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.