An ‘Actual’ Post

I keep waiting for the furor around the supposed link between violence and videogames to dissipate, like most of our society’s other bizarre fantasies and fads, but for some reason, this one seems to be clinging more tenaciously than most. It’s not that I expect everyone to come to the sudden realization that games are not responsible for mass shootings, but, rather, that I expect the media and public figures to stop talking about it – thus allowing it to slip back into the subconscious of the nation.

But it isn’t. Instead, senators who have never in their lives played a game – or, in some cases, probably even sent an email without an assistant doing the typing and sending – continue to speak out publicly about how videogames are dangerous to society. Today, Kotaku posted a story whose title struck me as both sad and funny: “Video Games Are ‘A Bigger Problem Than Guns,’ Says Actual U.S. Senator.”

The title, in particular, makes me think that Kotaku’s writing staff is just as surprised as I am that people are still harping on this topic. The fact that the title contains the word “Actual” says a couple things to me. First, that Kotaku’s Jason Schreier is getting annoyed at the ignorance being displayed by the people discussing this issue. Second, that up until this point, Schreier had some small modicum of respect left for the US Senate. And that’s really where this story becomes sad.

As a nation, we look to the US Senate, the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court, and the Executive Branch to make reasonable, logical decisions about our laws for the good of the nation. And when members of those esteemed bodies start behaving like idiots, they undermine not only our opinions of them personally, but of the entirety of the institution.Schreier says, “Once again, this is an actual U.S. senator. An actual senator from the United States. That was elected to an office. This is a person who has a significant amount of power in this country, and he believes that video games are a bigger problem than guns.”

In this case, it’s bad enough that Joe Biden is “playing along” (pun intended) with calls from the NRA to investigate the ostensible link between violence and videogames (because I’ve killed SO many actual people with an Xbox controller… as opposed to an actual firearm…). But at least he’s willing to forestall his conclusions, saying that he wants to find out the facts first. Sure, the implication is that the entertainment/videogame industry are concealing those facts, but at least he’s willing to talk about facts instead of scaremongering… if we put aside the fact (as Schreier points out) that there are twenty-five years of facts already.

But Lamar Alexander is a completely different story. Alexander claims that videogames are… sorry, “video games is a bigger problem than guns, because video games affect people.”

I don’t even… First, “games” is a plural, not a singular, and my not-so-inner grammarian is having fits because a US Senator apparently can’t use proper verb forms. But more importantly, videogames are not problematic because they “affect people.” Yes, videogames “affect people.” So do novels, films, television shows, radio programs, and public speeches. So does art. In fact, art is designed to “affect people.” So are videogames. And they’re designed to “affect people” because they are a commentary on and product of the society out of which they arise. They demonstrate and seek to “affect” our value systems and our understandings of ourselves and others. And at their best, they want to “affect” us to become better people, a stronger society, a more cohesive and yet diverse community. At their worst, they are entertainment – color and sound on a screen that responds to the press of a button or key that temporarily makes us feel happy or sad, frustration or fiero.

Guns “affect people,” too. With bullets that move at speeds around 1,400 feet per second and with the capacity (in a small handgun) to cause internal bleeding, cardiac arrest, extreme pain, and death. They can be used to protect our lives and those of our loved ones, our nations, and our ideologies, yes, but they can also be used to steal our wallets, our dignity, our innocence, and our lives.

Tell me, senator, do you really think that games “affect” those who play them more than guns “affect” the people who are shot by them?

Speaking from Ignorance

Something interesting about the recent outcry against violent videogames is the fact that – as pointed out in Edward Castronova’s Exodus to the Virtual World, and by any number of game journalists, scholars, and developers, including Kotaku’s Stephen Totillo – the people speaking out most strongly against them don’t play videogames. They’ve maybe watched an hour or two of someone else playing the game and taken that experience as symptomatic of what they believe must cause violent behaviors. My personal favorite came from Ralph Nader’s response to Obama’s inaugural address, reported on Gameranx: that videogames are functionally “electronic child molesters.”

