Video games and violence

By Travis Thornton

Have you ever driven a bus wildly through traffic, shot down a UAV with a rocket launcher, explored an underwater dystopia with your little sister, crawled unnoticed through a war zone or won the Super Bowl?  If not, then you haven’t played a video game lately.

In order to illustrate my expertise on the topic of video games, here are some examples of my virtual accomplishments:   I have collected countless amounts of gold rings, coins, rupees, ammo, mushrooms and experience points.  I have eviscerated or otherwise made immobile millions of bad guys, aliens, robots, pedestrians and mythical creatures. 

I have rescued the princess, found the treasure and been made king.  I have jumped out of a plane, driven a tank, and conquered Hercules.  I have saved the town, the world, the galaxy, the universe, Middle-Earth and Narnia.  I have been a super hero, a crime-fighter, a soldier, an escaped convict, and a father.  There have even been a few instances where I camped the spawn point, captured the flag, hit a grand slam, and summoned a dragon.  I have done all of this from the comfort of my couch.

Video games, which they will forever be called, have come a long way since I picked up the paddle to play Pong on my parents’ Atari in the 80s.  Video games are no longer a child’s toy, but an immersive experience that the player can become emotionally involved in. Just ask someone who has spent 97 hours developing their World of Warcraft [sic] character.  Feelies, a word coined by Aldous Huxley, more accurately describes what video games are evolving into.

Recent video game releases put players in situations where their actions may actually produce an emotional response.  In Bioshock, players have the option to save or harvest Little Sisters for their powers.  One can play Metal Gear Solid 4, a tactical espionage action game, without killing a single enemy combatant.  In Heavy Rain, you can send your son to bed without doing his homework or eating dinner.

The level of realism and depth in today’s video games far exceeds anything the developers of Oregon Trail possibly imagined.  I recently played Heavy Rain on the PS3, in the role of a father with his son at the mall.  My son wandered off while I struggled with the controls to pay for a balloon that he wanted.   I franticly searched for him in the crowd and called out his name in desperation by pressing the X button repeatedly.  Eventually, as I fumbled with the button sequenced needed  in order to teach him, he wandered into the street with devastating results.

The mention of video games probably conjures up images in most people’s minds that relate to inattentive boyfriends, immaturity, or violent content, but I think the label of video games results in a misunderstanding of how they affect their players.  As opposed to playing Pac-Man for two hours, one’s mind is engaged on another level when given free reign over Liberty City, while having access to an assault rifle and a motorcycle.

These images and situations, along with those produced in Hollywood, no doubt desensitize us to violence.  What’s worse is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell the difference between simulated violence and the real thing.  Some people might watch The Hurt Locker, play Bad Company 2, and view the photos taken at Abu Ghraib without seeing a difference. 

It’s no wonder the recently released footage of a U.S. Apache helicopter firing upon and killing several Iraqi citizens in July of 2007 was released with little fanfare; haven’t you ever played Call of Duty:  Modern Warfare?  Nothing is shocking anymore because, if you‘re video game player, you’ve already taken part in similar simulated debauchery. 

There still exists, within most of us, a moral compass that guides us to do things in real life that do not conflict with our personal conscience.  But I think that if the sight of torture, real or simulated, no longer makes a person feel ill—especially a teenager—then there could be some interference in reading that moral compass. 

The implications of our society’s exposure to excessive violence as entertainment in video games and other media are going to prove to be dire, I’m afraid.  But do we really have to wait for that proof, or is it already in front of us?  Let’s turn on the news and see.