The time now comes for me to address what many would consider the most important debate surrounding video games: whether or not violence portrayed in them can inspire violence carried out in real life situations.
Real life situations like the most recent mass shooting in America, only one of a number of such incidents to which some have tried to portion blame on the video games these young men played. One media journalist even suggested in the aftermath of the tragedy that ‘gamers should be monitored in some way’, as if we are all made inherently susceptible to violence and murder by the games we play. Perhaps as some sections of the media realise they can’t make a credible case for the banning of video games as an entertainment product (as has been said, it’s much too profitable for that to actually happen – so rest easy, gamers), they will see fit to turn their attention on an easier target: gamers themselves (still rest easy gamers, they don’t have much of a case, as we’re about to see).
First of all, it’s not hard to spot the common denominator in these tragic cases. They all (at least the major ones we hear about) happened in the United States of America. Which makes me think one of three things. Either, one: video games, when they are released in North America, contain some sort of subliminal messaging the rest of us don’t seem to get, that tells its gamers of a slightly less stable disposition to go out and copy exactly what they’re seeing. Or two: Americans are simply less educated than the rest of us and some of them can’t tell the difference between a game and reality.
Finally, three: failing the first two, which I don’t in the slightest think are true, America as a country must do something the rest of us don’t. Because the rest of us are buying the same games these guys are buying, short of an international conspiracy which hates Americans and therefore throws in a little extra just for them (probably not impossible, granted). The rest of us can see that America has also produced some of the greatest minds on Earth. So what are the real differences we see when we look across our shores? What makes these incidents so few and far between in the United Kingdom, for example, compared with the States?
I have one little difference that shows where this debate should really be had: availability of guns. Guns are freely available to purchase in stores across the States to those who pass background checks thanks to the Constitution’s Second Amendment. But we all know the main problem with ‘background checks’: everyone starts off in life with a clean one, just as every criminal once started with a clean record. Hopefully the bad eggs reveal themselves while growing into the monster they could one day become, but what if they are smarter, more resourceful, or just suddenly go totally psychotic without warning?
This isn’t just a law I’m talking about. There is a reason, you know, why Rockstar North, a games development company based in Edinburgh, Scotland, sets its crime-heavy Grand Theft Auto series in large American states, and it’s not just to do with their target audience or beauty of the environment (why, I actually think the Scottish Highlands would be a very beautiful place to set the next game… which is probably why they haven’t called me back). It’s because, like it or not, the games are sort of semi-realistic in their portrayal of the ‘land of the free’, where the idea of a right to ‘protection’ makes it all too easy for a firearm to end up in the wrong hands. I’m not saying the ease with which you can acquire a gun in the game is true of real life, but I’d daresay it’s at least hyper-representative of it.
Hollywood didn’t become the central hub for criminal and gangster movies in the 1930s by chance. They were partially based on real experiences at the time, or a few years beforehand. Everything is. Of course, entertainment mediums like movies and games romanticise these aspects of American culture. They have to; this is what bridges the gap between entertaining and depressing, between escapism and your day job. It is this romanticised version that you pay for because you enjoy watching or playing something that, if it was real, you wouldn’t find half as entertaining.
So I guess what I am saying in a roundabout way is that when American journalists criticise a game like Call of Duty, or a game like Grand Theft Auto, I’m thinking hypocrisy, because from where do these games get their inspiration if not from the wars that their own country has fought, or the broken society outside their front door? Games that portray reality as well as modern titles do will always offend. Should they be banned for doing that, when many artists in other industries strive to do the same? They should not, and will not be.
Of course we have already recognised that in our introduction. The point here is arguably not the games, but the gamers who play them. Should we be monitored? In the sense that it is good to be accountable to others for our actions, yes. But there is a big misunderstanding going on here, that this kind of media reaction is always guilty of fostering.
That is; just because there do exist violent video games played by those with slightly unhealthy violent tendencies, is not to say that all games, and therefore all gamers, have this quality. This is a mistake made by most outside the industry (even if ‘violence’ is not your vice), not least by certain politicians who haven’t taken the time to look at the actual gaming industry themselves and instead make all of their judgments based on carefully selected news stories or the occasional bad personal experience. I wonder how seasoned Gran Turismo veterans, or conscientious Final Fantasy fans, or even the good old-fashioned storyteller will feel about being told in the near future that they are a perceived threat to society because of their innocent hobby?
You see, many of these players do not just think of gaming as a bit of violent escapist fun. They see it as art. Their hobby is as important to them as reading once was to educated people. And they are just as offended when someone stands up in court and says ‘a game made me do it’ as the rest of you. In fact, they are more so, because unlike most of the people giving their judgments on the subject, they’re the ones who really understand the industry. They’re the ones who really live it.
Do I think violence in video games can inspire violence in real life then? I would say absolutely, anything can do that. Hearing Justin Bieber’s voice over the air waves is enough to inspire violence in many people. But anyone who thinks a game can be the sole source of that inclination is not thinking straight. Mass shootings in America would, I bet, become a lot less frequent if the gun part was removed from the equation and a few other things added in, such as a good group of friends or stable upbringing. Is there no way for us to enforce that? I didn’t think so, but until we can do better in that department, tragedies will happen with or without gaming’s influence.