I kill people

I do. Not on a daily basis, but I regularly kill large numbers of people. It might be considered extenuating circumstances that these people are rarely innocent, and may somehow deserve death. They had it coming, running towards me with torches and pitchforks. Or guns and grenades. It consoles me, in the very least, justifying my vigilance by shouting “self-defence”. I am not feeling bad about it, not lying awake at night, restlessly thinking about whether or not these men had families, wifes, children, waiting at home with dinner on the table, no remorse. Hell, sometimes I even kill completely innocent people in airports; the end justifies the means, right?

I kill people!

As every single one of you would probably have guessed right at the outset, all this carnage is purely fictional. I am no monstrous mass murderer. I would not be able to kill a mockingbird.

Video games are to blame. Or pay tribute to. Depends on the eye of the beholder.

I have been acting as the charming sociopath and treasure hunter, Nathan Drake, taking the lives of enemy soldiers by the hundreds. Grenades, guns, automatic rifles, sniper rifles, crossbows, or my bare hands. I don’t really care, I just go ahead and kill them with whatever means available.

I kill people…as Nathan Drake

Whereas Nathan is definitely a wolf in sheep’s clothing (due to some kind of ludonarrative dissonance, perhaps), many of the other characters I have been controlling lately are not even disguised as sheep; they’re just polished killing machines.

But does all this coldblooded killing not somehow affect me? Is it not a downward spiral, undermining and degenerating my soul, making me a worse human being? Am I not insensitive, and, in short, a killer in the making?

I sincerely don’t think so. I feel like and try to be an averagely nice guy, showing consideration, believing in charity, helping friends and family, working hard…the lot. Yes, I prove to be an idiot from time to time, but probably not more so than any other human being.

Of course, I could be wrong.

The controversy over violent video games have been raging for decades, ever since the innocently looking Death Race appeared in 1976.

If the bulk of misguided research and bloated, superficial news stories were to be trusted, I should be a raving lunatic, killing every person I encounter in the street, stealing their cars and doing drive-by shootings all the time.

Could this be me?

I am not one to deny a possible relation between playing violent video games and an increase in aggressive and violent behavior. Such a position would be untenable and reckless, and I whole-heartedly try to make my approach to video games as balanced and informed as possible.

It is just that…like most people trying to understand the nature of games, their inner workings and their sociocultural implications, I get a bit tired from time to time. Tired of all the unproven assumptions, unfounded accusations, and all the other diehard attempts to marginalise video games and mark them as being universally dangerous. Though the proponents of the “we- hate- video- games-and-want-them-banned”-movement remain many in number, the entire endeavour is futile and lacks reason.

I will try to shed some more light on the issue, look at new and interesting research, and show why I consider it plain stupid to keep arguing that games, all other things being equal, should somehow turn us into mindless killers.

The crux of the matter is, that all other things are never just “equal”; the world – and in particular it’s people – is much more complex than that.

Colombine High – a terrible tragedy!

I already stated, that people started worrying about video games and violence back in 1976 when Death Racer was initially released. This is not untrue, but the major public outcry escalated exponentially with the tragic school massacre at Colombine High in April 1999. Despite my distance in both time and space, the above image from the shooting captured by a surveillance camera makes my stomach turn. It is so incredibly terrifying to watch, knowing that 13 people were killed and many more injured by two fellow students.

Unfathomable as it may seem, trying to comprehend such a disaster is extremely important in order to counter and avoid any similar incidents in the future.

During the initial investigation, the perpetrator’s immense infatuation with video games surfaced at an early stage, and then all hell broke loose. These gun-wielding lunatics spent most of their time playing FPS-games with the DOOM-series as an absolute favorite.

So why not just equate “killing monsters in DOOM” with “killing people at Colombine High”?

The logic is deceptively simple, and readily provides an explanation when it seems there are none. In times of desperation, when somebody’s actions are seemingly deprived of all meaning, we are prone to accept simplicity (can’t help but think about religion here). It somehow consoles us and creates a kind of meaning amidst the meaninglessness.

News media were extremely willing to support the verdict against video games, as illustrated by The New York Times, who shortly after the incident printed a story called “All those who deny any linkage between violence in entertainment and violence in real life, think again“. What the article lacks in balanced perspective and credible research, it certainly makes up for in sensational rhetoric with no real backing:

We are reaching that stage of desensitization at which the inflicting of pain and suffering has become a source of entertainment; vicarious pleasure rather than revulsion. We are learning to kill, and we are learning to like it.

