Category Archives: Violence

Braaaaaaains: The New “Threat” of Videogames to our Minds

So today’s example of scare-mongering “science” comes to us from Canada (via the Telegraph in the UK), where someone has apparently “proven” that “Call of Duty increases risk of Alzheimer’s disease,” according to the headline. When added to a recent thread on the DiGRA list about Philip Zimbardo’s current speaking tour about how the “greatest threat” to young men today is videogame playing (because it turns them violent), this has me banging my head into the wall, the desk, and any other object in close proximity. (Maybe that’s why videogame playing is linked to brain damage… because articles like this make us give ourselves cranial trauma…)

Okay, so Zimbardo first. Zimbardo is a well-known psychologist with published books, one of which–The Lucifer Effect–I have taught to my class because it is an example of what not to do in psychology. Zimbardo, for those of you at home, is the man who came up with the Stanford Prison Experiment which traumatized several young men at Stanford in the 1970s (there’s even a documentary on it) because when it started to get out of control (the “guards” were psychologically torturing the “prisoners”), Zimbardo let it continue for a few days until someone else called him out on it.

Yes, that’s the man I want to trust to evaluate the psychological impact of anything. But even assuming that he learned from his experience and became a more ethical psychologist (which, to be honest, by all accounts he has), he has done no research into videogames whatsoever and is simply capitalizing on his fame in order to state opinions which people then trust as true, because that’s ethical.

Putting Zimbardo aside in favor of today’s article about Alzheimer’s, let’s take a look at the actual article, rather than the fear-mongering title. Nowhere in the article does it say that Call of Duty causes or increases a risk of Alzheimer’s. What it says is that videogame players–not Call of Duty players, either, mind you–use a different part of their brains to manage three-dimensional spatial interactions on screen than non-videogame players. This part of the brain is called the caudate nucleus and is used for voluntary movement and goal-directed actions, which means that gamers understand gaming as a goal-completion activity (as opposed to non-gamers, who don’t think about it the same way).

Apparently people who rely heavily on the caudate nucleus “normally” “have less grey matter.” Specifically, “The Canadian team said if action gamers have less grey matter, as people who rely on the caudate nucleus normally do, then they may be more prone to mental illness.”

Let’s parse that. People with an overdeveloped caudate nucleus “normally” have less grey matter than people who don’t. Gamers rely on their caudate nucleus. There is no statement in there that says that gamers actually have less grey matter; it says “If action gamers have less grey matter.” Which they apparently do not know whether gamers have or do not have.

Okay. Next step. People with less grey matter in the hippocampus (the site of spatial memory) have a higher correlation “with neurological and psychological disorders including dementia and depression.” That means that if someone has a reduced hippocampus, they might have an increased risk of a disorder (which could include Alzheimer’s). One of the researchers, Dr. Gregory West, summarizes: “This means people who play a lot of action video games could have reduced hippocampal integrity, which is associated with increased risk for neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.” Let’s repeat that–“Could have reduced hippocampal integrity.” Not “do have,” “could have.”

What the research does not show is whether or not gamers in fact do have “reduced hippocampal integrity,” which means that the study has not, in fact, suggested that gamers are at risk for anything. It has only “proven” (sort of) that gamers use the caudate nucleus when playing more than non-gamers.

West also says that “For more than a decade now, research has demonstrated action video game players display more efficient visual attention abilities. Our current study again confirms this notion.” So this means that there are benefits to gaming, as well. And yes, gamers have differently shaped brains from “normal” people:

Previous research has also shown brains of people who regularly play computer games differ from those of infrequent gamers.

A study in teenagers showed the “reward hub”, which is involved in addiction, was larger in regular players.

Brain scans showed a larger ventral striatum, which is the hub of the brain’s reward system, in regular gamers. Playing computer games has been linked to a range of effects from addiction to improved reasoning.

That’s not really all that surprising, since our brains are plastic (as in, they change, not made of petroleum-based material) and adjust to our regular behaviors. Our brains’ structure changes as our habits change, so that we adapt to what it is we do most. This is normal.

