Sunday, February 17, 2013

A "Coarsening of the Culture"

A recent Forbes article about VP Joe Biden’s meeting with video game developers and sellers noted how he was careful not to accuse anyone of being responsible for what he called a “coarsening of the culture.” As the article rightly pointed out, however, the very fact that Biden scheduled this particular meeting in response to the Newtown massacre and the president’s demand for gun reform “seems to suggest…that video games help contribute to a culture of violence in some way.”
           The idea that video games are somehow making people more violent is part of an ongoing backlash against dramatically misunderstood genres in the humanities. To discuss this in more detail, I turned to Cody Mejeur, a graduate student who specializes in video game narrative and has considerable experience in the field.

Q: Cody, in your experience with video game narratives, have you noticed a correlation between the violence of the game’s narrative and a discourse of violence that exists among the players? And, if so, does it alter according to the format of the game (e.g. first-person shooter, MMORPG, etc.) or the tools for which it is designed (e.g. handheld controller, virtual reality simulation, mouse/keyboard)?

“It's difficult to speak generally about this, especially across genres. One of the things worth noting is that many games which feature some sort of violence in combat do not necessarily promote doing so—there are many protagonists who are everyday, non-violent people that use violence only because they are forced to. Such games often promote flight as opposed to fight, with the successful player avoiding combat when he/she can. Add to these games the many, many games where the player is asked to fight some manifestation of evil, and violence becomes a necessary means toward the end of safeguarding the world. Both of these types of games demonstrate how violence in games is rarely of the mindless sort often alleged, but often exists within a moral framework.

It is also important that a growing number of games are raising questions and concerns about violence. A recent third-person shooter, Spec Ops: The Line, features a protagonist who is revealed to lose his sanity through the combat scenarios he is placed in, and the ending [SPOILER ALERT] calls into question whether or not he's psychotic. The game [shows] what violence can do to the human mind, and overall presents a very inglorious portrait of war.

The genre most frequently linked with violence is the shooter genre, including both first-and third-person shooters. It is not surprising that some people link the genre to gun violence, as the games all include weaponry of some form and focus around the player using it. It is also true that the online communities for games like Call of Duty can at times be very disheartening, with the anonymity provided through a screen name being used by some players to allow racist, sexist, and inappropriate behavior.

But that only indirectly answers the question of violence in games being linked to violence in the actual world. The simple fact is that there is no evidence that violent games make violent people, or even make people talk about violent subject matter. In this regard games are not so different from other media—for example, there is not much evidence that reading Ophelia's suicide in Hamlet will make a person suicidal, or seriously talk about suicide. The majority of players, like the majority of readers or viewers, understand that what happens in a fictional world is taking place within a certain context separate from actual reality. The danger is when a mentally disturbed individual loses the ability to distinguish the two.”

Q: Why do you think video games are a specific target for this rhetoric of delinquency?

“Video games are targeted in relation to violence essentially because they are an easy target. They represent something new, something not wholly understood (or even partially understood in relation to some members of older generations). Furthermore they are usually linked to children, which makes them easy to dismiss or look down upon. Many of the same concerns existed with the novel and/or genre fiction at the end of the 19th century: people claimed that they were making youth dumb, lazy, and immoral. [Editor’s note: see the NBC News article on Biden’s meeting that links it to comics censorship in the 1950s]. I think we see a lot of the same attitudes toward video games currently.

The unique thing about games (at least purportedly) is their interactivity. Perhaps this is where some of the argument linking video games to violence comes from. In interacting with increasingly realistic violence in shooter games, perhaps players are at a greater risk of transporting that violence to the actual world. [Part of] the weakness of this argument is that it assumes a simplistic "monkey see, monkey do" attitude toward video game players, which does not play out statistically.

Is there a risk that someone can misinterpret a game, or that someone can use a game toward evil ends? Yes, there is. However it is the risk that one takes with all fiction, regardless of the form (medium) it takes. It is incorrect to assume direct correlations between fictional worlds and the real world, and furthermore dangerous to break down the boundary between the two.”
So what does this mean for the humanities? Unfortunately, I’m not sure there is a lot we can do to recuperate the position of certain media in our culture until we stop insisting that humanity passively assimilates only the negative images with which it is presented. Contrast, for instance, the notion of video game violence leading to gun violence with the story of Hans, the 12 year-old Norwegian boy who saved his sister and himself from a moose attack using skills his character learns in the MMORPG World of Warcraft. Over the past several weeks we’ve seen how the humanities are capable of producing a wide range of effects—the message of today, then, is that part of the reason they produce these effects lies in the way we respond to them. On their own, the humanities can no more kill people than save them. What we choose to do with the humanities is what dictates their impact. 

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