The Big Bad Game Industry. Sorta.

(Originally posted on my Quora blog.)

As a 15 year old and a gamer, one topic that to my noted chagrin haunts our dinner-table conversations is the controversy surrounding violent video games.

Ever since the inception of the video gaming industry, one hot topic has been the continued belief that playing violent video games, specifically those with ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) ratings of M or 17+, led to the development of far more violent tendencies in today’s youth, to the point where the constant violence in gaming has turned many young adults into desensitized bullies with a lack of mercy, as compared to yesterday’s pre-video gaming youth.

It’s the belief of many parents and an overwhelming amount of today’s mainstream media that video games are a major factor in the rise in school shootings and the near-death to murderous beatings. In fact, there have been political calls for bans and illegalization, and several games have had to be taken down or revised scene-for-scene in order to avoid a major controversy.

It is common belief that playing video games in general leads to antisocial behavior, a case of addiction, rise in violent tendencies and an overall disrupted psyche. It’s also thought that video games encourage stereotypical and sexist beliefs.

Over the decades, numerous studies have been conducted in an effort to ease the minds of both gamers and parents alike, and as is with any controversy, these studies are subject to great conflict. On one side, researchers concluded that gaming produced temporary rises in aggression, and a decrease in pro-social behavior. A 2008 study also stated that middle school boys who played a Mature-rated video game were more likely to hit or beat up their classmates, as opposed to middle school boys who didn’t play a Mature-rated video game. Furthermore, it’s popularly believed that, due to games’s tendencies to rewarding violence, some video games are actively teaching kids to resort to violent methods for problem solving. A 2005 study also suggests that violent video games desensitize children, and cause reduced amounts of P300 amplitudes in the brain, promoting the use of aggression in decision making.

The US Army even used video games to try and train its soldiers, although personally that one is just ridiculous. Not the notion that the US Army used video games to try to create killers, but the notion that after a few hours of playing Doom II, soldiers were ready for actual combat and killing. In fact, the modern day successor to this particular military experiment is, and I quote,“an incredible waste of money and the soldier’s time.”, this coming from a cavalry scout who has been in the army since he was 17.

Essentially, the military has stepped off of the video game console and has moved on to an early developer stage Alpha version of what might be in a few decades the first non-functional Holodeck. This device is called the Engagement Skills Trainer (EST), and has been created simply in an effort to train gun precision without the use of actual costly ammunition. Some of the training programs are strategically useful, and are designed to reduce hesitation and increase situational awareness, forcing a training soldier to decide on shooting or not shooting depending on a given situation played out on interactive video. Most of it, however, is in its experimental stages – and even so, has little to do with a video game. They’re shooting with synthetic low-recoil rifles at a green screen, preparing for their actual tests, in which they’re shooting down 40 metal targets at up to 300m distance with an M4 and 40 rounds.

The US Army does, however, use video games as a recruitment tool, testing a potential soldier’s aptitude and ascertaining whether or not teenagers would have an interest in joining the army through gaming. They releasedAmerica’s Army 1.0 in 2002 – a free downloadable PC game developed by the US Army on Epic Games’ Unreal Engine, distributed with the aim of saving money by filtering out uninterested or incapable candidates – although I’m fuzzy on how playing with a mouse and keyboard comes close to real combat.

Going back on topic: in the United States, the country with perhaps the largest video game industry and a large amount of violent media, juvenile violence has dropped to a record low, going down an entire 71.9% between 1995 and 2008. Similarly, the arrest rate for juveniles has decreased an entire 49.3%. In this 13 year time frame, video game sales have quadrupled, and half of the top 20 games each year are classified as violent.

Similarly, an actual link between violence and violent games hasn’t been proven. Many studies on video games and youth violence are flawed in design, and use unreliable methods to invoke aggressive reactions, such as noise blast tests. Thoughts about aggression have been confused with actual aggressive behavior, and there are no studies that follow the long term effects of violent gaming on children.

Addressing the issue of school violence, a 2004 review shows that 1/8 of all attackers had an interest in overly violent games – much less than the interest in other violent media, such as books, movies and their own writing. Additionally, it’s been suggested that violent video games offer an outlet for children predisposed towards violence for some other reason, rather than actually developing violent tendencies. In the same line of thought, violent games provide an outlet for aggression in boys normally provided only by tumble play, therefore minimizing physical risk among peers. A study in 2007 reports that 45% of boys that played violent video games because “it helps me get my anger out”, while 62% played because “it helps me relax”.

