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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Education Under Arms

On December 18, the National Rifle Association released a brief statement following the tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school:

The NRA is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.
The NRA is planning to hold a major news conference in the Washington, DC area on Friday, December 21.

On Friday, one week following the Sandy Hook massacre, the executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre, held that news conference. During the conference, LaPierre had many targets to blame for the tragedy, including the staple batch of video games, movies, music, and the media. Absent from the list was guns, gun laws, or the influence of the gun lobby in Washington.

His solution? Armed security guards at every school.

I pulled some data, crunched some numbers, and posted the following on Facebook:

There are approximately 135,000 public and private elementary and secondary schools in the United States.1 Hiring one armed guard per school and paying them a salary of $45,000 (that does not include any benefits or other expenses such as equipment, training, etc. that would be necessary — including these would likely double that cost) would cost the US over $6 billion. So, let’s spend $6 billion dollars and problem solved, right? Well wait, Columbine High School had armed guards, one of which actively engaged in a firefight with one of the murderers; one obviously isn’t enough. Maybe we need a dozen armed guards at each school: $72 billion. Let’s now pretend that this worked; another school shooting never happens again. What about all of the other public places that exist in our country?

Try again.

The post quickly generated interest and I received a number of different responses: everything from letting volunteers take up the task, to keeping armed guards out of the school altogether. Some argued the cost was too great, others that the price was worth it. A suggestion was made that the costs should be borne only by the parents of students in that school. One friend of mine made the point that I had been making in other discussions:

Isn’t it weird, that the people that holler the loudest about how the second amendment is designed to protect us from the government in case it gets too out of control, are fully supportive of hiring thousands of new government employees, arming them, and stationing them in our schools? That’s weird isn’t it? Or is it just me?

It is weird, isn’t it?

Just over a week ago, some of the same people that I hear on talk radio programs everyday — shrieking about how we have too many public employees, about how our nation is evolving into a police state, about having to take their shoes off at a TSA checkpoint — have suddenly decided the answer is more public employees of the armed variety.

Back to my question above. If we decide more armed people is the best answer to our troubles, can you imagine what our society would look like if we stocked the rest of our public places with armed guards in the same fashion that’s being suggested for our schools? Is that really the kind of country you want to live in?

Orwell’s 1984 was not intended to be treated as a set of guidelines for a healthy society.

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