Sunday, February 3, 2013

No Need To Be Gun Shy on Video Game Violence

"I think real violence on film is completely acceptable and should be seen. ... When you don't show the consequences it makes it seem like it's okay. I think video games and that stuff should be as violent as possible, but age-appropriate. It should be realistic."- Darren Aronofsky (2009)
 “Apple is treating games as shallow commercial entertainment experiences because they have been taught by game developers that that is what games are.” - Braid developer Jonathan Blow regarding Apple's App censorship policy (2013)

Last week, the Senate took the next tentative, lumbering step towards responding meaningfully to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting by hearing testimony from a wide spectrum of gun control advocates and opponents.  While our government is designed to operate with the response time of the Titanic in iceberg-laden waters, this time around it seems that Congress may actually respond in a meaningful way to gun violence in America, and the momentum has put gun control opponents on the spot in a way they haven't been in possibly decades.

A recurring tactic amongst these opponents is to point a wagging finger at video game violence, starting with the earliest comments of Wayne LaPierre (Executive VP of NRA and presently their most prominent spokesperson) following the massacre and culminating in the recent comments of Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, who said last week that he thinks "video games [are] a bigger problem than guns" (emphasis added).  Unfortunately, such comments do a significant disservice not only to the real and pressing issue of gun control, but also to the substantive, important conversation we ought to be having about the influence of media and entertainment on our culture -- as well as our propensity to miss opportunities again and again to harness that power constructively.

"It's creating monsters!"

This is not a political blog (conventionally speaking), so I won't get into the insider politics of the gun control debate except to acknowledge what I think is obvious -- that all the attention on video game violence by the NRA and its allies in Congress is a diversionary tactic and nakedly so.  When Sen. Lamar laments that "the First Amendment limits what we can do about video games, and the Second Amendment to the Constitution limits what we can do about guns", he's rather blatantly treating the First Amendment as a human shield against any meaningful gun control legislation.  ("If you want my guns, you'll have to blow a hole through the Freedom of Speech first!")  But the damage to our national discourse is two-fold, gumming up not only the gun control debate but also the public discourse on violence in our media in general.

That is, the fear of slippery slopes has a tendency to shut down a conversation that might produce a better understanding of what's actually going on in our culture.  People who might otherwise have something meaningful to say are scared away by the thought that even acknowledging the topic will add fuel to the censors' fires.  Nathan Grayson writing for the blog Rock, Paper Shotgun summarized the problem facing video game (and free speech) advocates thusly:
But I know why we’re not discussing [video game violence]. That’s the easy part. It’s because that’s the sort of thing the enemy talks about. “Video games cause violence,” they hoot and holler, pitchforks aloft atop their dusty dinosaur steeds. “The medium just belches out puerile filth that teaches our children how to kill. All games should be banned forever. Period end.”
It doesn't help at all that Sen. Joe Lierberman -- a man who's long made free speech advocates weary with his pro-censorship views -- has joined the chorus condemning video game violence despite otherwise holding pro-gun control views:
"The violence in the entertainment culture – particularly, with the extraordinary realism to video games, movies now, et cetera – does cause vulnerable young men to be more violent,” Lieberman insisted. “Doesn’t make everybody more violent, but it’s a causative factor in some cases."
Whether or not there's any merit to his comments, Sen. Lieberman is exactly the wrong person to be making that case given his propensity to follow up those comments with the warning that, if video game developers and artists don't "tone down" the violence voluntarily, "maybe there's some things we can do to tone it down." (Cue ominous music.)  While it's slightly less hysterical than what consumer advocate Ralph Nader has been quoted as saying about violence in our culture ("We are in the peak of [violence in entertainment]. Television program violence? Unbelievable. Video game violence? Unprecedented.") or -- at the other end of the specturm -- Donald Trump ("Video game violence & glorification must be stopped — it is creating monsters!"), it's never comfortable to hear elected officials dancing with the idea of government censorship.

These Chicken Littles are rightfully mocked by Forbes contributor Erik Kain as stumbling down the well-trodden path of blaming art for society's many ills:
Truly, we are in end times, folks. First it was jazz and then it was rock and roll, followed by the scourge of satanism brought on by Dungeons & Dragons and comic books; fast-forward a few years and it’ heavy metal and The Matrix. Now it’s video games and their “unprecedented” violence.