In 2005, the rate of murders committed by teenagers in the US was 27.9 per million residents compared to the 3.1 per million rate of Japan. The per capita video game sales of the US were $5.20, while per capita video game sales in Japan were at $47.

There has been no real link between a rise in violence and violent video games, and violent tendencies and predispositions towards violent behavior more often than not come from exposure to domestic violence, and an aggressive personality. Similar alarmist claims of a rise in youth violence first came into the view of the public eye upon the introduction of radio, television and violent movies – yet studies to prove the authenticity of such claims have yet to arrive.

It’s more likely media fear-mongering and the easy target the video game industry makes as a scapegoat that have led to this controversy, and I for one advocate the use of video games as an educational medium – yet I also advocate the control of video game exposure to young children on the parent’s side. All parents have the responsibility to decide what they should let their young child play with, if at all, but at a certain age, once proper literary comprehension and critical thinking comes into play, video games can be an amazing narrative tool, and can be used for the improvement of puzzle-solving skills and hand-to-eye coordination, as well as sometimes providing some thought-provoking plot and context at a level movies and books cannot provide due to the lack of viewer/reader interaction. Not all video games are crafted purely for mindless entertainment and filling publisher wallets – otherwise, all books and movies would be written and filmed solely for selling.

It’s a matter of opinion, and although I carry a largely biased one, mine is that video games are an important and very, very promising medium for both entertainment and education. Yet like any art form, there’s a whole bunch of quantity before you can get to the quality.

Now let’s look at some subjects of the video game controversy. Listed below are a few of the 10 games CNN dubbed as the biggest video game controversies since the gaming industry was first questioned in the 70s. First and foremost in the list in Death Race, released in 1976, and based on the cult movie Death Race 2000 featuring David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone. For us in the younger generation, they had a remake in 2008 with Jason Statham.

Video Game Violence in the 70s

Now as you can plainly see in the screenshot, the game isn’t much to look at – yet at the time, it was the subject of much controversy, as they object of the game was to run over “gremlins”. They would squeal before their inevitable demise, and a gravestone would take their place. This, coupled with the gremlins in-development title of “Pedestrians” garnered the game much attention and a rating of “morbid” by the National Safety Council. This was the first ever video game controversy, and definitely not the last. Now, the violence in the game was simple – you were controlling a car that was running over living beings. Nowadays, especially with graphics that remind of Dwarf Fortress and Pong, the game would be a laughable parody of what might be a violent video game. I truly don’t know about the youngsters in the 70s, but nowadays, I’d be more inclined to believe that my parents were selling me into slavery than that a regular, completely non-violent youth played this for a day and began turning towards real road-side violence for fun and a laugh.

You haven’t truly seen everything there is to see from the ASCII codex until you’ve played Dwarf Fortress for an hour.

Next up is one we’ve all heard of: Mortal Kombat. This is a fighting game in which each punch actually causes little red specks of pixelated blood to escape the corner of a combatant’s mouth and pool on the floor – that, coupled with its at the time ultra-realistic graphics and “fatalities” (finisher moves that included scenes depicting decapitation, limb-removal, and the ripping out of an enemy’s spine), made it the number one video game controversy of perhaps all time. It caused such an uproar that there had to be a hearing before Congress, and eventually, its very existence kick started the creation of the ESRB.

Quite impressive, actually – and the game’s concept of fighting to the gory death instead of to some knockout was also a brutal aspect that shocked many people.

Since then, the game has lost its initial shock, and the as-of-yet still ongoing Mortal Kombat series fell into being less than a relic and simply an indulgence for the nostalgic few.

Next is a game no one could forget – Doom. Doom wasn’t the first FPS (first-person shooter), but it definitely made the genre a popular one. The premise was simple, and quite frankly idiotic in an over-the-top kind of way that made it the perfect candidate for a cult following. Essentially, you are a space marine sent to a moon-based space station near Mars, where a few scientists opened up a portal to Hell and unleashed the wrath of the Cyberdemon. After the opening scene which sees all of your buddies killed, you’re thrown into the demonic horde with the single mission of defeating every last hellspawn on your own.

