Friday, February 01, 2013

Maybe violent video games can be harmful. Maybe we should find out.

But today we know that a portion of every dollar spent on triple-A military-themed video games flows into the pockets of small arms manufacturers, either directly through licence payments, or indirectly through advertising. These beneficiaries include Barrett in the US and FN in France. They may include other controversial arms dealers, such as Israel Weapon Industries, creator of the TAR-21, which appears in Call of Duty. Such deals politicise video games in tangible yet hidden ways. Consumers have, for the past few years, unwittingly funded arms companies that often have their own military agendas.

You all know how that goes, that spiral of defensiveness when someone questions something you take for granted.
When Wayne LaPierre took the stage on December 21 to deliver the NRA’s response to the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, all I wanted to hear from him was a little introspection. A little humility. I wouldn’t have expected him to gnash his teeth, rend his garments, and renounce his life’s work by calling for a blanket ban on all firearms. I just wanted to hear an acknowledgement that, when such violent acts occur, we all need to take a hard look at ourselves and ask what we can do to prevent them from happening again. 

That’s not what happened. Instead, I heard grandiose statements that were indistinguishable from parody. The immortal line, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” sounded like it might have been from the winning essay in the NRA’s Lil’ Patriots essay contest, written by Wayne LaPierre, age 8. LaPierre’s case for the NRA was so hideously self-defeating, so ugly and off-putting to all but the most ardent pro-2A ideologues, one honestly might have believed that he was a double agent working for the Brady Campaign.

Of course, as part of his attempt to exonerate America’s gun culture from any culpability in firearm-related crime, LaPierre fingered video games as the true culprit. And why not? These kids today, with their Mortal Kombat and their Night Trap, why, they’re nothing but bloodthirsty savages, killing for the fun of it and fashioning sports coats from their victims’ skin. Gamers were incensed. They denounced LaPierre for daring to suggest that violent games could contribute to a culture that glorifies violence. Just like him, they knew that they had done nothing wrong. They knew someone else was to blame.

And so, for the past month, as the Vice President has recommended a multifaceted approach to preventing gun violence that included studying the effects of violent games, the drumbeat from self-pitying gamers has been unceasing. Games aren’t the problem! Games don’t cause violence! We’re the real victims here!

I’ve been reading this stuff non-stop, but what I haven’t seen much of from my cohort is the same thing I wanted to see from Wayne LaPierre. Introspection. Humility. An honest accounting of whether the culture we are so much a part of might bear some responsibility for the latest in a string of gun massacres, and whether we have any power to prevent the next one. When someone asks if games are a factor, we are, in essence, plugging our ears and shouting “NA NA NA I CAN’T HEAR YOU!”

We participate in a culture that glorifies violence, and a society that enables it. You can rage against this fact all you want, but it doesn’t change it. Once, I read an article about traffic patterns, and a quote in it has stuck with me. It was something like: “Everybody thinks they’re in traffic. Nobody thinks they are traffic.” Simple, but profound. When you find yourself stuck in a traffic jam, rarely do you stop to think that part of the reason the congestion exists in the first place is because your car is on the road. The same is true of our culture. Like it or not, by playing violent games, we are helping to sustain this culture. And, as Simon Parkin reported in the article linked at the top of this post, by buying violent games, we are enabling it.

Now, before we go any further, I want to stop and re-assure you that we are most likely on the same side. I’m not advocating censorship of our games, I don’t think Call of Duty is training the next generation of thrill killers, and I‘d rather not gut the First Amendment in order to preserve the Second. I suspect that untreated mental health problems, access to guns, the social safety net, alcohol and drugs, child abuse, and a million other things are likely to be greater drivers than video games in the development of mass murderers. I’m after something more subtle, here. I want to do the same thing I want LaPierre and his ilk to do: to look, honestly and without agenda, at our pastime and its effects. I want to know more about what effect the games I am playing are having on me, and what effect they may have on my son.

To that end, I was intrigued when Kotaku’s Jason Schreier dug up a treasure trove of studies that attempted to find a link between gaming and violence. It’s fascinating reading, but ultimately unsatisfactory, because all of the studies cited are measuring an immediate aggression response to games, which is not the same thing. I didn’t need a bunch of scientists to tell me that games can cause short-term adrenaline spikes – I’ve got a bin full of shattered controllers to prove it.  