Aside from Nader, who is clearly unclear on the definitions of either “videogames” or “child molester,” I – sort of – understand where they might be coming from. I know that I say things while playing (particularly multiplayer) that in any other context would be considered rude, crude, and rather threatening (“Die, you bastard,” is a frequent pejorative). The tenseness of shoulders, the leaning-forward pose, the seeming (and sometimes genuine) rage all seem to indicate an increase in violent tendencies. Except that they don’t, in the same way that the vast majority of sports fans (who exhibit similar physiological responses) aren’t incited to violence by watching a game.

Nor are they incited to molest children, a behavior that not only is unrelated to violent videogame content, but isn’t actually included in any videogame I’ve ever played or heard of (although I’m sure some villain did it in something). From this point on, I’m going to ignore Nader’s commentary, even though it makes me ragingly livid and is one of the most egregious examples of hyperbolic mud-slinging I’ve ever seen. But back to addressing those people who are at least well-intentioned, if ignorant, as opposed to those who are so clearly out in left field that they may well have departed the surface of the planet.

In fact, the simulated violence found in videogames can be cathartic, and it can also – in the right game – produce an anti-violence response. Dishonored, for instance, is a game about assassination. It involves hordes of plague rats that devour the living and the dead (and you can summon them!). But you are also presented with the choice in the game to play “non-lethal.” To not kill ANYONE. In fact, you get an achievement for it. With every “assassination,” you always have a choice to not kill your target – and you can sneak about and avoid killing anyone else, too. Or you can play “high-chaos” and kill everyone… but that produces consequences. More disease. More rats. More things that want to kill you in return. Which tells me that the game is subtly encouraging an anti-violence ethos even as it allows you to play violently.

Other games – like Mass Effect – grant you Paragon points for making the more “ethical” choice (although they’ve tweaked that in ME2 and ME3 to be less about good and evil and more about “style” so that Shepard pretty much has to be good). Others, like Bioshock, have “good” and “bad” endings, based on the decisions the player makes (often whether to kill people or not). And even Grand Theft Auto contains the occasional character who expresses feelings of discontentment and guilt for robbing people, stealing cars, and shooting innocents.

In short, most games actually encourage the players to internalize an ethos that is decidedly non-violent, particularly against innocents. While it might be okay to shoot the enemy (or zombies, or weird insectoid aliens), it’s not okay to shoot the civilians. So while watching Gears of War for ten minutes might give the non-gamer “insight” into the frequency of gunshots and the spatter of alien gore, it doesn’t actually tell them about the total experience the gamer has by the end of the game – which is to say, doesn’t see the narrative of war-weariness that permeates the series and leaves the player fairly exhausted at the end of extensive play.

So my invitation – to anyone who believes games are causing violent behavior – is to play one, start to finish, and then see what they think. Maybe they’ll change their minds, maybe they won’t, but instead of making sweeping claims about videogames rotting the brains of the proverbial children, they would be able to experience what gamers experience. To understand before they criticize. And while I realize that some of the people who speak out against videogames now would continue to do so even after playing, I’m okay with that because at least then they’re speaking from experience instead of ignorance.

Winning at Life

I’ve posted about the process of gamification before, but an article from GamesRadar today reminded me just how prevalent it really is… ironic, really, considering my current obsession with Fitocracy and the fact that I deliberately chose to do 100 burpees and 100 push-ups this morning to earn 500 achievement Quest points on a fitness website, rather than because of my desire to be in better shape.

But that’s part of the point of Fitocracy (which is fantastic) – they know full well that people, especially gamers, are more likely to do something they should do anyway if it has immediate and track-able rewards. And if they can brag about it – which they can on Fitocracy, at least to other people on Fitocracy (probably the only people in the world who care). The process of tracking Quests and Leveling Up in Fitocracy keeps you interested in doing more Quests, which introduce you to new exercises or elevate the level of intensity… ultimately helping you with your fitness goals. While it’s probably true that it would be objectively “better” if we were able to self-motivate without an app or website giving us “points” for doing exercise, it’s a completely harmless, somewhat social way of providing positive feedback for being healthy (assuming no one is lying about what they did just to get the points) – and that’s great.

