Saturday, December 22, 2012

Violence and the Culture of Gaming

In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Massacre, people looking for a simple and easy explanation for the inexplicable have again turned their sights on video game violence.  Rather than get immediately defensive, gamers and the gaming industry should take this as an opportunity to examine both the games and culture of video gaming.  This doesn't mean agreeing with opportunistic politicians, religious figures, or special interests that violent video games are to blame for mass shooting, but taking an honest look at our hobby.

Americans have a long history of blaming violence on recent cultural phenomenon that conservative elements of society with don't understand or find objectionable.  Just in the past century, we've seen this with jazz, heavy metal, Dungeons and Dragons, and now video games.  The Columbine Massacre aimed the spotlight at video games due to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold's fascination with Doom, at the time an innovative networkable first person shooter that pitted players against each other or against demonic adversaries in bloody mayhem.  Since then, each new mass shooting (and there have been many) leads panicked non-gamers to blame the games rather than the players.  This issue of panic is an important one to understand when discussing video games and violence.

Tyler Black is Clinical Director of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Emergency Unit at BC Children's Hospital in Vancouver argues that in the past two decades video games have reached the level of a "moral panic" in Western cultures. Essentially, despite the ubiquity of video games in American culture, people believe that video games are inherently bad for children in the same way that people used to argue that television, jazz, novels, and Shakespeare were bad for them (we're speaking in terms of morality here, not obesity or attention deficit).  Parents and grandparents, Black argues, aren't comfortable or familiar with video games, so they view them as scary influences on their children.  Parental fear is enhanced by changes in the realism and violence in games, despite evidence showing that society is far less violent than in the past.

The research on the relationship between gaming and violence is doesn't really point to a connection between violence and gaming, and despite Senator Jay Rockefeller's claims that research showing a negative correlation between video games and youth violence is flawed, Black and Texas A&M's Christopher Ferguson contend that a publication bias against studies that show no connection between gaming and violence exists in peer-reviewed journals.  Black believes that in the constellation of contributors to violence - genetics, abuse, education, social situation, etc... that video game exposure to violence is likely to rank fairly low in terms of causing violence.

Black, along with Dr. Matthew Chow, believes that gamers exhibit behaviors that go far against the antisocial image the media portrays.  At a recent visit to gaming convention Pax West, Chow says that the gamers he encountered were helpful, patient when waiting in lines, complimentary of each others' skills in games and costuming.  He argues that games have evolved from a solitary activity in the basement to a cooperative experience in which people expect to play together and form communities, and develop rules of behavior.  Chow contends that folks exhibiting antisocial behavior become isolated within the gaming community after causing problems.  Even in shooters like Call of Duty or Battlefield, gamers exhibit prosocial behaviors by fighting common enemies, capturing objectives, or reviving teammates.

None of this is to say that gaming, and gaming communities, are perfect examples of communal existence and cooperation.  Most gamers have run into "griefers" who delight in ruining the game for the folks trying to relax enjoy a few hours of entertainment, the "teabaggers" who feel the need to show their dominance by squatting in the faces of downed opponents, or the foul-mouthed misogynists that inhabit almost every gaming server and community.  However, gamers themselves, motivated by their disgust at the antics of the more loathsome of their peers and their attacks on female gamers have started to take action on their own to combat these problems.

Winda Bernedetti reports that some gamers have begun rejecting the senseless violence of some games, notably the violent ending of the trailer for Last of Us, a post-apocalyptic game, which shows players shooting a prone opponent in the face with a shotgun.  Many gamers reacted even more negatively to Sony's violent trailer for Hitman: Absolution, which showed the protagonist graphically butchering a group of assassins "disguised" as provocatively dressed nuns (Really? Since when do nuns dress like prostitutes?). These are far from the only recent examples of problematic portrayals of violence in video games.  The most notorious may be the "No Russian" mission in Modern Warfare 2, in which players accompany a terrorist group determined to frame the United States for a terrorist massacre in an airport (video).  Excoriated in the media, the game still sold extremely well, with the sequel earning over $500 million its first weekend.  

