Thursday, December 20, 2012

Shootings and Shooters


It would seem that my fantastic orgy with Treyarch's superlative Black Ops 2 has come to an end.  All things considered, it was a good run for me - and I will be returning sooner rather than later.  However, it was time to take a break and move on.  Interestingly, instead of switching to a different genre, as I am wont to do after burning out on a title, I continue to remain on a shooter kick.  When I saw an ad for the critically-acclaimed Borderland 2, I recalled that I really loved the original, but never finished it (as is often the case with me; I eventually lose interest when some other shiny bauble is released).  But now I have returned in a quest to finally find the Vault so I can move on to the sequel.  After spending a few hours in it again, all I can say is:  "Man, I forgot just how great a game this is!"  I love its wonderful (and daring!) shaded-cell art direction (Gearbox will forever have my respect for being the first game dev in a long time to abandon the crowd of "realism" lemmings), its engaging and darkly humorous campaign plot, and those four wonderful characters who just ooze personality via their quips.  Best of all, though, are all those wonderful guns - reputedly over 200,000 of them! - and how we get  to unleash wildly entertaining six shooter mayhem upon Pandora's raiders.  Borderlands is, quite possibly, the world's first National Rifle Association gaming tie-in.

Ironically, while I was happily re-immersing myself in this gun-toting orgy, a terrible tragedy unfolded in Newtown, Connecticut.  Of course I am referring to the mass murder of 26 children and adults at a local elementary school by an armed young man who apparently was suffering from some sort of mental affliction.  Sadly, this is not the first such shooting - there have been quite a few in recent years (but we are NOT seeing an usual spike as some would have you believe), and America is not alone in the carnage.

When something like this happens, it can cause a gamer to stop and reflect upon the nature of modern gaming.  Let's be brutally honest here: gaming is an uniquely bloodthirsty endeavor.


Ask yourself this: how many games do you play where weaponry and/or warfare is a central theme?  I suspect quite a few.  Just look at Steam's top ten list from today:

  1. Far Cry 3
  2. Stronghold Complete Pack
  3. Crusader Kings II Collection
  4. Stronghold 3 Gold
  5. Call of Duty: Black Ops II
  6. ARMA II: Combined Operations
  7. Ace of Spades
  8. The Secret World
  9. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive
  10. Football Manager 2013

Of the ten, only ONE - the soccer sim Football Manager - doesn't involve armed combat in some fashion.

Stop and think about that for a second....

Clearly, when it comes to gaming, war and weaponry reigns supreme.  That is an indisputable fact.

But let's also be clear on something else: there is nothing wrong about that per se.  Gaming has always been about violent fantasy, from playing "cops and robbers" when we were kids, to today's World of Warcrafts and League of Legends.  And let's face it:  war remains the ultimate violent fantasy for gamers, largely because most live in the peaceful First World where, despite the occasional mass shooting / act of terrorism, large scale violence is a stranger.  As a result, the brutal reality of war and violence has become a popular survivalist fantasy for many Americans and Europeans because people who live safe lives like to experience danger vicariously.  There is nothing wrong with this impulse (one that seemingly goes all the way back to Homer's Iliad).  In fact, you could even make the case that the modern world's ability to channel its aggression into a game actually helps keep the peace - after all, the crime rate is falling across the nation.   I also suspect that war is such a popular gaming topic because it is a natural fit for gaming as learning to become a skilled shooter is a very challenging endeavor, something ideally suited for the always competitive environment of modern video games.  In short, video games are guilty...of being video games.  Only the mentally ill cannot distinquish between electrons and real people.

Now, despite the Baby Boomer-controlled dinosaur media doing everything it can to link video games with violence (are you really surprised?  In the words of Early Cuyler: they fear what they don't understand, and hate what they fear), the vast, vast majority of gamers never, ever participate in such a moral outrage.  As Jamelle Bouie has recently pointed out:

I understand the unfamiliarity and discomfort many have with violent video games—I’m not a big fan, myself—but it’s important to recognize the extent to which there’s no solid proof for the conviction that these games must have something to do with mass shootings, or gun violence writ large. And if, nonetheless, you believe that they do, then you also need to find some way to account for the fact that when tragedies like this happened, video games were but a blip in someone’s imagination.

Mr. Bouie is correct for even those who attempt to link violence to video games - such as limey coroners -  have to resort to ascribing an awful lot of vague effects to video games.  For example, I've been hearing a lot of people quote a suspicious study by Craig Anderson who found:

“exposure to violent video games is casually linked to increased aggressive behavior, increases in aggressive thoughts and feelings, higher levels of physiological arousal, and less helping behavior.”

Did you notice the term "casually linked", as opposed to directly linked?  Also notice the lack of a direct link to actual violent behavior as opposed to "aggressive behavior", and the study's focus on "feelings" and "thoughts". See the weakness inherent to this study? 

Quite frankly, I don't even know why we are suddenly discussing video games when I have yet to hear a single official report directing linking the murder spree to a particular video game.  Maybe we will learn such a thing, but until we do, I think it would make more sense to focus on other issues, such as mental illness which seem to be central to most shootings these days.

Likewise, I don't understand how the 2nd Amendment has become the central issue either.  My video game colleagues have done yeoman's work defending video games - albeit, I am disappointed by how the Entertainment Software Association has been missing in action on this issue - but they have also often been sadly off the mark when it comes to "gun control".  I don't know if this is out of sheer ignorance of the import of America's Second Amendment, or if video game journalists are trying to protect video games by piling onto gun control, but the eagerness to sacrifice American liberty for an illusionary quick fix is disturbing.

As its name suggests, the Second Amendment, whereby it is affirmed that "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed", came in only second to the freedom of speech, religion, and assembly.  In other words, gun ownership was determined to be vital to the welfare of the nation.  As George Mason, co-author of the Second Amendment, said during his state's ratifying convention:

"I ask, Sir, what is the militia? It is the whole people. To disarm the people is the best and most effectual way to enslave them."

So when I read some video game pundits opine that "assault weapons" (whatever they are), or "extended magazines", or "high powered pistols" are needless for hunting...well, you just don't know what you are talking about.  The 2nd Amendment has nothing to do with hunting, but everything to do with protecting the citizenry from government tyranny.

Be that as it may, the thing that every gamer needs to realize is that the same ignorant people who are (hypocritically) clamoring for gun control, will eventually clamor for restrictions on video games when their ever more draconian gun seizure laws continue to fail miserably.  In other words, don't encourage these fools because they're coming after you next.

So, what do I think is really behind these shootings, if not guns or video games?  Well, I would argue that critics of violent video games are correct in one area: the culture is to blame.  Our culture is a culture of death, something even a blind man could see when one just turns on the TV, goes to a movie, plays a video game, listens to "death metal" or "gangsta rap", or passes a Planned Parenthood clinic.  We are no longer a people of  "sweetness and light" (morality and reason), but a culture of emotional barbarism.  I am reminded of the decadent and brutal Roman Empire in its last days....

As I mentioned above, most gamers are playing with simulated violence of one sort or another.  Perhaps it is time for a change?  I am reminded of Squad's Kerbal Space Program, a game that struck a powerful chord within me precisely because it was free of violence.  While I have no intention of surrendering my shooters any time soon - they are just too much fun, and feed into my interest of all things military (which could prove to be fodder for another discussion on violence) - it wouldn't hurt if game devs would try to put their pistols down for a bit and pick up...a microscope?  A trowel? a crucifix?

Postscript:  Tonight, the egomaniacal  demagogue Bill O'Reilly had a segment on the relationship between video games and violence.  His guest was some professor who stated unequivocally that there IS a relationship between video games and violence...but backed that up with little more than quoting verbatim from the Anderson study (see how quickly this stuff spreads?).  I am sure Kotaku will have this video up on their news section by tomorrow - those guys are FOX News stalkers who seem to DVR the channel 24/7 while ignoring the follies of liberal networks.  Regardless, right after the segment ended, a FX Movie Channel ad was run that featured nothing but wall to wall violence from various movies.  How ironic is that?

Postscript 2:  ABC News defends video games!  Check it out here.

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