“A group of wretched white rich kids arrive on an island for a holiday of self-indulgence and thrill-seeking, their fear of leaving adolescence exposed by their need to jump out of aeroplanes rather than move on with their lives, privilege protecting them from needing to be anything other than vacuous. But the island on which they’ve chosen to do this turns out to be lawless, and under the control of murderous pirates, and quickly their faux-idyllic lives are destroyed. Kidnapped, threatened, and beaten, a brutal reality instantly crushes them. And you, your character, he sees his own big brother murdered right next to him. He’s changed.”
Since Doom in 1993, two decades of developments in mathematics and physics have gone into first-person-shooters. Everything from natural human movement, to realistic physics, to reasonable non-player character response.
And the characters aren’t simply on rails waiting for you to turn up. After getting killed, I replayed a mission where I had to sneak up on a squad of pirates and, while hiding in bushes nearby, watched in astonishment as a pack of feral dogs attacked and killed one of them while the rest responded realistically to the attack.
So there you are; an ordinary white kid in a realistic – and visually beautiful – world in which you are expected to murder strangers.
None of which suggests that the tragedy of Sandy Hook could have anything to do with games. Merely that it makes one feel somewhat awkward (or maybe it’s just me) when playing something as mind-bendingly violent while my Twitter feed documents the unfolding tragedy of murdered seven-year-olds alongside.
“The problem with nuclear arms is that – provided they have an effect which is at least a little close to reality – we can hardly prevent the players from using them enthusiastically. Even if they cause massive pollution, nuclear winter etc. – a defeated enemy in a destroyed, hostile world brings you closer to victory than a strong enemy in a paradise. It was ethics that kept man from using them, not strategy. But this is a strategy game…” says Steffen Gerlach, creator of the C-evo freeware strategy game based on Sid Meier’s Civilization.
Ethics and imagination are what separate us from machines. We empathise and moralise, and we know the difference between the real and imaginary.
Serious researchers are seriously clear:
Our modern fears over VVGs appear to be in line with prior moral panics over media as diverse as jazz music, comic books and Harry Potter. Granted, too much passive activity, including video games, can contribute to obesity. Like anything else, gaming should be enjoyed in moderation, balanced with outdoor activity and allowing enough time for family and schoolwork. A very small number of kids, about 3%, exhibit signs of pathological gaming. But regarding concerns about aggression, it appears to be that, fairly early on, children learn to distinguish between fantasy and reality, and their brains don’t treat these phenomena the same. Santa Claus is a prime example. Despite not only their parents but all of society conspiring to lie to children about the reality of this fellow (complete with old men in red capes at the mall as “evidence”), children can reason out the improbability of his existence by the mid-elementary years. With those kinds of reasoning powers, kids can handle a video game that doesn’t even claim to be real. - Christopher Ferguson, associate professor of psychology and criminal justice, Texas A&M International University
“Aggression is multicausal. There are over 100 known risk factors for aggression; media violence is just one of them — not the biggest but not the smallest. The only way that anyone does something seriously violent is if they have multiple risk factors and limited protective factors for violent behavior, and thankfully most of our children have a great many protective factors, can consume a lot of violent video games, and still never do anything violent,” says Dr Douglas Gentile, associate professor of developmental psychology at Iowa State University.
To summarise, most people are not going to become violent psychopaths simply because they play too many video games. Those people who do become violent psychopaths have plenty of other triggers that could cause them to go batshit crazy and butcher a room-full of kids, video games being merely one of them.
As Lexington, writing in The Economist, put it: “I hesitate to offer thoughts about the school shooting in Connecticut that has seen 20 children and seven adults murdered and the gunman also dead.”
In the aftermath of a similar massacre in Dunblane, in Scotland in 1996, in which 16 children were murdered, the UK government effectively banned the private ownership of handguns. The impact has been a dramatic drop in gun-related violence.
The British take anti-gun regulations very seriously. Few police are permitted to be armed, something that massively improves the dynamic of police-public engagement.
Yet, as Lexington remarks:
The American gun debate takes place in America, not Britain or Japan. And banning all guns is not about to happen (and good luck collecting all 300m guns currently in circulation, should such a law be passed). It would also not be democratic. I personally dislike guns. I think the private ownership of guns is a tragic mistake. But a majority of Americans disagree with me, some of them very strongly. And at a certain point, when very large majorities disagree with you, a bit of deference is in order.
Even if semi-automatic rifles were outlawed in the US, it would be hard to see how it could make much of a difference. Guns of any sort – to put it in economic terms – reduce the barrier to entry to mass murder. They make it a straightforward affair. If all you have is a knife, then it’s much harder to commit mass slaughter.
But what happens when you’re playing a video game against a backdrop of such violence? Should we give up on our fantasies when reality intrudes?
“The objective of AI in most computer games has been usually to provide opponents. The reach of AI is limited in this application. Most players prefer opponents who fight bitterly, but rarely win. The objective of opponent AI is merely to assure that their defeat looks gallant and animated. The player must feel that solely his wits and skills are responsible for the opponents’ demise,” says Aleks Jakulin, a statistician at Columbia University working in the field of game artificial intelligence.
It needs to be recognised that there are real people who live in communities where such arbitrary violence is normal. Syrians, Somalis, Sudanese, Congolese …
We know that evil exists; usually, for those of us in Western nations, as expressed by a random maniac with a random agenda. We can do our best to limit that person’s harm, but we can’t stop them from trying.
That said, real horror in “safe” Western society is not a daily experience. Sandy Hook is that much more terrifying because it is so random. Not so the daily experience of death from above for Afghanis, Pakistanis or Yemenis.
For most Western kids these days, the most violence they will ever see is in a movie or game. Perhaps the only sense of proportion they can experience is through these media. Worrying that your freedoms are under-threat in democratic America may be more believable if you have no idea what a real threat looks like.
It’s easy to call your government Fascist for suggesting easing up on business regulations, or Communist for promoting universal access to healthcare if you’ve got no idea – or experience – of what either of these ideologies are really like.
As GK Chesterton put it, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
Importantly, not only what a dragon is, but why we would want to fight a dragon at all.
“Heavy Rain,” from Quantic Dream, revolves around four people living through tremendously traumatic experiences in their lives. You interact with and for each of these characters in a world filled with non-player characters. The way you interact has consequences in the way they treat you, the way the story evolves and where it ends up.
As video games become that much more complex and real, grappling with ever-more real-world problems, games may be the best exposure we get to dealing with rare but real dangers.
Maybe that will have a bearing on future Sandy Hooks, permitting psychiatrists and social scientists to play out macro- and micro-reactions in a virtual environment against realistic characters. Maybe it can provide scale if troubled teens can see what “real” trouble looks like.
Maybe it helps.