Peace On Earth, Not so Much Goodwill

24 Dec

Given the time of year, this seems an appropriate topic heading. And an appropriate topic, if a controversial one. In the wake of what happened at Sandy Hook, many people have expressed not only their condolences to the families affected, but have advocated for non-violence, gun control, and increased security of schools.

But some people have brought out the now-traditional strawman of violent videogames as the impetus for crimes like this one and the shooting at Columbine. On December 19th, TIME notes, “Senator Jay Rockefeller introduced a bill calling on the National Academy of Sciences to ‘study’ video game violence on children.” Fortunately, Christopher Ferguson (the author of the TIME piece) knows better. He refers to a recent study that demonstrates that, in fact, higher rates of videogame play actually seem to correlate to lower rates of gun violence, overall. While correlation is not causation, it certainly seems to indicate that videogame play does not cause increased incidence of violence. These findings have been insisted upon by gamers, developers, and even scholars (including Exodus to the Virtual World author Edward Castronova) for years.

But that’s not really the point I want to get at here, just the background to it.

On December 21st, two days after Senator Rockefeller’s proposal, Antwand Pearman held a “Day of Cease Fire for Online Shooters” in commemoration of the Sandy Hook victims. The point of this Cease Fire, Pearman says, is that “We are simply making a statement that we as Gamers are not going to sit back and ignore the lives that were lost. Instead we will embace [sic] the families with our love and support.” The Cease Fire was covered by GamerFitNation, Kotaku, Forbes, and others (listed on the Facebook page linked to above).

The Kotaku article includes the following note, as well:

The other note I got was from the publicity-loving anti-gaming ex-lawyer Jack Thompson, a guy who only makes it into the news when they are violent deaths (or when he’s being dis-barred). He believes games train kids to kill. He hadn’t e-mailed me since October, when he was trying to shame Best Buy into no longer selling Mature-rated video games.

Thompson wrote: “You people at Kotaku have blood on your hands. You have facilitated the infestation of an entire generation of young men who have now come of age, like this sociopath in Connecticut, who were raised on violent video games and who see the killing scenarios therein as a means of solving their problems.

“I warned you at Kotaku that a day like this would come, and now it has come. Congratulations. Hand sanitizers won’t ever room the blood on your greedy little hands. Jack Thompson, Miami”

Obviously, Thompson agrees with Senator Rockefeller. But, despite calling for a “Cease Fire,” Pearman does not. He did not call for the Cease Fire because he believes that violent videogames had any impact on the shooting. He called for it as a sign of respect for the families involved. He wanted to do something to show that he felt sympathy for them. A Cease Fire seemed – I imagine – a logical action to demonstrate that there is too much real violence in the real world. Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo quotes Pearman:

“When I thought of this cease fire I saw it as a means for gamers to come together and show their love and support the families. The one thing we can’t get in this world is peace. War will always rage on but in the virtual world we have an opportunity to be better. This isn’t something for the media it’s for the families and us.

“So what if people stop playing shooters for a day? It will be forgotten the next day. The point is that in that silence you’ll have time to listen to something you haven’t heard in a long time. Something you have been too busy to hear. Too social to notice and that’s…your Heart.”

But Pearman is wrong. First, his actions have not been forgotten. Perhaps in a week or a month or a year they will be, but both the positive and the negative will continue to resonate. The positive is obvious – showing respect and expressing sympathy with the people most impacted by a tragedy. The negative may be less so, but is all the more nefarious for its subtlety.

Mike Rougeau, also with Kotaku, followed up on the story with a report about one gamer who refused to cease firing. That gamer – Isaiah-TriForce Johnson, and yes, Rougeau tells us, that is his real name – believes that a Cease Fire plays into the irrational fears of people like Rockefeller and Thompson:

“I’ve been around gaming for a very, very long time and I’ve watched the media butcher video games and blame video games for a whole bunch of stuff that has nothing to really do with us, or the manufacturers, or the developers, the producers, the inventors — it has nothing to do with us,” he told me.

“The reason I think that the online ceasefire is a bad idea is because, as I said before, the media will take anything that we say and they will manipulate it,” he continued. “I think the media would take that and use it against him.”

And I see his point. Rougeau says that “when you fly a flag half-mast, you’re not blaming the flag. A moment of silence is not an accusation aimed at speaking,” and that may be true. However, no one is angry at flags to begin with. But when you have an industry – or, let’s say, a minority group – that people already fear or hate, then any action that might even obliquely align that group with negativity becomes a springboard for increased bias. For instance, early modern witch trials. Women were already marginalized, and when women became associated with witches, they became increasingly marginalized, even though the object of the trials was “witchcraft” and not “women.”

Now Rougeau is right that Pearman’s intentions are good, but Cease Fire will not be read by the “pundits and politicians who would use games as a scapegoat” as gamers saying, “we don’t care what you say about us. We’re going to show respect, and we’re going to do it our way.” It’s going to be read however they want it to be – that games are negative, and that they have the power to influence us into making irrational decisions about violent behavior.

My reaction is essentially summed up by one commenter, username PillBinge:

I actually think TriForce holds an intellectual persona (and actual intellect) that gamers should put forth. I have my views and I think they’re rock-solid, but that doesn’t mean people want to listen to me. In fact, arguing often comes down to how the two sides view each other as people, not the views.

“You and I both know Antwand means good,” TriForce said. “But we are in a very tense position in the nation right now. We’re really walking on egg shells, and anything we do or say will be used against us.”

I say let them try.

The first quote is very reassuring. But the Let them try part is a little worrisome. Don’t invoke someone else’s anger just because you’re right. Progress isn’t about stopping and fighting and antagonizing, it’s about moving forward and over obstacles.

In essence, thumbing our noses at “pundits and politicians” like teenagers is not going to get us anywhere. Thompson was not willing to listen to Totilo’s (admittedly self-reported) reasonable dialogue about evidence, and others like him are going to be equally recalcitrant about seeing Pearman’s actions as anything other than a tacit admission of guilt. We need to speak and act like adults, not call out “pundits and politicians” to a mud-slinging fight.

But I’m also not going to say that a Cease Fire is a bad idea. I think Pearman is both within his rights and a noble person for arranging a memorial like Cease Fire. I also think TriForce is right to be leery of participating – or, at the very least – leering of not speaking up about what Cease Fire is really intended to mean. It isn’t a call to arms for some sort of gamer rights, and it isn’t an admission of guilt – it’s a call for gamers to have their own version of a moment of silence, and that should be a good thing. I’m just afraid it isn’t going to play out that way.