When a Game is No Longer a Game

xbox360 ControllerMy friend, Thomas Dewar, recently penned a post over at The Mudflats. It has stuck in my mind since I read it a week ago and I feel the urge to think it aloud, here.

While consuming Dewar’s words, I caught myself nodding affirmatively. This is worth noting because, immediately after finishing the post, I felt at odds with his premise. It’s not as if at the end of his essay he took a U-turn or in any way departed from his line of reasoning. How is it then that I can agree with the parts, yet not their sum?

My mind’s machinery grinded and retched and clattered and shook, but finally — after some necessary scotch greasening — I managed to find my mental footing.

Dewar comes close to analogizing flight simulators and air combat to first-person shooters and murderous rampages– and I’ll admit that I’m drastically oversimplifying his point. The premise makes sense. The military trains its members how to act and react in combat situations through endless hours of simulation. Instincts are reprogrammed, brain circuits re-routed. And, Dewar offers, a certain amount of desensitization takes place.

From there, he asks (and answers) the question, if these simulations desensitize our military do they not also desensitize the youth that spend countless hours engaged in — what I have no problem referring to as — simulated murder? Dewar doesn’t exactly make the case that violent video games by themselves can turn an otherwise “collected” child into a sociopathic killer, and even carves out special consideration for the “clinically depressed and the already distressed”. In my view, it’s that last bit that’s important.

Having grown up in a generation that was quite accustomed to having a video game controller essentially inseparable from our growing hands, I played a lot of video games. I played a lot of shooting games as well, as I watched them evolve from Contra on the NES, to GoldenEye 007 on the Nintendo 64, to today’s modern and highly realistic shooters, such as Counter-Strike (where you can play either as a counter-terrorist or a terrorist) and the many iterations of the Call of Duty franchise. Over the past few years, I’ve had little time to continue engaging in this hobby, but I have many friends with much more free time than I do that still regularly play these games. I know myself — I also like to think I have a fair grasp on who my friends are –and I resent any suggestion that our hours of video games might have somehow softened the ache our hearts feel when we are faced with real-life violence. There is simply no way that my feelings of anguish, horror, and empathetic suffering have been dulled by my interactions with pixels and algorithms, no matter how much they resemble reality. I cannot agree that video games, on their own, can turn an otherwise “normal” mind into one that can senselessly unleash tragedy upon fellow primates.

However, I am willing to cede part of my argument: President Clinton has spoken on multiple occasions about how certain types of rhetoric can reach an audience that do not have the right mental framework to distill it into an expression, not a call to arms. Increasingly the case with the advent of the internet, anything we say can easily reach both the “serious and the seriously disturbed”. He said, “There can be real consequences when what you say animates people who do things you would never do”. And I think this might be where video games can come back into the conversation.

Video games potentially have that same power of animation that violent speech can invoke. While not able to “turn” the serious, they might very well contribute to the tipping of the “seriously disturbed”.

Unfortunately, this has not left me with any appropriate response or suggestions. To react by crying for the banning of violent video games gets us no closer than crying for the destruction of all firearms in the U.S.: neither are going to happen, and trying to yell it into reality is only wasted breath. Dewar suggests maybe an affinity for violent video games becomes “declassé” and socially scorned, though I’m not sure that paradigm is close to experiencing a shift (a quick glance at top-grossing video games affirms the “success” of the first-person-shooter genre). We came back to that repetitive question about what the many are willing to give up in response to the abuse of the few.

And that, pro or con, is a line not easily drawn in a free democracy.

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