It is clear that this and similar stories are biased simplifications published to promote the outrage, dragging video games to the scaffold for a public execution. Sociologist Karen Sternheimer asked the polemic question “Do video games kill?“, criticizing most of the “media effect studies” done in this field, and the news coverage in particular:

Since 1997, 199 newspaper articles have focused on video games as a central explanation for the Paducah, Springfield, and Littleton shootings. This helped to create a groundswell of fear that schools were no longer safe and that rampage shootings could happen wherever there were video games.

The video game connection took precedence in all these news reports. Some stories mentioned other explanations, such as the shooters’ social rejection, feelings of alienation at school, and depression, but these were treated mostly as minor factors compared with video games. Reporters gave these other reasons far less attention than violent video games, and frequently discussed them at the end of the articles.

She goes on to argue how a majority of the available research applies a much too narrow perspective:

The biggest problem with media-effects research is that it attempts to decontextualize violence. Poverty, neighborhood instability, unemployment, and even family violence fall by the wayside in most of these studies. Ironically, even mental illness tends to be overlooked in this psychologically oriented research. Young people are seen as passive media consumers, uniquely and uniformly vulnerable to media messages.

I won’t go too far into the last remark, but just refer to a reoccuring debate within media studies, where som researchers are proponents of the “Active Media Perspective”, while others argue in favor of the “Active User Perspective”. The former is preoccupied with “media effects”, while the latter is interested in “media use” – roughly speaking. See “Understanding Video Games” for further information:

Active media vs. active users

Looking to one of the most highly profiled reviews of available research, The Byron Review, it becomes even clearer that the bulk of research is, at best, inconsistent and provides frustratingly few answers:

Relatively small and short-term effects of playing violent video games on young children‘s behaviour and attitudes have been demonstrated, but many questions remain about how to interpret this at an individual level or it’s meaning for behaviour and attitudes in the real world. Research has not taken a strong developmental perspective and I believe this is a key factor, as children of different ages have different levels of skill and understanding about the world (e.g. critical evaluation, ability to make judgments) which will impact on how they interpret content, their behaviour and their understanding of the world.

Many conflicting theories exist; e.g. the socalled “catharsis theory” suggesting, that playing violent video games somehow reduces aggression by allowing players to “let out steam”. Feasible as this theory might seem, I have found no solid research to support it (or to deflate it, for that mater).

New research – accept the diversity!

It would be fairly accurate to say that no consensus exists, and that no final conclusions can be made on basis of the currently available research.

Confusion and disagreement prevails.

Throughout 2010 I stumbled upon a number of studies trying to break the existing dichotomy and illuminate not only the (implied) relations between game and gamer, but also the entire sociocultural context.

One study, which might prove to be a step in the right direction, is found in the article “Vulnerability to Violent Video Games: A Review and Integration of Personality Research” published in Review of General Psychology.

The research in this short publication distinguishes itself from most former work in the field in a quite important way:

These descriptions suggest that certain types of individuals may be more adversely affected by VVGs than other individuals. Thus, the direct link from VVGs to school violence that has been highlighted in the media may obscure a large portion of the equation: personality traits.

Yes, it might seem self-evident, and you would probably believe, that personality traits was always a pivotal component of researching the influence of playing violent video games (VVG in the article).

But it was not.

As Sternheimer argues above, most research and – in particular – most news stories have been equating playing violent video games with being violent in general.

The basic premise of this piece of research is, roughly interpreted, that people are different, and thus the use and reception of violent video games cannot be considered to be homogeneous.  They apply a model of personality traits called “The Five Factor Model” (FFM), consisting of (you guessed it!) five components:

  • Neuroticism
  • Extraversion
  • Openness to experience,
  • Agreeableness
  • Conscientiousness

In this model, neuroticism is characterized by individuals’ susceptibility to worry, anxiety, anger, and general emotional instability. Extraversion encompasses traits such as sociability, dominance, and talkativeness. Openness to experience is characterized by curiosity, imaginativeness, and originality. Agreeableness encompasses traits including friendliness, warmth, and cooperativeness. Conscientiousness includes qualities such as carefulness, self-discipline, and reliability.

I shall be honest with you (I always try to be), and admit that the methods, models and calculations in the article is making my head spin. Even so, the reasoning and conclusions are pretty clear-cut, promoting a more diverse understanding of the influences of violent video games:

It appears that the “perfect storm” of FFM traits in this context is high neuroticism (e.g., easily upset, angry, depressed, emotional, etc.), low agreeableness (e.g., little concern for others, indifferent to others feelings, cold, etc.) and low conscientiousness (e.g., break rules, don’t keep promises, act without thinking, etc.).

