We’re having a conversation about violence in video games because politicians want a distraction, not because there’s any causal link between games and real-world shooting.
But that contextual link between the two topics is enough to make some of us feel like we need to tread lightly with our support for the more cathartic scenes in our games. To hell with that. I’m not willing to be put in a rhetorical box by people who think a piece of entertainment is more lethal than a firearm.
Because I love violent video games. I love many games that go for the shock value or even humorous violence. I also love horror movies and metal. You can take a bunch of violent scenes from a variety of games and present them out of context to make a point, but that point is going to be empty. Every art form can be turned into a numbing warning about its own worst impulses with the proper editing and lack of context.
“This is violent, isn’t it?” Trump was reported to have asked. Damn straight. But those games are fun not only because of the violence, but due to how often the violence being displayed is a punctuation mark on a longer scene or is meant to make the player feel something, whether it’s excitement, surprise or revulsion.
I don’t want to pretend that violence can’t make entertainment more entertaining, or that it isn’t another tool that developers have at their disposal to make their points. I certainly don’t want to be forced to back away from my enjoyment of these games due to a shady bit of political theater linking games to real-world tragedy.
There’s also the fact that it’s very hard to make games funny, and ridiculous violence played straight is often a shortcut to a laugh. People often talk about why violence is more impactful in games due to the interactivity, but we rarely bring up how games are able to create distance from the violence by making it so over the top that it’s impossible to take seriously. That’s when violence, even violence that looks slightly real at first glance, edges into comedy. But those scenes are easy to then use as evidence that games are out of control, because look how far they go!
Can games go too far? Absolutely, but it’s easy to check ratings, reviews and videos to see if a game is right for you. Should children be playing violent games? Every parent handles the situation differently — and it depends on the age and maturity of each child — but in my experience, the parents who work in this business or cover it for a living are more conservative with what they let their kids play. And again, we have well-enforced ratings that give you a good idea of what kind of content is in each game.
Loving violent games doesn’t mean you only love violent games or that you love all violent games. Plenty of sites and critics handle the discussion of whether or not a game or the industry as a whole is handling violence well. It’s a vibrant, ongoing discussion that doesn’t require government intervention, nor is there much evidence of a link between games and the recent tragic shootings.
Being critical or thoughtful about violence in games even as you enjoy violent games isn’t a contradiction, it’s being an adult.
Games are like movies, music and television in that they can impact you deeply and change the way you think or feel about something, or even how you act in certain situations. But that just means you have to be mindful of the entertainment you consume and what it’s trying to say. And try as they might, politicians are going to have a hard time legislating mindfulness. Saying that violence in this game is good while violence in that game is bad doesn’t mean you don’t enjoy violence, it means that using violence clumsily or as a cheap marketing tactic is worth discussing.
It’s that sort of crappy territory that publishers enter when they use our attraction to violence as the primary draw to sell a game. Not only is it a poor way to get people interested, it almost signals a lack of confidence in your actual story, characters or mechanics. And while we can choose how and when to engage with violent games in our homes, watching trailer after trailer of violence during events like E3 can become numbing. Trump’s video above is about a half a step removed from a publisher’s sizzle reel, and it should be a warning sign when politicians and publishers use similar imagery to either sell a game or scare the general public.
But those issues don’t even concern most gamers who don’t pay close attention to a game’s marketing or the business of their hobby. Don’t let this discussion push you away from the entertainment you like, although it’s never a bad idea to take a good, hard look at what you’re playing and why you enjoy it. You can be thrilled by violence or enjoy it when it’s handled well in a game without feeling guilty about the connection to gun violence in America as long as you’re not actively contributing to the problem of gun violence in America.
Which brings us to the next point ...
Many of us have known people who engage with video games in an unhealthy way, and the games they’re playing or the length of time they spend within them is often either a symptom of deeper problems or an unhealthy coping mechanism to other forms of stress.
Helping our friends and family who find themselves in those situations involves much more than just taking their games away, and even then we shouldn’t feel bad about enjoying violent or M-rated games as long as we’re not playing them for the wrong reasons.
It’s tiresome when reactionary critics or politicians try to pretend that games are the problem and, even worse than being tiresome, it’s dangerous. Politicians are less likely to look for, and support, more effective ways to help people if they think someone’s complex emotional, economic or social issues can be solved by taking away their games.
And, hell, it’s not always bad to play games to run from your problems as long as you ultimately return from your break and take care of the larger issues directly. And I’ve found violent, fast-paced games to be an effective break from stressful real-life situations without making them worse.
But even those arguments feel like equivocation, and it can be frustrating to talk about this stuff in good faith with people operating in bad faith. This whole conversation is based on a dodge meant to keep the focus away from discussions about gun control. Don’t let that bullshit impact your enjoyment of violent games. I’m not going to.