So at the end of the article, all we know is that gamers use their caudate nucleus more than non-gamers when playing a game, and that they have a larger ventral striatum. What we absolutely do not know is whether this is good, bad, or neutral information, and we absolutely do not know that gamers–Call of Duty or otherwise–are at increased risk for pretty much anything (Alzheimer’s included) except carpal tunnel.

What this all boils down to is that media reporting–and, apparently, popular psychology–needs to stop leaping to conclusions not at all based in the scientific evidence being proffered. Just like with climate change (which is real, no matter what congress says) and GMOs (which do not cause health risks, unlike pesticides and certain preservatives) and vaccines (which do not cause autism and might in fact contribute to fending off some forms of leukemia). Videogames are no more–or less–harmful than any other form of popular media, including movies, television, comic books, the internet at large, books, poetry, theater, murals, sculpture, and classical art.

Oh, and education. (Well, maybe education for standardized testing really is causing harm, so I take that one back…)

Perspective Shift: Talking Games in the Midst of Violence

Today a friend asked a very good question, and one that I think is valuable to try to answer for cultural critics and academics the world over.

He teaches in Baltimore, where, as anyone who doesn’t live under a rock knows, yet another protest has been sparked by police violence resulting in the death of a person of color. Given the context – not only Baltimore and Ferguson and North Carolina… but the earthquake in Nepal, the annexation of the Crimea, and so on – how can we keep talking about games? How can we ask our students to put aside everything they see going on outside their doors (sometimes literally) to talk about games? And, perhaps most importantly, given all this, should we keep talking about games?

My answer is yes – but also no. Yes, in the sense that talking about games is talking about culture and society and politics. Yes, because in talking about games we are (hopefully) talking about the issues that have led to the problems outside our doors. No, in the sense that we should absolutely not shut out what is happening outside. No, in the sense that it is vital that we talk literally about what is happening outside.

I believe that there are issues, concerns, and events that require us to put our planned classes and lives on hold because it is imperative that we stop to take a good, long look at what kind of society we have created, what acts we permit and what acts we condemn. I believe that what is happening now in Baltimore, what happened in Madison and North Carolina and Ferguson, is one of those events. Racism is a real, institutional problem that urgently demands our attention, and we need to not only allow, but encourage our students (friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues) to talk about.

And I also believe that these issues, concerns, and events appear in our popular culture media, including games. I believe that the problem of institutionalized racism appeared in Grand Theft Auto V and BioShock Infinite and Dragon Age and Fallout 3, and that each of those games attempted to address the problems of institutionalized racism through different lenses, to force their players to consider the ramifications of permitting the status quo to continue unchecked.

I also believe that institutionalized racism is a problem in many of these games, GTAV and Infinite in particular, because those games don’t fully understand or respect the ramifications of their privileged assumptions about race, class, and gender. And it is important for us to keep talking about them in order to make those problems visible, not only in the games industry, but in the world which these games reflect.

So yes, we need to keep talking about games. We need to talk about the good games can do if they seek to encourage social change. We need to talk about the harm games can do if they perpetuate social injustices without taking a critical stance. We also need to talk about the very real, very upsetting, very harmful things happening to real people in the real world, and remember that games matter because of the real world.

SVU Does GG

So this week one of the many things flying about on the feminist internet is the fact that Law and Order: Special Victims Unit has more or less decided to feature internet harassment against Anita Sarkeesian (with a little Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu thrown in) as the subject of its Feb. 11th episode, entitled “The Intimidation Game” (clever, SVU, I see what you did there). (Video link – SVU: The Intimidation Game)

The Washington Post did a write-up of some of the similarities and differences, conflating Sarkeesian’s experience over the last few years (yes, we’re at “years” now) with GamerGate, and suggesting that L&O is offering “the final word on GamerGate.”

My thought on that sentiment is “If only.” If only this were the last we would hear about GamerGate or harassment of women online. If only women in the games industry would now be able to blithely go about their lives and businesses without fear of repercussions in the form of threats, harassment, doxxing, and even violence. Because while none of the real women involved in GamerGate have been abducted or physically assaulted, that is the fear that has been created – intentionally – by those engaging in online threats and harassment.

Sure enough (and in its defense, the WP piece does talk about the “thoughtful” nature of the comments which appeared immediately after the episode aired), the episode is far from the “final word” on the subject, as Quinn’s twitter today contained the following:

And Sarkeesian had this to say:

So no, it wasn’t the “last word” on GamerGate, not by a long shot.

Ars Technica, on the other hand, characterized the episode with the phrase “everyone loses.” From where I’m sitting, that seems more accurate.

I watched it. And it’s been a long time since I’ve gotten this angry at a television show. And I mean legitimately angry, not “How could they do that to X character?!” but “That was irresponsible, disrespectful, and undermines progress” kind of angry.

That episode just eroded years of work being done by the games industry to see its products recognized as valuable contributions to culture that influence the way people think, it undermines the work being done by women and other minority voices for recognition and respect in the industry, and it completely negates the difficulty of the struggle many feminists and other activists face every day by turning it into nothing more than a headline. It trivializes the difficulty of daily harassment by transforming institutionalized misogyny and exclusivity into a fringe spectacle that impacts only the important or infamous.

It’s disgusting and depressing to sit at this keyboard and watch years of effort at recognition be disintegrated in forty-two minutes and change. Thanks for that, NBC. That’s the last Law & Order I will ever watch.

(Edit: See my TLF post for more details.)

Get Rid of the Black Marker: A Post Against Censorship

A recent conversation has reiterated one of the components of recent internet discussions of games – particularly those containing overt misogyny – that bothers me more than most of the others. It’s the conflation amongst many online of “criticism” with “censorship.” A few weeks ago, I made this post on the Australian censorship of Hotline Miami 2, which contains a passage I feel bears repeating (even though I feel a little odd about quoting myself):

Censorship of any kind is a detriment to culture. It stifles voices that can contribute to a discussion, and it also exposes places where a society needs work. This is one of the latter cases. If our art – and yes, videogames are art – contains the glorification of sexual violence, then we need to consider why, just as we need to consider why our art contains the glorification of racism, sexism, homophobia, and genocide.

Criticism is – or should be – the thoughtful consideration of and discussion about why our cultural artifacts (including videogames) contain things like racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and the other -isms of society. Criticism is not censorship.

Let me just repeat that one: Criticism is not censorship.

Yes, there are people on the internet who claim that certain games – probably including Hotline Miami 2 – should not have been made and certainly should not be sold. I am not among them. I will never buy it, never play it, and am, quite honestly, disgusted by it, but I will not say that it should not exist. I will say that it is harmful to women because it perpetuates a culture of misogyny and sexual violence that daily endangers real women in the real world, but I do not dispute its right to exist.

Let me also be very clear that I do not think that someone can become a misogynist by playing Hotline Miami 2. I do not think that any single piece of culture can change a person’s nature or predispositions. I do think that, en masse, popular culture devoted predominantly to particular ideological paradigms does inculcate its audience into those paradigms. In non-academic-ese, what we see all day, every day, does impact how we think about the world. It might not cause us to take action on those thoughts, not directly, but it does cause us to become accepting or permissive of certain behaviors we might not otherwise choose to permit.

It can also cause us to reject certain behaviors. Publish enough tracts and novels about the abolition of slavery – like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was progressive for its time – and society might just decide that slavery isn’t acceptable. Publish enough tracts and hold enough speeches on how women should vote, and you get women’s suffrage. Make enough television, movies, and videogames about how African Americans are all violent gangsters, and you get unarmed black teenagers being shot because white people feel genuine (albeit unjustified) fear of them.

