The Balance of Humanity; or, refocusing the violence in video games debate to the REAL monsters in our world

faithbuffy“I don’t wanna’ get all twelve-steppy, but remember when you told me that killing people would make me feel like some kind of god? I think I just came down to Earth.” – Faith

“Life as a Slayer is very simple: want, take, have.”

It was a very important lesson in season three of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, wherein throughout the course of the season viewers got a taste of the proverbial dark side that comes with superhero powers rooted in the demonic.

On the one side you had Buffy, the tough blonde valley girl with a doting mother, loyal friends and an educated mentor. Conversely, you had Faith, the darker, edgier, criminal with a sordid and tragic past and really no one around that understood that she simply wanted what Buffy had.

Both are given super powers that essentially – in the words of Buffy later in season seven – make them “better” than everyone else.

When first introduced, Faith flirts with the dangerous side of the moral spectrum, and introduces Buffy to the side of her powers that calls into question one of the greater moral dilemmas we’ve oft asked of ourselves: if given such powers what would WE ourselves do with them.

Ben Parker in the Marvel world would have you believe that with great power comes great responsibility, which is true to an extent. And even down the road in the Buffyverse, Faith comes to realize her “want, take, have” philosophy has its usefulness, but also serious ramifications when taken too far.

To put it simply, ask yourself, what would YOU do if you could do anything in the world?

Such is the base question asked every time a player loads up Grand Theft Auto on their respective consoles. And the answer, surprisingly enough is down right scary much to the chagrin of most of the keepers of moral protocol within our society.

The recent Rockstar Games entry, Grand Theft Auto V, reignites a debate that has long been the source of contention since home gaming became a national pastime back in the 80s. Essentially, some argue that the game, while adhering to much of what we would see in the real world, is simply just a game while others question its artistic merits labeling it as a gateway to questionable or violent behavior — you know, video games like this encourage people to be more violent.

As a gamer, I can warn that my opinion is slightly biased to the former argument, but as a writer, journalist and thinker, I can at least acknowledge the concerns for those who argue the latter.

But it is through this understanding that can irrefutably state that while video games can often lean toward the graphic, violent, or obscene, the reality is that the reality is all those things and then some, and the reason is NOT because of video games.

The New Yorker recently published an Op-Ed by Simon Parker (real guy, not related to Uncle Ben) that calls into question violence’s place in video games. Parker first deconstructs the characteristic and compares it to the depictions of other forms of entertainment, namely motion picture. The difference, Parker explains, is the game “has a unique capacity to inveigle, and even implicate, its audience through its interactivity.” Meaning, where one form of violence is simply watched as a pre-existing story unfolds, the other exists through actions and choices of the player within the virtual world, or as Parker states, we are “spectators” in one form, but virtual “participants” in the other.

Parker’s stance for the most part is rather ambiguous and spends a good portion of the essay citing examples in video games that question a player’s moral fiber, but never really goes so far as to say there needs to be less or more violence.

But the most pertinent question is spurred by Parker’s observation:

Fictional characters, whether they appear in novels, films, or video games, are never fully independent entities. They are conjured by words on a page, directions in a screenplay, or lines of programming code, existing only in imagination or on a screen. A creator has no moral obligation to his or her fictional characters, and in that sense anything is theoretically permissible in a video game. But a game creator does have a moral obligation to the player, who, having been asked to make choices, can be uniquely degraded by the experience. The game creator’s responsibility to the player is to, in Kurt Vonnegut’s phrase, not waste his or her time. But it is also, when it comes to solemn screen violence, to add meaning to its inclusion.

This one view actually lends itself back to the title of the essay: how evil should video games let you be? Parker fails to express his own view (likely because this IS the New Yorker we’re talking about), but my own view is it should let you be as evil as you want to be. And why not? If a game like GTAV prides itself on its pixelated depiction of the real world, then shouldn’t the atrocities we can see at any moment walking down the street, or even watch on the news, exist in the virtual one?

Parker ends his essay with yet another scary possibility that infers but does not outright say could lead to real world incidents. He links advances in motion gaming technology to the idea that if one is taught to simply GESTURE a killing and or rape act, that said person might be so inclined to do so in reality. This is still yet a giant leap, and like I said, thought he doesn’t outright say it, by questioning it hypothetically he attempts to create the bridge that so far has yet to reveal itself in this debate, and it’s a rather transparent act by Parker, despite whatever he says are his “intentions” with bringing it up as a point of discussion.

But alas such a question leads simply to the merry-go-round of rotating knives we often find ourselves on where the debate goes round and round but the result is simply that everyone gets cut to shreds and the implications of creating a place for people to explore the darker sides of their imagination remain theoretical at best. Parker’s essay does not speak of the links of game violence to incidents in the real world nor does he intend to, according to him in the comments section of that very article.

While there are numerous examples of case studies attempting to make or break such links, for the purpose of my critical review, and personal experience, I can pretty much use common sense to state that where people have been violent in the real world throughout human history, they were as such because that’s how they were wired internally, not because they inherited it from playing a video game. What I find most hilarious is that this debate seems to appear around every GTA or Call of Duty release — especially when such releases are marred by real world incidents such as the recent Navy Yard shootings in D.C.

While I understand that victims in cases such as the Navy Yard shooting, simply have an overwhelming need to know WHY something happened and will latch on to any thin thread that could possibly lead to an answer, the problem perpetuated by the media is that its sensationalized portrayals of something as simple as violence depicted in a video game or movie, leads to more questions than it does answers — hence, the merry-go-round analogy. The root of the debate is a reality people just don’t want to accept: violence happens in the real world because there are violent people and most of them were made that way long before they picked up a game controller. The increase in violence today is simply because we live in a more populated world with a quicker and more efficient way of sharing the horrible news. What was society’s excuse before the 1980s? Once people realize that the monsters they fear aren’t hiding under the bed, in the closet, or in pixelated form across a TV screen, they’ll soon learn to look within themselves to discover where they are really hiding. Video games, like movies, are simply a reflection of the world we live in, and I’d venture to say the day we can turn on the evening news and go the entire 30-min window without seeing ONE story about violence, is the day the Vulcans finally land or we’ve blown ourselves up.

Such is the nature of humanity. It is both beautiful and ugly. We have grand dreams and horrible nightmares. We love and hate. There are heroes and there are monsters. But the most beautiful under-appreciated aspect of human nature is the power of choice. We can choose the lives we lead, even when it seems like the opposite exists.

Faith chose to be a monster because she thought she didn’t have a choice. When she finally got smart, she realized that her choices made her who she was and she decided to be a hero rather than a monster. In Grand Theft Auto, the story guides you and while some choices are predetermined for you based on the storyline, there is a lot of freedom for you to choose what you want to do while also showing you the consequences of those choices.

Now if you’ll excuse me — I have a virtual world to explore and plenty of fancy lookin’ sports cars that need jacking.

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