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March 15, 2018

Video Games are NOT Hurting Us.


As a preface: always remember the golden rule.

If you’re reading this (and also happen to be American), then you’ve probably heard the news by now.  Gun violence has seemingly hit a fever pitch recently, with some of the worst tragedies the nation has ever seen happening in rapid succession.  Make no mistake, though: even losing one life is a tragedy, but imagine my surprise when I hear that -- as of a few weeks ago, last I heard -- the U.S. has seen at least 18 school shootings since the start of 2018. Some of them don’t make national headlines, but they’re real. They’re a problem.

I would think that, no matter what side of the political aisle a person may be on, we can all come to an agreement.  Nobody wants to see more innocent people die.  Maybe that’s a naive sentiment these days, since with each new set of headlines the overwhelming impression can be boiled down to “Democrats good, Republicans evil”.  But I believe in people.  I believe in ideals.  I know that there’s more goodness, and more good people out there -- a desire to live in peace and happiness, even if they don’t stick out their neck for others -- than there is badness and bad people.  That’s my faith.

We just happen to be in a position where a few bad apples are wielding disproportionate amounts of power.  Poorly.


In the wake of multiple tragedies -- multiple instances of gun violence and families broken as a result -- the debate over gun control has hit a fever pitch.  To me, the solution seems obvious: maybe if guns weren’t so easily acceptable, then we could maybe, just maybe, stop concert visitors, church goers, and well-meaning students from getting gunned down just for leaving the house.  

The solution to the problem isn’t as easy as flipping a light switch, I know.  That’s why work has to be put in to find a solution -- things like research, legislation, outreach at home and abroad, and more.  Given the context of the era, there’s a damn good reason why “the right to bear arms” is second on the big list.  But the past is not sacrosanct, especially in a world as evolved and complex as ours.  Even if the process is difficult, and even if certain mindsets are engraved into our bones, we need to accept that sometimes, we need to change.  Sometimes, we have to do the right thing even if -- especially if -- it’s hard.

So of course this administration, no doubt thanks to a push from the NRA (who couldn’t POSSIBLY have any stake in the matter), decided to blame video games.  Violent video games are the problem, and turn good people into gunmen.  Video games are killing people, not guns.

Would it demolish the tone and credibility of this post if I portrayed my reaction via a SpongeBob clip?  Probably, yes.  But on the other hand, god damn it.


So not only do we have people assuming video game violence is the root of society’s ills -- yet again, because that was the 90s reboot we were all waiting for -- but we also have the higher-ups taking “action” to get to the bottom of this “mystery”.  From our inglorious leader thinking that there should be a ratings system in place (no, seriously), to organizing a meeting that few video game industry execs even knew about, to having an actual meeting that accomplished nothing except A) misunderstanding the question, B) playing the blame game, and C) telling other people to fix everything.  What a resounding success.  Also, the stopgap(?) solution to stop school shootings is to arm teachers.  That solution is already falling apart.

I don’t get it.  I just don’t get it.  It’s like -- you know the saying “even a broken clock is right twice a day”?  Not with Trump, his cadre, and his supporters throughout Russia the country.  How can one man be so consistently wrong about everything?  How is he always on the wrong side, and dragging his “buddies” along with him?  It’s like the man is a cuckoo clock without any hands, but the bird still pops out every thirteen minutes to blare like a fire alarm every thirteen minutes.  You would think that the president would know better, but given the past year, the Oval Office has lost more than a little of its splendor.


But I digress.  This is about video games, after all.  It was about guns (and it still is, despite the diversionary tactics), but now there’s a spotlight on games because effort is haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaard.  I don’t think anybody’s mind on either side of the debate was changed; they’ve just dug their talons into their salient points, all so they can take shots at their foes.  In other words?  It’s just another topic to divide us.  Old versus young.  Rich versus poor.  Whatever A versus Whatever B.  

And on top of that?  You know what the worst part is?  It’s the spark of a culture war that doesn’t need to happen.  Granted it’s ostensibly a war that’s always in action, but we could all at least pretend that it was an ice-cold war, not a hot one.  Now what?  We’re going to have those in power use their influence to convince their supporters that they’re right, and games (and their supporters) are bad?  Why?  Why are there people who think it’s all right to point fingers at art -- art, which by its very nature can’t be used to kill anyone by being pointed at someone and having a trigger pulled?


All right, look.  I’ll be fair.  I will be fair.  It shouldn’t take anyone more than three seconds to guess which side of the debate I’m on.  But even so?  I’ll admit, however slightly, however begrudgingly, that there is the germ of a point on the naysayers’ side.  Yes, video games can be violent.  Very violent.  That’s a fact.  That’s the consequence of multiple factors.  An obsessive pursuit of photorealism; the over-reliance on gunplay and general murder as now-standard gameplay mechanics; homogenization that makes maturity (or the illusion of it) an expected feature, if not a selling point; the list goes on and on.

Video games have problems, in part because the video game industry -- at the top and bottom -- has problems.  Trump and his crew may have pointed out how violent games can get, but they aren’t the only ones.  Once upon a time, outspoken game critic Jim Sterling pointed out, and rightly, that there’s a lot of gun violence in games; it’s not helped by the fact that, for a while in the AAA space and out of it, there was seemingly very little to offset it.  Articles have been written, videos have been uploaded, comments have been posted; we all know that the blood can and will fly in our favorite pastime.  That is fact.


