Sunday, June 3, 2012

Violent Video Games: Teaching Kids That Violence is Right?

There's a statement I've seen in many forms, in many places, forwarded by many people. This statement, in it's most basic form, is "Video games teach kids that violence is right." Now, I am 100% biased towards video games (heck, it's the industry that I'll be going into), and not even I can (truthfully) deny that seeing a grotesque death or an act of extreme violence will have some kind of effect on a child. Nor can I deny that seeing something violent will cause a desensitization towards that thing.  Despite this, however, I have problems with the above statements. Three big problems, actually. Here they are, in bold: "Video games teach kids that violence is right." Let me go through them, going from least to most important.

     The first thing is the "right" part. Let me get straight to the point: featuring something doesn't mean you think it's right. Take the 1998 game One Unit Whole Blood. There's more to this game then the strange title. In it you play as Caleb, a former senior member of demon worshiping cabal, which he is now trying to destroy. The game is one of the creepiest and scariest things I've ever played. In it, there are shocking depictions of of horrible, horrible torture, frequent cannibalism (it's implied that Caleb is a cannibal as well, since "health" comes in the form of beating hearts that you presumably eat), demon worship, and despicable, highly immoral acts, both by you and your enemies. Add in a copious amount of blood, from enemies and the random torture pits you'll find in levels, stick it all in a blender, put it on the "90's pixelated graphics" setting, and you get Blood. It's a game with revoltingly strong content. Truth be told, I'm not really a horror person, and as such I've given up on playing this game because it's too scary for me (which is actually too bad, because it's an amazing game from a design perspective). Now with all that said, tell me; how many people who were teens in the late 90's have turned into demon worshiping cannibals who torture people and commit horrid acts of violence and cruelty? Hmmm? Blood doesn't teach the people who play it that it's content is "right." In fact, if anything, it does the exact opposite. The game is full of pop culture references and dark humor. One of the enemies is the severed hand of Bruce Campbell's character in Evil Dead II that says "I'll swallow your soul! I'll swallow your soul!" over and over in a nigh comical voice. Caleb can kick zombies off a train and say "Get off my train!" when he does. The game knows it's over the top, and that shows. This is a very subtle artistic element that helps the player know that, no, the game isn't saying that it's "right." As a player, I was revolted at the horrific things I saw in the game, but I knew that what I was seeing was "wrong," morally, ethically, and in every other way, and the game showed me it knew that too (the dark humor wasn't quite enough to stop me from being too frightened to play it. Those fish monsters...). I would never do anything I saw in that game (as much as I'd like to that I, too, could take down an evil cabal), despite supposedly being taught that the things in it are "right."

     Now, another variation of the statement says "okay" instead of "right," which makes the meaning differ somewhat. When something is "okay," it's not morally/ethically "right," but it's not "wrong" either. I say that this is also wrong. I clearly knew in the case of Blood that those things were outright "wrong." Again, as evidenced by the lack of demon-worshiping, torturous, cannibalistic college students, I'd say that other people knew this too. But what about different games, like, say, Unreal Tournament, which is set in a future where gladiator fights have started again and people fight for corporations. Though you never actually see these things in the game, supposedly the back story is that all the gladiators are fighting (and consequently killing) each other either for money or freedom from prison. But does it teach that those things are "okay?" There isn't really much dark humor to offset it, so is this game actually "sincere" in its message, unlike Blood? Well, the first thing to point out is that many of these games rarely have a "message." I know that's only in there because of my own statement, but since you'll also often hear people say "games message of violence," I thought it okay to include. You see, games (often) have narratives, stories, plotlines, whatever. But, just like a short story or a book, games don't have to have a message. These aren't fables giving kids a moral lesson, they're games. Just like Blood doesn't have a "message" of demon worshiping, Unreal Tournament doesn't have a "message" of gladiator violence. But this is an aside. You can tell just from the fact that the player never sees any money transfers, prisons, or anything along those lines that the game isn't saying these things are okay. The game never even acknowledges them outside the opening cutscene! It isn't saying that they are right or wrong. They're just there.

