Image courtesy of the Newseum.

Video games are largely misunderstood and vilified because of their strangeness. In a string of senseless massacres, games are used as a scapegoat for greater problems. But why?

The video game violence debate, at this point, appears endless. One constant stream of nonsensical babbling that veers into ridiculousness, it is a restless and vibrant debate when there is no argument to be had. US Senator after Senator proposes legislation restricting or calling for a ban on video games and their violence levels when in fact video games share no part in the awful tragedies in Colorado, Arizona, Connecticut, and so on. What most government types refuse to believe is that violent games, especially ultraviolent games, marketed to and meant for adults, not kids, did not cause these massacres. It is the presence of something far more disturbing and far less understandable: mental illness, in some form.

Most adults can process and distinguish pixelated violence just as is and nothing more. They can separate the barrier of virtual reality and actual reality and therefore not become sadistic maniacs. The shooters of these horrendous crimes could not fathom that disconnect of atmospheres. They understand the perfectly squared maps of Call of Duty as living and breathing. The expanses in Battlefield as real battlegrounds. Sensible players know realism in first-person shooters only reaches certain levels and never do those two franchises ever come close to simulating real warfare. Generally, games could never achieve that sort of simulation; too many variables hold the medium back, especially now. Not impossible but largely implausible.

Government, in a sense, works the same way: by glossing over tangible issues like a gun registry, background checks (to prevent criminals and those with mental illness from owning a firearm), etc., it scapegoats video games because it needs to blame. Video games are the virtual reality government wishes to easily name while the actual reality is a mess of politics, insufficient health care and gun policy. The tragedies are a systematic failure and a problem that needs fixing, in governmental eyes, and regulating video games is one supposed answer. To be fair, several bills or regulations are currently in congress, like an assault weapons ban and a lower magazine size for high-powered rifles. But history shows bills of this nature rarely pass or get repealed within a decade; i.e. the 1994 assault weapons ban, signed into law by President Clinton but struck down in 2004 by President Bush.

Hostility against video gaming is not new. The concept dates back to before Mortal Kombat. In those days the medium was still blossoming into a form of entertainment, and misunderstood by the vast majority in society. And to this day, still, video gaming rests on a xenophobic pedestal. Worth $100 billion, employing countless thousands of people and even prominently withstanding a massive recession, the industry is culturally significant and culturally insignificant at the same time. It is strange and foreign and alien. Games are “toys” made for children, even if menacing soldiers flash on the box. Parents use games as babysitting tools because they are too tired or too irresponsible to watch over what their kids consume.

But there is open hostility and there is misunderstanding. The human race is inherently afraid of the unknown, and we as a species lash out against things we do not understand. Exactly the same thing happened when rock music began polluting the airwaves, TV became a household staple and when hippies gathered in Central Park to protest the Vietnam War. Our brains do not account for varying perspectives: the future of that thing, the cultural and social impact, etc. Games exist in that strange transitionary period. People refuse to see beyond sensationalistic media coverage and experience the legacies of Nintendo’s famous cast of characters, Pokemon, Jak and Daxter, LittleBigPlanet and Master Chief just to name a few.

This microcosm of obscurity is thankfully only temporary. Games are becoming important, and with this next generation of consoles we should see perhaps the highest levels of interest ever. From that comes understanding and an eventuality of the medium not being crucified wrongly for whatever reason. Even many discussions inside the industry warrant the prospect of change. From the misrepresentation of women in studios and executive jobs to a growing self-awareness of these issues, the industry is on the precipice of radical change.

Most interesting is how government, society and media respond to this change, which will not be immediate. Slowly but surely, over five or ten years, if these massacres sadly continue, I hope people and media glance at the perimeters more sensibly.

To the readers: Are games largely misunderstood, and could media and government ever look at games not as sensationally?

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  • MagicMint

    I think the counter rhetoric being used, specifically the argument that the deeper problem is “Mental Illness” is equally problematic as blaming Video Games. “Mental Illness” is becoming “vilified” as well in these arguments, and, to be honest, the social effects of villafying Mental Ilness is much more dangerous. In this debate, we must consider the effects of stigmatizationg of certain groups of people: both the gamer culture and people with mental illnesses. That being said, I believe the problem with violence and gun violence has to do with deeper morale fibers….

    • Matt S

      Your comments are always so eloquent and well-reasoned. Are you some kind of academic by any chance? :-)

  • MagicMint

    If we consider, for a moment, that video games are a production of our culture, and that so is any media, art and discourse, we can see a correlation between the product and the culture it was produced in. Perhaps the real issue is the collective mental state of our culture. In Western Culture, common enemies are quickly demonized, dehumanized and so on, and our discourse is always us vs them. It’s always a “A war on [drugs, terrorism, communism, etc]“

  • Matt S

    I still maintain that while games might not directly influence behaviour, they allow for emotional responses sufficient to inspire behaviour.

    People profess to crying while playing journey. Other people are genuinely moved by Papo and Yo. I found Ni No Kuni powerfully nostalgic for a childhood of growing up with Tottoro and Princess Mononoke.

    If we are to suggest that games are capable of hitting people’s emotions in positive or fulfilling ways, it becomes impossible to claim that games can’t generate negative emotions or aggression.

    Sorry, but the industry can’t have its cake and eat it too. It is either a major artistic medium in modern society – for both good and ill, or it is a provider of worthless form of throwaway entertainment that might not get kids buying guns, but it sure as heck is utterly tasteless for throwaway entertainment.

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