Some thoughts on how games are not the only thing to blame (if at all) for all the tragedies in the world and a plea for considering a more elaborate explanation and maybe the big picture instead.
Before we get started – some notes: It is actually quite hard to write something like this: I’ll either end up writing something inoffensive, but shallow or I will eventually offend people – or come off as some arrogant bitch. I’d rather do … neither of these. I’ve thought about some different ways to approach the topic … something scientific maybe? No, there’s plenty of this already out there on the internet and since I don’t have the time or the resources or any experience on how to do my own study that would lead nowhere. And I am not objective, which would make such an endeavor unreliable. Hmm, OK, essay-ish it is then. So, hmm. This is a quite complex matter that includes all kinds of aspects… Hell no, I’m not writing a book here! So… here’s what I did instead: Write about me. My thoughts. How I think it all fits together. No overall truths. Just some remarks. Maybe they don’t even make sense.
Hey, wait! Why am I qualifying this? (And yes, I am actually trying to make a point here.) I am offended by your opinion, too! Like, when you tell me that being a gamer makes me susceptible to violent outbursts. Or even an accomplice to a number of massacres! Or how it makes me a sick or at least an ominous person in general – and you can sugar-coat it all you want, but that’s what you’re implying, isn’t it?
You know what? I actually kind of get it.
It’s human nature to seek meaning to understanding, to find something (or someone) to blame. Not just after great tragedies, but particularly then. We prefer to find explanations that best fit to our world view. Not because we’re simple-minded creatures, but because … that’s just what we do. (I’ll get back to this a bit later) So, if a guy walks into a school or a movie theatre and kills a bunch of people, some of us blame gun control laws, others violent media and … games. It’s the same old story again and again: Video games that glorify violence (whatever the hell that means) make people more likely to go on a killing spree, make them less empathic, more aggressive, more … violent. Because people who play these games in the first place already have it in them and have their violent predisposition amplified by the constant exposure to screen-violence … all these billion or so gamers on the planet are just a bunch of lunatics and one of them is going to crack one day… and so on and on and on…
You know what? It sucks. And I will try to explain why. It could take a while. Grab a beer or something. Have some tea. All set? OK, let’s see if you can jump onto my train of thought.
When I followed the Aurora movie theatre shootout and the Newtown massacre (to name the most recent ones that got huge media attention), my first thought was not: Oh my, what video games did they play? (That was my second thought, though. Not because I needed something to blame, but because I needed to know what games to put on the high shelf to avoid being pigeonholed by visitors unfamiliar with my gaming habits. Because, let’s face it, that’s where this goes every time.) No, my first thought was: What drove those people to do that? What kind of anger or despair or plain helplessness (we don’t know) made them cross the line from just being angry or desperate or helpless to actually – for the lack of a better term – express that by randomly killing strangers?
No one goes crazy enough to kill someone without someone else noticing it first. I don’t remember where I heard that. But that’s actually very close to the point I am trying to make. Mental illnesses aside, people don’t just go crazy. There’s always some underlying cause, something that went wrong for them, something they just couldn’t take anymore. And haven’t we (well, most of us at least) been there at one point? When you – to use game terminology – just wanted to quit the damn game or load the last working save game right before you realized that there is none and that’s it? When annoyances and setbacks pile up left and right and there’s just no way out? When you then realize that there’s no one to turn to because no one would help or even understand and how could they? And here’s the deal: They can’t, because – imagine that – they’re caught up in their own pile of crap and they really, seriously, can’t deal with yours as well. And that doesn’t include the things that go wrong on a large scale. Take any First World country’s politics or economics right now and you know what I mean (if you care enough to occasionally peek at the big picture – if you don’t, good for you. And no, I honestly wasn’t being sarcastic). It drives you crazy, right? You feel angry or desperate or helpless right now? There you go.
See how I didn’t use any game references in the paragraph above? (Except for the metaphor, yeah, thanks, I know, shut up.)
This happens. For real. All the time. A few months ago, a guy in Germany took a debt collector hostage and eventually shot him and his associates before committing suicide rather than being evicted from his home. Another one walked into a job agency and stabbed an employee. Neither incident made the international news. They weren’t even reported as killing sprees, but these two cases illustrate, what I think is wrong with (warning, buzzword!) society. People are angry. People are desperate. People are helpless. Because (to put it in simple terms) they can`t find a decent job, they can’t pay their bills, they’re losing their homes (if not, they’re probably afraid they might) or they just can’t stand to watch what’s going on around them … gee, students sue their schools for better grades for cryin’ out loud! And guess what: I can relate. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean, hey, that’s actually a great idea, let’s all go out and express our anger by shooting people, but I get it. And this is horrific. Tragic. Incredibly sad.
You know what’s even sadder? To watch someone take a turn for the worse and not be able to do anything about it. Because you’re too caught up in your own stuff. And more: Because it’s actually considered bad manners to tell people that they`re screwing up. We’re taught to be nice to each other, to respect each other, to accept each other for who we are. You know what? That’s insane. By silently looking away, afraid to offend or confront someone, we are doing neither of these things. We’re actually doing quite the opposite. Being nice to people serves us more then it serves them. We all like people who are nice to us, right? Being honest though – that’s the tough part. And no, I’m not telling you to go out and be cruel for no reason. I said honest. Huge difference. If someone had told these gunmen or their parents or whoever that they’re headed down a bad road, maybe something could have been done to prevent these killings? And don’t tell me no one saw that coming. I believe that people just didn’t want to – they were caught up in their own stuff – see above. That’s harsh, you think? Unfair? Yes, it is, no argument here. There was nothing you could have done? Then, I am sorry, you haven’t tried hard enough.
