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You Can’t Have Your Cake and Eat It Too

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With the recent tragedies in our nation, our 24-hour news organizations are doing their usual pointing of fingers straight at the media (or in this case video games) as a contributing factor. They’re stating that games are training tools or sources of inspiration for mass murders. Games are accused of desensitizing unwary gamers into believing that shooting someone doesn’t actually kill them, or that other humans aren’t any better or different than a series of polygons on a screen. The list goes on.

Gamers and defenders of the media are quick to point out how ludicrous many of these claims are. Not only that, but data seems to be on our side. We pull out quotes like this:

“This analysis does not find support for either a causal or correlational link between violent media and subsequent aggression in viewers. Why the belief of media violence effects persists despite inherent weaknesses of research is somewhat of an open question.”

(Ferguson, Christopher J. and John Kimburn. “The Public Health Risks of Media Violence: A Meta-Analytic Review.”Journal of Pediatrics 154 (2009): 759-763. Web. 10 Aug. 2011.)

We’re also quick to point out the other great benefits we can gain from games. They allow gamers to make out details in clutter and manage events faster, and they can help players overcome fears of arachnophobia and deal with complex mental issues like OCD. Hell, games can even help people deal with pain. Science, it seems, is on the side of gaming.

Yet while we as gamers are quick to point out the science and positive benefits of our beloved hobby, we should be demanding the same honesty of ourselves as we demand from the pundits in the 24-hour news cycle. We have to ask ourselves if the positive benefits we get from games can also be used for the wrong reasons. The answer is yes, but that doesn’t invalidate the good or make games any less of a potentially positive or artistic medium.

For example, let’s take the fact that video games quicken reflexes. That’s a fantastic benefit that can help many people from surgeons to athletes to drivers. It can also, in theory, be used to help gunmen. The same goes for the ability to pick out specific items from clutter, and any other host of benefits we get from games.

Can games inspire someone to kill? Despite the way the media presents it, the answer is no. But we also need to be cognizant of the capability of games to affect behavior. Just as games are being used to help someone overcome their fears, another game could in theory be created to inspire someone to kill or to dehumanize specific demographics or groups. Just as these games theoretically
desensitize players to their fears, a game could theoretically be made to desensitize someone to the thought of killing. We must also be aware of games designed for propaganda. Hell, America’s Army was a fun game, but let’s be honest: it was a propagandistic game designed to convince players to join the US Army.

If we are simultaneously saying games have no impact on behavior when negative attention is drawn while at the same time touting the behavioral benefits of games, we are speaking out of both sides of our mouth. We are being dishonest.

What matters and what the media is missing is this: games as a medium aren’t what drive someone to desensitization, or to murder, just as books or movies can’t do this either, no matter how violent or repugnant they are. At the same time, Catcher in the Rye can trigger something in a man predisposed to violence that makes him want to kill John Lennon. That isn’t the fault of the
book or of J.D. Salinger. That’s also certainly no reason to ban the book or to create a registry of people who buy the book.

This is probably a strange case for a game critic to be making, but it’s one we need to sit down with together as a sub-culture and understand. Games are amazing. They can be a wonderful tool and bring about a whole lot of positive change. At the same time, we must recognize the possibility that any potential benefits that we earn from any activity can be used for evil, and this includes gaming. We have to remain critical of our own medium and ask, “What are the consequences of playing this game?”

If we aren’t mindful of what our games are saying, or the full mental impact of what we play, or even if we insist that nothing bad can ever happen, we are disrespecting the medium by turning a blind eye to all of its influence and risk allowing the worst to happen unchecked. As a community, if we are to always jump to defend games from improper criticism, we also have to be the first to criticize our medium when it is deserved.

The art of video games is refining itself all the time, and as the medium matures we must as well. If we want to be respected as a community of adults and a powerhouse industry bursting with innovation, then we can’t turn a blind eye to all the potential negative possibilities. We have to be responsible and address them head on, accept them, and be objective consumers no matter how passionate we are.

About Stephen Crane

Stephen was hooked by the NES at a very young age and never looked back. He games on a daily basis and is currently trying to climb his way up the ranked ladder on League of Legends! Outside of the video game world he actually likes running and owns a rapidly growing collection of toed shoes. Stephen Crane is the owner of Armed Gamer.