Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2014/ Video Game Violence

Video Game Violence

Lately I have been putting together packages for the Linux machines we sell through Computer Recycling. Because I hate productivity, I was trying to find some video games that would be appropriate to distribute.

I do not know whether violent video games incline people to be more violent. It almost doesn't matter. Many parents do not want their kids exposed to violence regardless. This attitude is prevalent in Kitchener-Waterloo, which is full of Mennonites. Thus the games I selected had to fulfill four criteria:

With this in mind, I classified video games into three categories:

In our culture, this is a pretty standard way of thinking about video game violence. We have a rating mechanism called the ESRB system which classifies games into categories that reflect our obsessions about sex, gambling, drugs and violence. But going through this exercise for myself got me thinking about the nature of violence and the appropriateness of the classifications I chose.

Nonviolent Games

There are a few games that are pretty uncontroversially nonviolent, such as the ace-of-penguins card suite or the gtans tangram game. Board games and puzzle games often fit into this category. But even here there are challenging classifications. A game like frozen-bubble does not involve violence to other players or animated sprites, but it does involve making balls fall to the ground. Does that count? I decided it didn't, but some of the gameplay of trackballs involves maneuvering your marble in ways that might cause harm to other marbles. Does that count as violence?

Then there is the question of harm to oneself. Consider xmoto, a game in which you ride a motocross bike through ridiculously abstract courses. When you crash your bike (which happens a lot -- the game is difficult) your bike's human rider ends up twisted in ways that look painful. I decided to label this game as nonviolent, because the course of proper gameplay does not involve hurting others, even though harm might come to your player as a result of your actions.

Another aspect of nonviolence is supertuxkart, which is a fun Super Mario Kart clone. The primary purpose of this game is to win road races. However, in order to win you can use powerups to slow your opponents down. You can also bump your opponents to run them off the road. It is not obvious that these tactics physically harm your opponents, but they still involve force. But if you classify this game as violent, then almost all competition counts as violence, because competition often involves hindering your opponents. Is competition violence? Strangely enough, after going through this classification exercise I am more convinced that competition might well be a form of violence. How does that square with our beliefs that violence is bad but free markets are good?

Semiviolent Games

I think many of us have a sense of what kinds of games are "appropriate for children", but it seems to me that even some of these games are pretty violent. Consider platform games like seahorse-adventures or supertux, both of which involve destroying animated enemies by trapping them in bubbles or jumping on their heads. We think of such games as innocent, but it is not clear to me that they are.

On the other hand, consider the game mu-cade, in which you are a spaceship with a tail whose goal is to push other spaceships with tails out of the playing area. Because you are a spaceship, you have a gun that spews bullets (all spaceships in video games have guns; it's axiomatic), but the bullets do not blow up your opponents. Instead the bullets push your opponents around. Even though spaceships and guns are involved, the game is really sumo wrestling in videogame form. One could argue that it is no more violent than sumo wrestling, except that once ships fall out of the playing area they plummet to their destruction, and explode in beautiful displays of light. If the opponents just fell out of the ring without being destroyed, would this game be nonviolent?

The game tumiki-fighters presents a similar dilemma. The game has "fighters" in its title, and thus is intended to be violent. But the game itself is ridiculous: you play a tiny ship made of wooden blocks firing brown bullets of other larger ships also made of wooden blocks. When your enemies explode, their blocks fall off and you can collect them and join them to your ship, making your ship bigger and more powerful (and a bigger target for enemy bullets). In this game you are clearly harming other ships, but it is pretty clear that the other ships are not real. Even the boss battles are announced with the phrase "Here comes a big toy!". Classifying this game as semiviolent is probably correct, but it feels wrong -- the game feels too innocent.

Violent Games

Traditionally, almost all first-person-shooter games fall into this category, because players use "real weapons" (like lightning guns?) and the goal of the games are to murder your opponents. At the same time, I found myself struggling with this classification. Often we think of violent games as being "realistic", but first-person shooters rarely pass that test. There is very little that is realistic about alien-arena even though it is gory.

Similarly, a few years ago I got hooked on xevil, a cute game in which you play an alien, a helicopter man, a ninja, or one of several other characters. The game goes out of its way to parody the exact things parents dislike about violent video games, right down to blood spatters and unwholesome moral slogans on the walls. It is clearly a violent game, but again that classification feels weird.

To the extent that I follow video games at all, I tend to avoid the kinds that are in these categories -- not because I am morally pure, but because I am much too inept to be any good at them, so they are not fun. Thus I do not have much to say about this category other than it is not clear to me that games that are perceived as violent are that much worse than the semiviolent games most of us accept.

Concluding Thoughts

I do not know whether violent video games cause (or are even correlated with) violent tendencies. Lots of well-adjusted people play violent video games with (seemingly) few ill-effects, and I don't play many violent video games and yet experience violent impulses.

If there is a category that worries me it is the idea of the semiviolent game, because in these games violence is portrayed as a good way to accomplish your goals, without associated bad consequences. You don't go to jail for jumping on an opponent's head, and you do not see that opponent writhing in pain, having to go through months of physiotherapy, and potentially losing his or her job with no medical benefits. And maybe that would not matter, except that we have taken the lessons of consequenceless semiviolence and applied them to the real world. Military personnel in Nevada use video game interfaces to pilot drones in Yemen, and they do not have to deal with the consequences of their violence either. My impression is that killing a person face to face and killing a person using a drone are very different experiences, and that the second is less traumatic than the first. That means we have taken the lessons we have learned from video games and used them to make soldiers more effective killers -- not by making those soldiers more violent, but by abstracting the consequences of that violence out of the experience. When I think about this, video games feel less innocent.