Referring to a “perfect storm” understood as “an expression that describes an event where a rare combination of circumstances will aggravate a situation drastically“, players of violent video games who have high neuroticism, low agreeableness and low conscientiousness are the most liable to be negatively influenced by playing violent video games:

Thus, the questions for researchers, policymakers, and laypersons become “Why do some individuals appear to be affected by VVGs while others are not?” and “Who is most likely to be affected by VVGs?” These questions are somewhat analogous to the questions a medical doctor would ask in trying to determine why the majority of individuals have no adverse effects when exposed to seemingly benign stimuli (e.g., peanuts) while others may experience lifethreatening consequences from even minimal exposure. In the case of VVGs, current research suggests that personality moderates individual proclivity to respond adversely to VVGs. It appears that VVGs only adversely affect some individual and those who are affected have a preexisting disposition (i.e., high neuroticism, low agreeableness, and low conscientiousness) which make them susceptible to such violent media.

Or as John Walker at RockPaperShotgun sums it up:

The conclusions found by this study demonstrate that a negative response to violence in games is only shown in those with pre-existing dispositions. Something’s already wrong before the game gets to the individual.

Christopher J. FergusonAnother new’ish study aimed at situating games within proper sociocultural contexts has been carried out by Christopher J. Ferguson at Texas A&M University, and is described in some detail by Destructoid:

All in all, no predictive effects were found for violent games. Instead it’s almost as if the people who act out violence are like actual human beings, instead of some passive sponge lifeform that just absorbs violent media and reacts like an automaton. Depression and personality, previous aggressive or violent behavior and a person’s upbringing tell a clearer story about what makes people act out violently.

Of course you can always choose to not measure those things, but instead only measure a person’s reaction time on pressing a button that you’re told will release a loud noise blast to another participant. And if they do it faster and longer after playing a violent game, then obviously violent games turn our children into serial killers. Which in a nutshell summarizes the “violent games = violent behavior” studies that made it as far as a Congressional hearing.

The only feasible conclusion for this rather long post is that we are nowhere near any final conclusions, or as a recent literature review stated: research into the effects of VVGs on aggression is contested and inconclusive. On the contrary, we only seem to be moving slowly towards more balanced perspectives, more in-depth research and less biased news coverage.

But please, whoever you are, look past the immediate sensations, the deceptive and simple explanations, the superficial and misguided research.

…and I won’t even mention the seriously silly “Bulletstormgate“.

Paraphrasing the amazing “A Serious Man“, my best advise (beside watching said movie) would be;

Please, accept the complexity.

Can games get too close?

…to reality?

Such a question might seem counterintuitive, as “realism” has been a much desired goal in the games industry for decades. As technology has evolved, we have seen attempt after attempt to closely mirror the real world – in visual style, that is.

Now games (can) look more and more like the real deal, and consequently many examples have surfaced, where games were considered “too close”.

Resistance: Fall of Man – misuse of Manchester Cathedral?

When the PS3 game “Resistance: Fall of Man” were prone to be released, Church of England considered suing Sony due to the depiction of Manchester Cathedral in the game. BBC wrote that “they will ask the technology firm to remove images of the building from the game”. It seemingly didn’t matter to the Church of England, that, as Ian Bogost writes, “the cathedral serves a purpose in the game consonant with its role in the world: that of reprieve for the weary and steadfastness in the face of devastation”. The Bishop of Manchester was outraged that the game featured an accurate representation of the cathedral, wherein guns would be fired:

For a global manufacturer to recreate one of our great cathedrals with photo-realistic quality and then encourage people to have gun battles in the building is beyond belief and highly irresponsible.

The second battle of Fallujah – Marines rescuing a wounded soldier

Another game which has caused even more controversy is “Six Days in Fallujah”, a game depicting the second battle of Fallujah in Iraq late 2004. The game is developed by Atomic Games, who has a history of developing training systems for the US military. It was when several U.S. Marines returned home from the battlefields of Iraq, that they contacted Atomic and suggested making a game based on their own experiences.

President of Atomic Games, Peter Tamte, expressed the motivation behind the game:

For us, the challenge was how do you present the horrors of war in a game that is also entertaining, but also gives people insight into a historical situation in a way that only a video game can provide? Our goal is to give people that insight, of what it’s like to be a Marine during that event, what it’s like to be a civilian in the city and what it’s like to be an insurgent.

Due to these aspirations, the game is frequently labelled a “documentary-style video game” or a “game-amentary”, offering players a possibility to play the battle, and feel what the soldiers felt. Sort of.

Six Days in Fallujah – too close to reality?

It soon became clear, however, that such a game was not at all unproblematic. Heavy criticism surfaced, both from soldiers, family and relatives to soldiers killed in Fallujah and from peacegroups. This tough opposition resulted in the publisher, Konami, to cut their support to Atomic Games and “Six Days in Fallujah”, leaving the entire project in an uncertain situation.

Newsweek did a rather extensive and balanced piece with the fitting title “The Battle Over the Battle of Fallujah: A videogame so real it hurts“, which I would recommend for further reading on the controversy caused by this particular game. From this and many other articles, it becomes clear just how tender this subject is – not least to relatives:

Though parents often want to know the precise details of a child’s death, seeing the circumstances even loosely replicated in a videogame—where a player can affect the outcome—might be painful. It potentially raises agonizing questions for the parents, not just about how a tragedy unfolded, but how, with the tiniest shift in circumstances, it might have been avoided.

Now another unreleased game is creating a fuzz by (possibly) getting too close to “the real world”. Before going into detail, I would like you to consider, what this trailer for the sci-fi shooter “Crysis 2″ remind you of:

Yes, it is probably hard not to think about 9/11 and the terrible terrorist attack on the the World Trade Center in New York. As such, the game – Crysis 2 – taps into our collective consciousness, and uses the destruction and killings as a frame of reference, a backdrop, to a video game, where aliens are invading New York.

Is this a problem? Or is it a sign that we are moving on from the catastrophy?

Video game journalist Leigh Alexander is wondering why no one seemed to make the connection between Crysis 2 and 9/11, and asks if it is “no longer too soon” to depict – and take part in – the destruction of New York in a video game:

Does this mean it’s not “too soon” anymore? Does this mean we’ve “healed”, if we can look at this and just see a video game?

She’s not judging or neglecting, just pondering about this emotionally charged issue. The comments, however, is what really got me thinking. I am – for obvious reasons – somewhat at a distance from 9/11, but several commenters clearly are not:

It is hard to say. For those of us that lost loved ones that day it will always be too soon. [...] For me personally, I can look at a game or film or read a book that leverages that emotion without feeling disturbed. Of course, if this came out the day after then I would feel differently. No longer to soon? I think not. How long is long enough? I don’t think anyone can say.

Crysis 2 – too close to 9/11?

It is completely understandable, that for people having lost people they love, watching popular culture replay similar events is probably always going to be painful. But should this result in a reluctance to deal with these issues? Should we close our eyes and try to forget? Another comment touches upon just this:

The fact that some people still see this sort of twist on the imagery presented in the Crysis 2 trailer show’s that people aren’t past it yet. The people that aren’t yet probably never will be. Which is ok. It’s a big moment in history. Like dropping the big one on Japan, it’s always going to be an issue for some. But I’m incredibly happy that someone can create something like this without worrying about it possibly being seen as insensitive. New York is such an amazing place, I don’t want to constantly feel like I should feel bad when someone makes a disaster movie/game, or a horror movie/game, or a post-apocalyptic landscape featuring the Big Apple. As qualifying information, I’m from Northern Ireland, where my home town has been blown up several times. Laughing about it and taking the piss out of it all has helped more than dwelling on it.

I generally recommend Daniel Floyd’s series “Talking About These” on video games, as they are both entertaining and insightful. One of them are about the controversies discussed here, and he even draws on “Six Days in Fallujah” as his primary example:

One question remains in my head: why should all of this be a problem? Books, songs, television and movies have been depicting painful events for years on end, and they all caused quite a commotion; at least in the beginning. Why are games not allowed to follow suit?

Is it just the fear of interactivity? The idea that killing virtual soldiers is somehow dangerous and may lead to a mental disorder? Regarding “Six Days in Fallujah”, many critics were concerned with exactly the ability of games to respectfully and precisely portray the characters and events in question, and it is also frequently mentioned, that games are entertainment – war is not. Is it, as said in the video above, simply caused by the fact, that games are games, toys, entertainment – not a serious medium? Or have we just not yet gotten use to the idea, that games can convey perspectives on sensitive issues – just as old media?

Or where’s the beef?