I was asked by a writer for ASU’s State Press to provide some thoughts on a recent story about a town in Connecticut that plans to collect and trash violent videogames. Yes, this is happening once again. It’s not isolated, of course: Joe Biden is “discussing” the situation with industry groups as part of the larger weapons imitative coming from the White House.
So, with that as a backdrop, here’s a very quick and not-overly-nuanced reaction. TL;DR version: it’s mostly a lot of crap.
Thoughts on violence and videogames
To me, what’s interesting about this story is that the organizers seem to recognize the complex factors that lead to our culture of violence—and even seem to understand the solution—yet the end result is still to simply blame some token scapegoat. This is the part that gets the headline, of course: let’s burn videogames and it will make it better. It’s also pretty silly.
By “solution,” I mean that the surest way to fully confront a problem like violence is to talk about it, and this conversation begins at home. Certainly this puts a lot of burden on parents, and as a society we often have tremendous barriers: many parents are overworked and don’t have the time to either explore the issue deeply or to communicate with their children. There is a strong need for resources to support parents on both fronts (informing them about games and issues of violence as well as talking to their children in an honest and meaningful way). The industry has tried with the ESRB ratings system, and some independent organizations have provided various articles and other ways to guide parents. However, most of these lack a critical component: understanding the games themselves.
Superintendent Erardi even mentions this in the article: parents need to play the games, or at least watch them being played, in order to more fully think about what it is their child is doing. If anything, games highlight the experiential nature of deep understanding. As James Paul Gee has argued, if you just read the instruction manual, for example, you really don’t know what the game is; you need to play it in order to understand it. So the first step is for parents to really explore the games themselves. That leads to more honest and meaningful discussions. But that’s only part of the equation.
Violence is all about context. What happens in a game is “make believe,” at least for the most part. Some of it is highly abstracted (shoot numbers in Math Blaster to solve math problems), while some of it hits much closer to “reality” (Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty). Because games can simulate what we might experience in the everyday in such detail, and allow us to enact it, it’s easy to think this is a direct correlate to our real life experiences, behaviors, and beliefs. Personally, that just isn’t so. I play all types of videogames, from shooters to sports games to science simulators like FoldIt. I am also deeply pacifist. I can separate the two domains (the everyday world and my gaming) because I understand that what happens in a videogame follows an internalized set of logic and rules separate from the “real” world. But this is an understanding gained through a lifetime of both gameplay and a career spent exploring gaming. I might be a bad example because I have such a long pedigree, but it still points to the simple fact that these are separate activities and the context for these actions are what matters: I can kill scores of people in GTA while simultaneously detesting violence because they aren’t the same thing at all. That game “wants” me to kill, and there are few consequences; real life has very different rules and outcomes. It is how we address these differences that really matters.
This is a long way of saying that in order to have a sensible discussion about videogames and violence, it’s absolutely important to recognize just what videogames are. By casually condemning videogames as causal to violent episodes, we do a real disservice to the underlying reality that people who are going to shoot up a mall or a school don’t need the game at all in order to do it. What we should be thinking about and talking about and acting on is the way we handle these different domains (gaming and the everyday), and what causes these people to not understand the difference. This is a root cause: we need to help guide people—young or old, gamers or not—to recognize that their actions occur within a specific context, and that these have different rules governing them.