Unlike most of the gaming world, I will not be playing Grand Theft Auto V: I explain why over on TLF. It’s a long and involved explanation, so you’ll have to go read it over there.
Unlike most of the gaming world, I will not be playing Grand Theft Auto V: I explain why over on TLF. It’s a long and involved explanation, so you’ll have to go read it over there.
Yesterday’s tragic events in DC – near somewhere I go on a weekly basis where people I know and care about work – once again have people in the US considering the problems of violence in our society, its causes, and its solutions. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that this has not only produced the usual gun control debate, but yet again brought up the argument that violent videogames were some part of the cause of Alexis’s actions, as Stephen Daly notes in a Gameranx piece today.
Daly remarks that the Telegraph reported Alexis was “obsessed with violent video games” and “carried a .45 handgun ‘everywhere he went.’” The Telegraph piece also says that “The darker side to Alexis’s character saw him playing violent ‘zombie’ video games in his room, sometimes from 12.30pm until 4.30am.”
What is particularly infuriating about the Telegraph‘s take on this is that they spend a considerable amount of time contrasting Alexis’s playing of violent videogames with his dedication to Buddhism, suggesting that this is a bizarre paradox. What they don’t spend enough time on is the fact that Alexis seemed paranoid – he carried a gun everywhere out of fear that someone would steal his belongings, even into restaurants and his workplace. But instead of pulling out the idea – put forth by someone he knew – that he was traumatized by 9/11 and may have been suffering from PTSD, the author (Nick Allen) instead gives the piece this title: “Aaron Alexis: Washington navy yard gunman ‘obsessed with violent video games.’”
I’ve talked about this before. At length. And in the Christian Science Monitor. The scientific evidence just doesn’t bear out what fear and ignorance want to repeatedly claim: playing violent videogames doesn’t make us more violent. It doesn’t even really make us more aggressive beyond the extreme short-term, in which case its level of elevation is akin to that of a sports fan (possibly less), an athlete, or someone playing Risk around a table (which produces a lot of aggression, let me tell you).
But we’re not banning sports or board games. We aren’t even talking about it (even though sports fans can be and often are much more violent as a demographic than videogame players, as the horrific incident involving the referee in Brazil tragically shows). We are, for some reason that still escapes me, talking about how violent videogames (might) cause shootings.
As a society, we are violent. We are aggressive. It’s built into our genetics by the evolutionary flight-or-fight response, which triggers adrenaline and causes us to become hostile or fearful (or both). We react negatively to stressors and become less likely – as in one psychology experiment – to pick up someone else’s dropped pencil. But the failure to pick up a pencil in a post-Call of Duty period of cool-down does not equate on any level to homicide.
Games do not kill people. Weapons kill people. People kill people. Games provide an escapist outlet. Yes, violent people and disturbed people play videogames. So do pacifists, academics, moms, dads, college students, doctors, lawyers, psychologists, writers, filmmakers, ministers, and millions more. Violent and disturbed people also breathe air, drink water, and eat french fries. Yes, violent and disturbed people will be drawn to violent videogames, but to suggest that the games make them violent is to fail to understand the causal relationship at work.
If we’re going to talk about what caused Alexis to do what he did, we shouldn’t be talking about videogames any more than we’re talking about television, books, or movies (and we’re not). We should be talking about PTSD. We should be talking about the stigma in our society against seeking psychological help (especially among men). We should be talking about how this country under-serves its veterans. We should be talking about the ease with which an individual can carry a loaded weapon into public places. We should be talking about what we can do as a society to support our veterans, our victims, and each other. We should be talking about change, not blame.
Today Gamers Against Bigotry shared a story by a male gamer about what it was like to log in to his wife’s multiplayer account. It contains most of what you’d expect – the male players identified the gamertag as female, discussed booting said supposed female, then got upset when said supposed female beat them, then insulted both that supposed female and the other actual female playing in their game.
The author – who had no idea what he was getting into when he logged on as his wife – found in this experience a catalyst to promote feminism in the gaming community and to point out that suggesting that a woman “get raped” because she’s defeated a male teammate (teammate!! This is a cooperative game!) is unacceptable and should never happen or be tolerated.
Okay. Great. But I do have a couple problems with this narrative. Namely, that it takes a male narrative about abuse of women for people to pay attention to it. I’ve been the identified female gamertag. I’ve been the only female voice on chat. I’ve also been one of several women in a game who defeated our male teammates and opponents. And, to be fair, not all of them have been misogynistic assholes. A lot of them remarked only “You’re a girl?” and then moved on with their lives (although the simple fact that my gender was surprising is problematic in and of itself). Few of them made rude or crude comments, but you can bet that I remember those much more vividly than I do the good ones.
But it doesn’t seem right for a man masquerading as a woman to become our voice, our advocate. Yes, I’m glad that Caldwell wrote what he did, and I’m glad he realizes that this is a problem and wanted to share his story, but what about the fact that there was an actual woman playing, a woman who felt utterly silenced for most of the game, whose actual gender was being maligned? Yes, it’s awful that Caldwell was insulted for being a girl (even though he isn’t), but what abouther?
I also think there something dangerous about “proving” that women can game by having a man masquerade (however innocently) as a woman because the woman whose tag he borrowed wasn’t a very good player. Certainly, even a bad player shouldn’t be subject to insults and misogyny, regardless of gender, but the fact that he was male somewhat detracts from the power of the story. It’s still about his experience – not about the experience of the woman actually playing, not about his wife’s experience of being a player maligned not only for being a woman, but probably also for not being elite.
Which raises a point about women in multiplayer games – a lot of them don’t play (or don’t play visibly) precisely because of the abuse to which they are subject, which means they aren’t skilled, they aren’t good enough to “prove” themselves because they choose not to spend hours playing a game where they are daily attacked for appearing to be female. Because that’s another point here – perceived gender is much more important than actual gender.
The two idiots on Caldwell’s server perceived his tag as female. They perceived the final player’s tag as default male (for more on “default” see my earlier post), even though she was female, and didn’t attack her until she spoke up and identified herself as such. The very perception of gender is enough to get a player verbally assaulted, booted, neglected, and otherwise ostracized from a game – so no wonder more women don’t play or don’t speak up if they do.
And that’s the real problem here. Women still aren’t being given a voice – either because someone else is silencing them, or because they’re too damn sick of dealing with this kind of thing. Last night I got a comment notification from TLF on my last Anita Sarkeesian post that seems to echo some of this in a small way:
Well read half way though and stopped couldn’t take it this become go Anita go Anita rather fast her videos are crap, she bashes literally any game she loves playing DiD herself, oh poor me save me fund my project because I got trolled, video games are made for u to go play have fun and act like a child because guess what its fun to trash talk someone and 5mins later your chatting with them
Putting aside the small apoplectic fit being had by my inner grammarian, I was particularly irritated by this comment because said commenter didn’t actually read all the way through before deciding that I must agree with everything that Sarkeesian has to say (obviously not having read the post I made about it before that…). I think that there’s a lot wrong with Sarkeesian’s project, but I do think that there’s a lot right with it, and “russell” (the commenter) decided that since I didn’t immediately dismiss her as belonging in the kitchen, I must revere her as a feminist deity.
But here’s my biggest complaint, and it’s one that Caldwell addresses, too: “video games are made for u to go play have fun and act like a child because guess what its fun to trash talk someone and 5mins later your chatting with them.” Yes, games are made to play. Games are made for fun. BUT. You are not a child and many of these games are not designed for children – they’re designed for adults, with adult themes, with commentary and complex social problems and advanced cinematic and literary allusions (the husband is playing Condemned 2 right now, which is alluding to Gaston Leroux’s novel Phantom of the Opera, and Mass Effect has references to Shakespeare, Tennyson, and Eliot, among others). They are adult forms of entertainment that require complex adult thought to understand and fully engage with.
And, furthermore, there is a difference between “trash talk” and “verbal assault.” “I got you, you bastard” qualifies as “trash talk.” “Get raped” does not. So I would invite you, “russell,” to think about how you talk to men when you play with them and how you talk to women. If it doesn’t matter – if you say the same, non-sexual things, to both genders, then you’re engaging in “trash talk.” If you’re not, if you’re sexualizing your “trash talk” to women but not to men, if you’re demeaning gender or sexuality, then it isn’t “trash talk.” And if anyone ever tells you to stop, it isn’t “trash talk.”
