…Violent Video Games

It’s no secret that I’m overly fond of video games. While others watch movies or flick through the channels on their TVs, I’m happy to invest my time into a quality video game. I don’t write about video games much because we live in a society where it’s weird to write about fictional worlds you interact with. Somehow, it’s not weird to write about fictional worlds you merely observe though. The world really does puzzle me sometimes. People are allowed, socially, to look down at me for discussing rogue elves — not that I play many RPGs or even like to play the rogue class — but I can’t call them brainless morons for watching soaps. Sadly, this is one of those moments where we can’t even weep for the state of humanity.

Alas, last week I was listening to yet another brilliant episode of the ‘Stuff You Should Know’ podcast (a podcast that I highly recommend) titled “Do video games produce real-life violence?” which piqued my interest more than their episodes usually do. Not that their episodes usually bore me — much to the contrary, in fact — but that this one had particular personal relevance and I’m nothing if not an arrogant, selfish egotist. Chuck and Josh discussed the topic with their usual, open-minded approach and, after digesting a lot of information, arrived at a fairly strong “We don’t know” answer. An inconclusive conclusion, if you like. It’s a debate that’s set to rage on for as long as publications like the Daily Fail are in circulation.

I have neither the time nor the patience to join in with such an ignorant debate. I have a strong point of view, which I’ll launch myself into now, but I’ve no interest in listening to someone counter-point with an irritating nasal voice. The sort of voice that belongs to someone who thinks they know a lot more than they do and therefore believes that they can authorise my thoughts. Anyone with a modicum of intelligence knows there never will be an end to the argument: people searching for an answer will always find the evidence they need to back it up, the question is far too broad for a full yes or no answer and the next media platform will come under attack before this chapter’s even partially shut, for starters.

One part of the podcast really struck me, just as I was getting off the train and shaking my head at the idiocy of my fellow commuters. A tangent, I know, but those of you who’ve never used the London Underground don’t understand hell. The system itself is actually quite fantastic. The problem is that you have to share it with people who… aren’t fantastic. At all.

As I disembarked our hosts were discussing the mechanics of a first-person shooter (FPS for the uneducated: a game where you are viewing the world from the eyes of the shooter). They mentioned the reality of the situation, whereby the player is aiming to shoot and kill a fellow human being. They also highlighted how, unlike in a film, players are actively pursuing this grotesque task. Compared to a book, which are just words on a page, they discussed how interactive the task is. In essence, video games are the only medium where people are truly aiming to kill other people.

You know what’s odd about that? I don’t. I also know a lot of gamers who don’t. I’m also pretty sure that, if you were to ask professional gamers, they’d tell you that they don’t either.

This isn’t a word trick by the way, I play Battlefield 3 which is a game which revolves around players aiming a gun at a human character (controlled by another human being, sat behind a PC somewhere in the world) and pulling the trigger.

The thing that non-gamers seem to struggle to conceptualise is that gaming is a more immersive experience. However, you’re not immersed in the game objective but the physical and mental actions.

Allow me to explain with another favoured past-time of mine, which is reading.

When I’m reading a book I’m using my eyes to scan a page, which I then turn into mental imagery. The majority of what I’m doing is picturing the scene in my head. From a young age I stopped larynx reading (a technique you can learn about on the internet — I briefly remember Derren Brown championing it) which means that I don’t read words; I look at a page and picture the scene. As the physical act of reading isn’t difficult, I have a lot of mental capacity spare to really act out the book I’m reading in my head. When I’m reading I’m emotionally attached to the story, absorbing it all. In other words, I’m fully immersed in the story.

In contrary, I’m not immersed in the story when I’m playing FPS games.

When I’m playing an FPS I’m using my eyes to scan the screen, my fingers to move/aim and my ears to listen for nearby activity/radio calls. Already you can see how my senses are much more involved. Some would argue that I’m more immersed and they’d be right. However, I’m not immersed in the story, am I? In a game I’m competing against other people and my brain is focussing on things like where I am on the map, how many bullets I have, the likelihood that I’m going to come under attack from a certain angle and where I want to move towards. These calculations are happening constantly as I play. Open question at this point: How much mental space do you think I have left to think about the war I’m simulating? Honest answer: none. I’m not seeing human bodies; I see targets. I don’t see myself kill a representation of a human being; I’m already focussing on my next maneouvre. I don’t seen guns, bullets or violence; I see numbers, trajectories and pure reflex-based competition.

You see, very much unlike a book, I’m not thinking about what I’m doing on BF3 — or any other FPS for that matter. I’m number-crunching in my head, not savouring the bloodstains of a fallen foe. It’s a game and I’m being competitive, I’m focussing on my performance and not an ill-conceived conscious reaction to my actions.This is something that has never sat well with me and I thought this would be a good way of spelling it out to non-gamers. When I’m playing a violent video game I’m exposing my subconscious self to the same amount of violence I would if I were to read a book. On a conscious level, I’m exposing myself to much less violence, however counter-intuitive it may seem.

To keep it short: When I play video games I’m not thinking about the violence, I’m focussing on my performance in a competitive atmosphere. Of course, some would argue that this proves their point; that I’m not dealing with consequences to my actions.

They’re right. But so am I. We’re both idiots for bothering to indulge in such an impossible debate. They’re ignorant because they don’t understand how gamers think. I’m ignorant because I think that somehow changes anything.

The ‘Violent Video Game Debate’, a subsidiary of the ‘Media’s Corruptive Influence Debate’. A debate made by idiots, debated by idiots and marketed to idiots. Why are they all idiots? Because the answer existed before the question. Aristotle had this to say, at least 2,300 years ago:

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

Just because I play violent video games, just because I let violent images flow through my brain, does not make me a violent person. I entertain these thoughts — and even let them entertain me, as the case goes — but I never accept them. I’m a staunch pacifist who’s never thrown a punch, outside of jest, in 20 years of life.

…And I’m not even particularly well-educated.