That is the power of media, videogames included, and that is precisely why criticism (not censorship) is vitally important. Because if we kowtow to the sanctity of creators and the entertainment media, we stop questioning why we believe the things we believe. Censorship is just another form of refusing criticism, and it is through criticism – genuine, respectful dialogue – that culture moves forward.

[Redacted] – Games, Censorship, and Sexual Violence

One of the big news stories in gaming at the moment is about Australia’s refusal to issue classification to Devolver’s Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number due to sexual violence (link to Kotaku Australia). In Australia, media that “depict, express or otherwise deal with matters of sex, drug misuse or addiction, crime, cruelty, violence or revolting or abhorrent phenomena in such a way that they offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults” may be denied classification, and would therefore be made unavailable to consumers.

The report from Australian Classification includes a description of the scene which caused the game to fail classification (**trigger warning for sexual violence** – highlight below to read scene description):

In the sequence of game play footage titled Midnight Animal, the protagonist character bursts into what appears to be a movie set and explicitly kills 4 people, who collapse to the floor in a pool of copious blood, often accompanied by blood splatter. After stomping on the head of a fifth male character, he strikes a female character wearing red underwear. She is knocked to the floor and is viewed lying face down in a pool of copious blood. The male character is viewed with his pants halfway down, partially exposing his buttocks. He is viewed pinning the female down by the arms and lying on top of her thrusting, implicitly raping her (either rear entry or anally) while her legs are viewed kicking as she struggles beneath him. This visual depiction of implied sexual violence is emphasised by it being mid-screen, with a red backdrop pulsating and the remainder of the screen being surrounded by black.

I don’t think I need to explain how the above scene might “offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults,” emphasis here on “reasonable.” I don’t think that there’s any question that this scene is distasteful, violent, misogynistic, and disturbing, made all the more so because this is the protagonist engaging in this behavior, rather than a villain or other NPC.

Response to the Australian Classification decision has been mingled approval and outrage, with responses that include “It’s a video game” (the implication being that it’s therefore somehow acceptable or “not real” violence); “there are movies that have rape scenes in them and they are given R18+ or AV15+”; “I’m 100% anti censorship, If any line is crossed the statement should be made with our wallets, Not by the fun police”; and this example of eloquence:

Then don’t buy the damn game. I am fed up with all you Fucktards who just beg for the opportunity to be offended. It is simple. You don’t like it then stay away from it. Jeez who are we now just a bunch of whiny fucking pricks who are not happy unless we are stating our useless fucking opinions. Pretty much just pissing on anyone who has the drive or guts to do something like make art be it games or film or whatever. SHUT YOUR STUPID FUCKING MOUTHS AND LET PEOPLE GET ON WITH THERE PASSIONS.

Grammatical and lexical issues aside, this final commenter strikes at the heart of much of the present discussions about gender and gaming. Said commenter clearly does not understand the implicit cultural valuation present in the creation and dissemination of cultural artifacts – the idea that what is contained within a work of culture (popular or otherwise) somehow impacts or reflects some aspect of that culture.

I do not think that Hotline Miami 2 has the same kind of cultural cache as Selma or The Imitation Game, or even Dragon Age: Inquisition orGTAV, so my guess is that there are far more people who haven’t heard of the game than have, thus minimizing the actual impact of its censorship. But at the same time, denial of classification to the game is censorship – plain and simple.

As horrified as I am by the content of the above quoted scene, I can’t support banning it.

Here’s why.

Censorship of any kind is a detriment to culture. It stifles voices that can contribute to a discussion, and it also exposes places where a society needs work. This is one of the latter cases. If our art – and yes, videogames are art – contains the glorification of sexual violence, then we need to consider why, just as we need to consider why our art contains the glorification of racism, sexism, homophobia, and genocide.

Would I prefer that this game did not exist? Absolutely. But since it does, it has every right to continue to do so, and to be available with clear warnings to the general (adult) public. And that’s one of the primary distinctions between my viewpoint – and that, I think, of many feminists speaking out in gaming – and that which is attempting to silence mine. While I might think that GGers shouldn’t hold the opinions they do, I believe they have the right to hold them. I believe they have the right to speak up about them, so long as that does not infringe upon the rights of others.