Is that one demon to the very right wearing a Santa hat? Merry belated Christmas!

The violence and gore, coupled with the fact that you could see it all happen from the eyes of the shooter made Doom quite infamous – and when it got out in 1999 that the Columbine shooters were avid Doom fans, the game was immediately pushed to the front lines of being a major example of why “video games like this should be banned”. Eric Harris, one of the Columbine shooters stated that the killing would be like “the LA riots, the Oklahoma bombing, WWII, Vietnam, Duke Nukem and Doom all mixed together”. Despite this, the more common correlation between all school shooters was that they were male and suffered depression and attempted suicide – more often than not they also enjoyed violent video games, yet statistics state that 90% of all male teenagers and 40% of all female teenagers in the American schooling system  play video games regularly.

After the controversy of Doom came Grand Theft Auto – a series of open-world video games in which the player plays as a gangster in a parody of a major city, making his way up through the city’s underworld throughout the main storyline of the game. The first release in 1997 was a top-down 2D open-world game, and the obvious controversy was that, as a game free of any linear rules, the player was allowed to essentially do whatever he wanted to, as long as it was possible within the game’s engine. The controversy exploded in 2001 when Grand Theft Auto III was released and for the first time introduced 3D graphics, making things more realistic, and allowing the killing of policemen, the hiring of prostitutes and countless other depictions of severe and common crimes.

GTA, before the revolutionary jump to 3D as many of us know it.

The latest incarnation, GTA V, released earlier this year, was subject to just as much controversy as GTA III, Vice City, San Andreas and GTA IV, most especially focusing on the brutality of a depicted torture scene in which you play as a psychopath gangster torturing another man. The scene, designed to be painful and uncomfortable, gives you an insight into what kind of character the scene’s main character is, how he reacts in such a situation, and how he feels about his role. To me, it’s evidence that the gaming industry is also a place for narrative tools and the exploration of extreme characters, not just a group of people milking a cash cow by trying to conform to everyone’s wishes and dreams of what a game should be like. Then again, GTA V isn’t exactly a narrative masterpiece in the world of gaming.

A few hundred years ago, you’d have to pay for this kind of treatment.

The next game wasn’t controversial simply for its violence and gore – it was controversial for its story-telling and its excellent use of both the in-game camera movements, and music. Silent Hill, released in 1999, was the world’s first successful survival horror game, and it spawned a short-lived yet legendary genre of true psychological fear in video games. The game’s spot-on usage of visuals and camera turns, coupled with the creepy character models and the focus on survival, story-telling and scares rather than combat made it a nerve-wracking experience that popularized the idea of virtual interactive horror. The main character, stranded in a ghost town, would make his way through a hospital, a school, and other locales of pure creepiness as he tried to discover what was going on, and how he would make his escape from this horrible place.

Someone had a hard time taking out the trash.

The next game used a different psychological tactic to engage the player – morals. Bioshock, released in 2007, was first made familiar to me sometime in 2010 by a friend while he was playing the game on his laptop. The violence wasn’t anything new, and the visuals weren’t impressing – it was the art style and the tone of the game that blew me away. And to understand the outrage, you’ll have to bear through some explaining.

Darling it’s better, down where it’s wetter, take it from me.

Set in the fictional and devastated underwater city of Rapture in the 1960s, Bioshock follows the main character as he finds himself trapped underneath an ocean in a city inhabited by crazed junkies who were once scientific geniuses and great artists that have turned to using corpses instead of paint – and at the head of it all was Andrew Ryan, who gave birth to Rapture with the dream of letting every man or woman achieve success through themselves, for themselves, without the hindrance of god or state or law.

Manipulation plays a big role in the game’s plot.

The game makes use of social and philosophical extremes and depictions of the broken human mind, coupling those with twists and turns in the plot to remind you that not all stories are black and white, and that this one particularly has perhaps more than 50 shades of grey. Throughout the story, you realize that there is no right choice in any decision, and that it is in the end a question of survival or “the right thing”, which could often turn out wrong.

