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Guns, games and violence: The real questions you should be asking

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Don’t get thrown by causality

exploded gun

Later today I’ll be joining a psychologist, an author and a researcher at the Games for Change Festival to discuss violence and video games.

It’s a topic I’ve written about before as a parent, as a journalist covering breaking news and as a gamer with strong opinions. But a friend said that the timing of this talk would make it even more evocative. I agree, though not just because of the propinquity it has with the tragedy of the Orlando shootings.

Breaking silence with silence

Last week, something unusual happened in the game industry: Most of the world’s biggest video game publishers directly or indirectly addressed the realities of gun violence on a national stage.

Those unprecedented moments, delivered in short speeches, moments of silence and colorful ribbons, came during press conferences by the likes of Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony as E3 kicked off its annual celebration of gaming in the shadow of the nation's worst shooting in history.

The dichotomy of those good intentions anchoring press conferences that almost uniformly included games with guns was hard not to notice.

For some, it raised the almost tired debate of gaming's direct impact on violence.

Does playing a video game steeped in a cycle of kill-die-kill have an impact on players? Almost certainly. Arguing that an overwhelmingly violent game doesn't impact its users is akin to arguing that any game with a singular drive or message can't inspire or evoke change.

It's arguing that games for change isn't a thing and that everyone at this week's festival, everyone who works to educate, inform, inspire through gaming, is wasting their time.

Violence in video games, like any other aspect of gaming, most certainly can impact a gamer.

But that's the wrong question.

The right question or questions are far more complex.

What sort of impact does violence in a game have on a person who plays it?

Can violence in games have a positive impact?

Here's the question I often wonder about: What sort of impact do gun games have on children in terms of their future support of gun ownership?

When my son was 12 he was, like most teens his age, a huge fan of Call of Duty.

We often played the game together, and I firmly believe that the violence inherent in that game never had any negative impact on his ability to understand right from wrong or feel empathy, or that it made him want to act out those matches of gunplay in real life.

But what it did do, absolutely did, was make him an expert in firearms, or at least how these real-world weapons performed in a virtual setting.

His ability to discuss the difference between, for instance, an AK-12 and a Remington R5 wasn't just about how they looked or which one his friend used, but delved into a level of detail that was, for me, chilling.

He understood their comparative fire rates, accuracy, stopping power, the sorts of attachments each could use and how they would impact his ability to virtually kill.

In discussing weapons with either my father or stepfather, both staunch NRA members and former military men, he could dazzle them with a nuance of knowledge that children his age, when I was a child, usually pulled from the back of a baseball card.

Over time he began to ask me about taking him shooting, so he could see what it was like to fire a real weapon.

As someone who spent a decade and a half covering crime and the evils people can do to one another with guns and a diabolical assortment of other items, as a uncle whose teenage niece was killed by an ex-boyfriend with a gunshot to the head, I'm not a gun owner, or really a fan of guns.

But somehow my son was steering toward becoming both.

He's since moved on, trading his enthusiasm for guns with an interest in knives powered by Counter-Strike: GO and its many colorful skins.

He's 15 now, a happy young teen who reads books, volunteers, worries about his grades and talks about girls. He's not been warped by his play of violent games. Today, games with guns are just one sort of game he spends time with.

But that early fascination with gunplay and the nuance of gun ownership in the United States was most certainly driven by some games' obsessive level of detail in presenting warfare and shooting.

This fetishization of guns in play doesn’t just bring with it a level of knowledge arguably unnecessary for young teens, it also normalizes the idea of gunplay and gun ownership without bringing with it the necessary care and instruction that should go along with gun ownership.

Often, gunplay in games is stripped of all danger both real and virtual: You can’t trip and shoot yourself or drop a gun and kill a friend. A child can’t find a firearm laying around in a virtual world and accidentally pull the trigger. They’re not loud. They’re not presented as dangerous or deadly. Instead, gamers can unlock stickers or decorate their guns like children of my generation decorated bikes, skateboards or action figures. Most modern shooters don’t even worry about friendly fire.

In so efficiently designing and redesigning gun games to eke out every drop of fun and minimize any moment of inaction, game designers are accidentally creating the worst sort of games for change.

So when those of you who make games rightfully dismiss any direct correlation between a person pulling a gamepad trigger to score a point and a person pulling a real trigger to take a life, don't also dismiss the smaller questions.

The real issues are in the nuance; the devil's in the details.

Disclosure: Earlier this week, the author was added as a volunteer member to Games For Change's advisory board.

Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding editor and executive editor of Polygon.