This is why millions of video game players go on shooting rampages every year. Or something.
"Or something" indeed.  And yet, it is "something", just perhaps not the "tenuous at best" connection (in Kain's words) between Sandy Hook and Call of Duty, or between Columbine and Marilyn Manson (or bowling, for that matter, as Michael Moore pointed out in Bowling for Columbine). 

If it helps to start the conversation on an innocuous topic, I'd direct you to the "Dreams" episode of the always excellent RadioLab podcast, in which a researcher effectively brainwashed a classroom full of students into having the same dream by prolonged exposure to Tetris.  If falling blocks can have such a uniform effect on people, what good does it do us to deny the influential power of a realistic first-person shooter?  Let's not be so scared of the censor that we don't seriously reckon with the fact that art and culture do influence our behavior -- in fact, it's the influential power of art that makes it worth experiencing in the first place!

"It can get complicated."

The real problem with starting this conversation, though, is the natural tendency we have to seek the simple answer, the nutshell, the punchline.  Indeed, the link between video games (or art in general) and violence has been a long-sought "holy grail", stretching back to at least 1984 with the first known major study on the subject, which reached a conclusion that might as well be cut-and-paste into the discussions we're having now thirty years later:
"The data indicate that video game playing is neither the menace that many of its critics have portrayed it to be, nor necessarily without possible negative consequences."
This shoulder-shrug of a conclusion may be best reflected by the simple dichotomy between the anecdotal observations of video game enthusiasts such as Grayson, on the one hand (reflecting here on his personal experiences as a long-time gamer) ...
In spite of the ups and downs of my relationship with it, I personally enjoy violence. I really do. It’s empowering. It’s intoxicating. It’s fun. But it’s also one of the scariest things in the entire world, and what’s even scarier is that – if I lost control, if my temper beat the teeth right out of my conscience – I could inflict it on someone else. I’ve done it in my head a thousand times. It’s not even hard. I’m human. On some level, it’s natural.
When I walk down those dark, nearly naked streets, I’m most afraid of my fantasies. Afraid of myself.

... and the often-observed fact that the numbers simply do not show that our society has gotten any more violent in correlation with our ever-increasingly-violent video games (in point of fact, the very opposite appears to be true):

Of course, this chart could equally be used to make the point that the same drop in crime victims over the past two decades also correlates with increased gun ownership ... or global warming ... or Charlie Sheen meltdowns.  But now it sounds like I'm trying to shut down the conversation with diversions and non sequitors, and that's not at all my intention.

It may helpful, then, to take a step back again and consider this discussion in another context.  Take, for example, the outrage that broke out last year in response to the Innocence of Muslims, the 14-minute video clip "mock trailer" that seemed to be designed specifically to provoke a violent reaction out of devout Muslims.  While the story of what the video did or did not inspire took on a political life of its own in connection with the attacks on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi (which continues to be a hot topic in Washington), there was little hemming and hawing to be done over whether the video clip had the potential to trigger a reaction, to prompt violence.  It was simply a given that a video designed explicitly to enrage Muslims would have the intended effect.

Taking that correlation as a given, the question then becomes whether we allow such speech, which leads in turn to the following point-counterpoint:

First, Sarah Chayes writing for the L.A. Times argued that the First Amendment restricts such speech known to create a "clear and present danger of harm":
"The most stringent protection," [Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.] wrote on behalf of a unanimous court, "would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic."

On the flip-side, Tim Worstall writing for Forbes argued that it is impossible to separate out speech that may be potentially "offensive" to the religiously devout without also banning religious expression in its entirety:

Or to put it into a nutshell: we cannot ban people from insulting a religious figure like Mohammed. Because the very religious accolades that Islam affords to Mohammed are in and of themselves in direct contravention of the religious beliefs of billions of others. There is thus no way of protecting religious figures from insult without actually banning the very expression of religious beliefs themselves. Which is why we don’t do that and instead say that everyone can just say what they like: freedom of speech as we call it.
Neither side has a slam-dunk case.  While it's hard to argue against the "shouting fire in a theater" scenario, it's also deeply insulting to treat a segment of the human population as an unthinking force of nature -- as if criticizing the prophet Mohammed is tantamount to spooking a large animal or throwing a match on gasoline.  Yet, clearly there's more to be said about promoting a responsible discourse that (a) encourages free expression while (b) recognizing that we have a responsibility to respect the context in which we express ourselves.  (Put another way, you don't have to ban nudity in film entirely to keep hard core pornography out of our grade schools.)

