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Gamers Anonymous: I'm Ricky, And I Play Violent Video Games

by , 8:00 AM EST, March 2nd, 2001

I have a confession to make. I hate writing about violence in video games. I do. I hate it. Hate, hate, hate it. It's such a dumb topic. Everyone knows some games are violent; everyone knows that seven-year-old children should not play Myth or Heavy Metal F.A.K.K. 2 or Quake III; everyone knows that letting kids play with guns—in real life or in games—is a stupid thing to do. More importantly, you, the Observers, know that dealing with violence in games is a matter of common sense, and you'd rightfully berate us if we expostulated on the matter unnecessarily.

And your annoyance is just the beginning. I get mad too. I get all flustered when I try to convince people that the games I play are harmless. I get mad at the media watchdogs, preaching that games warp little kids' minds. I get mad at the infamous "Trench Coat Mafia," featured so prominently in the fallout from the Columbine Colorado High School shooting, for playing Doom, and hurting gaming reputations even more.

I get mad that no one understands that these games are harmless. They're just pixels! They don't hurt anyone! I don't want to talk about it, and I don't want to write about it! I don't want to hear, see, or think about it.

I'm in rehab, slowly dealing with my phobia of this debate.

Recently, I read some articles, particularly one at the now-defunct C|Net Gamecenter (which I'll discuss later in this article), that forced me, kicking and screaming, to reach some conclusions, hopefully once and for all, about how we should deal with violence in video games.

First, let me try to pin down why gamers hate this topic so. After all, if we're so justified in playing the games we do, then why would we get so defensive when someone suggests that such entertainment "might not be appropriate?"

I think the conflict comes because gamers will simultaneously claim that violence "isn't important when I play a game," and that "this game is so visceral—it's awesome!" In an intense deathmatch, cries of "I just incinerated you!" and "Look at those giblets fly!" are as predictable as the presence of chips and soda.

No gamer who plays violent games can deny that the violence is part of the appeal of the game. So how can we gamers rationalize this apparently sick addiction of ours? I think that this concern, above all others, is the reason for our volatile response to criticism of violent games.

So how can we possibly justify liking explicit violence in games? I think I have an answer: for a responsible, normal gamer, moments of violent destruction are not about injury or aggression, but slickness. It's about being a bad ass, just like Indiana Jones grabbing his hat from under a closing door, or James Bond foiling a diabolical scheme by casually utilizing—at exactly the right moment—the proper gadget to precipitate the death of some crazy communist general.

Stay with me on this. If you come around a corner into a hail of gunfire holding a slow-firing double-barreled shotgun, then calmly turn to face your opponent, hit the "fire" button, and obliterate your foe in one clean shot, you feel like an Arnold Schwarzenegger. If you spin around and perfectly execute a three-kick combination, knocking your attacker out of the air and flat on his back, then catch him as he's getting up and throw him over a five-story balcony, you feel like a Jackie Chan.

Although many gamers (including myself, until recently) would be scared to admit it, being immersed in the character you play—which often means having the game (and the included violence) look realistic—is crucial to a good action game. A good game sucks you in and won't let you go. The important distinction is that responsible gamers are sucked in not by the aggression, but by the opportunity to be an action hero.

Having rationalized my way past liking violence in games, I feel obligated to talk about the "irresponsible" gamer. I'd wager that many gamers (some of whom may be reading this column) play violent games because they are violent. I'll be candid: that scares me. I was astounded that people got in such a tizzy because Bungie announced that Oni would have no blood or gore. Come on! Konoko is the most contrary, rebellious, likable video game character I've seen in a long time—and she can kill a man by grabbing his neck with her legs and flipping him over her head. What do you need blood for?

I suppose the real crux of the violence in games debate comes with the question: what do you do about irresponsible gamers? When the culprit is a child or teenager, as is often the case, I believe the responsibility lies principally with the parent. Just like with guns, it is the parents' responsibility to know if their kid is safe and healthy.

The burden on parents is clear: as games become more realistic, they will, in effect, teach gamers how to become a more effective killer. Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six, or the sequel Rogue Spear, is an excellent example. That game displays with unparalleled intricacy the logistics of storming a well-defended building when badly outnumbered. That knowledge can be very dangerous, especially in a volatile mind, like that of an angry child. It's the job of a parent to know what games are out there and decide whether or not they believe their child is capable of playing it without loosing touch with reality. (For this reason, I am a strong supporter of the ratings publishers assign their products. Like with movies, such ratings should help parents determine what games their kid can play.)

Of course, the irresponsible gamer has a counterpart: the irresponsible developer. My most disturbing gaming experience ever had to be playing "Postal," a game from about three years ago who's protagonist "goes postal," dropping his life in which "no one understands him" in order to run around killing everyone—including law enforcement, civilians, children, and animals. While I was relieved to see Postal fail in the marketplace, I was terrified that anyone would make such a game. Let me be clear: I was made almost physically sick watching—no, orchestrating—the cruel and grotesque violence on my monitor. Mainstream developers have recently been very good at keeping violence from being the point of a game, and I hope it stays that way.

So now that I've completely resolved this debate... Now we can all go home and live our lives in peace and quiet and not worry about this whole mess anymore. Right?

Alas, despite my clear vision for gaming utopia, there are plenty of other opinions out there. (Imagine that!) I know our Observers will have their 2¢ to contribute, and I would like to encourage you to talk about your ideas in our gaming forum, no matter what side of the debate you stand on. In part II of this editorial, I will show you some of the Web sites and information on this subject that I found interesting.

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