What caused the controversy was the choice of “harvesting” or rescuing a Little Sister – girls who were abducted and mentally reprogrammed to gather residual ADAM (a genetically-modifying drug that made Rapture’s population go insane) from dead corpses, and then consume that ADAM, becoming little ADAM banks, essentially. To survive and make your way through the ruins of the city in an effort to escape, you’ll have to find what ADAM you can in order to spend it on getting powers with which you can carve a path through the chaos – and the best way to get ADAM is by stealing from the bank vault – harvesting the Little Sister’s organs. Alternatively, you can revoke your chance at getting more ADAM by letting them live as you find them – their keeper, one of the only sane people left in the city, will reward you with meager amounts of ADAM for your mercy and selflessness – enough to survive, certainly.

Those eyes…

The very existence of this choice outraged many people, which lead to an explanatory statement by one of the developers on the team: “What we want to do is create a game which deals with moral shades of grey and doesn’t try and patronize us with two-dimensional cutouts — like a Disney take on what is right and what is wrong”

And if you’re a gamer, you’ll have heard of Call of Duty – its a long ongoing series of military-based first person shooters known for being absurdly milked for profits every year by its publisher ever since the success of the first two games – yet arguably one of the better game in the entire series is the one that is also known for its controversy – the 2009 game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Violence-wise, it was a dime-a-dozen – but it was the setting and the game campaign that made it so controversial.

Set in the near future, the player is sent on a mission in Afghanistan, and gets the opportunity, at least once, to join the terrorist team, so to speak. It also features a level in which the player has the opportunity to join in with his team ally as he proceeds to shoot civilians in an airport. The game’s release around the same time as the Fort Hood shootings didn’t help its reputation as it was criticized by the mainstream media for that particular mission, titled “No Russian”.

Several other themes are explored in video gaming, as in any other art form, that have been subject to much controversy. The Mass Effect series of role playing games have the option of romancing certain ship-mates as you make your way to save the galaxy – and a more recent option of same-sex relationships. Albeit being devoid of nudity, the scenes alluding to sexual activity sparked a lot of media attention when the first game was released, and some controversy existed around the fact that the main character was allowed to be gay. Another role playing game series, The Witcher, based on the Polish fantasy book series by the same name includes copious amounts of nudity and occasional sex scenes. In defense of the game, the developers essentially stated that the intention behind these scenes was to further cement the idea that this was a mature game, telling a mature story, steeped in a mature world with mature themes, and that there was no room for taboos.

Another controversy is the objectification of women – one I won’t in the slightest deny or find absurd. Many games throughout the history of video gaming are blatantly sexist – a fact that has previously perhaps alienated women towards the idea of gaming, which is why it used to be a male-dominated industry – today, 45% of all gamers are female, with women over 18 representing 31% of the gaming population. More recent AAA (the big name games, essentially) releases have tried to, in a way, decrease notions of sexism by attempting to introduce empowered and inspiring female lead characters – although its hard to tell whether they’ve succeeded.

The updated Lara Croft – less boobs, more, uh, dirt.

Once another subject of controversy, but today a subject little discussed and considered common place is vulgar dialogue. Ever since the gaming industry evolved to the point where it could tell a convincing and engaging story with its graphics and engine capabilities, writers have used vulgar language to further highlight their character’s obscene or adult behavior, and to signify the maturity of the game – although more often than not, overly vulgar games are those that seem fun at first, but get very tiring very quickly once the initial shock wears off.

In the end, I’m of the opinion that violent video games don’t create a more violent youth – if a teenager goes and hurts someone, then the capability to do so was always there, caused by something much more influential than a computer screen, like an actual domestic experience or a lack of literary comprehension and distinction between reality and fantasy, which in turn is not the fault of the industry and the developers and artists working on these games. It’s been proven that when caught in violence, teenagers model their acts after things they’ve seen, whether in a movie or a game, but just as with the movie industry, there is no proof of healthy teenagers committing acts of violence solely on the basis of having witnessed them in a game.

It’s young age and constant ridicule as being nothing more than an industry of games has made the gaming industry an easy scapegoat – but most of the young gamers who were playing in their teens have grown up and are still playing, the the industry has matured from being nothing more than a few simple computer games to being a medium of legitimate artistic expression, even with very mature themes. These changes make it something to consider more seriously, especially with impressionable minds – but I won’t entertain the notion that legitimate killers and bullies are killing and hurting people because of a video game.

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