Friday, December 21, 2012

Gaming and Violence

Today, I'm standing down from gaming in all forms that in any way simulate violence.   There will be no shooting, first person or otherwise.  I will not jump on the heads of any Koopas.  I will not upgrade my archers in Kingdom Rush.  There will be no in-game violence, whatsoever, period.  In this, I'll be joining with thousands of other gamers who are choosing not to play any games that evoke combat, as a way of marking the impact of actual violence.

Which is fine by me, particularly the shooting part.  I've found that after Sandy Hook, my tolerance levels for media that involves firearms has diminished significantly.  It's a visceral, naturally occurring emotive response.  I just can't find any fun in it, not over the last week.  I'm not in the mood, any more than I was after 9/11.  One evening in October of 2001, I found just couldn't even watch this scene, encountered at random on cable, without thinking of all of those first responders.  I had to turn it off.  It just didn't seem fun any more.

That, more than anything, is why I'm standing down today.

Much has been made of the linkage between violence in media...particularly gaming...and the relentless dirge of gun violence in our culture.  The last two decades have seen the rise of increasingly involving and realistic virtual worlds, in which war and combat are a significant factor.  Battlefield 3 isn't Combat or Outlaw.

The depth, realism and immersive quality of modern gaming seems of a different character than any form of media that has preceded it.  The capacity to interact and participate in a virtual world is a new thing for humankind, and it's a little unsettling.   For many adults, it is also an alien thing, not a part of their experience of life.  As the United States flounders about grasping for some explanation for Sandy Hook that doesn't involve us having to regulate firearms, gaming has arisen as one possible cause.

We know, for example, that Adam Lanza gamed.   But what does that mean?  What does it mean that he was really into Starcraft?  It means that in that part of his life, he shared something with the vast majority of American kids. Objective research shows that 89% of American boys own game consoles...and 70% of girls.   Gaming is so pervasive that establishing a causal link between gaming generically and violence in our culture is not possible.

The linkage...based on data, objectively assessed...between gaming and societal violence seems tenuous, too.  That's not just because the rise of gaming as a cultural phenomenon tracks with a twenty-year decline in US crime rates.  When the United States Supreme Court took up the issue of banning violent video games last year, they found no evidence of a linkage.  You can read Antonin Scalia's opinion here.   When Antonin Scalia and Sandra Sotomayor exhaustively look at the evidence on an issue and come to the same conclusion, that says something.

That observation...that there is not enough evidence to come to find a causal or even a correlational link between gaming and actual violence...has been reinforced by the Journal of Pediatrics.

What we also know is that gaming is not a uniquely American phenomenon.  It is cross-cultural, totally pervasive throughout the developed world.  I know this on because I game, and I'll find myself occasionally on a server gaming with Aussies, or Brits, or Quebecois, or Germans.  None of those cultures come close to matching our rate of gun violence.  But I also know it statistically.  Presumably, a link between gaming and murder rates would manifest itself cross culturally, and it has not.  Gun violence is, in the developed world, a particularly American phenomenon.  We are the outlier.

Take, as a particularly potent example, South Korea, where gaming borders on being a national obsession.  Koreans are arguably the gamingest people on the planet.  What impact does that have on gun violence in South Korea?   None.   South Koreans have been known play video games until they die of starvation, to the point where time limits were put into place by law.   And yet gun violence is functionally nonexistent in that free and democratic society.  Their murder rate is just about half of ours.  Lord knows it's not because the broader Korean culture is calm and measured.   Sweet Mary and Joseph, is that not the case.  There's not a more fiery, passionate people on the face of God's creation.  Although nearly every Korean male must serve in the military, and is trained in firearm use, they don't kill each other with guns because they just don't have guns.  No guns? No gun deaths. That's why their gun-death rate is a tiny fraction of ours.  Period.

Still and all, that doesn't mean that gaming itself is without ethical challenges.  The potential impacts of gaming on an undeveloped or unstable child has never been a risk that I've been willing to take.  So over the years, I've monitored my boys and their gaming, something that I as a gamer am particularly able to do.  I know the dynamics of games, and which ones are less compatible with healthy spiritual and ethical development.

I've listened and watched their mental states, and seen as they've developed the capacity for empathy and rational thought.  I've talked with them about the difference between the real and the virtual, and listened to them as they've talked.   What types of games I've permitted them to play...and what movies I've allowed them to see...has been contingent on their development and their ethical awareness.

And while I'm comfortable having my intelligent, creative, inherently impulsive and inescapably hormonal pre-teen and teen sons around my PS3, I could not say the same for a gun.  One could, in a moment of foolishness, kill them.  The other could not.

For me, that seems Occam's-Razor-simple enough.