     On to the second most important thing, the "teaching" part. In the last section, I tried to to focus more on the right and wrong side of things, but perhaps right and wrong have no meaning if they aren't being taught at all. And that's something I really want to stress here. Games don't teach anything. As I said at the end of the last section, they just are. Games just exist. Does Assassin's Creed teach gamers how to assassinate people? Um, someone should try apply what they've "learned" from the game and tell me how well it works out. Does stealing something in the game Thief somehow teach me that stealing is the right thing to do? Not really. It's the objective of the game (aside from sneaking around and just being generally awesome). It's what I do in it. Does the fact that the game includes stealing mean that I'm being taught stealing is right? No, of course not. Humans are smart enough creatures to know that just because they see something happen doesn't mean it's right, or that they'll know how or be able to (psychologically, I mean) do that same thing.

     Something I haven't mentioned up till now is the issue of desensitization. To define it real quickly, basically when something that should bother you (like violence) no longer bothers you or bothers you less, you have been desensitized to it. Now, for all those gamers in denial out there, I'm sorry. Desensitization does exist. Accept it. However, desensitization it hardly the problem it is made out to be. Yes, I have less of an averse reaction to seeing someone get shot. Does that mean I'll go out and shoot someone? No. Does that mean that the millions of other people who play video games with shooting are going to go out and shoot someone? No. Desensitization is not a stimulant. It doesn't make you more inclined to do something. It's the opposite of a stimulant. It reduces your reaction to something. For example, I'm desensitized to swearing and bad language. Its use in media and by High School/College students is so ubiquitous that it'd be impossible to not be desensitized. And yet, I don't swear, not even in anger. Just because it's being done in front of me doesn't mean I'm going to do it too. And furthermore, desensitization is not just present in games. A typical action movie these days has just as much violence as a typical FPS. Heck, it's possible that my own desensitization has been more the result of TV shows than it has games. Tying this back in, though, games may contain objectionable content. They may desensitize us to things. But they don't necessarily encourage or teach us to do those things.

     And the last problem I have with the statement "Video games teach kids that violence is right" is the use of the word "kids." Look, games don't teach that things are or aren't right, nor do they even really teach anything (unless they're education games, in which case it's a non-issue). But even if that weren't the case, even if games did teach things, it still wouldn't be to "kids." Every single game I've mentioned in this post has been rated "M" for mature, i.e. "be 17 years old before you play this game." Interestingly enough, nearly every game known for the controversy its violence has created has been rated "M." Now, I don't know about you, but I don't really see a 17 year old as a "kid." I believe the technical term is "young adult." Before I go any further, though, let me draw a comparison to TV and movies. Anyone remember the show 24? You know, that show where people are consistently tortured, shot, killed, betraying others, and a guy cuts off his own arm? That show? It's rated TV-14. The Dark Knight, that movie where a human gets torched alive, a crazy man tells someone the story of how his own father mutilated his face, people consistently get shot & killed, the hero tortures/interrogates someone, and a person gets a pencil shoved through their head? PG-13. What does the equivalently "T" rated (13+ years old) Call of Duty (the original) have in it? Shooting and killing, and little bit of swearing. No, no torture. How old do you have to be to play Deus Ex, a game where you save the world? 17. Now, I'm not disagreeing with any of these ratings, or saying that game ratings are unfair. But I find it interesting that game ratings are actually much more strict that movie or TV ratings. Of course, I'm also not saying that objectionable content in games is okay because it exists in other media forms, but I find it somewhat laughable that video games are singled out for their objectionable content when significantly worse things are being shown in movies that actual kids - not 17 year olds, but 13 year olds - can watch and they get a pass. It's media in general, not just video games.

