Whatever videogames’ relationship to violence, we shouldn’t ignore the problem


Years ago, a longtime English friend of mine told me he was considering visiting New York. I promised I’d show him an ancient subway station, and our great old Art Deco buildings. He laughed gently, and told me Americans don’t know what old means.

Likewise, America’s ‘thing’ about guns is probably hard for people outside of our country to understand. But part of it comes down to the fact that we are young, relatively – a nation founded in revolt and the dream of making our own rules, free from oppression. The average American’s understanding of history is the stuff of sepia-toned storybooks: noble patriots penning our Constitution with the provision that the government will never try to take away its citizens’ right to carry arms in case they need to defend their freedoms.

The “right to bear arms” seems to much of modern civilisation like backward-looking paranoia – the kind of thing only relevant to Confederate caricatures. But when such people grasp for their weaponry, they think they’re protecting a principle crucial to their national identity, and they see judgment of that as the very sort of threat to their freedom that they think they need guns to protect.

I’m anxious to spend even three paragraphs talking about something other than games. Over the countless articles about art, culture, feelings and media I’ve written, I’ve learned to cringe in wait for the first commenter to wonder what this has to do with videogames. But guns, and attitudes to them, have long had something to do with videogames, whether we acknowledge it or not – and the fresh horror of a mass shooting in Newtown has brought our industry under the microscope yet again.

Just as America has a thing about guns, we also have a thing about blame. I wonder if my homeland’s attitude to dealing with tragedy has anything to do with what we like to see as our heritage of successful revolutionaries. It’s saddening but unsurprising that once again the industry is being called to account for its ‘role’ in the culture of violence people believe led to the latest tragedy.

Wanting to believe every event is part of a clear, logical set of factors is understandable; I think that urge to live in systems where every action has an outcome that makes sense is part of what attracts us to play and make games. It’s just a tough thing as an industry to go through repeatedly.

Recently, US Vice President Joe Biden invited industry leaders to the discussion table alongside gun advocates and religious groups to answer an explicit question: what will the game industry do to reduce the occurrence of mass shootings in America?

On one hand, engaging with the question of what the industry will do to reduce violence suggests a dangerous embrace of responsibility, even an admission that our products have, in some way, contributed to the fetishisation of weaponry and violence in wider culture. On the other hand, doesn’t walking away from the discussion – “games are entertainment protected as free speech, they don’t create real-world behaviour, and we’ve got reams of data to prove it” – communicate a concerning resistance to self-examination? Isn’t that a depressing rejection of the meaningful role games play in the cultural landscape?

Handling this latest round of scrutiny would be easier if we’d been willing to have this conversation among ourselves before now. We’ve had a destructive double standard for too long: games are legitimate, worthy of respect, and encourage positive behaviour. But at the first sign of criticism, we run – games don’t cause anything; they don’t mean anything. They’re just for fun.

Both can’t be valid. Data that categorically supports or rejects a direct causal link between games and behaviour won’t materialise in a way that will satisfy everyone. Even if it did, it wouldn’t be enough. Media is an ecosystem that’s as likely to reflect who people already are and what they care about as it is to influence us. And every individual is different, affected by their climate in unpredictable ways.

But games don’t get to be, as the International Game Developers Association calls them in its letter to the Vice President, a “unique artistic medium” and claim a conversation about cultural climate doesn’t concern them. Of course, we can reject the idea of a causal tie with horrific acts. We aren’t to blame, but absolution doesn’t end an informed conversation.

Look, commercial triple-A has been profiting from lavish adoration of guns for this entire console generation. We, the media, are trained to applaud when marketing shows us videos of digital headshots. We have clearly not thought much yet about what this says about game development or the role of games in society, but the answer cannot possibly be nothing. The days of ‘What does this have to do with videogames?’ are gone.

Games are a young industry founded in escapism and revolution – but if we’re clinging to unexamined ideas about our isolationist ‘rights’, our moral impunity, then we’re no better than the weapons advocates we’d like to accuse instead. We should decide to join the conversation that keeps coming to our door. First, though, it’s clear we need a better idea of what it is we really have to say.

Illustration: Marsh Davies