And that last point is the key to all of this, for me. Anything has the right to exist – any art, any speech, any opinion – so long as it does not bring harm to others. That might mean restricting the age of those eligible to purchase an item. It might mean putting warning labels on it. It might mean putting it in a special section of a store. But it does not mean refusing its right to exist.

Much of what has happened re: GG in recent months does bring harm to others. It has not only further marginalized the already outcast, but it has brought active harm to people for having opinions about games. People have lost homes, income, and health as a consequence of the actions of a few whose impetus for protesting is that they disagree with an opinion. That is not free speech – that is censorship of the worst kind.

So while I do not like Hotline Miami 2 and will never play it, while I will criticize its developer’s decision to include interactive rape and say that such a thing should not exist, I will never say that it must be silenced, eliminated, or censored. It should be treated carefully, but respectfully, as should any work of art or culture.

What I – and, I think, other so-called “social justice warriors” hope for is not the censorship of offensive and harmful material, but the decision to not make material that has little value other than offense and harm. We hope for a society that considers its impact and takes action to make sure that what it has to say is said to contribute to the world rather than to detract from it. We hope for artists and creators and, yes, fans and critics who consider a variety of viewpoints and take the initiative to “first, do no harm.”

Being Heard

So a few weeks back, the University’s PR firm inquired about taking a post from this blog and pushing it out – with minor modifications – to the world at large. This was, first and foremost, a minor source of terror.

It went out on Friday, with additional news outlets continuing to pick it up this week.

Here’s a link to one of the outlets – Seattle Times – chosen because a student came up and mentioned seeing it to me. It’s more or less the same as an earlier post, but I like to document publications here.

No, I’m not reading the comments.

TLF: Out of the Background: Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, Women as Background II

Yesterday, Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency released a new Tropes vs. Women in Video Games video – part two of “Women as Background Decoration.” As per usual, people seem to either love it or hate it (and I’m pretty sure most of them have come to their respective conclusions before ever clicking on the link or pushing play.

I did a write-up response over on TLF, also as per usual.

On a related but not-repeated-in-my-TLF-post note, I’m starting to become irritated by the people I think of as Sarkeesian cheerleaders (none of whom I know personally, by the way). Not anywhere near to the level with which I am disgusted by the trolls who attack her, mind you, but, I think, in large part because of them.

These are the people to whom Sarkessian can do or say no wrong. Every word, every clip, every tweet are sacrosanct nuggets of gold in the feminist fight against the ravening trollish hordes.

And, to be honest, I can sympathize with the impulse because she is fighting the proverbial good fight. She’s doing good work, or at least work for good (although arguably a little of each). I don’t want her to stop making her video series, nor do I want her to be subject to the harassment that characterizes (and escalates with) every release of another episode.

But I also think that to hold Sarkeesian up as the pillar of feminist criticism of videogames is problematic and does a disservice to criticism itself on a couple levels.

First – and most importantly as far as I’m concerned – it suggests that to engage with criticism (metacriticism, if you will) is to devalue it and render it meaningless. If that were the case, no academic ever would have a job. The purpose of criticism is to have a critical conversation, which includes discussion and dissent, that engages with both the primary material (here, videogames) and the other critics (Sarkeesian).

Second, the valorization of Sarkeesian as a paragon of feminist criticism creates a black-and-white template in which videogames are seen as either feminist or misogynist, with no room in the middle.

Finally, it polarizes the people surrounding the discussions. If I’m not with Sarkeesian 100%, then I must support the trolls. This is a false dichotomy that hurts feminists and intelligent criticism far more than it hurts the trolls.

