Friday, February 11, 2011

Why Violent Video Games?

When I was a kid I used to play video games where 'killing' was involved, and they ran the spectrum of 'innocence' from Super Mario Brothers (where you are simply squishing mushrooms and strange creatures into invisibility) to James Bond (where the whole game is geared around shooting people for some reason that you have bought into for the purposes of the adventure). Probably there are extremes further on the spectrum on either side, but that's my range of personal experience. I don't recall that these made me particularly more violent than I would have been otherwise (although I'm not sure), nor do I remember being all that cognizant of any moral issues involved in what I was doing (but perhaps it is because no one prompted me to). All in all, it was fairly 'innocent', I suppose.

Nowadays I simply don't play video games at all anymore. There came a point where I couldn't keep up with the gamers and simply wasn't good enough for it to be fun. Fine. This isn't about me.

We have a seven year old and a six year old who play video games and who are increasingly aware of the options available to them. More and more the attractive options are the games their friends talk about at school, and more and more these involve violent scenarios where the player is mainly interested in shooting others.

What I want to know is this: Does anyone actually consider this a good thing? Does anyone think about it? Or has everyone thought about it and come up with a better rationale for it than I have been able to come up with?

Now, to be clear, I am not a Luddite nor a home-schooler. If you want to argue for something in that direction I'm open to hear it, but you should know that (while I imagine there are scenarios where home-schooling is the best option) I am heavily resistant to the general idea that Christianity recommends we shield our kids at all costs from the messiness of their societal context. As the kids grow in discernment I want to give them an increasing range of freedom to meet the world and to exercise those muscles of (preferably Christian) discernment further; even to be positive influences in their respective realms. Thus, while I can't think of any good reason for the existence of Lego Star Wars on the Nintendo, I have been able to come up with good reasons to allow our kids to play that game (albeit not others).

They know we don't think violence is the answer. They know we think shooting is a very-worst-case scenario. I think they even know why we think that. They know we let them play this particular game if they want to because it is fictional robots and lego characters rather than real people. They know that the moment we get the sense that it is transferring into a violent approach to real people they will have to take some time away from the video game to restore some sanity.

They know all this, I think, and we haven't even had to nag them (much) - just return to it from time to time. We are making a concession, but I hope we are doing so in a potentially redeeming way that turns it into as a discernment exercise and a teaching opportunity (hopefully without being overbearing).

Of course, I am fully aware of the fact that when I was a kid I didn't really think much about the killing that was going on in video games so I should probably not make a big deal out of it as if the kids are bloodthirsty for wanting to play them. There is, admittedly, a kind of innocence about kids that can actually make the games themselves sort of innocent.

But, let's face it, we'd be pretty naive if we dismissed the possibility that the movies and video games that children spend hours on may in some way effect reactive and instigative outbursts of violence in child-play and relationships. We'd also be pretty naive if we pretended that the hours they spend now aren't in some way shaping their worldview.

Certainly, 'rough-housing' and so on is probably a natural part of growing up, and so I think there is a mode and an extent to which this is appropriate on the playground and maybe even on-screen. But how we could then turn around and argue that a shoot-em-up video game is healthy in that regard is beyond me. And what unhealthy habits and approaches are spurred on unnecessarily and undiscerningly by such brain-feed?

I don't mean this as a criticism of other people's parenting decisions. I am asking an open question. Is there something good (or neutral) about violent video games that I am completely unaware of? Let's not pretend this is just a parenting question, either, even though in my case that's all it is. I know plenty of adults play these games.

My question is: Why? Without going all the way back to moral viewpoints and Christian values and such (since I imagine you can guess what they are), I've given some perspective on where I'm coming from and what my concerns and my leanings are. But I do want to make it an open question and hear out the possible answers. How is it enjoyable in the least to commit 'virtual murders'? And even if it is mildly enjoyable, how is it good? Is it neutral, harmless, or otherwise justifiable?

