Violence

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An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind

In the UK today it is fairly uncontroversial to suggest that the newspaper The Daily Mail is …. I don’t know … say: a poisonous, xenophobic hive of closet racists, bigots and snobs who pervert the idea of morality into self-deluded moral indignation and spread fear, hate and suspicion for money. Well, at least I’m pretty sure that’s an accurate thing to say. Please don’t correct me if I’m wrong. (I’m not.)

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Paul Dacre. Editor of the Mail. No photoshop required

In preparing this post I had to disable my beloved Daily Mail blocking plugin. I was surprised at what I found. By the way, you might want to install that right now if you plan on visiting links in this article. Some of them in the following paragraph go somewhere very dark indeed.

I had heard that a favourite tactic of the Mail was to repeatedly claim that, for example, eggs give you cancer, and then mere weeks away to claim that eggs in fact cure cancer. However, I had not expected to find the confused flurry of articles on video games. At least one is actually positive. Presumably this just shows what truly open-minded and fair people they are, and doesn’t imply that the assumption of said readership is that, in fact, games give you cancer.

The unthinking hysteria of the media over games is unfounded. Steven Pinker, in his 2011 book “The Better Angels of our Nature” points out that we are actually a society with far less violence and crime than at almost any point in the past. If games are making people violent, then where’s the violence? I am aware that others have written on this subject better than I can and have probably put in more effort. However, I don’t want to pass over this point without making it very clear that there is a perception in the media in general that violence in games is prevalent and problematic. And the Mail aren’t the only guilty party here by any means. I could just fill this page with links to back myself up, but, really, I don’t think it’s controversial to say that there is a generalised fear over violence in games in the media, is it? madworld

 Mad World. Mad.

There is an assumption here that somehow exposure to violence makes one, in turn violent. But I don’t think that’s a necessary causal relationship at all. But, honestly, a very large number of games do feature a lot of killing, maiming, blood, guts and guns. Certainly more than in most peoples’ everyday lives, unless you live in Stalingrad in 1944, or in Surbiton.

I don’t see why this is inevitable. In my last post I mentioned what I and others have described as the “whack-a-mole” mechanic of moving the mouse around the screen and clicking to fire a gun. This does seem to suit playing with a mouse surprisingly well and, when consoles started to want complex First-Person Shooters, a lot of work went into finding a way to make playing with an analogue stick viable. Nevertheless, even if we put aside FPSs, there is still a lot of violence in other genres. A game like Torchlight, for example, still revolves around killing, albeit killing adorable goblins and monsters. We don’t have to accept the ubiquity of this idea, but it is certainly common.

I think it would be more interesting to discuss how and why the mechanics of games (including games like chess or go) reflect combat or war so readily.

To draw analogies with other media and art is always helpful I feel. In 1960 a British court overturned the then-existing ban on publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover on the grounds of obscenity. (I think there are better reasons to dislike Lawrence myself.) In the 60s, 70s and 80s Mary Whitehouse was a prominent figure in the British media, campaigning against, amongst other things, permissive attitudes to, depictions of, and references to sex, homosexuality, obscene language and violent or gory films and videos.

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Mary Whitehouse. The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

It’s easy to forget just how influential these campaigns were. Interestingly, there were already games in the eighties that would have made a better target, but the market was small and, at that time, few thought of games as entertainment primarily for children.

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Leisure Suit Larry. Boobs.

Of course there are numerous studies claiming that games negatively influence young people, and many that claim the opposite (or at least a lack of deleterious effects). I’m not particularly fascinated when public debates descend into citing contradictory research findings. I strongly believe in the scientific method, but not necessarily in the people employing it.

However, in my day job as a secondary school teacher I confess that I have seen and heard things that I find potentially disturbing. I occasionally have cause to talk with children (11-18) about games. They like to hear that I play games, and are interested to find out what I play (though they tend to be uninterested in the answers). However in almost all cases I find that what they are playing is, indeed, the big, headline-grabbing games like Call of Duty and GTA that the papers so decry.