And as much as I hate playing devil’s advocate -- with “devil” seemingly becoming more apt by the week -- I have to admit that there have been times when my faith in the industry has been tested.  I’ve wondered here on this very blog whether or not there was a genuine, negative effect on people because of video games.  It’s not necessarily about the violence and its ability (or lack thereof) to make people want to grab real guns and open fire on unsuspecting victims.  It’s about games changing the zeitgeist of their audience.  Sapping their hope.  Making them toxic.  Demolishing their goodwill.  Teaching them that Earth is a cold, dark place where crime is the only option.

That question may always be there, but these days?  The voice asking it has diminished to the volume of a baby mouse’s squeak.  Games like Call of Duty and Battlefield are going to be the whipping boys for a while yet, but even if they’re blockbusters in the gaming world, they can’t tip the scales in their favor, given everything else that’s coming out these days.  Indie games continue to kill it.  The Switch is breaking the charts with its heavy-hitting franchises.  Devs around the world are putting out small- and big-budget products that aren’t just the dreaded murder simulators.  Okami not only exists, but keeps resurrecting for every conceivable device.  I’m okay with that, for obvious reasons.


There are tons of games out there that are either doing more, or trying to do more.  Some of them have nothing to do with violence.  Some of them do, and to an extensive degree.  One of my favorite games is Metal Gear Rising, a game that notoriously made spine-harvesting and chopping foes into thousands of pieces central gameplay mechanics.  I don’t begrudge the devs for it, because the violence became a core, valuable part of the experience; Raiden couldn’t have his revengeance without absurd amounts of bloodshed.  Then you’ve got stuff like Persona 3, infamous for having a bunch of teenagers (and a child) shoot themselves in the head to summon their inner demons.  Does that make it corrupting filth?  Quite the opposite; it’s a striking image and symbolic gesture that melds with the game’s themes.  Taking out the violence means taking out a core part of the game.

The uber-violence in those uber-violent games might be too much for people -- the outsiders looking in.  I understand that.  I can’t say I’m a fan of a lot of those games.  But they still have a right to exist, because -- when they’re not striving to be products that please the shareholder overlords -- they’re still representations of artistic merit and creative vision.  Armies of intrepid workers work day after day, month after month to put out games.  It’s not an act of soulless keyboard-tapping.  It’s done with passion.


The problem here isn’t necessarily that video games are too violent.  The problem is that in the worst case scenario, the quality of the art doesn’t match the quality of the programming.  I’ll defend Call of Duty’s right to exist and include what it may (for now), but that’s not a free pass.  I expect that the money behind the brand and the company would put out something better than a headache-inducing, multimillion-dollar shooting gallery with less charisma than the average dung beetle.  But I’ve been proven wrong on multiple occasions, and I don’t expect the towering sloths of the industry to change their ways anytime soon.

So because the quality of the biggest noisemakers isn’t up to par -- can’t hold a candle to the production values, and the violence therein -- there’s nothing to gravitate towards.  It’s the equivalent of taking out everything good in Fight Club and focusing solely on the fights.  Sure, you get to see people fighting, but what’s the point?  For video games, the answer is that it’s an active experience instead of a passive one, which means as long as people are having fun, you don’t have to worry about the nuances and intricacies that turn a par into an eagle.

Well, that was the case.  But the bar has been raised in the industry.  And while there are always going to be those that lag behind, things are going to get better before they get worse.


If it seems like I’m going cross country in search of this post’s point, don’t worry.  It’s because there’s not really much of a point to make.  Games (at least as we know them in their mass-produced, culturally-relevant form) have been around for well over thirty years.  There’s been time for people from all walks of life to get used to them -- and more importantly, understand them.  As such?  It’s already been proven that there’s no direct link between video game violence and real-world violence.  If anything, the reverse is true.  Various studies have been conducted over the years, and turned up nothing to support the naysayers’ claims.  Hell, even I’ve done school projects explaining why video game violence isn’t the herald of the apocalypse some might see them as.

What we have here is a failure to communicate.  Both sides could stand to listen to each other; that’s a constant when dealing with any issue.  But in this case?  Those in power, and those past a certain age, need to understand we have more out there than pure violence that taints the masses.  And even if that stuff is out there -- and it is -- then it’s not as if those don’t have a right to exist.  Nor do they need to have excess restrictions placed on them.  If the problem is that adults are worried about children being exposed to violent video games, then reinforce the presence of the ESRB.  Teach them about the content in games.  Talk to children, and teens, and even other adults.  Learn.  Everybody, everywhere, learn.  

Also tolerate.  That would help, too.


I’m serious about that last point.  I feel like we shouldn’t even be having this discussion, because A) there are more important things to worry about, and B) I would have thought we shut the book on this ages ago.  I mean, the people in power should act in our best interests.  They should be smarter than us, and kinder than us, and braver than us.  But we’ve got guys in there, including our sitting president*, who are well over double my age yet have the emotional maturity of puppies that just heard the doorbell ring.

More to the point?  I’m just so tired of having to deal with these problems and controversies and debacles, week after week after week.  This dysfunction is not normal, and every morning when I wake up, I find myself checking my phone in the hopes that I’ll hear news about a sudden, swift end to this madness.  Now that video games are in the cross-hairs, this has become intensely personal.  It should be for plenty of us -- we, the people who deserve much better than what we’ve got.

Video games are art.  It may sometimes be art that’s hard to agree with, and its quality sometimes can’t even reach “mediocre”, but it’s still art.  It has a right to exist and be enjoyed.  There are responsibilities that need to be taken care of, but they’re burdens unique to, yet shared by, people across multiple industries, classes, and generations.  That, too, is a fact.  The sooner we realize it -- the sooner we learn to tolerate as much as we can -- the better off we’ll all be.

We have problems.  But video games aren’t one of them -- and they never will be.     

Now let’s all get hype over Okami.


Never gets old.

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