her looking in my bag of prezzies from the mall, since I’d just picked up my copy of Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood. Granted, the cover is fairly innocuous, and though my grandma is ignorant to the ways of modern gaming, she’s not a moron; she knows what an assassin is.

The least violent image from Assassin's Creed ever. And it's only not violent as long as you don't know that Ezio is about to kill every other person on that cover

My grandma is exactly the sort of person who would think that video games cause violence, if anyone ever told her that they did. She believes those e-mail forwards about how you have to send it to 5 people or else you won’t get your check from Bill Gates and AOL for helping them gauge e-mail traffic. She thinks this because she doesn’t understand them. She is the sort of person who would accept violence in movies or on TV because ‘that’s passive entertainment’, whereas in video games, the player is ‘actively participating’.

And now we come to the point where I’m kicking myself. Countless articles have been written about violent video games, and one in particular that stands out in my memory regards a man who said that after playing Grand Theft Auto for just one hour, he found that his response to seeing a cop car had become ‘run away’. His analysis of his experience of ‘Play GTA -> get in car -> see cop -> want to run’ was that he was being subliminally programmed by the game to act the way he had played the game (which in his case, probably involved a lot of driving on the right side of the road, waiting at traffic lights, and wondering which button controlled the turn signals).

I thought his statement was ridiculous for a number of reasons. I’d argue that after smoking marijuana, robbing a bank, picking up a hooker or driving over the speed limit without a license for just one hour, your response to seeing a cop would become ‘run away’, too. I mean, even after going through a whole life’s worth of perfectly legal activity, I still find myself wary of cops, even though I’ve got numerous friends and acquaintances on the force. It’s like how people who are afraid of clowns aren’t afraid of clowns who aren’t in make-up.

 

Quick! Which one is more terrifying?

However, I found myself having a similar experience just this year. I’d been playing Red Dead Redemption for quite some time (read: it’s what I’d been doing for the last three and a half weeks prior), and part of what you have to do in that game is shoot basically anything that surprised you by moving. I realized I was hungry, so I set the controller down and headed for the pub. Not ten steps out from Jordan, I noticed something move out of the corner of my eye. I went through the exact same set of responses I had when playing the game, the same sudden jolt of adrenaline. I then realized it was just a squirrel.

The next time I saw a squirrel on campus, however (probably within the same trip on the way to the pub), I didn’t have that reaction. I just continued onward like I normally do, and have not had that reaction to a squirrel since. However, it allowed me to understand what Forced Anonymous Article Writer meant when he said he felt like he was being influenced.

But I still think he was being stupid, even after having an almost identical experience. For one, there is a vast difference between playing a digital game and doing anything in real life that isn’t pressing a button over and over again. My reaction to the squirrel did not involve me going through the motions of reaching for my Winchester repeater for massive overkill. As someone who has actually fired a gun, I can assure you that ‘press L2 to target’ is nothing like ‘pick up the gun, look down the barrel and pull the trigger’. For one, the real world has no auto-target. Two, a real gun the size of John Marston’s Winchester would be heavy, loud as all hell and would kick like a mule, which are three descriptors I have never applied to an experience with a game controller. Three, my initial reaction was not actually ‘Kill whatever that thing is!’, it was ‘Quick! Something’s there!’. I think FAAW misjudged his reaction to seeing the cops after playing GTA. I don’t think his reaction was actually ‘Put your foot on the skinny pedal on the right and press that baby to the floor!’, it was probably the same ‘Quick! Something’s there!’ reaction I had.

Video games do condition you, in a sense, but not to carry out violence. They condition you to see things you wouldn’t normally be looking for. My reaction to notice small movements was fine-tuned by the time I was mauled by the third or fourth mountain lion in Red Dead Redemption, and I carried that sense over to the real world. His reaction to notice black-and-white cars with disco lights on top was probably fine-tuned after the very first time he obediently pulled over for the cops in GTA and was promptly dragged from the car and beaten Rodney King-style. Video games punish you for not seeing things, and once you leave the game world, you will continue to see the things the game asked you to see.

 

Although in the grand scheme of things, you probably won't see a Zombie Bear very often in real life.

For example, if I take someone into a classroom with the math problem 1+1=? on the board, and they answer 2, and I smack them and say the answer is 1+1=10, then proceed to teach them about binary, then they’ve learned a new system. I could keep them at binary problems for hours, until they’ve gotten as used to performing calculations in binary as they are used to using decimal. Then, once I let them out of the classroom, and they see a problem like ’10+10=?’, their initial reaction may be to say ’10+10=100′, because I’ve been asking them to see binary equations for so long. Once their brain catches up to itself, however, they’ll realize that in the real world, we use decimal, and they will answer ’20’, just as they should. However, if they answer ‘100’ and are told they’re wrong, I can almost guarantee that their reaction will not be to attempt a Hadouken.

I can understand why people might think that playing violent games causes violent behavior. After all, if someone is trained in using martial arts to defend themselves, they’re going to use martial arts the next time someone comes at them with a knife. Or if they have anger management problems, and their therapist suggests ‘venting’ (i.e. hitting a pillow, screaming, etc.), then the next time they actually ARE angry, they are much more likely to carry out the action associated with their venting (i.e. hitting something that is less of a pillow and more of a face). However, the actions associated with carrying out violence in a video game are completely different from the actions associated with carrying out violence in real life. Pressing a button is in no way similar to performing a kick, and reloading a gun is in no way similar to ‘shoot offscreen to reload’. In that sense, playing a video game is no more ‘actively participating’ in a violent act than a director working on filming an action sequence is ‘actively participating’.

 

For further viewing pleasure, I recommend the Penn & Teller’s Bullshit! episode on video game violence. However, it’s only fair to warn that Penn swears just as much as Teller doesn’t talk. So watching this video with the volume on full blast over Spring Break while you’re visiting Great Grandma’s house probably isn’t the best idea. My commentary on this video would be a whole other post’s worth of jibber jabber, so I’ll leave my final comment at ‘I agree’.

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