To be fair, I watch plenty of films and read plenty of books that contain violence. To me discernment means avoiding those films which are more interested in glorifying violence than telling a story that involves it (even depicting it rawly and brutally where necessary). My greatest respect goes to those films that can capture the disturbing effects of violence and the complexities of conflict without showing us every drop of blood and passing sword-swipe to the gut. But I've seen some garbage, I'll admit. I'm open to rebuke in that regard.

But I do think the discussion happens on another level when we move from hearing/seeing/reading a story and actually playing a part in it - in the role of a violent aggressor no less. Thus I raise the question. I don't know if anyone wants to help me with this or not.

(By the way, I've had this question in mind for a long time. Nothing has really triggered it for me recently other than the fact that what was a moot point for me personally has through my children become a live issue to think about again.)


Tony Tanti said...

You raise a lot of good points. Like you I lost track of video games but have recently played a little bit again. I have a shooting game but leave it alone in favour of playing the far superior hockey game I own.

I've read that the action in the first person shooter games triggers brain reactions similar to those an addict experiences when using the substance they are addicted to. The article I read also said that video game manufacturers design games to create this reaction. Why are the violent ones seemingly the most addicting though?

I think you're right to keep some of these games from your boys. They'll likely experience them outside of your house but I can't see them looking back as adults and saying "why didn't Mom and Dad let us pretend to murder people when we were kids?"

I also think you're right that we're naive to think these games have no effect on our view of violence.

the Doug said...

You may want to look at this study/site/book:
It deals with some of the questions, I have, as of yet, not read the book but have read some of their material.

Jon Coutts said...

Thanks Doug. From a first glance I'm not sure it is totally addressing what I'm asking (I'm not primarily concerned with the games' effects on our kids, but also the appropriateness of even playing it in the first place), but it is undoubtedly a very helpful link.

Miss Mommy said...

I never read the guys' theo blogs, but this one caught my attention on FB... :) Anyway, it reminded me of growing up and seeing way too many violent movies (my parents had few rules) and always being impatient about killing the bad guy...just get it done with already was my line of thought. I'm still surprised when in shows I'm watching the good guys try to take bad guys in alive and I very much attribute it to watching what I did.

the Doug said...

I guess I also wonder if there is a sense that video games (and I do enjoy them!) allow us to connect to a more primitive part of the human experience. Violence is obviously not new.
Does playing these games help us be the little warrior? I dunno.

We have limited the games our boys play, some of the other themes that I wonder about is how 'angry' some of the characters are, for instance the main character in the "Star Wars, the force unleashed" series. Anger/vengeance is a driving force in the game. Is that worse then shooting zombies trying to eat you? I dunno.

Trev said...

I always got so immersed in fiction (books, games and movies) that whether or not I was personally playing a roll in the story, I felt like I was, just the same.

I think most men have an inner warrior that could use an outlet. I guess the question for me is, when does an outlet become (like Tanti said) a morbid addiction.

I've seen kids rage over a failed jump in Mario brothers and I've seen grown adults rage over a failed kill in black ops. Is there a difference? Is it the game or just the gamer? I don't know...

My suspicion is that "time spent" is more crucial than "substance played".

A friend of mine (as a teenager) said he spent an entire weekend, locked in his basement playing grand tourismo. When he finally went to go for a drive, he almost found himself trying to drive between lanes to make a pass!

I think any game can become a threat to one's reality when it's over-played.

I personally think first-person shooters are useless, but easy for me to say as I've never really been into them.

I still love my video games though!

I can relate to what you're saying about early-gaming innocence. I didn't think much about killing people in goldeneye on N64. I just remember being paranoid about my friends killing me!

Justin Hubert said...

Thanks Jon, for raising the question. Every day the agency I lead works with about 100 kids from various backgrounds of abuse and neglect. They are placed in our care in the hopes that (really boiling a lot down here) when they leave they are better able to process their surroundings and make better decisions regarding the many choices they face.

We make choices every day, and, I've been saying for a while now that each choice we make does one of two things, it reinforces, or reinvents who we are. It goes with the flow of every previous experience we have had to this point, or fights against it to forge a new path.