Because it is a game, and it is supposed to be fun for everyone playing the game. And when you’re a female gamer, situations like the one in which Caldwell found himself aren’t fun anymore. When you’ve played game after game and all the women in it are two-dimensional or victims, it isn’t fun anymore. When you habitually don’t engage with the community of which you are a part because you no longer have the patience or the strength to deal with the comments and the disparagement, it isn’t fun anymore. As a player, you should have the right to have fun, but you absolutely do not have the right to take that fun away from anyone else because of their gender, sexuality, or ethnicity.
So a couple days ago, Kotaku posted this story about a boy who has been in prison for three months after making a poorly-thought-out comment on Facebook following a League of Legends game. If you don’t want to read the story, Justin Carter posted the following on his Facebook page: “Oh yeah, I’m real messed up in the head, I’m going to go shoot up a school full of kids and eat their still, beating hearts,” followed by “lol” and “jk.” The important letters here are “jk” – “just kidding.”
Now I think this was tasteless, but given that Carter is 19 years old, I’m sure not the most tasteless thing he’s ever said, and certainly not the most tasteless thing that’s ever been associated with a LoL game. LoL is, in fact, almost legendary for the rude behavior of its players, as may be seen on their forums. Carter’s comment cannot possibly be the worst thing that has been said by a LoL player.
However, as Kotaku reports:
After seeing the comments on Facebook, an unidentified Canadian woman looked up Carter’s personal information, found an old address located near an elementary school and called the cops. The then-18-year-old Carter was subsquently [sic] arrested on February 14th on charges of making a terrorist threat and has been in custody awaiting trial for more than three months.
I’m not sure whether I’m more horrified that someone would go to all the trouble to look him up at an old address and call the authorities on him, or at the fact that he’s been arrested pending a hearing. Yes, what he said was awful, but the fact that authorities found no indication after a search that he had any intention of following through with his remark in any serious way suggests that he was, in fact, “jk.”
The fact that he did not make this statement repeatedly, did not send it to any authorities, and had no weapons makes the fact that he remains in prison (as opposed to being released or placed under house arrest) even more ridiculous, as he was arrested for making a “terrorist threat.” Do I think he shouldn’t have said it, especially on a public forum? Of course. But overreaction seems to be the theme of the year, from Carter to Kiera Wilmot (a 16-year-old arrested and expelled for a poorly done science experiment, whose expulsion was rescinded after the internet exploded in her defense – here’s her side of the story).
In both cases there seems to be more going on than meets the eye. For Wilmot, race almost certainly played a factor in the school’s decision, as did post-Sandy Hook paranoia. For Carter, games have undoubtedly contributed to his being labeled a threat to schoolchildren everywhere in the aftermath of blaming games for Columbine and Sandy Hook. Both were teenagers who made poor decisions. Neither actually damaged any property, tried to damage property, or caused injury to anyone. Neither has a reputation for “trouble.” Neither posses weapons or has a history of criminal or threatening behavior.
When I first started writing about not blaming games for violence, this was one of the things that concerned me about the finger-pointing going on in society. Allowing fear about the danger of videogaming to lead our society to knee-jerk arrest someone for an idle “jk” threat – in however poor taste – and keep them incarcerated for months (perhaps years) moves far too close to McCarthyism for my taste. Should Carter be punished for his bad choice? Sure. Make him do community service. Suspend his Facebook and/or gaming privileges. Put him through sensitivity training and make him work with an anti-bullying organization. But arrest? That’s going to make him more violent than playing any game ever would.
Today a friend of mine linked on Facebook to this video, entitled “Is Buying Call of Duty a Moral Choice?” from the Idea Channel. I have to confess that initially I was surprised at this, not expecting this particular individual to be in the “videogames are bad” side of the debate. But I watched the video anyway.
