Sunday, March 2, 2008

Violence is an Art

Being the social outcast in the entertainment media family, games are generally looked down upon by outsiders. It's not hard to see why gamers make a stand for their passion -- seemingly more so than comic book fans and action figure fans -- and fight back against claims that games turn us into immature child-men and man-teens, obese children, sodomizing rapists, and violent adults. To be fair, video games were only mentioned in passing in the articles about immaturity and obesity. The issue of violent video games, however, has been repeatedly debated upon with new "scientific studies" appearing every two months, contradicting data and questionable testing methods intact.

Who truly knows if there's a direct link between video games and violent behavior? Certainly not I as I'm not a psychologist or a scientist. I haven't done any scientific studies, but even from anecdotal sources, I hear conflicting reports. Most of the gamers I know claim that video games make them less violent since games provide a framework in which they could relinquish external pressures and act out innate anger issues. However, they also admit that they drive more aggressively after playing a racing game, in which they receive minor time penalties for crashing and wrecking cars, or that they felt an urge to go paintballing after playing a first-person shooter. Not to mention those who easily get frustrated with difficult games and throw their controllers at walls, but act considerably more civil when confronted with difficult problems at work.

I'm not going to attempt to prove or disprove a link between virtual violence and aggressive behavior. However, I like to think that games can influence players to be violent. I find it hypocritical for gamers to so quickly dispel the notion of violent games influencing violent behaviors, then simultaneously be on the forefront of the "games are art" movement. Art is a creative work that influences, whether that influence is positive or negative. Art engages its audience and instigates emotions and behaviors -- excitement, dread, enjoyment, depression, courage, anxiety, loneliness, compassion, and yes, even aggression. If we are fighting so hard to get games recognized as art, then we must also accept the notion that games can influence violence.

I think coming to this realization can lead to improvements in our industry. For one, game retailers and more specifically, the staff who work at game retail stores, should get their act straight and stop selling Mature-rated games to kids. Similarly, the ESRB should promote higher awareness of the ratings to parents. If parents decide to let their children play mature games, then that's their decision, but stores should never be the decision makers.

Secondly, admitting that violent games can be negatively influential can lead to designers and developers to start moving away from the violent model. With the exception of a few standout games, the mainstream game industry is littered with two extremes -- the violent adult games and the non-violent children's games. The non-violent adult games can be found in the independent industry, which I'm absolutely grateful for, but wouldn't it be great if these games had bigger budgets and bigger marketing campaigns?


Manveer Heir said...

I was going to post a response to this, but then as I typed up that response on my own blog, I confused myself further.

You can read my thoughts here.

Jonathan said...

This has been one of my pet peeves for a long time. One can't, on one hand, say "games are really important and meaningful and to be taken seriously" and on the other hand brush off criticisms of the content with "oh but it's just a game, it doesn't matter."

When you hear things like this, it's a sign that the person you're talking to doesn't really think deeply or critically about games, and instead engages in a lot of wishful thinking.

The solution is just for game designers to stop being so juvenile. There are plenty of games to be made that are not about shooting stuff or beating people up, and when we get to the point that most games are not about that, we will become more-societally-respected.

Or, if we also make games that involve shooting stuff or beating people up, but explore those actions honestly and deeply rather than just providing them as a power fantasy to stroke the player's ego, those games will also be respected.

Or, we can just continue to be dumb.