Ah, videogames. Entertaining pastime or life-destroying, society-wrecking tool of Satan himself? Seems to depend a lot on who you ask. Ever since videogames first became a thing there has been those who are convinced they are an inherently terrible thing. You know the usual arguments; Videogames are a waste of time! They’re turning our kids into zombies! They rob us of our sense of community, break up our families and will lead to the inevitable collapse of society as we know it (you mark my words, sonny boy)!
The fact that these same criticisms could be and were levelled at the television introduced doesn’t seem to worry the moral panic won’t-someone-think-of-the-children brigade too much. Hell, those same criticisms could also be made about reading, but for some reason that particular anti-social, fantasy activity is a sign of the intellectual (possibly because books are older than the people doing the complaining – but I digress).
But everything changed for videogames in 1999 after the Columbine High School massacre. See, in addition to the bullying and clinical depression the perpetrators of the massacre had experienced, they were also avid players of the videogame Doom. Doom, for those of you who are unfamiliar, is a first-person shooter game, where a lonely space-marine fights demons from hell on Mars. It was quite revolutionary for its time, even if it involved less pixels than your average rubik’s cube.
Behold the graphical wonders of 20th century potato technology!
The game was violent, there was blood, there was animated death scenes for each monster and quite a variety of weapons with which to dispatch said monsters. It was also about as realistic as something involving demons on Mars sounds – the player couldn’t even look upwards, for crying out loud. But for the media, parent groups and just about anyone looking for someone to blame after the massacre, this (along with the fact that they attackers also listened to a lot of death metal music) was a goldmine.
Every talking head was suddenly speculating about the influence this terrible murder simulator had had upon the young impressionable minds of the attackers. Pop-psychologists (and a couple of real psychologists who should have known better) came out of the woodwork, eager tell everyone that there was “no doubt in their minds” that there was a link between the game and the massacre itself. Rumours flew thick and fast that the attackers had created their own level of for the game that mimicked the Colombine School itself! The fact that no such data was ever found was irrelevant – the idea was too tasty not to report it, and who was going to argue otherwise? So strong was the public conviction that Doom was responsible for causing, or at least facilitating the massacre, that several victims’ families attempted to sue numerous game companies for $5 billion damages, claiming they “created the conditions that made the massacre possible”.
The lawsuit was subsequently thrown out, likely because it was complete and utter garbage. Am I denying that the game had some influence on the attacker at Columbine? Not necessarily – it is at least plausible that the game influenced their behaviour towards to massacre. But to argue that the game had a had more of an influence than the psychological torment of bullying, the serious mental health issue of depression, and the frankly ridiculous access to weaponry in the USA is like suggesting that one specific run-in Hitler had with a Jew when he was 14 caused World War 2. There is no evidence whatsoever to support the idea, and it totally ignores the millions of other factors that caused the event.
Nonetheless, the debate continues whether violent videogames encourage violence in their players, and incredible graphical advancements that allow you to see damage down to the millimetre are not helping matters.
Oooooh, can’t wait to stab that perfectly rendered face!
More recently however, the debate has also taken on a new twist with feminists getting stuck into the sexist and misogynistic nature of many games. In addition to the rampant, graphic violence many games now allow their players to participate in, games frequently include female characters that, well… let’s just say that picture is worth a thousand words:
Naturally there are plenty of games out there that portray women as equal to male characters, or in some cases focus on awesome female characters exclusively. But at the same time there’s absolutely no shortage of games who take the complete opposite approach, posing women as passive items for rescue, conquest or eye-candy. No surprise then that feminists take issue with games that they claim are training a generation of young people (both men and women – surprisingly the gender of gamers is pretty close to 50/50) to think of women in pretty poor terms. And when even the reaction to these sort of criticisms by the gamer community tends towards threats of death, rape and general real-life harassment, you can’t help but think they have a point.
All of this recently came to a bit of a head when the Target and K-Mart retail chains decided to remove the game Grand Theft Auto 5 (or GTA V) from sale in their store, after pressure from groups that describe it as ‘encouraging and rewarding violence against women’.
Does the game do this? You better believe it does, though it would be unfair to say it only incentivises violence towards women. The entire GTA series is built on one simple principle: mayhem. Players steal cars, run over pedestrians, can shoot police and passers-by, anything they want. It’s unrestrained, chaotic fun with few consequences (you will eventually be wiped out by the police), and despite incredible advances in graphics technology since 1999, it’s still about as realistic as Doom was then.
So where’s the problem? Well, you can also hire prostitutes in the game who will disappear into the back of your car and ‘recharge your health’, so to speak. You can then kill these prostitutes and get you money back – though it should be noted that that’s what happens when you kill most people in-game, rather than a specific feature.