In light of some recent events, I actually started to question my gaming preferences – which are (besides the usual RPGs) mostly FPSs. Dark, dirty, creepy, completely reality-free and yes, violent games. If I had to explain why I play them, I would simply tell you, that they are fun. Fun? Virtual killing is fun? Virtually crawling through a crazy war-zone, being hunted by zombies or going astray in some nightmarish hell is fun? Well, no, of course not. The fun part is when you figure out how to win or how to survive, when you complete that insane mission, when you are immersed so deep in the story that you don’t realize it’s the next morning until the sunshine on your monitor is screwing up your aim. And, of course, mastering a video game gives you a sense of achievement. I won’t lie about that, it’s part of the whole process. And it’s supposed to be. That’s part of why we play, right? And you’re taught a bunch of stuff. (Buzzword-warning again!) You have to focus, you get to train your hand-eye-coordination, your reaction time improves, you learn to make quick decisions, you learn to adapt your strategy to sudden changes – you know what? These are all good things! And this is why I keep playing – despite of all the evil out there, despite of how inappropriate or even distasteful you may find these games in times like these. One could argue that you can also train this … like …
outside, playing with people or by throwing virtual carrots to fluffy pixel-bunnies or something (yes, please, someone make that game!), but this is where the violence comes in: If there’s nothing at stake, then there’s no need to really try is there? If it’s life or death (even imaginary), then you try real hard to survive – i.e. master the game. (Oh look, here I am, going from ‘violence is not the issue’ to ‘violence is actually necessary’ … huh! Didn’t see that coming. That’s actually kind of creepy.)
There’s also a whole lot of things that games don’t teach me. I could never fire a real gun for instance. I simply wouldn’t know how (could figure it out eventually though). I also couldn’t survive in space. Fly a helicopter, or a spaceship. Playing GTA doesn’t make me do crazy stunts in real life (well, not successfully that is.) Or even a good driver. Or … you’ve caught my drift by now. And video games don’t make me want to do all these things (Ok, the spaceship would be cool, though). They don’t make me want to go out and kill a bunch of strangers for no reason – and yes, that’s despite all the crap that happens to me occasionally. And you know why? Because I take it out on the pixels. I’d rather blow off some steam in-game than in real life. Or actually go outside. Find something meaningful. Reach out to people. Build relationships. (You know the good ones with all that cruel, rewarding honesty I mentioned above.) Do stuff. Get reminded that the world doesn’t suck. And if I still feel it does, there’s always someone there to prove me wrong. This is an active process though and not an easy one. And in my humble opinion, this is what people need to learn again – not to play the blame game all over again and take away (=ban) stuff. Let’s add something for a change, shall we?
I promised to get back to this: Preferably, we like to find an explanation that best fits our world view. Not because we’re simple-minded creatures, but because … that’s just what we do. You thought I had forgotten about that, right? Wanted to type a smart comment, calling me a hypocrite, eh? Here I am, blaming something I dislike to protect something that’s part of my world. I’m human, too, you know? I can’t suddenly come up with an easy explanation. I’m just trying to find one different to the one that’s been offered so far. Trying to make you question if this really is the only thing that you want to blame (besides gun control that is) or if there is the slightest chance that there may be something else – a bigger picture perhaps. Again: People don’t just go crazy.
Because, you see, violence, horror, fear and all these things are what excite people. You may not like it, but it’s as simple as that. Violence, horror and cruelty in art, music and literature date back to the epics of the ancient Greeks and appear throughout the arts up to the present. They have always been a part of popular entertainment. This is what popular means: That people like it. And since video games are considered some sort of art, it is only consistent to continue the pattern. Or is it not? Should we stop watching Othello kill his wife on stage or just ourselves killing Nazis on screen? There’s a difference you say? Yes, I read that study, too. Immersion in video games is much stronger than the one you experience by watching a play or a movie (or the news while we’re at it) because of the self-involvement and the immersion. Can’t argue with that. Let me tell you where it’s even stronger: In role-playing. There’s a whole movie about that, too! It’s crazy dangerous! Reading a book? (=Imagining stuff?) Dancing? A lot of self-involvement there, too! Where do you want to draw the line? Needless to say: I mean for adults. That we shouldn’t have our kids play COD until they’re old enough to understand isn’t open for discussion.
So, where am I going with this? Obviously nowhere. I still haven’t found the answer. I can only tell you this: gaming didn’t make me a less caring, less empathic or more aggressive as a person. It allows me to experience things, though, that I couldn’t (or wouldn’t want to) experience in real life – like saving the galaxy. Or killing a dragon. Or being shown in all its brutality what terrible damage guns do (there are actual wars going on, someone should care, right?). My life would certainly be a lot shallower without games. (Okay, I am biased, games also occasionally pay my rent.) And as I tried to prove earlier: Shallow is bad. So, please, find something else to blame for a change – or at least pretend to look at the bigger picture … if you find that there actually is a correlation there, I’ll rest my case. Maybe there is. I can’t tell. All I’m saying is that this is not all of it. Please consider that, will you?