It's my pleasure to welcome Ian Boudreau to the Breaking Time with this intelligent piece on shifting away from the old "gaming causes violence" mess to deal with real problems in the subculture and industry
This isn't a social problem
Writing about video games after a violent tragedy like the one late last year in Sandy Hook is a delicate thing. One doesn’t want to appear too reflexively defensive, but at the same time, it’s important to express the frustration caused when some well-meaning politician or advocate suggests that video games may have had a hand in a massacre.
Video games simply aren’t the cause of violent behavior. There’s no evidence suggesting they are – and a set of data provided by the Washington Post helpfully illustrates this. In a set of ten developed nations, per capita spending on video games – including violent games – roughly correlates with a slight downward trend in violence. The only clear outlier is the United States – suggesting our problem with violence has its roots in something other than Doom or Call of Duty.
A fellow blogger suggested to me that the science does indeed show that a relationship exists between games and violence – that valid research has been done and that it shows “spikes in aggressive thoughts and expectation” after playing sessions of violent video games. (A good summary of this research, and the counterarguments, is provided by gaming site Kotaku.)
In the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, Vice President Joe Biden met with top industry brass from across the media spectrum, including the big video game publishers. On his recommendation, President Barack Obama announced a $10 million grant to the Centers for Disease Control to study the effects of video games and other “violent media.”
“We shouldn’t be afraid of the facts,” Biden said in a subsequent Google Hangout on gun violence.
Indeed not. However, it’s a shame that this discussion – and the grant money – are focused on a problem that doesn’t exist rather than one of the many that do within the games industry and community.
One of them is the still appalling treatment of women and minorities in blockbuster games. Where women appear, they’re usually hypersexualized in the vein of 1970s Heavy Metal centerfolds. The North Korean enemies in 2011’s THQ title Homefront were portrayed with roughly the same xenophobia as they were in last year’s reboot of Red Dawn. Attempting to play almost any popular multiplayer game on Xbox 360 or Playstation 3 will normally expose a user to a constant barrage of racist, misogynist, and homophobic epithets.
And it’s impossible to discuss any of this with the “gaming community” at large. Complaints about a certain game’s sexism on any given popular gaming forum will result in virtual stoning. Just ask blogger Anita Sarkeesian what happened when she began a Kickstarter campaign to study the depictions of women in video games. Not content with trying to run her off the internet completely with a coordinated campaign of harassment, her detractors actually created a game in which users could beat her face into a pulp. And there are problems for women in the games industry, as they ably demonstrated last November with the Twitter hashtag #1reasonwhy.
So are there problems with games? In a word, yes. And there are troubling questions we gamers have to ask ourselves. Are younger gamers internalizing sexism, racism, and homophobia in online environments where few if any other players call them out for hateful language? Why are women still so underrepresented in the games industry? Is there anything we can do about it?
Despite all this, I remain convinced that video games are a valuable cultural medium. They can tell stories in ways that have never before been available, and explore issues like violence, justice, and relationships such that they draw players in and force them to see and feel the consequences of their decisions. The indications are encouraging – games like Spec Ops: The Line made players reconsider the value of war, and The Walking Dead was able to tell a zombie apocalypse story in a way that neither the graphic novels nor the television series were. And Journey’s combination of silent story, visual style, and music elevate the form to the level of art.
There’s no ready answer for gaming’s problems – but it must be gamers who take them on.