Updated Wed, Jan 30, 2013 by Shayalyn
Welcome to the first installment of Don't Read This. In this regular feature, Karen "Shayalyn" Hertzberg will delve into the mind of the average gamer, plumbing the unfathomable depths of his subcon- .... Eh, who are we kidding. Twice a month, we're going to talk about hot button issues that'll make you think, and may or may not piss you off. Enjoy!
I’ve never thought of myself as a violent person. Occasionally bitchy? Yes. Sarcastic? Yup. But violent? No, not really. While one person might watch a violent movie with a gleam in his eye, I’m more likely to be the person with her face buried in her hands, saying, “Tell me when it’s over.” I’ve learned to avoid ultra-violent movies and other media simply because I know that my tolerance for that sort of thing has its limits, and the threshold is fairly low.
But then again, I might have blown my record as a relative pacifist at a content team meeting a while back when Ten Ton Hammer’s editor-in-chief, Reuben “Sardu” Waters, asked what sorts of aspects of gaming we editors specialized in. He mentioned crafting as a specialty, admitting that he almost always ended up inadvertently drawn to it in MMOs. (Ah, crafting--such a placid pastime!) What was my special area of interest?
“I like to beat shit up,” I said. “I’m not sure we can parlay that into a specialty...”
“Well, sure we can,” Reuben said, “You specialize in combat.”
Combat. Yes. But not really. Not that specifically, at least. There are all sorts of gamers who specialize in MMO combat, from the numbers people with the DPS parsers who are trying to figure out how to pummel bad guys into submission with great efficiency to the ones who intimately analyze combat mechanics as a means to informing the development community on how to make MMO gaming more active and fun for players. I’m not one of those so much as...well, I really like to kill things. For me, it’s not a good MMO unless I’m motivated to get out there, kick the bad guys in the nads, and take away their stuff. (We need an MMO with a groin kick skill, complete with awesome animation. But I digress.) [UPDATE: My formerly SWTOR-addicted friends inform me that the Smuggler class does indeed have a groin kick skill, and that it is enjoyable. I stand corrected.]
I’m not a violent person by nature, and there are certain types of gratuitous violence in movies and even video games that I’ll turn away from, and yet violently thrashing my enemies in an MMO happens to be my favorite thing. I was, at first, put off by the proposed “heads will roll” violence in Age of Conan...until I played it and found myself cackling with wicked delight as my Herald of Xotli decapitated her first victim. What does that say about me? What does that say about any of us?
Every so often (and far more often than we’d like to think), some unspeakable act of mass violence reignites talk of how the violence we’re exposed to affects our natures (or doesn’t, depending on which study you read). Just last week, President Barack Obama urged Congress to support a bill studying the effects of violence in media. “We don’t benefit from ignorance. We don’t benefit from not knowing the science of this epidemic of violence,” he said. “Congress should fund research into the effects violent video games have on young minds.”
When we see news reports of mass violence, we experience natural shock and horror. We mourn first, and then we immediately look for something to blame. Some of us blame guns. Some of us blame a failed mental healthcare system. Some of us blame media violence and Halo 3. And we’re probably all right to do so, to some degree, but there’s one thing we consistently fail to blame: ourselves.
We’re not violent because video games are; video games are violent because we are. The Muppets once sang, “It’s in every one of us / to be wise...” but it’s also in every one of us to be a dick, or even to be homicidal. We’re quick to insist that little Timmy is out there throwing rocks at stray cats because he’s been exposed to his older brother shooting cops and killing hookers in Grand Theft Auto, but we fail to consider that Timmy might just be a mean little shit, and that he would be one with or without help from GTA. Maybe he’s been bullied in school, and he’s taking out his frustrations with an act of aggression that makes him feel powerful instead of powerless. Maybe he’s seen his parents behave violently. The seeds of aggression lay dormant until they’re given the right conditions in which to grow, and each of us provides a differently fertile soil based on our genetic predisposition, environment, and social factors.
Let’s face it--violence has lived with us for as long as we’ve lived. Our ancient myths are rife with tales of violent conquest. Violence exists in the stories of today’s religion, where divine creators destroy with fire, flood, famine and plagues; brothers slay brothers; and holy wars are considered righteous. From the moment the first early human bludgeoned another as a final means to settling a disagreement, we’ve lived in a violent world of our own creation. Violence in media didn’t just magically appear--we created it. We’re human: flawed and aggressive.
The Angry German Kid might be more flawed and aggressive than most.
But, say the anti-media-violence types, exposure to violence in games, television, music and movies feeds our inherently violent natures!
A violent history that predates video games by many thousands of years would suggest otherwise. The Revolutionary War may have been a consequence of civilization, but it wasn’t inspired by Civ V. Albert Fish didn’t need to watch The Silence of the Lambs for pointers on cannibalistic serial killing. Although some studies would suggest that violent video games do correlate with more aggressive behavior, they’re inconclusive and contradictory. Some have decided agendas, with researchers carefully selected to champion a certain cause. Not to mention, testing aggression levels immediately after playing a video game doesn’t necessarily relate to overall aggression. I probably have elevated aggression levels whenever someone cuts me off in traffic, but that doesn’t mean that my aggression is going to linger--it’s a momentary spike that some of us are better equipped to handle emotionally than others.
The answer to aggression and violence isn’t a simple one, and there’s no singular thing to which we can assign blame. What could come of President Obama’s proposed studies should they become reality? If we can draw firm conclusions that exposure to media violence is making our aggressive tendencies worse, then we owe it to our society to do something about it. Somehow, though, I don’t think we’ll be ready for that until we’re ready to accept our primal human nature and begin taking responsibility for ourselves, rather than seeking out a scapegoat.