Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Shooter Experience - Camazotz on Violence in Videogames

So this is the week Valve decided to grab me by the pantcuffs and shake me up and down (willingly, I admit!) and in exchange my Steam Library expands like a swollen beached whale baking in the sun. I thought I'd share this interesting article originally linked through Penny Arcade Report (source article is from Grantland here). I've been reading Tom Bissell's articles on Grantland since I discovered him a while fact, he's the reason I decided to pick up Max Payne 3, a game I otherwise assumed was not "my thing," based on the fact that his review/discussion of it made the game sound far more compelling and interesting than I would have otherwise expected.

So Tom talks about the phenomenon of Spec Ops: The Line in relationship to shooters, and the gamers who play them, as a whole. It makes for some interesting reading, although I begin to suspect that Tom himself is a rather empathic and perhaps unusually sensitive guy, because a number of "discomfort" buttons for him appear to be set much higher than they are for me. I always grow concerned with any article in which the author suggests, implies or otherwise muses about whether or not Call of Duty, to take his example, is making the world a worse place. From the view of a pacifist and a social reformist who seeks to squelch all images and depictions of violence (be they fictitious or real) I might imagine a case could be made, but I wonder if a psychologist might consider the same argument? Could one demonstrate that playing (or making) a game which depicts gun violence without consequence to the player be a bad thing?

I love these games myself, and I regard myself as something of a pacifist in the sense that I seek to do no harm to others, refuse to own guns (not a popular stance with the in-laws, who belong to a long line of hunters), and prefer that personal protection be limited when possible to tasers. In recent years my position changed, a bit, and I purchased a compound bow thinking I could relearn archery (a skill I had as a teen) but its languished in storage ever since. In case you wonder if this is a family thing, it really isn't. While my parents weren't hunters (and generally disliked hunters who tried to hunt illegally on our land) they weren't unwilling to own guns and we had a rifle or two. My uncle had an arsenal. It wasn't a "learned trait" as dislike of weapons came later, from knowing too many people in too many situations where a firearm added to the mix of volatile personalities spelled trouble.

My wife, by contrast, generally doesn't care for the same shooters I do, but she grew up her whole life owning and shooting weapons of a myriad varieties (she likes to go elk hunting annually with a muzzle-loader, for example). Her sense of gun responsibility is engrained. The mystique of weapons is lessened for her, too; they are a pragmatic thing which must be kept, maintained and treated a certain way.

So when I read Tom Bissell's interesting musings about the nature of virtual gun violence and whether it is dangerous or therapeutic, as well as the treatise on Spec Ops: The Line as to how the message of this game (which I haven't played yet but hope to soon now that I own it) is to prompt the player to question both why he is seeking his entertainment in the form of a violent video game tale and what he gets out of it, as well as the actual morally disturbed protagonist of the game itself, I have to also wonder whether Tom's views on this game (as well as of those who designed it) aren't sometimes missing the point of the whole "military shooter" genre. Like Tom said, when he plays it he does so to "let steam in" where others like to "blow off steam." I guess that depends on what the "steam" is here.

I think Tom missed the point of the metaphor....blowing off steam in this case probably does mean the same thing for many other gamers that Tom's personal sense of the experience means for him. The steam is a metaphor for reality, where we lack power, we suffer for boundaries and limits, we are all mortal and we all have physical and mental boundaries beyond which we hope never to get pushed. The game is a symbol for everything that is unattainable in life, wrapped in a clever simulation that models some aspect of the world around us in just convincingly enough of a fashion that we can put ourselves there, in an environment where for a short time the real world is remade in the image of the id. Even with games trying to "model" reality through hits and kills we still respawn or resume from the last checkpoint and try, try again. It's a feature I'd like in real life, to be honest.....the act of shooting 800 bad guys pales in comparison to the chance to redo things until done right.

There's also a natural tendency to disconnect between fake violence and real violence. Actual studies have been done in which an audience of test subjects viewed specific scenes from movies vs. actual footage of real injuries or death (and damned if I can't find a decent link, sorry). The net result was that people had a palpable reaction to the known quantity of real violence....but considerably less of a reaction to the fake violence. I sometimes wonder if horror movies that are especially disturbing or effective in their FX aren't latching on to some element of the uncanny valley, albeit from a grotesque angle.

Admittedly, there are plenty of studies suggesting that videogame violence desensitizes people to real violence. I am not entirely clear on how accurate these studies are; one could argue that if, indeed, we had a nation of gamers growing up desensitized to violence (and it's entirely possible, I suppose) then wouldn't one expect to see more crime and violence in real life, as people became more prone to commit violent acts to which they felt fewer personal and social pressures to refrain from? It doesn't appear that way, and a study of national crime statistics over several decades (see Wiki here for some interesting info on this phenomenon) suggests that there has in fact been a sharp decline since the mid 90's. That at the very least suggests that there's no obvious connection between violent video games and violence (unless one were to try and postulate that crime statistics would be even lower than they already are if video games weren't around, but I digress). Hell, you could probably make a postulation that desensitization to violence has a correlation with dropping crime rates if you wanted to (not that it would likely be correct, but that's how the internet media likes to work).

Anyway, I think the phenomenon as a whole is more complicated than any single party wants to admit. I suspect desensitization caused by games has a stronger correlation with a shift in reduced empathy and asocial behavior that the internet serves as a tool for. The violence of shooter games has little to do with the inherent beast of man and more to do with the fact that we once were a more violent breed of beast, that centuries of acculturation has at last stripped us down to the point where violence is absent, and allowing us an easy, harmless and effortless means of exploring that dark side of human nature is perhaps a good thing. Until we as a society can start breeding or genetically altering for passivity, we're not going to see it go away. As is so often pointed out, most violence happens in places where video games are never seen, where poverty and desperation is rampant. It's always visible and shocking when it happens down the street from us, and highly visible (because that's how our newsmedia rolls) but the truth is that there are many regions of the world where violence is a normal, everyday occurence. And those places are not getting it from Call of Duty. Fear of the fictional is a trivialization of the problems extant in reality. I don't think that's what Tom Bissell was aiming for, but I do think it's worth framing a proper perspective on the issues he (and Spec Ops: The Line) try to pose.

I'll follow up soon once I get a chance to sink my teeth (har har) into Spec Ops: The Line. Maybe next week? We'll see!

Black Ops still rules. This was the CoD that finally won me over to the genre

1 comment:

  1. You know,in light of Friday's tragic news, I had to come back here and make one comment: the problem with all situations is that there are always exceptions. I'm shocked and horrified at the shooting in Colorado, but concede that even with my notion that fake violence does not beget real violence as I postulated, that there are always exceptions, and I wonder if there is a certain type of sociopathic or psychotic personality out there that is either influenced by or encouraged by the fictional violence to engage in real violence. I strongly doubt video game or movie violence (as might be the case here with the Batman film shooting) "creates" these people, but I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't serve as a catalyst to those borderline types to help push them over the limit. I guess we'll learn more as the press and investigators release more information. What is it about poor Colorado and mass shooting, anyway?