As I allude in the body of this column, I didn’t intend to write anything about the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary school. In fact I kind of instructed myself not to. What could I say? That I’m sorry, but I still don’t think video games had anything to do with it? Or just that I’m sorry? Nothing at all seemed best.
But in the end I buckled, I guess, though this month’s column for the International Game Developers Association is less about Sandy Hook than it is about our society and how we react to things. I don’t know what the long-term fallout will be for the games industry; it has weathered such storms in the past. But maybe it can still be a wake-up call, about the medium’s content, and whether it’s all it can (or should) be. Enjoy!
That Used to Be Us
By Matthew Sakey
Originally published by the International Game Developers Association
I’ve written this column for ten years now, and ten years is a long time. Ten years ago there was no Steam, no casual market, no Facebook. Mobile gaming was Breakout on candy-bar phones, if it existed at all. Retail was relevant. Everquest had “supersaturated” the MMO market (my words) with its 400,000 subscribers. Broadband penetration was under 50%. Ten years ago there were vast divides between “gamer culture” and “regular culture.” When Jason Della Rocca invited me to write this column, the idea of discussing and contrasting the two made a lot of sense. Recently, though, it’s seemed less and less of a thing; games are so mainstream now. And then something like the Sandy Hook shooting happens and the gulf reopens. An admittedly biased poll shows that 67% of Americans think video games are a bigger safety threat than guns, and Sandy Hook surely skewed those numbers. Once again “gamer culture” is dark and distinctly separate from the rest of society, and there’s a clash all over again.
When Sandy Hook happened I decided not to write anything about it. What would I say that I haven’t said before? I still don’t think games inspire violence. In the wake of the shootings, we did see more developers and journalists willing to acknowledge that games are violent, maybe too much so, in some cases very eloquently. In some ways this was a healthy first for the industry, but I’d caution against taking it too far. There’s a difference between honesty and self-flagellation, and we need to avoid being pushed into that by those who suddenly use the medium as a scapegoat again. To tell the truth, though, it shouldn’t be shocking how quickly the mainstream turned on games.
The cynic in me is not surprised by it. People have always burned witches when frost ruins the harvest, and the witches they burn have always been their neighbors. A Supreme Court decision and ten years of mainstreaming doesn’t change human nature, the desire in the wake of tragedy to blame anything other than the actual culprit. You think you’re mainstream, you think you’re “in,” accepted, that it’s not us and them any more, it’s just us, all together. But man, something happens and how quickly it all goes sour.
To my recollection, this is the first time that the games industry has been more reflective and less defensive. Nathan Grayson’s article above is just one example of someone in the business saying “hey, yeah, maybe we should look at the violence.” You’ve got Warren Spector coming out and not-quite-saying that Lollipop Chainsaw shouldn’t have been made. He was commenting more on general puerility than violence specifically, but the idea that maybe we do need to grow up a little is still scintillating. I don’t necessarily mind extreme violence in media, but it’s reasonable to say that video games, at least, have maybe gotten a little too gleeful about portraying it. I myself just started playing Dead Island last week (I’m behind, I know), and it occurred to me – perhaps in the wake of all this industry self-reflection, perhaps not – that it’s really gory, even for a zombie game, and it seems very… happy about it.
As always I temper thoughts like that. Grey’s Anatomy is staggeringly gruesome, and lovingly so, presenting gore in ways that are both unnecessary and intended to shock. The Walking Dead is both grisly and exceedingly violent. These are on TV, with nothing but a short disclaimer ahead of them. It’s still not fair to call out video games for their content, any more than it’s accurate to claim that video games are for children. I applaud those in the business using Sandy Hook as an opportunity to evaluate the medium’s treatment of violence, but I’d condemn the same if the outcome of that consideration is self-censorship of the Comics Code Authority style. Please, ruminate. Look at games and ask yourself if they’re too violent. Look at developers like Techland and ask if, given their consistently immature and asinine behavior, they have any adults on staff at all. Wonder whether the violence in your game is there for the right reasons. Give presentations and have the guts to state that Lollipop Chainsaw shouldn’t have been made, if that’s what you believe. And then defend to the death their right to make it.
I’ve never tried particularly hard to keep my personal politics out of this column. Like many other Americans, I think that better gun control would reduce the likelihood of these rampages, and reduce the death toll should they occur. If Adam Lanza had a knife, the story would be that a teacher needed some stitches. But he had a machine gun, and the story was 28 dead kids. If the teachers had had guns to, as some of our more idiotic politicians are advocating, the story would’ve been 55 dead kids. Perhaps those politicians ought to play some Call of Duty with friendly fire on before they make pronouncements about arming teachers.
But using the killings at Sandy Hook as an accelerant for the debate about gun control is pointless. It’s just as pointless as blaming video games for the crime. Neither guns nor games are responsible.
Had Adam Lanza lived to stand trial, there’s a pretty good chance a jury would say he wasn’t responsible either. Insanity implies inability to recognize the wrongness of actions, and as more and more about this kid comes to light, we’re getting a stark picture of just how insane he actually was.
Forget guns and games, I’d much rather this tragedy spurs an honest look at how mental health is handled in my country and around the world. Mental illness is stigmatized and denied; governments rarely provide adequate or affordable treatment and facilities. Like blaming video games, it’s an effort to believe something into (or in this case, out of) existence. While I wouldn’t say our failure to provide adequate mental health is the cause of the Sandy Hook shooting, I will postulate that the shooting wouldn’t have happened if Lanza had been getting the right treatment – including, potentially, being restrained against his will. But for those of you familiar with the American medical system, you know how much such a thing would have cost, making it essentially out of the question no matter how necessary it was.
Statistically, the mentally ill are no more dangerous than anyone else. Even individuals with severe psychopathy do not, in general, attack others. Still, untreated mental illness can lead to very undesirable consequences, and many are going untreated, or are only getting a fraction of the treatment they need. For every Sandy Hook there are dozens of families living in fear that they too may one day get the worst possible news. 99% of the time it never happens, but 1% is more than enough to shake our society’s collective consciousness. If Sandy Hook is to be used as a catalyst for change, let’s use it to change something that could really help.
Senator Lamar Alexander claimed that video games are more responsible than guns because “video games affect people.” They do, obviously, but as GamePolitics wryly noted, the holes put in people by guns, holes that allow important fluids to leak out, could also be called an affect. What I see in Alexander’s remark is the Culture Clash: the same willful and frustrating ignorance, the same desire to condemn, that we as an industry have so often faced, and so often thought might be diminishing, only to see it return again. I look at how far games have come in terms of cultural acceptance in the last ten years, only to see so much of it abruptly taken away, and I think how quickly “Us” becomes “Us versus Them.”
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