I was so opposed to the scene, which the problematic plot used to justify the world turning its back on the United States and allow Russia to invade the United States, that I refused to purchase the game, and played it only when given a copy by a friend.  Even then, it remained in its packaging until I played the campaign through in a fit of boredom (and having forgotten which game had the horrendous mission).  Luckily, I was able to complete the mission (and the game) without shooting any innocent civilians or police officers.  The biggest problem I had with the scene (other than being forced to participate in the slaughter of innocents) was that no matter what I did, nothing changed the outcome.  At the end, an airport is shot-up, dozens of civilians and  cops dead, and an American soldier framed by the terrorists for the massacre.

Gamers are also questioning the misogyny and bigotry that frequently appears in voice and text chat during games.  With the release of Halo 4343 Industries head Bonnie Ross and Halo 4 Executive Producer Kiki Wolfkill denounced the bigotry and bullying common on Xbox Live.  Halo's developers served their costumers notice that the behavior that keeps female gamers from using microphones unless playing with close friends would not be tolerated and could result in lifetime bans.  To be sure, this is really just enforcing Microsoft's terms of service for Xbox Live, but the public change of attitude is important.  It's not just women who find the Xbox Live environment offensive - I only use voice communication with friends, frequently silencing others when playing alone because I just don't need to hear the racist, homophobic, profane rants of other players.  It's especially bad when coming from squeaky-voiced kids.

Attacks on women playing and working in the industry are difficult to ignore.  Just take a quick gander at what Bioware developer Jennifer Hepler faced when she said that she enjoys writing the content of games, but not playing them. As if being called a cancer online was not enough, her attackers left her obscene and threatening voicemails.  Casual sexism even comes from the sales drones populating gaming booths at major conferences - this is the same type of thing women frequently face at car dealerships and repair shops - and developers who talk about "girlfriend" mode. For a real taste of what many women face when gaming online, cruise over to Fat, Ugly, or Slutty, a blog in which women showcase the abuse they receive if they dare allow other gamers find out that they are actually female.

Fighting games, particularly at the professional level, may have the most abusive, misogynist gaming culture of them all.  I don't play these games since I don't find them appealing, but Ars technica's Kyle Orland provides a great discussion of the genre and its culture. If I had kids, they wouldn't be playing these games, but to be honest, they wouldn't be playing Call of Duty or Battlefield, either due to the language or violence.  These games are rated-M for a reason. 

Realizing that real change comes only from within, some gamers have begun to work together to change the culture of gaming.  Gamers Against Bigotry created a pledge (with 2,082 signatures) urging gamers to not only avoid bigoted language, but to actually fight it when they come across it in games.  It reads:

As a gamer, I realize I contribute to an incredibly diverse social network of gamers around the world, and that my actions have the ability to impact others. In effort to make a positive impact, and to create a community that is welcoming to all, I pledge to not use bigoted language while gaming, online and otherwise.

Bigoted language includes, but is not limited to, slurs based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and disability.
GAB also offers commentary on why the casual use of the word "rape" in games is a problem. A really over-simplified explanation is that it's a hugely bad idea to both minimize rape as a concept by using it to casually describe things, and similarly horrible to encourage young men to use it as slang meaning "to dominate".  In the United States, we have a difficult time discussing and prosecuting rape as a crime, and even dealing with it appropriately in a political context (as the 2012 campaigns showed very clearly), so diminishing it in this way is a really bad cultural construct.  It also isn't an inherent or traditional part of gaming culture,no matter what ill-informed gamers might say.  Go read the complete explanation of why using the word "rape" so casually is such a bad idea.  It does a far better job of it than I can.

My point here is that while there's no concrete link between video game violence and mass shootings, that doesn't mean that there aren't real problems in gaming, and that the tragedy in Sandy Hook doesn't provide us with an opportunity to start dealing with those problems.  There's no quick and easy solution, but it is important enough that gamers and those who love them need to get involved to find solutions.

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