So I got involved in a debate online recently about violence in video games, in the aftermath of the latest shooting tragedy in the US. The debate itself was over at Paul Strikwerda’s blog. I’d suggest reading the initial post and comments over at Paul’s blog, as I won’t try to reframe Paul’s argument here and risk putting words in his mouth. I did find the debate short and disappointing though, which is why I wanted to take the time to think things through and post a wall of text over here.
First, the caveats: Paul appears to be a great guy, he’s tremendously talented and prodigious in his output. This post isn’t attacking him, but rather picking at some flawed thinking and hand-wringing around a topic I’m rather concerned about. Whether violence in video games and media in general affects us on some deeper level is something I care a lot about. I’ve cheerfully consumed violent media for most of my life, and while I don’t personally believe that media has a harmful effect, or that children are so fogged in their thinking that they can’t separate reality from fantasy, I try to keep an active interest in the other side of the argument. Confirmation bias is something worth striving against.
That’s part of why my partner and I snapped up the chance to attend a couple of presentations at PAX 2012 by Dr Tyler Black and Dr Matthew Chow looking at videogames, family, addiction and a few other things besides. Both presentations highlighted a frustrating problem: that the debate around video games and any societal damage they cause gets buried in mountains of flawed science, published to grab headlines and create sound bites. Often an intrinsically flawed initial study will then be cited by subsequent studies in the same area as empirical truth, to build on the same unproven argument.
Scientific studies are prone to manipulation in order to produce a desired result, and it takes a trained eye to pick apart the flaws and shortcuts. Delusions of Gender is packed with examples of this. Cordelia Fine gleefully tears apart reams of bad science propping up another of society’s great myths: that men and women just think differently. So it’s not enough to just look at the findings of a study. You really need to pick through their methods and citations to really trust a study. And know what you’re looking for. And boy, that’s time-intensive. That’s why I try to file ideas mentally under ‘Sounds interesting, further research required’ or work off networks of trust and credibility.
In the comments section of Paul’s post, there’s the disturbing trend of people chiming in with “I believe the brain works this way, just because”. Without science behind them, unfounded opinions on neuroscience are interesting, but pointless. And while our brains do rewire themselves constantly to process information, there’s no research (that I’m aware of) that suggests that we’re actively influenced by all of the information we process.
Your Brain At Work explores this as a tangent to the core material of the book. So while your brain might shuffle the information stored to make room for a particular fact, or update a semantic network of links to associated information, or whatever it is it’s doing, there’s no evidence suggesting that you’re being reprogrammed like some sort of Manchurian Candidate. If that were the case, then psychological manipulation like advertising or NLP would be redundant.
Gun violence is a knotty, complicated problem tangled up in a likely web of societal causes. I’m not going to claim to know the answer by any stretch. But I doubt there’s one isolated factor we can set apart from everything else and say “That’s IT!”. What I do know though is that for a long time a popular response to these problems has been to be loudly and conspicuously morally outraged at some scapegoat key cause, whether it’s comic books, or rock and roll, or Dungeons and Dragons, or video games, as the scapegoat du jour. This interview with Marilyn Manson from Bowling with Columbine sums it up beautifully. Please, listen right until Manson’s last comment. It’s well worth the time invested.
And this is the part of this whole recurring argument that starts to get my blood boiling. This kind of hand-wringing, “Won’t someone think of the kids” response does no one any good. If anything, it does more harm than good, because it clouds the more difficult conversations about getting down to root causes and dealing with the actual problems. Dressing up a political or moral preference in dodgy neuroscience is even worse, because it creates a veneer of respectability that needs to be picked at like a creme brulee before you realise there’s nothing solid behind it. I’ll happily go on record as saying that there is no solid, respectable science showing a causal link between video games and violence. In fact, the statistics show a general trend in the opposite direction. I’m very open to being proven wrong, though.
And this is the aspect of Paul’s post that got my hackles up enough to think over all of this for a few weeks, and then spend enough time to pen my own thoughts on the topic. Paul paints a picture of voice artists who are involved in this work as unscrupulous, ignoring the harm they are most definitely doing in exchange for fame and money. Now, I have all the respect in the world for people who clearly delineate their own moral boundaries for their work. Mahmoud Taji does this clearly and respectfully on his own website, and more power to him. But making such sweeping statements about other people’s choices is at best presumptuous, and at worst outright offensive. The point where you start prescribing objective value to something based on your subjective opinion is where you start walking on some thin ice.
If you’re offended by something the answer is more art, as Tycho from Penny Arcade put it recently. The answer isn’t censorship to remove the things we find no value in personally, but more art. More conversation. Earnest exploration of the impact of the media we’re consuming. No art form is so sacrosanct that it’s above criticism, but there needs to be a more robust reason behind looking at what should and shouldn’t be there for consumption than the fact that we find it personally grotesque. And the exploration of those boundaries are out there. Games are evolving as a medium, and there is both intelligent criticism and intelligent exploration of complex themes out there. I cannot recommend Spec Ops: The Line enough, with Brendan Keogh’s excellent critical reading of the game, Killing is Harmless for example. I’d say more on that, but I don’t want to ruin the experience.
Violent video games are not demonstrably harmful, and suggesting that the people involved in creating them are ignoring harm they’re inflicting in return for the spoils of their Faustian pact borders on arrogance. Now, as a thank you for digesting this wall of text, here’s where I provide something useful rather than my own gasbagging about the topic. Paul posited the following challenge in his post:
“Do we teach them to loathe cruelty, to engage in dialogue, to be emphatic and become kinder, more understanding and respectful citizens?
Show me one popular video game that teaches those values.
There are an increasing number of games out there providing an interesting moral sandbox for the player to explore, and that navigate those themes. I’m not going to claim that there’s one single game that meets the stated criteria, because that’s both a lofty goal to aim for, and any one game that tried to do all of those things would be the kind of preachy infotainment that kids just disengage from. But I passed around the hat to some rather savvy local peeps, and I got the following list of recommendations to explore.
There’s games with (as far as I’m aware) no violence at all:
- Animal Crossing – http://www.animal-crossing.com/
- Farmville – http://www.facebook.com/FarmVille
- Harpooned – http://harpooned.org/
- Journey – http://thatgamecompany.com/games/journey/
- Nintendogs – http://nintendogspluscats.nintendo.com/
- Professor Layton – http://professorlayton.nintendo.com/
- Superbetter – https://www.superbetter.com/
- The Sims – http://www.thesims3.com/
- Waking Mars – http://www.tigerstylegames.com/wakingmars/
- Wander – http://www.wanderthegame.com/
And then there’s a list of games that have violent content, but actively explore those virtues: