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Can Games & Guns Have Standards That Work?

With video games moving into new violent territory, Neil talks about the need for new filtering standards in games, and how existing practices may lay the groundwork for gun control in the US.

Before I begin, I'm not a criminology scholar, I don't live in the US, I don't own a gun, and I have no experience when it comes to losing a close family member to gun violence.  However, as a parent and an avid gamer, I'm hoping that what I share here comes across properly, and I don't inadvertently cause offense.

Having played games since the 70's, my first remark would have to be that video games have been violent for a very long time.  Even PAC-MAN was based on the concept of eat or be eaten!  It's also important to acknowledge that despite video games being an international phenomenon, the majority of the rampant gun violence is clearly in the US.  For this reason, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre's argument that media and video games are solely responsible for the world's ills are false.  With this in mind, even though I can look over my shoulder and dismiss the responsibility of games already created, I have deep concerns about the nature of video game violence to come, and how this is being filtered to audiences.

I've been an avid gamer and game industry representative for years.  I've enjoyed killing zombies and Nazis, I've joined heavily armed teams on the battlefield, and I've zapped more than my share of ghouls with destructive magic spells.  I've done it all, I continue to do it all, and I have no regrets.  Unfortunately, there are multiple cases where games are requiring players to do questionable things to "win", and the self governing industry is not doing an adequate job of keeping the wrong games in the right markets.

There are two issues at work here.  First, the concept of violence has changed, and while games are being promoted a certain way on TV, they are very different in practice.  The second issue is that the self governing mechanism that game developers use isn't working very well, and certain mass market games have no business being available to late teen / mature markets, and should instead be classified as Adult Only.

Here is the ad campaign for the first Call of Duty Black Ops game.

COD Black Ops Interrogation

It portrays the game as plain fun that everyone is involved with.  Unfortunately, segments of the story require partaking in twisted violence that most (including parents) have no idea of.  For example, during an interrogation scene, gamers are required to shove glass in a prisoner's mouth and punch their jaw as part of the game (twice!).

In Black Ops 2, there is a moment where the gamer is required to choose whose head gets blown off by a pistol to continue.  If media inadvertently teaches us right from wrong, the COD franchise should not be placed in some vague category, or have misleading ad campaigns that parent's won't be wary of.  It needs to be in the hands of people whose moral compass is already well established.  As it stands, this is a new class of gaming violence, and the ESRB needs to take fresh measures to evaluate them.

The good news is that unlike an assault rifle ban that has the NRA's financial coughers up and arms, a good story with less cruel and unusual violence, less potty mouth, and more plain fun is not shown to decrease video game revenue potential.  If we are only concerned about making as much money as possible, there is no financial benefit to purposely adding crude violence to games for violence's sake.

Call of Duty only started to get seriously violent with the first Modern Warfare, and twisted with COD: Black Ops.  I'm unaware of any gaming study that said that customers wanted to hear the "F" word X times per minute, or needed a torture scene at least three times per campaign.  This was industry imposed, not gamer driven.  If game developers really think this adds artistic integrity to their work, I'm supportive - just be upfront that it belongs to an adult-only crowd.  There is nothing wrong with that, just be prepared.

Using another COD Black Ops promotional video to back my point, there is nothing about the ad campaign that promises to sell COD based on cruel and unusual violence.  The marketers understand that people just want to have fun.  The content creators...not so much, apparently.  However, content creation isn't my concern - who gets that content is.  While it's understandable that the occasional fringe game may slip through the cracks (I never heard of  LaPierre's referenced "Kindergarten Killers"), the AAA multi-multi-million dollar titles need to be held to a measurable standard that holds up to public scrutiny.

If I can step out of my game industry shoes for a moment, I hope it's appropriate for me to share a few words on gun control in the US.

I believe in standards.  I just love them.  They help make sure our houses stand tall no matter who builds them.  They are responsible for making our electronics work together.  They can even help us negotiate a fair wage no matter how intimidated we feel when talking to our future boss.  Standards are the grease that keep things moving, and throw emotional and unhinged opinions out the window.

As I understand it, the topic of gun control isn't about whether or not people in the US are able to own guns.  The issue is which class of gun they are allowed to own.  So does the US have an existing standard we can compare to?  Something that holds up to public scrutiny?

M60 Main Battle Tank (in 3D)

A few years ago, I visited the local tank museum, and I was just amazed at the machinery.  They just looked really cool, and I was impressed in the work taken to restore them and get them running for history's sake.  I did some searching online, and it turns out that if you have deep enough pockets, you can buy and own a tank of your own!  Seriously!  The only caveat is the tank has to be modified so that it's impossible to use its weaponry.  A good example of this is filling the tank's gun with cement, or having its weaponry completely stripped, etc.  The same thing goes for fighter jets and other military craft.

Why is this the case?  I'm just going to take an educated guess that society has deemed it unacceptable for war machines to be readily available and useful for everyday citizens.  Whether it's because it's too dangerous, or the rule of law would have too much difficulty combating it, it's just unacceptable and unjustifiable for citizens to have such weapons at their disposal, and it's a given.  I think this is a worthy standard because it already exists, it holds up to public scrutiny, and it's relevant.

With the above in mind, gun control advocates should be very enthusiastic about the NRA CEO's speech.  During his twenty minute tirade, he made it absolutely clear that:

1. The American people are not yet adequately trained in the use of firearms.

2. The pressures of media and video games create a violent society, and we all know that freedom of speech will keep this as a random uncontrollable element (unless the NRA has something against the first amendment).

3. Tragedies ARE happening and actions ARE needed - though there is a disconnect on what those required actions are.

In summary, the CEO of the NRA passionately confirmed that American society is ill equipped to handle military grade weaponry due to forces that are beyond their control (media and video games).  More guns or fewer guns will not impact this risk factor.

His most passionate remarks were about the good guys needing to have guns the same way that the bad guys do, and that will create a safe society - but he undermined himself through example!  I thought it was great when he asked why it's ok for guns to protect the President, and not your children.  That's a standard.  The agreed rule of law is carrying the gun - not the President.  Soldiers, policemen, secret service - these are all society approved members of the rule of law.

Now let's get real; the above is just clever blog semantics on my part.  Law and standards are just fantasyland compared to what really needs to happen.  I had an awakening this month when I was talking to a close friend on Skype.  "Smith", a level headed guy who works in insurance, is an avid VR gamer, and just loves his toys.  3D monitors, self-made VR guns, 3D projectors - everything.  After knowing each other a few years, I decided to throw out the question: "do you own a gun"?

He proudly showed off his new $750 semi-automatic pistol with extended ammunition clip.  He enjoys shooting on the range, though he admits that if someone broke into his house, the dude would have a problem..."12 hollow tip problems, actually".  As he showed the gun broken down to its hybrid mix of metal and plastic, it almost seemed harmless with its keylock features and toy-like ease.  Guns like this are just so readily available and accessible, it's hard to communicate just how far apart the American gun culture is from its neighbors up north and around the world.  The presence of guns in the US has little to do with laws or what the NRA likes and dislikes, it's part of the culture - like baseball and beer.  How would you outlaw or take away baseball if you absolutely had to?  This is the real problem.

Smith asked me a good question during our conversation.  If a guy broke into your house, wouldn't you want a gun?  I thought about it, and honestly, having lived in Toronto and Montreal and other big cities, I never was all that worried about someone breaking in while I was home.  We've had robberies, mind you - but never a break-in while someone was home.

If I came face to face with a robber, let's be honest - I'd be a terrible shot and I'd be walking with crutches for weeks.  If others are anything like me, armed to the teeth as we might be, the bad guys would be more game to shoot their guns...that's what makes them bad guys.  Even on the shooting range, if I was a crack shot, I don't think I would have the military or police training to know when to shoot, and do so without hesitating.  I'd be thinking "if I shoot him do I go to jail?  I don't really want to hurt him, just leave my 3D gaming stuff alone", etc.

If there are going to be moves to cut down on the assault rifles and guns in the US, a lot of thought needs to be put into the culture of guns.  The closest standard I could think of is big tobacco.  Would the efforts used to curb smoking and cut down on lung cancer also work to reduce gun demand, mass shootings, and self inflicted gun deaths?

We could probably learn something from the NRA.  I'm certain they have internal standards of how much money they stand to gain and lose by assault rifle bans and their ROI for press conferences with X audience sizes, etc. etc.  When it comes to justifying the expense for changing American gun culture, we can also come up with relevant standards like how many lives would be saved for every thousand guns taken off the streets, and what this would save in healthcare, insurance, productivity, and taxes.

I will conclude by sharing a really cool fact about "Smith".  Every time I chat with him on Skype, he gives off this impression of being a mega pot smoker because his Skype window is always filled with smoke.  How is it that this insurance professional is regularly puffing away for all to see?

Truth be told, "Smith" is enjoying his electronic cigarette, and the ominous smoke is just water vapor!  A safe alternative to cancerous "big" tobacco, this vapor comes in all kinds of flavors, and even though it can be laced with nicotine, insurance companies are starting to recognize it as a cigarette alternative that WON'T increase your premiums or harm your medical insurance qualifications.  Dare I say that the chocolate smoke speaks volumes, and as firm a position the NRA may have, innovation and open minded thinking can overcome any major force.  If a water vapor cigarette can diminish the evils of big bad tobacco without taking away the enjoyment of smoking, assault rifles don't stand a chance.

So let me conclude by saying that in all cases, standards are key.  Violent video games need to be filtered to audiences according to measurable standards that hold up to public scrutiny.  The assault rifle gun industry needs to get over their double-standard, and abide by the expectations set by other military equipment that society has deemed unacceptable.  Similar to the electronic cigarette, I'm hopeful there is a real solution that goes beyond bringing guns to school.

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