Do Video Games Have A Really Bad Image?

In her article, The Myth of the Media Myth, Brenda Braithwaite describes her circle of acquaintances as having a very negative attitude towards “video games” and wonders how a generation that blew its allowance on Pac Man and Donkey Kong has become convinced that the pastime they enjoyed causes bouts of violence and social alienation.

Perhaps my circle of acquaintances is less representative of typical Americans (OK it’s mainly software developers and college professors) but I don’t find this overwhelming negativity. However, I would point out that most people of my generation (aged in their late 30s and early 40s right now) did not blow their allowances on Pac Man and Donkey Kong. Not even most of my crowd who — at the time — consisted almost entirely of I-wish-I-had-Aspbergers-so-my-total-lack-of-social-skills-would-be-excusable math geeks. Plenty of us did, but the majority looked askance at us even then. I suppose that almost every Gen-Xer has played a video game or two, but the ones who obsessed, e.g. played video games in their heads while walking around, who knew the different pathing behaviors of the Pac Man ghosts based on their colors (not me, but I have friends…), could “clock” Time Pilot multiple times (yup, that’s me), could play Q*Bert until they were bored (cough, me again), finished Ghosts’n’Goblins both times (…). Yeah, we were considered a bit weird even then.

Braithwaite points out that none of this hate is pointed at ordinary “games”. It’s only when the word “video” gets placed in front of the word “games” that all the negativity comes out. I’d have to say that I wince at the term “video games” in much the same way that I do “sci fi” because it’s an outsider term, somewhere between a dismissive catch-all phrase and a put-down. (For those of you not in my geek demographic, it’s the equivalent of calling San Francisco “Frisco”.) To my mind, video games are dumb button-mashing arcade games, and computer games are where it’s at. (Not that I don’t like dumb button-mashing games.)

While it’s probably a bit unfair to label all “video games” violent, it would be fair to say that no commercial board, or even paper, game I’ve ever seen — and this includes games where you play a superhero, or heavily armed amoral space marine, or vampire, or werewolf, or samurai — features graphic imagery of human body parts scattered across the landscape, or cities where every third woman is a prostitute and you can run over groups of pedestrians, take their stuff, and drive away without even being spoken to harshly. Certainly, not all video games are like this, but a significant proportion of high profile titles are. The games that make gamers upgrade their computers are exactly this kind of game (DOOM, Quake, Unreal, Halo, Gears of War, Grand Theft Auto IV). The only major games platform that isn’t consciously pushed using over the top graphic violence is Nintendo’s, and they’re specifically targeting families with children.

Braithwaite points out that the image of “video games” is that they’re socially isolating, violent, addictive, sex-crazed, etc. and points out that she’s just finished working on a FaceBook game that is pro-social, involves walking dogs outdoors and meeting people. To which I reply that this is a typical “academic” game designed to be all the things video games normally aren’t to make some kind of point, and since virtually no-one (a) plays games like this, (b) thinks of them when talking about “video games”, or (c) makes serious money from them (i.e. they’re not economically significant) it’s no surprise that games like hers haven’t changed the public consciousness. I’ve seen games designed to help people understand the source of conflict in the Middle East and games designed to help kids stop smoking. These games are always intended to be everything “typical” video games are not, and all have one thing in common — no-one would play them if they had a choice.

Braithwaite would be better off talking about Guitar Hero, Rock Band, Dance Dance Revolution, Karaoke Revolution, (at last, something non-musical) Wii Sports, or The Sims Online. All of these games are designed to be played socially and are completely non-violent (well, Wii Sports features cartoon boxing). These games are economically significant, actually played by people, and if you mentioned them in a discussion of video games people wouldn’t stare at you blankly. (EscapistMagazine.com is down right now or I’d be checking carefully to see if she actually got to mentioning any of these games. I guess I’ll just correct myself later!) But relying on these games to make your case is still disingenuous.

The last reported monthly statistics showed Wii outsold XBox 360, PS3, and PS2 combined, and that Nintendo had the top two hardware platforms (Wii and DS). Attempting to spin the statistics, Microsoft tried to position the XBox 360 as being in a different category than the Wii (a different category in which they would be number two, behind the PS2, I assume). This is like Apple claiming to be the top vendor of “PCs that don’t suck”. If you look in the kinds of places where gamers hang out, Grand Theft Auto IV sold a hell of a lot of consoles (I’ve read posts by people who bought a PS3 to play GTAIV, then had to buy a new TV), and there’s no question that both Sony and Microsoft have promoted their platforms primarily with blood-drenched ultra-violent games (Resistance: Fall of Man, Gears of War, Halo 3, Grand Theft Auto IV). Braithwaite said she emailed 40 acquaintances about their thoughts on video games and got 38 negative responses. Based on Wii sales figures (9.5 million so far in the US), her circle seems to have a rather low proportion of Wii users (especially since the typical Wii user seems to have kids who will drag anyone who doesn’t struggle too hard into their games).

What’s clear from the success of the Wii is that a lot of Americans (at least 9.5 million of them) have picked a gaming platform specifically to avoid what they correctly see as video games dominated by graphic violence, casual sex, pervasive sexism, and immorality. I don’t care much for Jack Thompson and the legion of idiots and carpetbaggers who try to sell you something on the back of the concept that video games are destroying our society, but pretending that video games aren’t violent, or sexist, or immoral when, quite clearly, many of the most successful video games are exactly all three, is just stupid.

Video games are ultra-violent and graphic because they can be.

As a kid, I remember reading spy thrillers off the racks in hotel gift shops when I was bored on vacation, and these were the most spectacularly violent, sex-drenched, misogynist, immoral pieces of crap I have ever read in my life (and, at the time, I enjoyed them thoroughly and guiltily). If the publishers could have added 5.1 audio and 3d animated gobbets of human flesh bouncing across the landscape, they would have, but all they had was words. Bad spy thrillers didn’t cause the downfall of Western Civilization, and neither will video games. Indeed, if you cast your mind back a ways, Western Civilization was in large part created by a bunch of people whose idea of entertainment was public torture and executions, gladiatorial combat, and slaughtering exotic animals. (Persecution of Christians by the Romans is vastly overstated; Christians turned out to be much better at it.)

So, how can I summarize? Video games are, in large part, violent, sexist, antisocial, isolating, addictive, and a bunch of other bad words. So are spy thrillers. So are movies. So is cable TV. (Broadcast TV would be too, but there’s the stupid FCC. In most other countries you see “worse” stuff on broadcast TV than The Sopranos and their societies haven’t collapsed.) This is because we, human beings, find this kind of stuff entertaining, probably because it lets us exercise mental faculties and emotions that don’t see a lot of use in modern society, and partly because the problems posed and the available solutions are much simpler and easily and quickly dealt with than real problems we all face. It doesn’t matter how fast I am with my trigger finger, my mortgage won’t be paid off any sooner, but I sure can blow the frack out of aliens.