GamesRadar decided to grant achievement points for something even more ordinary – just plain living. They start off with 1 point for being born, and another 25 if you make it to your first birthday… 5 for walking, 10 for talking, and so on. Two of my favorites are 3 for falling off your bike (you also got 7 for learning how to ride it) and 5 for failing a test… which I love because sometimes failing is actually important and needs to be rewarded. I think there are probably a few things missing, like joining the priesthood or becoming a CEO or getting a PhD, and I understand why (since most people won’t do one of those, much less all of them), but it is a little disappointing to not be able to earn points for something you worked really, really hard at.

And that last bit is the primary difference between living and earning “points.” And here’s the thing. When I play games, most of the time I’m not interested in 1000-pointing the achievements list. I want to complete the game and do a couple of cool things that don’t require an excess of effort. I’m not obsessed with earning all achievements just to earn them. But I do want to do a couple of really cool ones because I can, just like I wanted to do 100 burpees just to prove I can earn those 200 Quest points on Fitocracy. But there are so many other things that I do just because I want to do them – not because they earn me “points.”

And that’s what living is about – yes, points and rewards can provide that extra little kick in the pants to get us going on something that we kinda want to do but need someone to give us a slightly better reason than the ones we already have. It’s why people work out better with a trainer yelling at them, why kids will do chores for stickers or candy, and why many businesses implemented the merit-based raise system ages ago. It’s what capitalism is all about. And I’m all about gamification. I think it’s great to provide extra incentives for self-improvement, whether fiscally, physically, or intellectually.

What I don’t like about it, though, is that I’m afraid that it will go too far, that points will become the primary rather than a secondary motivator. It’s something I see with some of my students – they want the points (the grade), not the experience (the learning). And it’s not entirely their fault – we’ve come to value the achievements (the diploma and transcript) above the skills, and that, to me, has disaster written all over it. Because then people will exploit the system in whatever way they can just to have those achievements on their record – and they won’t actually be equipped to play the game on their own without a cheat helping them to find their way through the levels.

What I want to see is a mix of the two – gamification to give that little kick to the small things, and life to be worthwhile enough that we don’t need the kick to do the big ones. So I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t get any points for that PhD – it doesn’t need incentivizing because it has intrinsic value for the experience, not the paper that’s somewhere in my apartment collecting dust. Because the achievement doesn’t matter even a fraction as much as the XP I earned on the way.

Regulate Guns, Not Games

As it turns out, my first post of 2013 is going to follow up on my last one from 2012, on the knee-jerk reaction to the tragedy at Sandy Hook claiming that school shootings are at least partly the consequence of violent videogames. This morning, Jeanine Celestin-Greer posted on Gamasutra about what she terms “violence against violent videogames.” In short, Celestin-Greer is concerned about videogames going the way of the Salem Witches – hung from the nearest large tree because someone panicked after eating bad rye.

Gamasutra reports that the IGDA (International Game Developers’ Association) responded to the call for research into the violence ostensibly produced by videogames spearheaded by Joe Biden – in essence, Gamesindustry International reports, agreeing to open-minded research into both the positive and negative impacts of gaming.They’re willing to play along, at least for now, in the name of appeasing the masses, but only because they know that legitimate, balanced research will show (as it has already shown) that games are not the root of the problem.

Celestin-Greer points out that people like to muddle along under the happy delusion that our world is not violent, and then when something tragic happens, they bemoan the decline of civilization and “try to understand why the world is ‘suddenly’ so evil and depraved.” The world has always had its evil. It has always been violent. We didn’t see mass genocide on the scale that we do now in the 1600s not because they didn’t have violent videogames (in fact, back then they made the argument that the theater, which we now consider a bastion of high culture, was causing violence in the streets), but because they didn’t have assault weapons and dirty bombs.

