Opinion: Changing the terms of the violent video game debate

"We collectively need to change the terms of the conversation before we sit down to talk with anyone about violent games," says Game Developer magazine editor Patrick Miller.
Game Developer magazine editor Patrick Miller examines the renewed debate surrounding violence and video games, in this reprint from the February issue. As our industry is dragged into yet another round of scapegoating, I am discovering that the conversation about violent video games is rigged against us from the start, and that we collectively need to change the terms of the conversation before we sit down to talk with anyone.

The question is the problem

If someone asked you, "Do violent video games cause people to be more violent?", how would you answer? Well, science is a good first bet, but it's difficult to draw a scientifically valid chain of causality behind the act of playing a violent video game, an individual's corresponding physical response (increased heart rate, higher blood pressure, and so on) and psychological response, and then use the results to connect all those factors to something like an overall uptick in mass shootings. When it comes down to it, we simply don't understand enough about the psychology of individual people, or the sociology of people in the aggregate, to answer this question definitively. So, instead, we rely on our intuitions and our past experience to guide us. Have you ever consumed a media work that made you feel something? Probably. Did those feelings incite you to do something bad to other people? Probably not--but perhaps you might imagine it could incite other people (children, mentally ill, and so on) to do so.

"Gamers" are other people

In general, we don't think of ourselves as "Book-Readers" or "Movie-Watchers" or "Music-Listeners." But playing games is marketed as an identity; if you play games, you are a Gamer. This is likely left over from the days before everyone carried around smartphones, but it persists because people still make plenty of money selling to Gamers. I'm not a businessperson, but I imagine that creating a dedicated audience that defines themselves primarily as "people who buy what you're selling" is pretty amazing (even if that means energy-drink vendors show up to professional conferences and sling tall-boys around). But when you've defined your consumers as "different from everyone else because they consume your product," it's easier to blame them (and you) for things that go wrong, because you've conveniently defined them as "different." (This is one reason why we generally don't use the word "Gamer" in Game Developer, by the way; it is exclusive, not inclusive, and it paints a picture of a person that many people who play games simply cannot relate to in order to sell stuff to people, which does the medium as a whole a disservice.)

Games are defined by violence

What is a violent video game? The tautological answer is "a video game with violence in it." But Angry Birds is basically about avian suicide bombers, and no one calls it a violent video game, so the answer must be something else. Video games suffer from an unfortunate rhetorical shift because our genres typically describe what we do, and that kind of makes us look bad when our most popular genre has (first) "person shooter" right there like it's an aisle at Blockbuster. Sure, as a consumer, it makes sense to group games that are similar in action, just like how movies group by what viewers feel (movie genres are typically defined by emotions and setting themes; "science fiction comedy," for example). Unfortunately, that means we have a big shelf of games about shooting people in the face. If we broke down the NPD Group's list of 2012's top-10 best-selling retail games in terms of violent games vs. non-violent games, then it doesn't look great; there are five games out of the top 10 that would be violent games. But if we described that top 10 in terms of movie genres, we'd have two war movies (Call of Duty games), a historical action movie (Assassin's Creed 3), a sci-fi action movie (Halo 4), a post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller (Borderlands 2), and a kiddie superhero cartoon (Lego Batman 2) up there with three sports documentaries (NBA 2K, FIFA Soccer, Madden) and a dance movie (Just Dance 4). We should be talking about controversial games, and discuss their messages and merits--including their questionable, gratuitous, or excessive uses of violence--but that shouldn't hold the medium hostage any more than Django Unchained should be able to hold film hostage. We should talk about how the companies that sell games which involve shooting people in countries that the U.S. is currently at war with to secure its access to oil are forging cross-promotions with the ones that sell guns and Hummers, but that shouldn't require industry reps across the spectrum of games to meet with a government task force.

Great (power, responsibility)

So how do we recast the conversation about violent video games? We can refuse to participate in conversations that insist on pigeonholing the medium, but only if we're also advancing other conversations in its place; first, by ditching the word "Gamer" and all of its respective marketing connotations; second, by defining our games in terms of content and theme; third, by making games that use violence with purpose and calling out games and creators that don't. Game developers have in their hands the power to simulate experiences that no other medium has ever had before, and that power should not be dismissed with "Oh, they're just video games." This article was originally published in the February 2013 issue of Game Developer Magazine. This issue also features a Mark of the Ninja postmortem, an in-depth look at building better touchscreen controls, and more. You can subscribe to the magazine here, download our iOS app here, or buy individual issues here.

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