Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Jack Thompson's Allegations

Whenever Jack Thompson makes a claim that Counter-Strike is a murder simulator, the gaming community just calls him crazy. Well, he has to be crazy, right? There has been no evidence proving the correlation between violent games and violent acts, so he's just spouting gibberish to the uninformed media. But is there a little basis to his allegations?

In 1983, Paladin Press published "Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors." What started out as a fictional crime novel, turned into a how-to manual about starting a career as a professional hitman, receiving contracts, and pulling off hits. Ten years later, a triple murder was committed by a man named James Perry, who claimed to have used the book as a guide in his murder. Naturally, the families of the victims sued Paladin Press and the U.S. appeals court unanimously ruled that "Hit Man" was not protected by the free speech cause of the First Amendment.

Two years after this decision, Paladin Press settled the case, giving the families of the victims several million dollars, destroying the remaining copies of the book in their possession, and surrendering all rights to publish and reproduce the work. That's right, "Hit Man" was a work of literature that was deemed to be an exception to free speech and free press. Now, you can argue that "Hit Man" is a technical manual, which is distinct from a creative, fictional work, and therefore, the court's decision was justified. I'll give you that.

In the world of video games, we have games designed specifically for military training, ranging from flight simulators to Mission Rehearsal Exercise's combat training to Full Spectrum Command's tactics training. These war simulators train soldiers to make decisions in combat situations and respond to threats. In some ways, these games train soldiers to fight and kill. These games aren't exactly creative, fictional works; they are how-to technical software comparable to "Hit Man."

One of those games I mentioned was turned into a retail version called Full Spectrum Warrior. According to the FSW website, Full Spectrum Command involves more high-level command akin to moving symbols on a map, whereas in Full Spectrum Warrior, the player is on the ground engaging in combat. In other words, Full Spectrum Warrior is a more visceral experience, showing realistic 3D models shooting at each other rather than abstract symbols on a map. With its more accurate representation of war, it's also a more accurate and persuasive simulation of it. The military got the tactics simulator, but the public got more than that; we see our avatars kill and we see our enemies die.

The distinction between "Hit Man" and any regular crime novel can be clearly seen, but can you tell the difference between a military flight simulator and Ace Combat? How far removed is a military combat simulator to Tom Clancy games or Counter-Strike? And what's to say about Full Spectrum Warrior, a tactical game that's more realistic than its military counterpart? Does Jack Thompson's allegations, as far-fetched as they are, have some basis to them?

Whether you like it or not, games teach. There's an entire field of serious game developers who are making games with a positive educational purpose. And some games, without intending, teach useful skills that can save lives. But if it's possible to teach positive lessons, then surely negative ones go through every once in a while. I personally think the ratio of negative lessons to positive is very low, like one in every million, because we are trained to block out negative influences and to differentiate between right and wrong. But there's always the possibility for an unstable mind to pick up one of these games and use it for malicious means. So, in the end, is making a violent game worth this risk?

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