Saturday, 12 January 2013

Do video games make people kill?

    We've all heard the rallying cry of the older generation, gamers; "video games melt your brain," "video games make you violent," "video games make you antisocial."  As kids, we had our playing time restricted to strict limits and lived in homes where ESRB ratings were treated as dogma.  As teenagers, we heard the bombastic sermons of the Jack Thompsons of the world.  As adults (or as teenagers still, for many of us) we learned of prolific killers, household names whose sprees were attributed to violent video games.  Every violent criminal of the last fifteen years has had his/her voyeuristic spree chalked up to violent forays into the digital world.  But, video games do not hatch nascent killers.  Rather, it's another burgeoning social attitude which creates the potentiate to kill; disaffection.
    In a twist of irony, I've been taking a hiatus from games since I was a teenager for a similar reason, albeit applied to games themselves rather than the things which games are alleged to make you do.  Games became redundant.  Distinctions between titles blurred.  Sometimes, I could be playing a title for half an hour before I actually became conscious of what I was playing.  "Call of Duty 4" and "Halo: Combat Evolved" became interchangeable to me, as did many other titles.  Just as games supposedly 'desensitize' you to reality, so I was 'desensitized' to games.  I could no longer bring myself to care about what had basically become interactive movies to me.  The very volition which makes games so successful...namely, suspension-of-disbelief, an ability to both immerse yourself in a digital realm while simultaneously believing that none of it is really 'real,' proved to be a hubris for me.  Half an hour of hammering at buttons turned into a chore.  Everything became "go there, shoot that" or "talk to such and such, complete X quest."  Instead of suspending the real world, it seemed like I was becoming ever more *conscious* of it, aware of the deferred responsibilities.  I became resentful of the electronic apparatus which had raised me in a sort of nascent Information-Age Oedipal rage.  If I couldn't recreate the whole thing for other words, if I wasn't self-sufficient, but rather just another mindless consumer...then I had no business using it.  I'll spare you the philosophical digression of fully explaining this, but the epiphany itself transpired at around the same time as McDonald's food began to taste like cardboard for the first time (mostly because I ate little else for a stretch of several weeks at one point while living on my own).
    So see here's the thing; I doubt that I was the only gamer feeling this way.  It's no coincidence that Nintendo released the Wii at around that same time, 2006, and in doing so added another dimension to gaming.  The Xbox 360 Kinect hardware followed a few years later, and Sony has released the PS Vita, a handheld based largely off the mechanics of the Nintendo DS touch interface.  The point of it is not only to make games appeal to a more eclectic age demographic (40-somethings looking to lose weight) but to bring back a market of disenfranchised 20-something Super-Mario-Generationers.  It was a brilliant marketing coup.  Nothing makes you appreciate something again like the premonition you're about to lose it.  I'm playing video games again for the same reason that Generation X-ers flocked out to buy typewriters when the Sinclair ZX80 began the advent of PCs in the 1970s.  The answer is nostalgia.   
    This same attitude which cultivated disaffection from games itself does exist in games itself, yes.  I'm not going to flesh out any of the tired old traditional arguments, like how the Bible is more subversive than "Call Of Duty 2," or how the nightly news is scarier than "Manhunt," or how people with paunches have been intoning the arrival of Little Green Men From Mars as they blew away children since long before the epoch of "Grand Theft Auto."
    Instead, I want you to please answer me this; what do killers Anders-Behring-Breivek, James Holmes, Pecca-Eric Auvinen, Eric Harris, Adam Lanza, and countless others have in common, besides the fact that they all played violent video games at some point?  Their motives are ever-varying.  Some killed more in response to structural phenomena (aberrations which occurred as the result of bullying, workplace harassment, mental hazing, etc), but others can't be accounted for in any sociological sense.  Several were affluent, or had well-rounded circles of friends, or caring families, and even girlfriends.  No, what these guys had in common was something far simpler; they never knew death.
    Video games do instil a certain 'perception' of death which occludes reality, one that society to this date has no answer for.  When you mow down a cop in "Grand Theft Auto," or electrocute a prison warden in "Manhunt," or up your frag count in "Call Of Duty," you don't see the funerals, the bereavement, the hearse, the grieving relatives, the years of suffering, the insomnia, the endless self-questioning.  Though these killers may have lost a grandparent between them, none of them knew the crushing, ever-present reality of death.  None had ever lost a parent, or a good friend, somebody cut down in the prime of life with no rhyme or reason.
    This is an elementary lesson in empathy which every well-brought-up child learns at some point, but one which is obfuscated by years of repudiation, of which video games is only one of the causes.  People are living longer, taking longer to grow up, deferring life tasks like buying a first home or marrying or raising children of their own because there is ultimately no 'need' for them.  That is the integral social problem at the heart of the Auvinens and the Lanzas.  At heart, they all feel superfluous, shunned, unneeded, not welcome.  Nobody needs them, nobody much gives a shit whether they fulfill their responsibilities or not (outside a perfunctory, sententious social censure which none of them see as real).  As a result, many of them enter their late teens or early twenties without a clearly defined sense of self or real direction.  None of them have ever stood by the bedside of a parent; instead, these parents are living longer.
    If the 'real' world clearly delineates what death means, and if this can be done on a comprehensive way streamlined to marginalized youth/young adults, we'll stop seeing as many of these rampages.  Of course, the men with paunches intoning the arrival of Little Green Men From Mars will always be a perpetual reality, but that's what taxes are for.

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