Naturally the poop hit the propeller in short order after this ban, with gamers crying foul and attempted to get both the Bible and 50 Shades of Grey removed from shelves as well, given both also promote awful sexual violence at various points. As of now, the GTA V ban stands, and the Bible was never sold in Target anyway (and 50 Shades of Grey is still terrible).
The problem with this debate is that it’s a rare case of both sides having really strong, logically, persuasive arguments that just happen to contradict each other.
On the one hand people concerned with violence and sexism in games argue that the ideas and activities we surround ourselves with affect our beliefs and behaviours. After all, that is the entire principle that schools are founded on – surround children in knowledge and good behaviour patterns and they will modify their behaviour to fit. Given this, are we seriously going to argue that immersing ourselves in violence and sexism simulators for an hour a day (if not more) isn’t going to start impacting how we think and act in the real world?
And on the other hand, gamers regularly point out the absence of social collapse since these sort of games have become popular tend to indicate that people are better at telling fantasy from reality than we are giving them credit for. After all, violent and sexist movies have been around for decades, and while videogames might be more immersive than film, they still surround people with a fantasy that may promote terrible ideas as normal or rewarding – why then are we not so down on that medium as well?
On the face of it, both of these are solid arguments that are very difficult to dispute. But (despite what various crack-pot motivational speakers might suggest) two contradictory ideas cannot both be right – so how then do we figure out which one it is? Are games good or bad for us?
Well there’s one critical point that needs to be made first: none of this matters unless it affects the real world. A videogame, film, book or any medium can propose the nastiest, most bigoted ideas conceivable and none of it matters at all – unless those ideas start to actually change people’s behaviour. Both of those opposing arguments may indeed sound persuasive, and depending on which side of the topic you were already leaning, it is very easy just to take sides on ideological grounds and stop listening to the other side. But what both of those arguments totally fail to provide?
Much like the ‘Hitler had a bad experience with a Jew’ theory I posed above, it’s a nice, totally plausible theory that does indeed explain Hitler’s subsequent behaviour pretty well. And it’s also total bullshit that I made up on the fly without a shred of proof. It doesn’t matter if the idea is plausible, fits my world-view better than other theories, or is just more interesting than other theories – it’s false. And that is the only thing – the ONLY THING – that matters when it comes to ideas: Proof.
So do violent/sexist videogames cause violent/sexist beliefs and behaviour?
Research indicates that violent games do increase aggressiveness in players, but largely in the shirt-term, not very much and mainly when the violence is the goal (rather than the means to a positive end, like saving an ally). Predictably, violent games also have a disproportionate effect on young people, which is hardly surprising given they’re hormonal wrecks who’s brains haven’t finished growing yet.
Turns out that people are complicated, and so the effect of any one thing in that person’s life is going to vary a LOT depending on who they are. Does the player have a solid family life, no major psychological issues and good body image? Then violence and sexism in games won’t add up to much. But if they have negative influences in their life, poor mental health due to say, bullying, bad self-image and are under 16 to boot? Guess what, simulating murder and sexism for several hours a day is probably not ideal for that person.
But if there’s one thing we can be sure about from this research, it’s that no one of previously sound mental state and supportive home life, ever played a videogame and then decided to go shoot people in real life. To suggest that violence and sexism in videogames causes violence and sexism in real life massively exaggerates their influence on players.
That said, the research is clear – the themes in the entertainment we enjoy do influence us to one degree or another. Players of violent videogames do exhibit somewhat more violent thoughts and actions after doing so, and players of blatantly sexist or hypersexualised games do tend to objectify women more afterwards. I hope we can agree that neither of these are good things.
Does this mean we should all give up the games and any other media that is anything other than non-violent and gender-neutral at all time? Of course not. As numerous groups have pointed out before, enjoying problematic things is fine, so long as those negative messages don’t stray into your beliefs and actions – and broadly speaking, being aware that the entertainment is problematic in the first place is half the battle. Of course there are limits to that – games that openly encourage and reward violence, cruelty and misogyny for no good reason may well be enjoyable to some, but that in itself is kind of a problem – but for the majority of games that tend to employ violence in the pursuit of some noble cause, or hypersexual female characters purely for sexual appeal alone, the harm is pretty minimal PROVIDED you keep a check on its influence.
So the next time you’re mowing down a room of people with an overpowered gun, the ‘heroine’ in your game appears to have forgotten 95% of her armour, Scott Pilgrim defeats a lesbian opponent by forcing her to orgasm (still not sure how that works), or the Rolling Stones sing about how awesome raping slaves is (yes, really), just acknowledge it – this shit is messed up, I’d totally have a problem with it in real life, and if I ever find myself straying towards this sort of thing during my day-to-day, I better check it quickly.
Entertainment is just that – entertainment. If you enjoy it, then it’s doing its job. But enjoying something doesn’t excuse it from the standards of ethics; it’s up to you as an individual to make sure the bad fun stays where it should.