And it actually made some very good points, and I found myself firmly nodding in agreement throughout. Not because Mike Rugnetta says that violent games cause violent behaviors, since he explicitly says the opposite: “Now am I saying that videogames are going to teach you to do something stupid and dangerous with firearms? No, I am not. And furthermore, that line of reason is infuriating.”
The point of the video is that some videogames are not only depicting firearms and having players shoot things/zombies/monsters/people, but some games are actually replicating real guns. But that isn’t really the problem, either. The problem is that not only are they replicating real guns, but many of them are paying license fees to real gun manufacturers in order to accurately replicate not only the appearance, but also the functionality of actual weapons. And Rugnetta – who is himself a shooter player – takes issue with the fact that gamers are (knowingly or unknowingly) funding arms manufacturers.
First, it seems deeply and upsettingly hypocritical that the NRA is attacking the games industry as the source of violence when their supporting industry (gun makers) are in fact profiting off of certain parts of that industry. If there is any truth (and I’m dubious about that outside of the simulations built for the military for just that purpose) to the assertion that violent games are “training” for the killing of actual people, then using “real” guns instead of hypothetical fantasy or even just generic guns would exacerbate that problem. If not, the use of real weapons is still supporting the gun manufacturing industry, who do make the actual weapons that people do actually use to kill one another.
This isn’t to say that I’m anti-second amendment. I’m not. But I am against being able to make an informed decision about whether or not I need to be providing money to the people who make AK47s and rocket launchers. Other entertainment industries – films, tv, books – aren’t paying licensing fees to use guns (often because they’re using generic weapons or prop weapons or because they’re BOOKS), so why are games? In essence, while I don’t have an inherent problem with absolute verisimilitude, I do have an issue with games that would choose to fund the gun industry and not say so publicly (whether the developers’ or the publishers’ choice, I’m not sure) just for the sake of modeling a real gun instead of one they’ve invented themselves.
Second, there’s the idea that many FPS (first person shooter) players aren’t aware that they’re funding the arms industry. And maybe some of them think that’s great, some of them don’t care, but some of them might be upset by that (since gamers as a unit tend to politicize more on the left side of center), and they don’t realize that their money isn’t just going to Treyarch, but to the makers of actual firearms. So what I see as the most important point is that developers should be more transparent about the fact that they’re paying money to the gun industry (if they are).
As a consumer and a player of FPS games, I will likely now make the choice to buy games that aren’t as realistic in order to avoid giving money to the gun industry (which I’m pretty sure makes enough money all by itself without having to license digital replicas of its products). Not because I think such games are inherently more dangerous (because I don’t), but because I want to be able to make the choice not to support an industry that I do think makes the world more dangerous, because ultimately, its bullets are real.
Linking over to yesterday’s The Learned Fangirl post on “Violence, Virtual Space, and ‘Serious Games.’” It’s a more positive spin on my usual rants about why we shouldn’t blame games to talk a bit more about why games are a good thing. Coming off of PAX East (which was a blast), it’s a bit of a reminder about why gaming is both popular and healthy… and why as a form of entertainment media, it not only isn’t causing us active harm, but in fact has a great capacity to do good.
I was talking to a game designer I know the other day, and he said something interesting about violence in gaming: “The reason that we shoot people in games is because it’s the ultimate one-ups-man-ship….Ending someone’s life is the ultimate definition of power.” He went on to talk about how it would be really interesting to have a game where you as the player were incapable of killing your opponents, not because of ethical or mechanical considerations, but because – for instance – you were playing a race of beings (like angels, say) that simply couldn’t be killed.
What would our games be like if we were to face such constraints? What would the ultimate expression of our power, our victory, be like in the situation where we became incapable of permanently removing the (living) impediment to achieving our goal?
Our discussion seems to indicate that such a game would become more about stealth, about puzzle-solving, and about “traps” than it would about defeating enemies. It would – in many ways – become like the non-lethal tactics in Dishonored, Deus Ex, or the Thief series. More about brains and skill than brawn and hair-trigger reflexes.
But, more importantly, our conversation revealed that gamers see games much differently than non-gamers. Non-gamers see the plot, the narrative, the characters, the “dressing,” to use this particular designer’s term. Gamers see through the “dressing” and play with the mechanics of the game. In that situation, the virtual “people” become like the little dots in Pac-Man, points to chew through in pursuit of leveling up or reaching an achievement goal. The game is about understanding the mechanics, the tactics, rather than character and narrative immersion.
