My feelings have evolved around video games and violence since I was a younger man. I’m going to try very hard not to make this piece be reductive and oversimplified – I’m married to a psychiatrist and am a psychology major myself, and I take pains to note nuances. This is not a “playing violent video games make children into school shooters” sort of post, although I believe there’s a relationship there. This is also not a “ban all violent video games” post – consenting adults have a right to whatever sort of entertainment they want, and anyway violence in video games is only part of a larger tapestry of violent media. What I hope to make this is a piece on the lazy, extreme over-use of violence in games and how it’s warping and desensitizing us when it comes to actual, real violence in the world.
It’s not a stretch to say that I grew up on video games. I was born in 1973 and came of age in the era of the earliest home consoles. I’ve played hundreds of hours on so many platforms – Atari, Coleco, Apple ][c, MacOS, Windows, iOS, Nintendo everything. I’ve played all types – strategy (Zelda, StarCraft), puzzle (Myst, Tetris, Portal 1/2), action/adventure (Rygar, Mario Bros., Blaster Master), massive multiplayer online (World of Warcraft) and of course combat (Quake, Doom, Marathon, Mortal Kombat, Contra). My children are frequently awed at how good I am at any game right off the bat, even though I remind them of the enormous amount of practice I’ve had in my 44 years of life. My wife and I have had many conflicts over the amount of time spent gaming. My interest surges now and again as new games are released – I had a massive World of Warcraft problem years ago, mercifully kicked after our third child was born. More recently have spent many hours playing the new Zelda game and Cities: Skylines. My current mission is to decide, based on exhaustive research, which VR headset to purchase so we can delve into that realm. 16 years ago I even wrote my Masters thesis on the effects of video games on modern society. So you could say that I’m just a little into gaming. (As I write this it seems excessive even to me, except for the thesis part which I’m kind of proud of.)
I have passed this interest on to my children. Ever since he was 3 my son (now 13) has gamed – first it was iOS games like Angry Birds, then games on the Wii/Wii U, although I’ll say that many of these are very social games that we played as a family (Wii Fit, Mario Kart). He was delighted to discover my old Gameboy Advance SP tucked away in a cupboard, and most recently he bought himself a Gameboy Color just for completeness. He’s now buying up Pokémon games old and new (Sun and Moon, Black and White, etc.). A couple of years ago he bought a Nintendo 3DS XL, and last year (with a heroic midday mall assist by Dad) he bought a Nintendo Switch. I’m still coming back from that one with his mother. Suffice it to say that he’s totally into gaming, retro and otherwise, and it’s something we share. My 10 year-old daughter is now into simulation games – The Sims 4, Cities:Skylines, and House Flipper are her current faves. She and I built a gaming PC to better support this habit, and we really enjoy playing together and working out problems. It’s a bit early to say about our nearly 7 year-old, but she does really enjoy playing Sims with her big sister and has watched me build an online city as recently as this morning. As an avid gamer, I’d say my work here is done.
In absolute terms we are living in a time of unprecedented peace. The rates of violent deaths per 100,000 have declined dramatically – for context, scroll through the 18 slides of this presentation: The Visual History of Decreasing War and Violence. Go ahead, do it – I’ll wait.
Fascinating, no? What it must have been like to live hundreds of years ago, especially in non-state societies. Not only was there no modern medicine, which meant children and women dying as much as men, but there must have been wars and tribal conflicts all the time. In an environment like this even children must have been exposed to seriously violent injuries and deaths, in real life – what must this have done to their psyches? The stats alone tell us – they grew up to be violent just like the previous generations. It wasn’t until organized nation-states and democratic government came about relatively recently that things really settled down. Now you rarely see two democratic states go to war with each other, and the death rates even from our modern wars and genocides are nothing in comparison with prior centuries’. It’s a very good, very non-violent time to be alive, historically speaking!
Yet here we are – in the U.S., 154 mass shootings have happened since 1966. Our firearm-related injuries and deaths topped 31,000 in 2017, and 733 children aged 0-11 were killed by guns. Over 21,000 people commit suicide here annually, more than half of them using guns. (Firearm suicides are 90% effective, whereas other methods are 90% ineffective.) We have a President who has literally advocated violence against protesters at his own rallies, and turned a blind eye to (even praised) racist thugs beating brown people. Reduced or not, violence surrounds us in our news and society, and I don’t think there’s anyone arguing that it’s a healthy thing.
The Popularity of Violent Video Games
Now let’s get back to video games. The story that prompted this post was about the major PC game platform Steam and a leak of data that “allowed observers to generate extremely precise and publicly accessible data for the total number of players for thousands of Steam games.” Unlike TV viewership, platforms like Steam don’t typically release statistics like these, regarding them as competitive secrets much like Netflix regards its own ratings numbers. But a flaw in some of Steam’s coding allowed outside developers to figure these numbers out quite precisely using some nifty math. (Caveat: It’s an incomplete list since the leak was only for games with “Achievements”, so games without those are not represented, but most major games have Achievements so we can take this as a fairly accurate list.) Take a look at the top 20 games:
It’s easier to list the games above that do not include violence as a core gameplay mechanic: Portal 2, Sid Meier’s Civilization V, Rocket League, Portal. That’s it – four games out of twenty, just under 46 million players (fewer in absolute humans since undoubtedly there’s overlap). That’s only 12% of the players in the top 20 games that favor non-violent games over violent ones.