Nuance is important. Critical conversations are important. If I take issue with Sarkeesian’s depiction of one game among many – Dishonored, for instance – then there should be no problem with me pointing that out. I’m not saying that her work is bad. I’m not saying that there is nothing of value in the episode. I am saying that I disagree with this one point – to criticize a single point is to engage her work in conversation, which, so long as it is done respectfully, ought to be the objective of any critic’s work.

So don’t wave your finger in my direction and say “But you only don’t like this one example” as a reason why my entire criticism is invalid. No, I don’t like that example, and that’s okay. As Sarkeesian herself says at the start of every episode, it is possible – even positive – for us to criticize the things we like. So instead of name-calling and accusations (from anyone), let’s have a conversation.

What did you like in this episode? What didn’t you like? Was there a game you thought was missing? A game you thought was misrepresented?

Threat of Followers

So today Anita Sarkeesian tweeted about an article by Pacific Standard journalist Amanda Hess, “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet.” Although I usually reserve this blog for posts about games and the gaming community, there’s something significant about Hess’s work, and about the way Sarkeesian framed it:

Every woman I know in games writing has been viciously attacked for her work. We can’t ignore these epidemic levels of sexist harassment. Feminist Frequency (@femfreq) January 6, 2014

Let’s take a moment to think about that: every woman I know in games writing has been viciously attacked for her work. That list includes Hess, Julie Larson-Green, Alyssa Royse, Carolyn Petit, Jennifer Hepler, Kathy Sierra, Maddy Myers, Lindy West, Zoya Street, Dina Abou Karam, Mattie Brice, Catherine Mayer, Sarkeesian herself, and many others. In fact, these days, women’s voices in games criticism are noted not for what those women say, but for what is said to them.

In short, it has become a horrific badge of credibility of a female game developer or games writer has been threatened, verbally abused, harassed, or otherwise “attacked” (online or off) by members of the online and/or gaming community. If a woman isn’t being harassed by the body of trolls that comprises a portion of gaming fandom, she isn’t a significant voice – or so the trope seems to go.

One of the dangers of this – in addition to the dangers that come part and parcel with the threats themselves, including actual physical danger, emotional scarring, PTSD, depression, and general discomfort in one’s own skin – is that these acts of harassment will come to be dismissed as a “sign of making it”: if you haven’t gained someone’s hatred, then you aren’t making enough waves.

This has been an historical problem in any rights movement throughout history – racial, religious, cultural, sexual. Part of the issue is that there is some truth to it; any change to the status quo rocks the proverbial boat and upsets those among the privileged who want things to remain unchanged. So yes, a challenge to the way things are does tend to create hostility, but (and this is a very large BUT) that doesn’t mean that 1) it should, or, 2) and more importantly, that it should become permissible that harassment is simply “part of the game.”

The attitude of “that’s what you get for…” is one that has justified bigotry and violence against women, racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, and LGBTQ folk for decades, even centuries. “That’s what you get for being drunk.” “That’s what you get for dressing like that.” “That’s what you get for going into that neighborhood.” “That’s what you get for going out with a white man.” “That’s what you get for crossing the line,” in which the line could be miscegenation, the proverbial “tracks,” sexual promiscuity, flirtation, social mores, or any number of other things.

Harassment is not “what you get for” posting online. It is not a necessary rite of passage that should be undergone by any vocal minority speaking out against silencing or bigotry. It is not simply to be tolerated or shoved under the rug.

It is also not “no big deal,” as Hess’s account suggests. Nor should it be dismissed out of hand by the law simply because it exists in the ether of “online.” Our laws have yet to catch up to Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn, as victims have very little recourse or defense against online harassment, which can and does end lives, whether because the online harasser is mentally disturbed enough to follow through on the threats or because the weight of them becomes so much that it drives its victims to suicide.

It’s important to acknowledge the power of online actions – to recognize that there are real dangers in anonymous tweets and posts, and to attempt to ensure that there is an avenue to which victims of harassment can go when they feel threatened. It is also important that those of us online who are not direct victims remember to support those who are, in whatever way(s) we feel we can.