Baccano! How on earth did YOU get in here?!
     Now, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that champion of recent video game controversy, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. I hate this game's guts. But I can't help but have this reaction whenever I hear people complaining about how objectionable it is because of the infamous airport mission:

For one, the game tells you that you should skip that level (and gives you the option to) if you're uncomfortable with that kind of stuff, but that's not why I facepalm at people complaining about it. People say that kids shouldn't be exposed to that. You know what? I agree. And so does the ESRB. That's why:

     This is not a game made for "kids." It's made for people 17 years old and up. Nearly college students. If a kid is playing this game, they aren't supposed to be. So all I ask is that you don't blame the game. Forget comparing it to arguably much more disturbing movies that are legally available to 13 year olds, forget whether or not this game "teaches" that you should kill civilians (it doesn't), forget whether or not kids ignore the rating and play it anyways. Don't blame the game, don't blame video games in general, for people using them when they shouldn't be. It's not games that are at fault, it's the people who ignore the guidelines. And yes, there are kids who are exceptions to the rule and are mature enough to play these games, but they're the exceptions, not the rule.

Say no, kids.
     And that's why I hate the statement "Video games teach kids that violence is right." They aren't teaching, they aren't saying anything is right, and the actually objectionable content is certainly not aimed at kids. So don't blame games.

     What do you think? Is violence in games unacceptable? And if so, why is it okay in movies (or do you just think that it shouldn't be in any media)? Do you have a different reason for disliking violence in video games than the reasons in the statement? Or do you agree with me? Sound off in the comments!


  1. You know, I once read about a scientific study that said that violent video games were actually helpful brain development...can't quite remember the argument. But I would say neither side is particularly credible, so who cares?

    Also, with the airport scene from COD, people will always find that sort of thing in video games...I remember some sort of complaint for animal cruelty in Skyrim or something. I just ignore it.

    1. That sounds like an interesting (albeit not particularly convincing) read...I'll have to keep an eye out.

      Yeah, I just used it since it's probably one of the better known controversies to people on both sides of the issue. Wait, really? Animal cruelty in Skyrim? That sounds like an amazing (in a number of ways) argument!

  2. Oh yes. That sounds like a good argument to me. Really, it's like you said: Movies aren't any better. Sometimes I feel that they are even worse. Because it happens in ''reality''. I know that movies aren't real, nor are the things that happen in them (most of the time), but still. I see a REAL, living person being burned alive, i'd say it is way worse than seeing someone burning in a video game. I know that it is just data and numbers...and who knows what else? I know it isn't something real or alive. Does that mean I should disregard that the ''thing'' feels ''pain''? No, I probably shouldn't. But atleast I know that it isn't ''real''....might sound like a really stupid argument, but there you have it. I just feel that movies go over the top too, if not even more often. Yet no one complains about it. But then again, I think I can understand their thinking: It's a movie, therefore you have no ''choice'' but to see what's happening. In a game, you can decide whether or not too shoot a person. When they do, some people feel it's against their morals and throws a tantrum. I guess that's how they think. But then again, what are the movie producers then? The actors? Since they commit these horrible acts on the scene and so on, shouldn't they get blamed for ''teaching kids that violence is right''? I think i'll stop there. Homework to do. Sincerely EvilMegaCookie

    1. Not a stupid argument at all! That's very true. While there's a connection between the player and the actions in the game, movies/TV shows have a connection between the actions and *reality,* which is arguably much more objectionable. I think people have given up trying to control what's put in movies, since it's sort of a lost cause. I mean, really, does anyone think that Hollywood is really going to give up their violent action movies? But when it comes to games, it's not such a lost cause, so people are still trying to fight against the rise of violence there.

      As I said in the post, it just feels kind of wrong that games are getting singled out. It's a problem (or not a problem, depending on what side you're on) present in ALL forms of media. I mean, like I said I don't think that just because there are MORE violent things out there that it's okay to have violence in video games, but it's just kind of ridiculous for *only* games to be targeted.

      Thanks for the discussion and great comment!

  3. I think games get singled out for only two reasons. The first is all those people who probably have genuine mental disorders who go out and kill someone and tell the press that they got the idea from [insert popular video game], which leads people to assume that it was the game's fault instead of the fact that the person has severe mental problems. The second is that there's a certain group of people that doesn't know anything about them. When I was a kid, my mother never questioned any game I asked her to buy for me. She didn't play games, so she didn't know about the ratings and probably never even imagined that there could be content like that in them. I would just tell her "I want this game" and she would make her decision without even the tiniest glance at the cover.

