He was armed with a brutal fist and throwing darts. Throwing darts!!
For those of us fortunate enough to have been born in the 80’s we grew up controlling this little psychopath for hours. Like the devil sitting on his shoulder, we steered him around, watching him go about his murderous rampage, punching everything in sight, and stealing bags of money from crates that surely were the property of someone else. Some of you may have preferred to jump and dodge the barrels and fireballs hurled by the sociopathic Donkey Kong, while others helped Super Mario stomp on his enemies a la Derek Vinyard and a concrete gutter. If the brutal stomping was unsuccessful, Mario could revert to fireballs. The Italian plumber had a handy cache of violence and destruction at his disposal.
Alex, Mario and co. were bright, fun characters who existed in a two-dimensional, make-believe world full of happiness, gold coins, colourful mushrooms, ladders, power-ups, helicopters, princesses, flowers, and big green drainpipes. Our noble heroes were only trying to defeat the most evil of bosses and save all humanity. Video games in the late 1980’s were innocent. Most people who played Alex Kidd are more likely to reminisce about the theme music and Alex’s sukopako motorcycle, rather than the underlying themes of #violence.
From memory, these games were never attributed to real-life mass carnage. So what changed? What makes modern video games so terrible, and apparently so influential that people attribute them to real-life mass murder?
Less than a decade after Alex, Doom was released to the world and it was violent. I played it and I loved it.
Wandering around the dark hallways of hell, tightly gripping a chain gun or rocket launcher, eagerly blasting the living guts out of awkwardly shaped demons that hurtled toward me. Doom was the first well-known First-Person Shooter (FPS), which in layman terms means you play through the eye of the person holding the gun. You are the character. In older games like Alex Kidd or Mario, there was a disconnect between the gamer and player. You were controlling someone else. It didn’t feel like you roaming those side-scrolling screens.
So, does the first person perspective and closer embodiment of the video game protagonist represent a stronger link to real-life violence? It doesn’t appear so. One of the most popular targets for people against video games is Grand Theft Auto (GTA), which is classed as a Third Person Shooter. You see your little man on-screen which disconnects you somewhat from the character. In Doom, you stepped into the shoes of the character and it was you holding those guns and roaming the hallways.
I think the tenuous link between video games and real life violence comes from the improvement in realism. Video games today are incredibly lifelike. GTA comes under scrutiny because you can steal cars, kill people and police at will, visit prostitutes, and drive around a city that pretty closely resembles real-life cities. In the most recent instalment of the #GTA series, if you shoot someone they fall to the ground like a real person, they bleed like a real person, and their body lies motionless on the pavement like a real person. The gunshot will send civilians nearby screaming and running away from the psychopath with a gun, and you may hear a siren approaching within a minute. The slight pang of guilt you may have felt when you accidently killed a few civilians quickly vanishes when that siren never comes and you drive off into the sunset in a stolen car. In Alex Kidd, when you punch an enemy or throw a fireball, the baddie morphs into a white cloud and dissolves. No harm done. No blood. No torture. Nothing lifelike at all. Mario jumps on the head of a critter and squashes it. You move quickly onto a new screen and are shielded from the aftermath of your destruction.
A popular argument for the anti-video game brigade is that violence in a game like GTA is rewarded, and the most terrible acts only end up with the character losing a life and immediately being respawned i.e. there are no consequences for your actions. On the surface it seems they have a point. In GTA, losing a life results in (maybe) failing a mission, and suddenly you’re walking out of the hospital and instantly trying to locate the nearest gun shop to re-stock. A further complaint was that you earn money when you kill a prostitute. You only have to delve a little deeper to see that blanket statements about being rewarded are wide of the mark. This is where people who argue against violent video game tend not to focus heavily on details, but rather go straight for statistics, mainly number of hours played vs. type of game played vs. levels of aggression displayed by the gamer in day to day life. Correlation maybe, but no evidence of causation.
I agree GTA, and similarly violent games are far from a moral beacon. It’s not a beacon at all. It’s a game that allows you to run rampant in a city, doing whatever you want, to whoever you want. The more money you collect the better, the bigger the weapons you have the better and so on. But….
In GTA specifically, there is little purpose to gun down civilians. It attracts unwanted police attention, which in turn makes missions more difficult. You can take a few bucks from a dead body but it probably costs as much to buy the ammunition in the first place. Stealing cars isn’t a great option. Once you have a good car, you tend to stick to it. You store it in your own garage and use it over and over. Only when you’ve rammed it into one too many guard rails do you consider stealing another. A car alarm might go off, the driver might fight back, or a police officer can spot you jacking it and flash the red and blue. Depending on what you’re trying to accomplish, it can be incredibly frustrating to die. I know I play games differently to others, but I usually play with the aim of not dying, and not attracting police attention if I can help it.
My point is, you can be rewarded when you try to avoid the attention of police and not do things to prick their ears up, and with the exception of some missions, you can be rewarded for playing somewhat sensibly (stop laughing…). Not every action in every video game is about causing as much carnage as possible, and not every action taken in a video game will be imitated in real-life.
So after playing GTA, do I feel like jumping in my car, running down pedestrians and leading the cops on a city-wide chase that only attracts more cops until helicopters join the party and my remaining options are to drive off a bridge or surrender to a barrage of gunfire? Or do I want to stand in the middle of the street and blast everyone into kingdom come thanks to the huge array of available weapons? This might surprise you, but no. No I don’t.
If a child is itching to play GTA because they’re desperate to pick up some guns and rocket launchers and mow down countless civilians in a blaze of blood-soaked glory, there are two ways to look at it. First, it appears this issue may have existed prior to them touching the game. What else has the child been exposed to in order to have this desire in the first place? Second, do video games provide an outlet where aggressive adolescents can do something they would otherwise only be able to do in real life? Has anyone ever considered whether video games have actually prevented a mass shooting or two? A stretch I know…
Unfortunately, the negative attitude toward violent video games is ingrained. Doom was a publicised favourite of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the two shooters responsible for the Columbine Massacre in 1999. They gunned down thirteen students at their school, before taking their own lives, and a rumour quickly circulated that they had created a custom level in Doom to mimic the layout of their school so they could play out their fantasy. This was later proved to be false.
The debate surfaced again after the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012. Adam Lanza killed 26 students, his mother, and himself. A senator in Connecticut claimed that because he had access to a weapon that he saw in a video game, it gave him false courage about what he could achieve. Talk about connecting two remote dots. To be fair to the Senator, Lanza liked his video games. One of his favourite games was Dance Dance Revolution. The link between Sandy Hook and violent video games somewhat vanished after this bit of information was released.
A quick search of video game controversies results in the obvious connections, such as Columbine, but also instances where a person violently attacked another person because it was their turn to use the gaming console. That is a completely different ball game and should not be used as an example of violence related to playing video games. If that were the case, then we should take cars off the road to avoid instances of road rage.
Banning violent video games is not the answer. Setting some boundaries for what your child plays, and for how long is more realistic, and it leaves the rest of us game-playing adults to make our own choices and not be hamstrung by nanny-state restrictions. Taking away violent games will simply push adolescents who are unsurprisingly not content with Pacman or Tetris into something else, like visiting a dark cave and joining a satanic cult where they drink the blood of a goat, worship the heart of a squirrel, and repeat chants to bring forth dark spirits. Is that really what you’d prefer?