I've been studying neurological plasticity. Basically (boiling things down again...) the study says that our brains are mouldable - plastic if you will, and that this state is constant through our lives. - Example two kids adopted from Hatti - one goes to Neufoundland, one goes to Vancover British Columbia, they meet back together in 10 years - IMAGINE THE DIFFERENCE!!!

Ok, how is this tied in? Essentially every experience we have ever had, becomes who we are today. People who have gone to church all their lives - will continue to go to church every Sunday. People who drive fast, drive fast. Loud parents have loud kids. Abused people abuse. And into this mix is a stunning thing that God also wired into the very fabric of our flesh and blood.

The ability to change.

Remember, as much as you may think they are not - our brains are still plastic and mouldable, shapable, and ready for transformation. Often, upon conversion (more predominant in those who become believers later on in life) they describe a sort of euphoria, they describe their conversion experience as changing them (so to the recommitment dynamic). God hard wired us to be soft, and receptive.

How does this tie to your question - I hope it is self evident, but I tie your question to others about violent music and the like... ya, everything we breath in through our existence we soon breath out. And no, I may not pick up a gun and kill someone after a lifetime of violent video games, but I may be an angrier person or.... well let me just say again, every experience we have, shapes who we are in the future.


P.S. one more trick - Direct this process, ask yourself, who do I want to be? and then after identifying that preferred future - forge a path year by year, month by month, week by week, day by day to be that person.

Jon Coutts said...

Thanks everybody for these comments. I agree with you Justin about things shaping us, and yet also recognize that these shapings are alterable because we can change.

I don't know if most men have an inner warrior in them or not. I don't feel like I do, and I imagine I'm not alone in feeling alienated by such descriptions of masculinity.

I also don't know if there is something primal about such violence.

In neither case have we learned anything about whether it is or is not good. In neither case have we really said anything about whether it makes for a good leisure activity (for me or my kids) to pretend we are shooting people.

I suppose there might be something to finding a safe or a positive outlet for that 'inner warrior', whether it is gender-appropriate or primal or not.

But there I think the 'moderation' and 'discernment' thing becomes pretty important. And the narrative of the game and the degree of the 'need' for the game are probably indicative of whether it is releasing some violent energy in a safe place or rehearsing that violent energy for the next moment of provocation.

I was talking to a friend last night about this and we agreed that often a shooting game (like paintball) takes on a narrative in order to add to its intensity. In other words James Bond is like a great big game of tag where your life is on the line. And that's exciting.

Fair enough, but we still have to face the fact that the narrative has to incorporate killing (and often scenes of bloody death) in order to provide that.

And whether it has an effect on our approach to life or not, I question why that sort of simulation is enjoyable. Why do we even like that? It kind of bothers me.

I've played paintball, and I feel like it is a great game of tag but the little pain and the desire to win add the intensity to it that makes it so much fun. Games that need the narrative of murder, however, I question.

I suppose I care about this because

Jon Coutts said...

... I care about issues of violence and non-violence, and wonder about the strength needed to add the option of creative non-violence and negotiation and reconciliation to our mindsets. The thing that comes naturally, the thing that comes to mind first, isn't necessarily best.

And video games are a place where we can be ingraining reflex-attitudes into our minds. Also where we can be forming attitudes about human life.

But like I said I don't mean to make it all about the 'effect' of video games either. This is not an argument connecting school shootings to video games. I think in most cases the number one factor for those 'school shooters' is their isolation. They are almost always frustrated loners who are not feeling understood and so on.

Perhaps violent rhetoric and violent video games have a hand in pushing them to their awful actions, but a society more used to seeking mutual understanding in conflict and pursuing reconciliation would undoubtedly be healthier than one where it was a celebrated and leisurely mindset to shoot first and ask questions later.

We can justify these narratives because the video game places the first person shooter in the role of the good guy in a protective role against the murderous villain, but is that really carrying the narrative? And isn't that easy-labelling of 'villain' and that easy-assumption of the role of problem-solving shooter a bit disconcerting?

Again, probably moderation and discernment are the biggest questions, and I won't pretend I can judge that for everyone. But these are my honest thoughts and questions.

