The humble case
January 15, 2013
A few days ago, I wrote that reasonable people have genuine concerns about the effects of violent video games - and depictions of violence across media - on our kids and society at large. In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, harsh critics of video games have pitched drastic measures to curb violent content, while defenders contend our fascination with violence is healthy, innate and as old as The Iliad.
Neither argument is fully persuasive, and I think most of us fall somewhere between the two perspectives. Banning or censoring “objectionable” material is a dangerous and self-defeating precedent ; but the ceaseless flow of combat, death and destruction in games has come to feel overwhelming, even to those of us who sometimes consume and enjoy such media.
It’s important to note this isn’t just about kids and parenting. It’s also about civility and stewardship of a society. It’s about fostering a culture that values peace. And it’s about a real and growing concern that a bellicose nation, numb to the consequences of violence, breeds ever more fear, hostility, and hate. These concerns extend far beyond games and guns. But both are implicated, regardless of the rhetoric or data thrown at them.
That’s why we who love games need to talk to anyone willing to listen. We need to tell our stories. The defining qualities of games - beautiful systems that engage us like no other medium - are not self-evident, especially when they’re buried inside iterative formulations of shooters, RPGs and other well-worn genres. I am forever explaining why this hero-saves-the-world game is infinitely superior to that one, among colleagues who can see no apparent difference between the two. But they are different, and those differences matter.
As a teacher, I’m predisposed to believing we can teach and learn our way past most problems. Maybe that’s a naive perspective. Perhaps Ian Bogost is right when he calls Joe Biden’s meeting with the video game industry “a trap.”
The truth is, the games industry lost as soon as a meeting was conceived about stopping gun violence with games as a participating voice. It was a trap, and the only possible response to it is to expose it as such. Unfortunately, the result is already done: Once more, public opinion has been infected with the idea that video games have some predominant and necessary relationship to gun violence, rather than being a diverse and robust mass medium that is used for many different purposes, from leisure to exercise to business to education.
I understand Bogost’s point, but I don’t believe talking to a politician implies acquiescence. We can’t surrender a point we haven’t yet owned (I didn’t say “earned,” which is a different thing). Bogost and I (and probably you) know from experience that games are, in fact, a “diverse and robust medium,” but the conversations I described in my last post suggest we’re nowhere near ubiquity on that point of view. Brendan Sinclair gets it right in an op-ed piece that appeared on GamesIndustry earlier today:
Despite everything the Wii and mobile and social games have done to expand the audience in recent years, when people think of games, they still think of an endless parade of games that let players shoot each other square in the face. And it's completely understandable why. That's what we make. That's what we market. That's how we present ourselves to the outside world... So when tragedies happen, our response must be galling to those who don't "get" games... Instead of explaining the merits of what we do, we throw up discussion-ending roadblocks of First Amendment rights and scientific research... It's not unlike what the National Rifle Association does when the issue of gun control comes up. They say it doesn't work, namecheck the Second Amendment, and change the subject.
It would be a mistake to overstate the importance of E3, especially given the rise of mobile/casual games that rarely appear there. But we must acknowledge that the show exists as the biggest, loudest, and most media-blanketed games event in North America. Nearly all the major developers are there (and an increasing number of indies), and coverage reaches into mainstream media outlets like no other event.
E3 is the public face of the video games industry, and it is an ugly mess. This year’s event was essentially about watching publishers run one bloody shooter after another up the E3 flagpole. As I noted after returning from L.A. last June, two massive convention halls filled with shooters isn’t ethically problematic. It’s worse than that. It’s boring.
In the current political climate, we who care about games can make a difference, but we must acknowledge and address genuine public concern about games that make killing feel like fun. It’s a moment for us to bring forward our best stories about games - not as a collective “God, I love this game,” or “This game made me cry,” but as careful observers of the deep and vivid experiences games can provide. We must put our faces and reputations behind the games we admire and explain to a skeptical public why violent games like Bioshock, Metro 2033, and The Walking Dead really are about more than plugging baddies with bullets and ray-guns.
I’m not pointing at an invisible mountain. It’s there, and many have successfully climbed it. It’s an ongoing effort from a community I’m proud to be part of, and we’ll keep doing our thing.
Our new challenge (not really new, but certainly more pressing now) is to fuse our critical sensibilities with a humility that understands why otherwise tolerant people feel outrage when they see bulky power-fantasy avatars armed to the hilt, mowing down enemies with automatic weapons. We cannot shield ourselves from the reality that there have been 62 mass shootings in the U.S. since 1982, with killings in 30 states. 25 of those mass shootings have occurred since 2006, and 7 of them took place in 2012.(1)
We may never finish making the case for games, but if we’re to succeed, we must make that case with compassion for those who feel victimized by violence in all its forms.
Violence will always factor into our play. It’s our job to explain the function of that violence in our make-believe worlds and assign meaning where we can find it. The places where we cannot may be the places where our critics have something to teach us.