Predictably, the dialogue surrounding the Newtown shooting has veered toward the influence of violent video games (Adam Lanza played them, because why wouldn’t he, he’s a murderer, right?). I always feel nervous about tackling the hot-button issues like feminism in games, game violence, and game addiction because it’s tough to stay completely on top of the literature (which is generally flaky anyway, since the world’s top researchers don’t give a shit about games), not to mention picking a side without treading on people’s tightly-clutched biases is always a challenge. This isn’t specifically about Newtown or even about the NRA’s horrifying press conference this afternoon, which named Grand Theft Auto, Splatterhouse (retro cred!), and some obscure Flash game I’ve never heard of (Kindergarten Killer) as greater dangers to American safety than a lack of gun control, but rather my own opinion on a fairly broad and loaded topic that has kind of been simmering since the mid-nineties and has flared up every time there’s a school shooting.
I think the first truly violent game I purchased was Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes in 2004. I had to get my mother to come with me to EB Games because I was too young to even own a piece of identification with my age on it. Of course, I was always a pretty good kid, and I always erred on the side of caution when it came to media ratings (I asked her if she was okay with buying me Super Smash Bros. Melee a few years earlier because I was 11 and it was rated Teen). This was partially because I was afraid of serving life in prison for buying a game while underage (right), but also because I had heard the horror stories about kids “acting out” moves from Mortal Kombat and ripping each others’ hearts out of their chest cavities or something. So when I bought Metal Gear Solid, it was with a feeling of trepidation; I didn’t want to see the Cyborg Ninja slicing soldiers in half and suddenly get brainwashed into going on a killing spree. I was afraid of the effect that excessive gore and violence would have on me. And hell, Snake was a smoker too, wasn’t he? I didn’t want to smuggle cigarettes in my butt and get lung cancer either.
But the violence in The Twin Snakes was almost laughably unrealistic and heavily stylized by Silicon Knights with the intention of looking nice in slow-motion. The famous scene where Gray Fox slices up a bunch of Genome soldiers wasn’t a sickly realistic portrayed of guts and gore, but more like someone had coated that Shadow Moses hallway in a fine red mist. Arterial sprays looked like the soldiers were spritzing red wine vapor from spray bottles hidden somewhere in their throats.
That was eight years ago, of course, but enhanced graphics haven’t really lead to a more realistic portrayal of gore in games. Many people say it’s the realism of the violence depicted combined with a conscious action on the player’s part (pull the trigger!) that makes violent video games influential as regards “killing simulators,” but violence in games remains unrealistic compared to its other media counterparts. The average CSI or Criminal Minds episode is still more disgusting to me than the latest Mortal Kombat, which is less of a serious bastion of controversy today and more of a goofy, over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek nod to those first games that pissed off parents so much in the nineties. If anything, I’d say TV and movies are the worst perpetrators of the “gore in media feeds violence” argument, for me anyway. The most talented art designers in the games industry have yet to match the talents of Hollywood makeup crews responsible for stuff like the Saw series. I can’t even watch that stuff because it’s too realistic for me, and I’ve played with real cadavers and participated in real surgeries.
Of course, gore isn’t always what people mean by “video game violence.” In the amazingly shitty Goldeneye: Rogue Agent, shooting people would result in fucking blue sparks coming out of them. But despite the lack of gore, you’re still killing hundreds of henchmen fairly violently. The argument is that Goldeneye is teaching you to point a gun at another human being and pull the trigger without feeling any remorse, or that Street Fighter is teaching you the same thing about fistfights, or even that Carmageddon is teaching you the same thing about reckless driving. The vast, vast majority of games involve some sort of combat system or game mechanic that involves one character harming another; it’s been that way since Donkey Kong threw barrels at Mario, or since you shot at each others’ ships in Spacewar! It’s always tempting to say that violence is inherently a part of mainstream film as well, but hundreds of super-popular chick flicks say otherwise (of course, those give unrealistic expectations of sex and relationships, but that’s a whole ‘nother story).
Here’s the thing, though; I would be lying if I said that game and other media violence hasn’t desensitized me to real-world violence somewhat. When I see grisly stuff on the news or in the ER, it shocks me less than it did before seeing gallons of blood in Left 4 Dead, although that could also be because I’m older now and I have a more jaded worldview or something. I’ve bought Nerf guns because I thought it would be fun to have Halo-esque shootouts with my friends. Real guns make me incredibly nervous, but if I miraculously found myself in the army during wartime, I imagine I’d feel less remorse about shooting the enemy simply because I’ve done it before in a game, hundreds of times.
So what stops me from shooting up a classroom full of kids? Most certainly my upbringing, which has taught me hurting other people is, in simplest, toddler-understandable terms, “bad.” The law, and the threat of life in prison, is another factor. The guilt, shame, and remorse I’d feel afterward are also strong points against mass murder. Remember, these are the feelings of someone who’s generally all there mentally (most days, anyway), so it makes sense to me that even factors as simple as these would be enough to keep me from massacring children. Perhaps games have desensitized me to violence a little, but proper discipline is more than enough to keep me from “acting out” murderous rampages in games. I imagine it’s the same way for most people, since millions of people play Call of Duty but only one of them shot up a school. So what failed with that one guy? What psychological circuit breaker tripped in his brain that told him it was okay? Desensitization by violent games can only go so far, so whatever the deciding factor was for Lanza, you and I both know it wasn’t video games.