I haven’t played GTA (to my shame. I own it but never installed it). However, I did play (and very much enjoyed) Saint’s Row 3. I had tears in my eyes as my ludicrously murderous character jumped off a skyscraper and Kanye West’s “Power” played over the top. And I was genuinely moved when my character and her friend started singing “What I Got” along with the radio in one of the many silly in-game cars. In general my tastes don’t cover shooters, but the sheer exuberance and OTT cartoonishness of the violence in SR3 completely won me over.

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18-year-olds are pretty immature too you know.

However, when three of my year 7 boys (11-12 years old) told me they liked the game I was genuinely surprised. What did they like about it, I asked. “The dildo bat! Ha!” and “the helicopter missions”. Let me be clear here: I completely understand the attraction of the forbidden to the young. I was 12 once too (during the aforementioned video nasties era), and spent a huge amount of time and effort in an attempt to witness the worst, most depraved images and films I could.

However, I honestly can’t imagine what these children are getting from this game. The entire thing is a parody of something else: eighties cop shows, summer blockbuster movies, Japanese game shows. The thing is, it isn’t supposed to be taken seriously. Even having not played GTA I understand that the same is broadly true of that franchise. I can testify that children have a stunted sense of irony at the best of times, but besides the feeling of doing something a bit naughty (but only a bit; they all play them), I don’t know what they actually like in it.

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Actually quite funny.

Please trust me when I say that there are very few eleven-year-old boys I’ve met who haven’t played Call of Duty. Some are more into the football games, but CoD is, by far, the game cited the most in all the schools I’ve worked in. The thing is (and I’ve questioned them on this) these games are rated 18, mostly by PEGI and sometimes by the BBFC. So how and why are they getting hold of them? Again, I really don’t want to sound like a prude here, and in fact I don’t think that these games are a particularly negative influence on young people, but I do wonder how the attitude of ignoring age ratings by parents who surely know better became so prevalent.

As it happens I’m against censorship in all its forms, but surely, if the public at large are so concerned about violence in games, the big red 18 logo on the front of the box might give some clue as to the content? It might surprise some readers to know that children are, overall, pretty familiar with pornography. I would expect that to have a far worse impact on their happiness and well-being through life than pretending to play soldiers on the Xbox would.

In my view there are far worse, more cynical reasons to be suspicious of these games. Everybody involved is perfectly aware that many (but by no means all) of these games are really intended for children.

CoD toys

Hmmmmm…

Of course in reality I understand that the answer is, as always: “peer-pressure”, and of course I agree that to socially isolate your child is also harmful. I remember the horrific tedium of having to collect Garbage Pail Kids bubblegum cards in the eighties because they were popular in my school and to not do so would have left me out of an important part of the social fabric of my peer-group.

In any case, even in isolation, I don’t believe that there is a fundamental difference between me watching The Fly, or Scanners, or Hellraiser aged 11 and kids today playing realistic war sims. By year 11 (15-16 years old), most have grown out of the fascination with shooting other people in favour of pursuing their peers sexually anyway.

Yes, I personally find the fetishisation of militaristic hardware distasteful, but I haven’t seen any real evidence that the children I teach are actually harmed by knowing the names of machine-gun models, and if you talk to them soberly about it, they seem to understand fully the distinction between fantasy and reality. Of course some are mad, but no more in proportion than adults.

In summary then, I believe that video games are simply the latest in a long line of art that some people (who like shouting about things a lot) don’t understand, and subsequently erect as a straw man, on whom to blame whatever ills they think are important that day.

I don’t think children are fundamentally different now than they ever were. Of course access to more and broader media has an effect on them, but the positives of having the world’s knowledge accessible to them from a device in their pocket have far more weight than the possibility that they might be exposed to some blood and gore in a video game.

Let me know what you think…

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