    It is certainly true that video game ratings are way more strict than anything else, though. That's why you get such heavy censorship issues even in games like Xenosaga Episode III (they apparently had to remove all of the blood from the game just to get a T rating in North America... and there wasn't that much blood to remove to begin with). Meanwhile you have books. Wow, books.

    You might get some content advisories in comics, manga and the like, but for typical novels there is nothing to warn you when you are buying smut, something full of unnecessarily descriptive violence, or when you're buying Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita (with all the fuss about underaged, fictional characters being put into sexual situations or just being sexualised these days I'm really surprised that nobody ever talks about this book anymore).

    Also, I gotta say, I'm pretty impressed there's a game out there that deliberately warns people about the content in a single stage (and allows you to skip it). I never see books telling me that maybe there's rape or something in them. I thought we were supposed to warn for this stuff for people who can't handle it, and for people who might have trauma related to situations like that. Books are so lucky. They get away with just about anything, while video games struggle to get away with far less (and still don't get away unscathed, what with that awful reputation). And you can't just handwave this as being different because books don't have actual images of these things; they have descriptions and the average person will visualise what they're reading. There's no difference.

    Getting off the point, though. People do not just absorb everything they see and experience without any categorisation. And if their categories are faulty, it's probably because of an underlying mental problem or, more likely, because their parents aren't bothering to teach them the difference between right and wrong, and reality and fantasy. And I'm speaking as someone who's been playing M-rated games and watching movies for much more "mature" audiences since my age was still in the single digits. And honestly, I don't think killing in video games will ever be the same as killing in real life. There will always be that difference that will prevent me from even dreaming of doing to real people what I enjoy doing in video games. I'm sure it's the same for most people.

    1. There have definitely been some cases of people "blaming" games for their own or for others' actions. Like you, I've always felt like it has much more to do with the individual. As for the second group...I know they exist, but I've never seen them myself. :) (My parents were pretty darn strict about what games I could play, up to a certain point in my life.) I feel like these people (the ones who don't really know anything about games) don't cause any issues, so long as they aren't riled up. When someone starts talking about the "evils" of games or something like that and addresses the people who don't know anything about them, skewed perceptions start dominating uninformed masses. The same idea has held true for a lot more things then just games. I guess that was actually what you were trying to say, so...

      That was actually something that I hadn't quite realized until I wrote this post. It was very surprising to me that games had more strict ratings than most other media forms.

      Ah, books. You know, I've always been surprised that there's no ratings system for books. I feel like the biggest reason it gets a pass is that it's widely considered to be an "art form." (Lolita, for example, is considered by many to be one of the greatest books of all time.) I feel like that's the biggest misconception about video games. While books and even filmed works are widely considered to be "art forms," video games are not. And I personally feel that they are. When something is considered "art," then I feel like it usually gets restricted less.

      As much as I hate Modern Warfare 2, I have to admit that it actually did a lot to promote user safety (at least in single player mode). Of course, I feel like this was more so that they'd be able to sell it to as many people as possible without offending them than it was actually caring about the players, but that's just me. I would definitely agree with you on that last point. A good writer can do wonders with words, and can certainly provoke a mental image. I'm not sure I'd say there's *no* difference, but books can't be written off (pun intended) just because you aren't seeing the "actual" image.

      Not at all! Though this isn't a comparison of art forms, discussing them and how they relate is certainly not *off* topic, and makes for some wonderful discussion.
      This is true. People have the ability to differentiate between what's a game and what's not. I don't really want to talk about parents being lazy or anything (which I understand is not necessarily what you're saying). It's a really hard job, and parents already do a lot for their kids. But I've always kind of thought that the best way to solve this "issue" is for parents to be more involved in what games their kids play. That's certainly easier than trying to change laws on games' availability. I would also agree that it's not the same. Perhaps if every enemy in a game that you kill was like a real human being, then it'd be a problem. But it's not. They're either characters, or a series of numbers that looks vaguely human. There's a real difference between the two, and like you I'm pretty sure that most everybody else feels the same.

      Thanks for the great discussion and awesome comment, Sandra!

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