Note: Garry’s Mod is a bit of an outlier here, since it’s a modification of a shooting game (Half-Life) that turns it into a physics simulation. Normally I think physics simulations are super-cool (see: Kerbal Space Program), but if you watch YouTube videos of gameplay you’ll see that a) the player carries some sort of gun in front of him/her constantly, and b) people still use it to model violent scenarios and/or shoot things. It also lacks an ESRB rating because it’s technically a mod and not a standalone game, Therefore I’m going rogue and classifying it as violent.
Again I will say that I’m not heading in a “ban all violent video games” directions. Gaming is escapism and fantasy, and there’s validity in that mode of entertainment. Games have ratings just like movies, and ostensibly games rated “M for Mature” are not that easy for young kids to purchase. But anyone who has spent time playing online or watching Twitch can tell you that young kids are swarming over the most violent games, and more often than not their parents are allowing it. This has a self-sustaining effect on multiple levels – because the community overwhelming lives in these top games, everyone goes there to play online. Because the games are so widely played and have been for years now, a generation of game developers has grown up predominantly playing violent games. Because these games are generating tens of millions of dollars in revenues, more than some Hollywood blockbuster, we see major development houses being risk averse and channeling their resources into violent sequels or new titles that remain violence-based. Search for “gaming industry running out of ideas” and you’ll see articles dating back 8-10 years or more – once this became a huge-money business developers got seriously lazy. Trouble is, “lazy” equates to “violent,” since that’s what they know and that’s what sells. Not to mention the rampant sexism! I encourage you to watch the entirety of “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” for an eye-opening look at the sexism and underrepresentation of girls and women in gaming.
The Role of Parents
The range of parental involvement runs the gamut – many worry about it, some ban them outright, and others give their children complete, unsupervised access to all games. You might think, given my history, that I’d be on the more permissive end of the spectrum, and relative to my wife I am. We both play games, I more than she, and we’ve of course allowed our children ample access to platforms and games of their choosing. BUT, there are definite limits. During the school year we don’t allow gaming on weekdays, and on weekends we restrict it to 30-60 minutes per day. Most importantly, however, I’ve declared a ban on violent, gun-based games (with an exception for Zelda: Breath of the Wild due to the fantasy nature and lack of actual guns; also, that game is a total masterpiece.) I believe that it’s every parent’s role to become thoroughly familiar with the content of the games their children are playing, and not to take their word for it. If we’re responsible for the TV and movies they watch we sure as heck better be responsible for the content games and YouTube videos. Because being familiar with that content means being able to have a conversation about some of the more edgy material that lies within. In our house we’ve had interesting car discussions on the difference between Link shooting fantasy monsters with a bow as compared to a more realistic Fortnite player picking up a sniper rifle and
picking off shooting other players in the head at a distance. (Language matters. Realism matters. Talking in the car matters!)
Why have I done this? Firstly, I’ve become hugely anti-handgun in my old age – ever since the Virginia Tech shooting I’ve been a proponent of stronger gun control, handgun bans, assault weapon bans, and generally raising awareness of the prevalence of gun violence in this country. The more I’ve written about and been active in this cause the more that the normalcy of guns, shooting, and bloody death in video games has struck me as jarring and upsetting. How can we as a culture write hang-wringing pieces about school shootings alongside glowing reviews of the latest gory shooters? What does it say about us that we tacitly accept the staggering amount of shooting and killing in fantasy realms while decrying the real-world equivalent? Watch a popular TV show or movie with this in mind and note how people wielding weapons and shooting “bad guys” is so common it’s almost offhandedly portrayed. Then watch a news report about Parkland and the horror of children lying in bloody pools in the hallways, or the Capital Gazette accounts of reporters stepping over their dead colleagues while fleeing the killing ground that was once merely their office. The contract is almost unbearable.
I cannot in good conscience hold these positions and also allow my son to play games like Fortnite or Call of Duty. Fortunately he gets this and is okay with it, mostly because he likes being an iconoclast at school but also because he’s internalizing our rhetoric about gun violence. But are all parents having these conversations, or drawing these comparisons so vividly? If we don’t give our children insight into the cultural contradictions we’re faced with literally daily, how will they develop the ability to discriminate between responsible escapism and irresponsible, bloodthirsty virtual atrocities? Exhibit A is the “active shooter video game” that was briefly released and then with drawn – what a fascinating contradiction that story was. So a game about stealing cars and shooting prostitutes is acceptable (and huge enough to have 4 sequels and counting) but a game that simulates shooting schoolchildren is somehow beyond the pale? Do schoolchildren matter that much more than prostitutes? What about a game where someone shoots up a school full of prostitutes? Or merely grown women? Or an automotive school? Would those be acceptable? This is not a binary situation here, folks – the spectrum of what is accepted and what isn’t is a very slippery slope indeed. (One could make a lot of money on a game that lies right on those boundaries; it’s only a matter of time before someone does.)
We need to decide, as a culture, not only how much violence is acceptable but what context we put it in and what kinds of discussions we have about it. I believe that living with a constant backdrop of “imaginary” shooting and killing leaves us dangerously desensitized to the real thing, something that our outsized reaction to the “active shooter” game paradoxically demonstrates. It’s as if we need to overreact to a game to remind ourselves that the real violence is truly REAL. If only our overwhelming reaction to the real shootings paralleled the universal condemnation of the fantasy depictions – absent actual crime scene pictures of dead elementary school students lying in pools of their own blood, we can all be outraged at pixelated renderings of them. We must never, ever allow our children to become inured to the real problem of gun violence in America because they are permitted to endlessly shoot and kill on a screen, and we should make every effort to withhold these experiences from them until they are mature enough to understand the difference.