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.