Trev said...

Jon said: "In neither case have we learned anything about whether it is or is not good. In neither case have we really said anything about whether it makes for a good leisure activity (for me or my kids) to pretend we are shooting people."

See Jon, I just can't bring myself to lump you into the same category as your children. I think children are far more impressionable than adults (generally speaking), or at least a children's impressioned thoughts will manifest themselves are more of an extreme than those of their parents.

I guess where I'm going with this is that I'm playing the "age restriction/game rating" card. Now, I'm not suggesting that the ESRP gets is right all the time, and that their rating can be taken as the final word on what is/isn't approriate, but it's a great start.

So, summing up my thoughts here (scattered as they are a 7am), I think a first-person shooter is a great leisure activity for you (Jon) on the grounds that you're recognizing it as fiction, you're spending a moderate amount of time on it and it's bringing you joy (whether that joy be a direct result of the enjoyment of challenge or the sheer pleasure of mashing buttons and basking in the intensity of the game).

For your children however, I don't see any redeeming value in shooters. A young, impressionable mind could do without a narrative the teaches a "resolve-by-violence" mentality while at the same time rewarding them for spreading a massacre.

cristina said...

My insight will be far less detailed and academic - but...! I loathe the fact that killing people has taken the form of a game. Do we play games for fun?? Killing people is not a game and it seems so very wrong to me that it can be sold as that. It would be interesting to me to hear what a war veteran would say on this subject.
Also, thanks Jon, for articulating the difference between violence in a story - as a vehicle for meaning - and violence as found in certain video games.

Jon Coutts said...

I share your same basic impulse Cristina. Issues of violent video games' effect on us is an important one, but my question is probably more innocent than that. Why is killing people considered a good game?

Great question about veterans. I think of my Grandpa who to this day will not talk about his experience of war. He should be honoured for his service, but part of that honour should be for us to share his reverence for life. In his case I suspect that reverence takes the form of nightmarish recall of the things he saw and took part in. Even though (in my view) WW2 was justified, the killing that took place within it leaves a mark on the conscience that (I suspect) is not easily relieved.

The best war movies help me to understand that. The worst ones make me forget it. And video games seem to celebrate the very thing of nightmares, all for a cheap thrill.

maggie said...

I haven't had time to read through all the comments but as a teacher who has worked with 'troubled' teenagers one observation I have made is that these games are so two dimensional its hard for the player to grasp reality. The player plays the games, engages in slaughter then walks away with no obvious consequence to get a snack or drink. They then engage in some similar action (hitting out rather than wholesale slaughter)at school and are horrified and indignant when there are consequences to them personally as a direct result of their actions - very different to what happens in the video game! Is it going too far to say then that playing video games can dull the conscience?

Jon Coutts said...

That's very interesting Maggie and I share the same suspicions that in many cases the video games (as other media) may indeed by dulling the conscience. Granted, I imagine different kids will be able to 'handle' different levels of exposure to such things, so legalism in this regard is not the direction I'd want to take it. In fact, one could even argue that some exposure to violence in media might be utilized in the edification of a child's conscience, prodding it to think sensitively about such matters. I can see how literature and movies might be useful to this end, but I fail to see how violent video games can be quite so helpful. Perhaps there is a way to keep it 'innocent', but I am more suspicious of this form of media.

Many mornings when I drop my kids off at school I see children 'rough-housing' and play fighting. It is not always easy to tell when it is play or when it is real. I actually broke up a fight one day and ever since I think those kids have been more cautious around me. However, I think at times they've also been surprised that I've let them carry on right next to me. And what I am always watching for is whether the parties involved are mutually willing to have their little wrestling match. I think that actually 'fighting' might be far preferable to 'virtual fighting' because, as you say, one is mindful of the consequences. It hurts to get punched and it even hurts to punch.

Just some thoughts springing from your insights Maggie. Thanks for sharing.

Gamers Lounge said...

I always think about how video games negatively affect gamers. Well, I’ve never known anyone play violent video game then go commit a murder or steal from someone, most people I know are drunk or high when they do those things. :P