Once again, its easier to deal in nutshells and absolutes than to confront the nuance underlying this topic.  Just look at Apple, which has been the target of criticism lately for circulating App Store guidelines that explicitly ban applications that address religion or sex in any way:
We view apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate. If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical app. It can get complicated, but we have decided to not allow certain kinds of content in the App Store.
Unsurprisingly, video game developers have not taken well to Apple's ill-conceived (if understandable) attempt to hold back the flood waters of this new medium, despite all its inherent potential:
You hear that, game developers? Never mind that your medium allows for powerful artistic and political statements to be made, and that it's the field you're trained and qualified to work in. That stuff just doesn't fly here. If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. Why? Oh, it's complicated, so let's just leave it at that. It's complicated. OK?
Writing for Venture Beat, Jeffrey Grubb points out the obvious -- that if you assume video games "don't criticize religion, war and politics very well", then the games that do provide insightful criticism on these topics "will never reach a wide enough audience to prove it to Apple."

"Replacing Textbooks With Tablets"

Though, creating insightful art is always going to be only one factor in the equation.  Art always requires an engaged audience to fulfill whatever potential it may (or may not) have.  Many of the same video game developers chaffing at the public condemnation of video game violence also recognize that video game consumers should "demand more from our video games":
"[W]e should demand more from those who make our games in the first place, as well as from gamers whose often overly knee-jerk reaction to this sort of thing only helps to make level-headed conversation impossible."
"[I]t's up to us to be aware," writes Nathan Grayson.  "Examine yourself. Understand the effect – if any – that violence has had on you and those you care about."  So the question then becomes how?  If it is indeed "outright irresponsible" to ignore the the "constant role" of video game violence in "our day-to-day lives" -- a sentiment to which I'll agree -- how do we prepare the next crop of video gamers to be outright responsible about it?

For better or for worse, the conversation naturally leads to Texas, among a select few other textbook-producing states that have dominated our K-8 curriculum for far too long.  I single out Texas because of the massive market share of its schools, the Texas state school board has been able to dictate what the major textbook publishing companies -- a (dying) industry that is controlled in large part by three major publishing houses -- teach our kids.  The whole sordid background is explored by Gail Collins in The New York Review of Books, wherein she reaches the conclusion that Texas school board (driven by right-wing political inclinations) have managed to water down any topics deemed controversial, such as evolution, to the point of rendering the books "unreadable":
And that’s the legacy. Texas certainly didn’t single-handedly mess up American textbooks, but its size, its purchasing heft, and the pickiness of the school board’s endless demands—not to mention the board’s overall craziness—certainly made it the trend leader. Texas has never managed to get evolution out of American science textbooks. It’s been far more successful in helping to make evolution—and history, and everything else—seem boring.
But as I said up top, this is not a political blog, so let's leave alone the question of whether our schools ought to be teaching this subject or that in particular, and instead focus for now on just how ridiculously outdated the entire textbook model is.  Let's assume for the second that the First Amendment is still in place.  Let's assume that the data is correct and there is no direct correlation between video games and violence -- thus negating any "shouting fire in a theater" analogy, since there's no video game out there that's going to be kids in a "clear and present" danger of immediate harm.  Let's assume that, instead of attempting (in vain) to shield our children from violence, we should be instilling "awareness" of the fact that violence exists in the world and that violence has consequences.

Then the question becomes "why the hell aren't we teaching kids how to play video games in school??"  It's not enough to scoff the idea away.  It's not enough to say that video games are just silly entertainment.  So are comic books, but that doesn't stop us from including captioned illustrations in schoolbooks.  While we have to endure supposedly serious proposals to introduce actual firearms into classrooms and to put 1st graders through gun safety courses ... is it that crazy to consider teaching kids about simulated violence and how to distinguish between real life and fantasy?

The first, tentative steps in this direction may be taking place in New York, where Speaker of the New York City Council Christine Quinn has proposed replacing school textbooks with tablets (or to put it another way, to progress at long last from Johannes Gutenberg to Steve Jobs).  Surely, the point isn't to make Call of Duty part of the school curriculum, not exactly, not at first.  But if a video game is supposed to have so much influence that it could inspire someone to slaughter children without remorse, how much more potential might video games also have to inspire our kids to create?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Too many games offer no alternative to violence. The developers are catering to a certain limited mentality that often doesnt want to think and has its 'buttons' pressed in a conditioned way.

Its also not just violence but the kind of violence. A game called Bioshock actually has the player murder children, not just nazis, zombies or terrorists - the usual Politically Correct humans that are usually slaughtered wholesale in these games.