Thursday, August 16, 2007

Killing time

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I've had a bumper - well, maybe bumpy rather than bumper - postbag in response to my BBC column earlier in the week about the impact violent games have on our minds. The letters raised some interesting points, so I thought I'd give an airing to them here. One questioned whether we were concerning ourselves with the right kind of violence, asking if the dangerous driving rewarded in so many racing games wasn't having a more pernicious influence than the gun games that are normally in the firing line. It's an issue which came to the fore with the BSM research released earlier in the year, and neatly summarises the problems facing a games industry which claims that violent games have no adverse impact, but that educational games are uniquely potent teaching tools.

Another took the firm line that gamers and parents need to exercise more control over extreme playing habits, which raises the interesting question of how much responsibility the games industry should be taking for its customers. Are the play time controls available in Windows XP and World Of WarCraft standard bearers in a new era of developer responsibility? Or are they the needless interference of nannying companies ever sensitive to the risk of lawsuits? Another correspondent quite rightly took me to task for being so quick to claim that all attacks on violent games were unfounded, and then raised the ongoing question of whether the interactive nature of games means their standards for violence should be tighter than for media like film or TV.

Thinking about these issues has made me want to post a couple of the points I didn't want to try to shoehorn in to the column, but which I do find troubling and interesting. The first is to wonder why, when we talk about games causing violent behaviour, we always seem to automatically be talking about copycat violence. The great spectre than hangs over gaming always seems to be the idea that beating prostitutes to death with a giant dildo in a game will make you more likely to do it in real life. And so the debate gets bogged down in questions of whether or not games are murder simulators, teaching firearms skills and advanced thuggery to a nation of eager students. That theory may be self-evident nonsense, but what about the games that do make you violent or abusive? Games can be overwhelmingly, infuriatingly, unbearably frustrating, and I know that they've caused me in the past to be (at best) sulky and petulant, and (at worst) prone to very uncharacteristic bouts of shoe-throwing and swear-word screaming. It is for these reasons that multiplayer Puzzle Bobble was once banned in my house and that I came to the conclusion that I might part from Jet Force Gemini on better terms if I didn't continue my final battles with Mizar. The latest, and most tragic, story along these lines is this one, of a man who stands accused of shaking a 4-month old baby to death after becoming enraged after playing a game. Is the Manhunt hysteria distracting us from a much lower-key, but more worrying issue? Here's the key question: has gaming frustration ever driven you to a more extreme form of behaviour than other annoyances in your life? And what are the implications if it has?

The other issue is that we might have the shoe on the wrong foot. Most of the violence-in-games debate is concerned with the worry that gamers may transpose the morals and activities of the game world into the real world. There's a growing body of research that shows that they won't - that people of all ages have a pretty robust grasp of what's real and what isn't. But what if the gap starts to close from the other direction? What if the real world starts to look and behave more and more like a videogame? It's not easy to read about weapons platforms like SWORD - which provides joystick-and-screen remote control over a machine-gun emplacement, and has recently been deployed by the US Army in Iraq - and not recall with unease the opening of something like Climax's Black Hawk Down, which had you merrily slicing through hordes of anonymous enemies courtesy of a thumbstick-and-screen remote control machine-gun emplacement. It's a sinister enough thought before you add in the findings of something like Stanley Milgram's controversial electric shock experiments, which found that subjects were more willing to inflict pain on innocent victims the more remote they were from them. So do I worry about an epidemic of prostitute dildocides? No. But do I worry about what happens when you add videogame controls to a weapon of mass-murder and put it in the hands of a generation raised on Counter-Strike? Sure I do. Don't you?