Video games often get a bad rap. They are subjected constantly to a stream of criticism from many sources. They are accused of wasting time, encouraging violence or laziness, derided as simple entertainment – the list goes on. In particular, though, many people seem to believe that video game violence makes people violent. Sociologists and psychologists have conducted studies in the matter time and again.
I, too, am intrigued by the various depictions of violence present, not only in video games, but ever increasingly in television and movies as well. My interest is both academic and personal, as I play a lot of video games myself. If it is true, as some people claim, that certain video games inculcate violent behaviors, then that would surely make them something to avoid, right?
I used to believe that violent video games promoted violent behavior. After all, I only had myself to look at. I remember playing Gears of War in college and becoming violently enraged. I threw my favorite glass against the wall and watched it shatter, then ignited in fury that I had smashed my favorite glass. A burning fire ignited somewhere in my core, seeking to consume me and everything around me. It wasn’t just Gears of War, either. It almost didn’t matter what I played. Star Wars: Battlefront, Icewind Dale, The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, Mass Effect – I observed these same tendencies in me no matter the genre, no matter the style of combat. There were many times when I would avoid fighting-based games altogether so I wouldn’t worry about raging.
I didn’t know what to do. My life was a mess, full of emptiness and loneliness, death and loss – video games were the only thing that helped me to escape, helped me to forget. Even today, playing video games is one of the only things that allows me to escape from the conundrum of the day-to-day. What was I supposed to do when the only thing that kept me sane was also destroying me from the inside out?
Then something terrible and frightening happened that forced me to question what I believed – an ideological shift somewhere in my core. I was playing The Dark Eye: Chains of Satinav, a point-and-click adventure from Daedalic Entertainment. Chains of Satinav certainly wasn’t free of violence, but it was not an action game. It told a dark fantasy of an evil sorcerer who elicits terrible control over his enemies by invading their dreams. A note of despair followed Geron throughout his quest – even victory proved to be less than glorious.
No—it was the sequel I was playing. The Dark Eye: Memoria. I was struggling through a particularly difficult puzzle, and my patience was wearing thin, thinner, thinning. It snapped. I was a werewolf, a beast with a curse, rage and fury and hate and violence. I needed to take this pain, inflict it where it may go. And there was my dog. My happy, loyal, loving best friend. I found myself pinning him to the kitchen floor, my hands wrapped around his throat.
And there was déjà vu.
This had happened before…to me.
I didn’t realize it at the moment, but it wasn’t the violence present in a shooter or an RPG that was encouraging violence in me. It was a childhood trauma, an attack as a young man by a person I trusted. It was a terrible memory that I had buried deep down in my subconscious. There it sat like magma, occasionally rising to the top through the stimulus of frustration and erupting in a violent rage.
I am not a violent person. I desire to harm no one. These video games weren’t creating such a desire. They weren’t making me hateful or violent. They were awakening me to a lot of pain that I had in my heart.
I sought help. I checked myself in to a crisis center in Montana for a week. I started seeing a counselor regularly, but even that wasn’t enough. A few months later, I returned to the crisis center, this time by order of the local police department.
My life was a mess, but video games – violent or no – were not the problem. If anything, they were medicine, a salve for wounds the eye couldn’t see. I came to understand that my frustration didn’t lie in the video game violence. Rather, it was brought about by the frustration of failure, that rage that even in my fantasy world I was not good enough. It was not the violence of my entertainment that was destroying me, but the violence of my own memory.
You’ve heard people say in court, “The Devil made me do it.” A murderer in a Steve Earle song once swore, “Nothing touched the trigger but the Devil’s right hand.” I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anyone say, “A video game made me do it!” Simply put, I no longer believe that video games encourage violence. If they do, there is most likely a psychological motivation beneath the surface and the video game is only acting as a catalyst, providing the necessary ingredients to produce a chemical reaction.
I believe that for a lot of people, this is the heart of the matter. Video games may create a lack of sensitivity to violence, but I believe they contribute very little to actual violence. Is there any graphic violence in The Witcher that you haven’t seen with more liveliness and realism on Game of Thrones? How many of the people who were supposedly encouraged to violent acts by video games were really responding to stimuli elsewhere in their lives – an abusive parent; a broken relationship; poverty, depression or despair? How many of them lash out in anger simply because they don’t understand any other way to deal with their problems? We had problems with violent gangs long before Mortal Kombat, and the most violent countries in the world have little access to such expensive entertainment. There is nothing displayed in a video game that man hasn’t bested with his own cruel creativity.
I want to make it clear that I do not pretend to have the solution. I’m not advocating mental health reform. I’m not advocating a social revolution. I’m not advocating answers at all, because I am convinced that man has no resolution to this broken world. If humanity has proven one thing, it has proven that human society is a long way from the world of Jean-Luc Picard. What I am advocating is understanding: good people can do terrible things, and even terrible people often deserve mercy.
This doesn’t mean that I approve of gross violent depictions in video games, and this certainly doesn’t mean that discretion isn’t necessary. The ESRB assigns ratings for a reason, and letting young children play games with ‘T’ or ‘M’ ratings can be very irresponsible. Are those video games going to make them violent? Probably not, but if they do the fault lies, not with the video game, but with the irresponsibility of the parent. Letting a young child watch rated ‘R’ movies or play rated ‘M’ games is negligent at best.
Video games are getting more graphically violent every day, and I don’t like it. When I was in high school, more games were rated ‘T’ than ‘M.’ The opposite is true today, and I wish it were not so. The violence in Telltale’s A Walking Dead series, for example, makes me sick to my stomach. Whether it is fantasy or not, our culture is obsessed with brutality. It may not encourage violence, but it is disturbing. However, it is certainly better to be exposed to violence virtually than in the real world. If video game violence is able to open people’s eyes to the horror of true violence, perhaps it can deter them from that course.
And perhaps it won’t.