Celestin-Greer also makes the argument that there are plenty of people who play violent videogames who are not violent people – herself and (I hope) myself included. I have no interest in even owning a gun, much less killing anyone with it, but you can nevertheless find me playing first-person shooters on a fairly regular basis. Celestin-Greer observes that “people had also said that because the killer had Liked Mountain Dew, drinking Mountain Dew created murderers,” a fallacy equally as absurd, but – somehow – less likely to be believed.

Why? Put simply, because of something called cultural lag. The majority of people objecting to the influence of violent videogames are people who don’t play them. They’re people like my mom (whom I adore, but who doesn’t play games and still thinks that violent ones can cause violence), or like well-meaning senators and vice presidents who are calling for the videogame industry to “do something” about the violence in their games.

But no one is calling for the film industry or the television industry or the novel industry to do something about the violence rampant in their products. Murder mysteries, action flicks, and shows like 24 contain just as much if not more violence than your average videogame. Sure, they’re passive commodities rather than participatory ones, but they’re nevertheless violent. So why aren’t they targeted? Because we’ve grown used to them. When they were new, people were just as convinced that violent tv and movies were causing the degradation of society. Just like Stephen Gosson in the sixteenth century thought that going to a play was going to turn people into “Sodomits, or worse.”

And this is saying nothing about the fact that the nations with the largest ratios of violent crime, domestic abuse, and actual genocide are developing or third-world – and believe me, they aren’t playing violent videogames. Human nature is violent, and when unregulated, it will always be violent. Our instincts of hunting and survival make us that way, and the elimination of videogames is not going to change that. Celestin-Greer cites sports as an example of acculturated violence – and games are just another part of that.

Does that mean that all parents should allow their 5-year-old to play Call of Duty? Of course not, and Celestin-Greer agrees. Parents should regulate what their kids are playing in the same way that they should regulate what the kids are watching. But that doesn’t make the games inherently violence-inducing. They’re just another form of media, with the same cultural value and impact as any other type. We, as a society, just haven’t gotten used to them on the same scale: cultural lag.

Celestin-Greer makes some good points, but she’s not just defending games for her own audience, who are themselves likely to be gamers and already on her side of the debate. She’s trying to spur a movement. To cause gamers to speak out in defense of their violent games – although she very validly suggests that they need to do so reasonably: “Every time games are targeted, we need to always be there calmly proving them wrong.” And to a degree, since she inspired me to write this post, it’s working. But I don’t have the same level of concern she does that games will be banned or so strictly regulated that they might as well be banned.

First, the games industry is a multi-billion dollar industry. A triple-A title makes as much as a movie, maybe more, and the games that sell the best are the ones that people claim cause violence: Call of Duty, Halo, Gears of War. There’s too much money and far too many jobs at stake for first-person shooters to go the way of the dodo. Second, cultural lag. We’ve gone through this same type of reaction to every introduced form of media from ballads onward. We’ll get over it. Should we make an effort to introduce ourselves to the factual studies that demonstrate that violent videogames have no impact on our drive to shoot real live humans? Of course. But we don’t need to froth ourselves into a panic that we’ll never be able to play them again.

What we need to do is just move forward. Lag with catch up with us, the industry will innovate, and it will become even more evident than it is now that games are not the source of the problem. People are. Parents need to regulate what their kids are seeing and playing; adults in general need to take responsibility for their actions; nations need to see that global conflict and the violent propaganda that valorizes it contributes to small-scale domestic violence; lawmakers need to recognize that abuse within families is just as problematic as (and probably contributes to) lone gunmen. Maybe gun regulation or restriction is part of that answer. Maybe it isn’t. But the problems are to be found within a society that condones actual violence, not in one that uses fictive violence as an escapist outlet.