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Violence is as violence… does?

benjamin's picture

When I shoot a marine in the face, it is I who aim the crosshair and click the event into vicarious existence. It is I who watch the blood and apparent pain for the smallest of moments - a sensation of accomplishment, not remorse. It is I who replicate this wanton violence. I… not some gaming algorithm.

When put like this it’s hard imagine such games don't affect my subconscious mind. It’s hard to believe, even for someone who has been and remains a public proponent of video games in general, that one can possibly walk away from their daily dose of digitised violence unaffected.

Yes, yes. Violence and movies, violence and music, violence and porn… it’s all had a fair share of criticism. Hell, even video gaming has spawned an army of critics. Whether it’s Mothers Against Videogame Addiction and Violence or the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery, violence in gaming has by no means snuck under the radar.

But does gaming deserve this widespread condemnation? Well, yes and no.

Video gaming is not just any form of mediated violence – it is altogether a different medium, with different modes of expressing narrative and, I would argue, different levels of persuasive power.

As game analyst Otho Lehto puts it, video gaming is all about ‘immersive interactivity’ – the ability to delve into the skin of another, a digital avatar, and interact with a predetermined (and, I should add, ideologically charged) environment in an apparently ‘free’ way. For Letho, and I agree, “the game narrative needs to be ‘written’ (played) before it can be ‘read’ (interpreted)”.

In the hit first person shooter Half-Life, for instance, you do not simply wait for the narrative to unfurl itself before you, you unfurl the narrative. You do not just watch Gordon shoot a marine in the head, you aim the gun and click that marine’s screen-life away. If only for a little while, the US government, represented by ruthless suits and faceless politicians, are your enemy.

This, as already noted by video game critics, has the potential to persuade and propagate in ways which have hitherto been seen since the advent of popular film. Sexism, racism and a plethora of ideological positions – gaming, as I will show in future posts, has it all.

It makes complete sense to me that gaming may and probably does perpetuate and challenge any number of ideological discourses, but does violence in gaming work in the same way?

Herein lies the rub. As recent studies such as the popularly cited Hitman Study have shown, players are not completely unaware of the textual fictionality of violence in video gaming. At present, the link between violent video games and violent acts remains a tentative proposition at best.

The US Supreme Court’s 2011 judgement of the Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association case was crucial in this regard. By denying the role of violent gaming in the promotion of unlawful or dangerous behaviour, the video game industry was, in effect, 'let off the hook'.

The primary reason for this judgement was precisely because recent psychological research linking violent games to real life violence was, and remains, unpersuasive. On a more personal level, I consider myself a very non-physical person.

Playing violent video games since the age of 12, I have yet to exhibit any excessive or abnormal signs of aggressive behaviour. The bottom line is that playing Pokemon isn't the same as, nor will it neccescarily promote, dog fighting or animal cruelty (despite continuous PETA complaints to the contrary).

Yes, it is true that gaming, for the most part, can be ideologically persuasive - of that I'm pretty certain - but I'm not so sure, as are the vast majority of psychologists, that this persuasion extends to violent behaviour.

I am convinced that I have been shaped by the games that I play, but not in the way popular anti-gaming discourses would have me believe - these processes of ideological appropriation via interactiveity and immersion are neither simple nor reducible. They may persuade, but they do not determine.

So, what now?
Ultimately, if one wants to really assess the effects of gaming, it is my belief that one needs to look beyond pyschology and into textual analysis (especially regarding ideology and representation). 

This, for me, should be the goal of all those anti-gaming activists, not simply making ill-researched claims. Such simplistic links, if anything, actually obscure and sideline those hidden agendas and subliminal ideologies rather than explicate them.

We need to actually get our hands a little dirty and engage with, in an informed and methodological way, video games as an influence on those who play them. After all, it's as I always say: we are who we play, if only for a little while. We need to understand this.

“Once a person has killed other people on behalf of an ideology, he becomes rather devoted to it.” - John McCarthy 

Update (6 May 2013):
Well well well... what have we here? Another two cases where psychologically unstable children + computer games apparently = murder, rape and violence. I don't mean to undermine the severity of these two gruesome acts but let's be serious now... what is worse: buying your kid the new Call of Duty or buying them a 0.22mm gun? While logic (I hope) dictates the latter is the greater of the two evils, sadly it is CoD that gets all the media (and court) attention. Surely there are plenty of other factors behind these and similar cases? In the case of the 0.22mm... parenting perhaps?