Friday, January 25, 2013

Violence in Games: Part I

The Numbers

8 out of the top 10 best-selling Xbox 360 titles are first- or third-person shooters. Their main goal is killing, be it human, alien horde, or the Covenant. And don't forget Skyrim, which can get pretty dark and violent even though you don't carry guns. The only non-violent video game on the list was Kinect Adventures, and it was #1. Sony PS3 did quite a bit better with only 4 overtly violent video games in their top 10 sellers. Gran Turismo and Little Big Planet helped make up some ground there. That said, 8 of the games from 11-20 were heavily violence-based. Call of Duty: Black Ops sold 16.4 million copies on Xbox and 3.3 million on PS3. At sixty bucks a pop, you're talking about well over a billion dollars in gross revenue. That's an incredible number and it's no wonder violent games continue to prosper despite all the school shootings, mass murders, murder suicides, and assaults we have in society today. This is the first in a three-part series where we at NoaF will examine the various aspects of this timely topic. 

Where do you fall on the spectrum? Is this art imitating life? Life imitating art? Do violent video games have a negative effect on our society as a whole or are they merely harmless entertainment? Let's find out!

The Obvious Target

Everybody's favorite whipping post when it comes to violence in games is Grand Theft Auto, so that seems like a good place to start the conversation. The reason is obvious to those who have played it. This game takes the worst in society and trumpets it. You can stand on top of a building and snipe dozens of police officers at a time. You can take seven hookers to the same spot, perform various sexual acts with them, then kill them and take your money back, leaving the bodies piled up (although they eventually disappear). You can walk into the emergency room and drop a grenade on the floor, killing dozens of patients, nurses, and doctors. These are all things I've done in various Grand Theft Auto games and it makes me a little embarrassed to admit it. I hope my mom isn't reading this. 

Violence in video games has come so far since the days of  Mortal Kombat that it seems almost silly that anyone ever made a fuss over it. More people play the Modern Warfare online series than ever learned how to rip Jax in half. They drop 16 players in a map together and your sole goal is to take the other guys out. I'm reminded of Colonel Troutman from First Blood saying, "In Vietnam his job was to dispose of enemy personnel. To kill! Period! Win by attrition."

I think we're all happy that our government really has people like that. Take the subject of Zero Dark Thirty. Was there any patriotic American that didn't take just a little bit of joy knowing a member of Seal Team Six put a round through Bin Laden's left eye? However, do we really want to program ourselves to think the same way as those highly trained killing machines? Look what it did for Rambo. He ended up bawling and being taken to prison. And what about the kids? 

Somebody think of the children! Oh, won't somebody please think of the children!

This is where the argument gets murky for me. On the one hand, games have a rating system. I'm 35 and I just had a Best Buy employee I.D. me to buy the new Devil May Cry. On the other hand, we all know there are "cool parents" out there, or ones that just don't care, that buy Mature rated 17+ games for their 12-year-olds. Through these "cool parents", 90% of children get to experience these types of games just by spending the night at a friend's. Their minds are still developing. What effect does such ultra-violence have on them at that age? Can they differentiate between reality and fantasy? To what extent? When presented in such a sleek, fun medium, games like Grand Theft Auto manage to make mass murder fun. I simply don't think it's something I would want my kids exposed to at an early age.

That said, I trust the rating system. The problem is that too many clerks and parents ignore it. If they aren't going to enforce it, then why have it at all? The real responsibility, as with most things child-related, lies with the parents. It's up to them to keep Mature games out of their children's hands. 

Freedom of Speech or the Downfall of Society?

I tend to lean toward freedom of speech, personally. We, as Americans, speak loudest with our wallets. We obviously like these types of games more than any other. We do take the risk of being de-sensitized to an extreme degree, but is it worth our freedom? They've tried to blame school shootings on violent video games, but that's just a scapegoat. Those people were mentally unstable to begin with. If it wasn't Modern Warfare that pushed them over the edge, something else would have. 

When it comes to limiting what media we can produce, it's a slippery slope. If you can't have violence in video games, then why is it allowed in movies? Is the extremely realistic torture scene in the aforementioned Zero Dark Thirty too much, as many people seem to think? What about Inglorious Basterds? Is beating in skulls with a bat or burning up a theater full of people crossing the line? Apparently not since it was rewarded with eight Academy Award nominations. This slope can lead us all the way down to classics like Hamlet, which is nothing but murder, suicide, and incest. Where does the censorship end? 

If we start limiting what programmers can do in games, then it follows that other media will suffer the same limitations eventually. It should be left up to personal choice and taste whether or not we, as a society, play these games. Games have been out-grossing Hollywood for years now and, like Hollywood, the majority of their money is made on violence. While the occasional creative game like Portal or Little Big Planet manages to make a splash without violence, the overwhelming majority use it as their main staple of gameplay. Like it or not, violence is a part of society. While most of us won't realistically experience it to the degree we see in games, we are constantly made aware of its presence via the news media. Tipper Gore's attack on Gangsta Rap didn't clean up the ghettos any more than stopping Modern Warfare games from being produced will stop school shootings. 

You are what you eat

All of that "freedom of speech" talk aside, I believe that what you take in, be it food, books, games, television, or movies, will have an effect on you. As you get older you become more able to differentiate between reality and fantasy, but that doesn't mean you can get away with taking in nothing but crap. While I enjoy a violent game as much as the next sicko gamer, I also enjoy a good Pixar flick, Portal 2, and even an occasional trip to church from time to time. The answer, as with most things in life, is moderation. Find a balance. Don't relegate yourself to one type of entertainment, especially the violent kind. While it won't turn you into a mass murderer, it can effect your overall outlook. 

Take care, and look for Part II of our discussion on violence in video games in the days ahead.