This is not to say that narrative and “dressing” aren’t important. They are. There’s a reason that there are gamers who won’t play games with graphic cutscenes. Sure, some gamers ignore the graphic violence or even like watching it (after all, Quentin Tarantino’s movies are enormously popular), but others won’t. Nevertheless, there is still a difference between the way gamers play games and non-gamers perceive games. A non-gamer – like my mom, for instance – sees Bioshock as a game that asks us to decide whether we kill or don’t kill a little girl. Gamers see that theoretically ethical question as a mechanical choice – “Do I want this immediate reward now, or do I want to see what Tennenbaum means when she says she’ll ‘make it worth your while’?” – about resource management (one that ultimately rewards the player for making the “right” choice).
And there’s no faulting either side. I don’t understand a lot of what’s happening in ballet, for instance, because I don’t understand the level of technical skill it takes to execute certain moves that to me appear rather simple but could be incredibly difficult. On the other hand, I don’t try to tell ballet dancers what they should and should not do in their performances. And that’s what this whole debate on the validity of games comes down to.
As an outsider, a non-gamer, you don’t understand how the game is working on a gamer’s psychology. You only see the player shooting other “people” and assume that such a scene must be enabling or at least anesthetizing the player to violence. But the player does not perceive the game the same way you do. They see what Ian Bogost calls the “procedural rhetoric” of the game: the structure that underlies not only the gameplay, but even the narrative, leading the player along the trajectory that will culminate in “winning” the game.
And this is why it bothers me so much that people who aren’t gamers are trying to legislate gaming. Why I find it disheartening that people who have never played a game are getting louder voices than those who play or build those games. Why I really hope that the people who will study the influence of gaming as a science – psychologists, etc. – will be (or at least will include on their teams) gamers. Because they understand how gamers think, and understanding how gamers think is vital to understanding how they are being influenced by the games they play.
So I’ve been swamped with personal and work-related business and haven’t posted here in a little bit… but also because I had a piece out for consideration with the “real media,” and wanted to hold off on repeating myself too much more until I knew whether it would be appearing in public or not.
It is. The Christian Science Monitor picked it up and has posted it today: “Stop blaming video games for America’s gun violence.” (Their title, not mine. I like cute titles. News sites do not. It’s a genre thing.) It’s a discussion that’s got a lot of attention today: Daniel Greenberg has a piece in The Atlantic offering support for the same position, a Louisville news site, on the other hand, attempts to leave the proverbial door open on that question, and over on DiabloInc, a poster asks fellow players if they view gaming as catharsis or “anger management.”
So now I sit back and hope that the internet is nicer to me than they were to Anita Sarkeesian. I have the feeling that most of them are going to be on my side (at least the ones that went after Sarkeesian will be), but there’s always a sense of trepidation when you broadcast yourself on public channels as opposed to these small, semi-private ones.
The whole experience has been interesting. I post here, and get a few friends to like it or share it, and I post over at The Learned Fangirl from time to time, but even though they certainly have a broader reader-base than my little blog does, neither venue is anything like the CSM. So this is a little scary for me. I’m talking, loudly and on top of a very real media soapbox, about something highly controversial that not even my mother would agree with (no, really, my mother thinks I’m wrong – I wasn’t allowed videogames growing up, and especially not ones that included guns). I’m pretty sure I’m in the right here, but that doesn’t mean there might not be repercussions. And repercussions can be scary.
So I’m hoping that the internet is kinder to me than it has been to a lot of people. I’m hoping it will be reasonable (“hoping,” not “counting on”), and I’m hoping that tonight’s State of the Union will be similarly reasonable. I’m hoping that we aren’t entering a new 1980s-era age of paranoia and implicit censorship. I’m hoping that we’re able, as a society, to recognize the value in dissent of all kinds, in free speech, but also temper that with the acknowledgment that we need to base our treasured opinions in study and fact rather than paranoia and knee-jerk reactions.
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?
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.