But that’s beside the point. What’s at issue here is the effect prolonged exposure to violent media has on the human mind, particularly a developing one. If a long-term study has been done, I’m not aware of it. We can all agree that playing a game of Grand Theft Auto won’t make a hitherto peaceful person rev up the car and mow down a crowd of pedestrians. But can you say for sure that a lifetime spent consuming violent media has no negative effect on a person? Is it impossible or even unreasonable to wonder if too much time spent playing violent games might hamper a kid’s emotional development?

Video games tend to favor swift, disproportionate responses to obstacles, and almost always demand violent solutions to problems. They tend to sort characters neatly into one of two categories, good or bad.  A kid who learns most of what he knows about making his way through life from playing games could very well grow to lack empathy, be quick to embrace aggressive solutions to problems, and more apt to view other people as antagonists. I’m not saying this is definitely the case. I’m saying it sounds like a fair question, and a testable hypothesis.

It’s important to remember that we’re talking about probability here. Obviously, playing violent video games does not, by itself, cause people to kill other people, because millions of us do play violent video games and have never even been in a fistfight. But saying so should not allow us to elide the deeper question. Frankly, I am not convinced that playing violent games can be ruled out as one of many contributing factors to violent behavior, especially since so many of these spree killers do seem to have spent a lot of time on the Xbox. What we need to know is what all of the risks are, and to what extent each one contributes to the making of a murderer.

Look at it this way: smoking cigarettes is not a guarantee that you will die of heart disease. Many people who don’t smoke will get heart disease. Some people who do smoke will never get heart disease (many people, actually). Yet it’s indisputably true that smoking cigarettes raises your risk of getting heart disease. That’s what we don’t know the answer to: does playing violent video games raise your risk of committing a violent crime?

And if so, can we identify what that risk is, and where it fits within a matrix of risk factors? In the same way that many unhealthy living habits work together to cause heart disease, along with genetics, so too could a variety of contributing factors cause someone to commit a crime. If we know what those factors are, and how to weight them against one another, then we’re closer to preventing them from happening at all.

Besides which, as defenders of the realm, we’re in such a rush to assure one another that video games don’t affect people that we end up contradicting ourselves. When Senator Lamar Alexander said that violent video games are a problem because “video games affect people,” he was roundly mocked from the usual quarters. And yet it’s hardly controversial among gamers that games do affect us. We talk about games that made us cry, games that made us think, games that made us feel guilty. More to the point, every time a study comes out that suggests a possible benefit to playing games, we fucking trumpet that shit to the skies. (Even if it turns out not to be true.)

There’s more. Many of us believe in the educational potential of games, whether through overtly educational software like newsgames or, more obliquely, by learning how to strategize, prioritize, and think laterally in order to accomplish objectives in even the least educational games. Steven Johnson wrote an entire book that argued that video games, along with other increasingly complex media, are making the average person smarter. Whether or not any of this is true, I don’t know for sure. (Intuitively, I do buy it -- the kind of strategic thinking required to get through a game like XCOM makes my head spin).  But I do know that I don’t typically read tweets calling people idiots for thinking games could provide such benefits. Of course not -- because viewing games as a wholly positive force doesn’t require us to contemplate a world in which they might have to change at a fundamental level.

Of course there are witch hunters out there. They’re the ones who tend to get the press -- and they’re also the ones with an agenda. They want to shirk responsibility for tragedies like the one that occurred in Newton. They exaggerate the possible dangers of games, using them as a way to deflect attention from that which they are struggling to protect. They’re wrong to do so, but their wrongness doesn’t give us the right to do the same thing. I think we’re better than that.

Unfortunately, gamers, we’ve got something in common with the NRA. We’re terrified of losing the thing that we love. Wayne LaPierre’s entire life is devoted to preserving unfettered gun rights at all costs, and so he lashes out like a cornered animal when it seems like that goal is in danger. So too do we dismiss anybody who dares to suggest that our pastime could be hiding potential dangers. Our reasons are purely selfish. If they come for our games, what will we have left? We can't even imagine.
Yes, I want studies to be done. I want to know if violent video games are a contributing factor to real-life violence. I don’t want that research to come at the expense of exploring and treating other causes, but studying violent media is a sensible part of a broader approach to diagnosing and treating potential perpetrators of gun violence.

It’s win-win: if it can be proven that games have no deleterious effect whatsoever, then it would be great to cross them off the list as we continue to address the real problems. And if it turns out that there is a definitive link, even a minor one, between consumption of violent media and engaging in violent acts – hell, even if it can be proven that playing games causes any neurological change -- I want to know that too, for the same reason I’d want to know if there were chemicals in my drinking water. Knowledge is a good thing. I’m not afraid of what we might find.

Are you?