Games don't kill people -- do they?

Before we rush to damn the video-game industry, let's remember: There's both bad and good in blowing up pixels.

Published June 21, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

About 10 years ago, I had drinks with Frank Chadwick, then president of a game publisher called Game Designers Workshop. At the time, the Game Manufacturers Association was trying to reposition hobby games as "adventure games" -- which we both thought risible.

Chadwick said, "You know, a better name for our industry would be 'violence gaming.' "

I flinched, of course. But Chadwick had a point: hobby games then consisted mainly of war games -- war is certainly violent -- and role-playing games, whose players spend much of their time in combat against fantastic monsters or comic-book supervillains and such.

Violence is intrinsic to many, many games. Even as abstract a game as chess can be seen as a form of military conflict.

When I was a kid, "gaming" meant the mass-market boardgame industry and a small hobby-game appendage that together grossed perhaps a few hundred million dollars at retail. Today, it includes computer, console and arcade gaming and is a $7 billion industry in the U.S. alone -- the second largest entertainment industry in the world, after film and television.

As McLuhan would have it, every medium has a message. If violence is intrinsic to gaming, and if gaming is an increasingly predominant form of entertainment, is the likely consequence to our society an increase in violence?

Are the critics who attack gaming in the wake of the Littleton massacre correct on the fundamentals? Should Congress ask the surgeon general to prepare a report on how video games spur youth violence, as it is considering? Do games stoke our violent instincts -- or sublimate them? Is there such a thing as "good violence" and "bad violence" in games?

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Let's step back a moment. What is a game?

A game is an interactive structure that requires players to struggle toward a goal.

If there's no interaction, it isn't a game; it's a puzzle. If there's no goal, then the players have no reason to choose one option over another, to undertake one task instead of something else; there's no structure. If achieving the goal isn't a struggle, if winning is easy, the game is dull; winning's no thrill.

Struggle implies conflict. Just as conflict is at the core of every story, conflict is at the core of every game. That doesn't mean all conflict must be violent; in a story, the central conflict can be the protagonist's own feelings of inadequacy, or the obduracy of her in-laws, or the inequities of society. But violent conflict has its uses; otherwise, we wouldn't have horror stories and mysteries and thrillers. Not to mention "Hamlet" and "Henry V."

There are as many ways to create conflict in a game as in a story. Adventure games like Myst use puzzles. Games like Diplomacy require negotiation. Builder games like Civilization require you to overcome economic and technological obstacles.

But there's no way to avoid conflict entirely. No conflict, no struggle. No struggle, no obstacles. No obstacles, no work. No work, no fun.

Where does violence come into the picture? Violence is an easy out. It's the simplest, most obvious way to make a game a struggle. If achieving your goal requires you to get through a horde of ravenous, flesh-eating monsters, the conflict is clear -- and the way to win is equally clear. You kill them.

Obstacles-of-violence, to coin a term, are compelling; the kill-or-be-killed instinct is wired into our hind-brain, part of our vertebrate heritage. Games like Quake II trigger a visceral, edge-of-the-seat response. Precisely because you can be killed at any moment by strange and nasty creatures, because only quick reactions can defeat them, Quake is a compelling experience.

Quake uses violence well. By that, I mean that it achieves precisely the effect its designers wished to achieve, and succeeds in delivering a compelling, stimulating, entertaining, intense experience to the player. It is a fine game.

But still: Violence is not the only way to achieve struggle in games. It is merely the easiest, the simplest, the most obvious tool in the game designer's armamentarium.

So -- are games fundamentally violent and therefore bad? No. Chadwick was wrong; games are not about violence. Games are about struggle. Because violence is the easiest way to create struggle, many games are violent -- but far from all.

But perhaps a more sophisticated argument still holds water? Perhaps game designers have insouciantly awoken the beast, cavalierly creating entertainment so violently compelling that it teaches violence, desensitizes us, spurs increased violence in our society?

There is a lot of violence in computer gaming. Some of it is very ugly. The two most popular categories in computer games at present are the first-person shooter (Quake, Unreal, Half-Life) and the real-time strategy game ( StarCraft, Myth, Total Annihilation). Both categories are "games of violence," if you will.

The computer gaming industry is a monoculture: It consists almost entirely of white, suburban males in their 20s. We're talking the demographic that reads Maxim magazine. They're heavily into computer games, almost completely ignorant of games from other media and almost equally ignorant of computer games published longer than five years ago. Visiting a game development firm is like walking into a strangely 1950s version of 1990s America; if any women are on the premises, they're artists or marketing people. You may see some Asians, you might see a programmer from India, but certainly nobody darker.

Developers play the same games, they see the same movies, they fraternize with people like themselves and they develop some pretty weird mind-sets. Violence is perceived as cool -- no, not real violence, but violence in games.

Consider Postal, published two years ago. It's a shooter in which you play a deranged, psychotic loser. You wander around shooting completely innocent people at random.

It's hard to imagine why anyone thought this was a good idea. For one thing, innocent people do not make good obstacles: They're unlikely to shoot back. They're not particularly threatening. Never mind the moral considerations; this makes for a dull game.

And the moral considerations should certainly have made Postal's developers (a company called Running With Scissors) think twice. No doubt, they assumed that the "edgy" nature of the project would get them a lot of press and boost its sales. They did get a lot of press, almost all of it negative, and no doubt that did spur some sales to the kind of people who actually think "Beavis & Butthead" is funny.

But you know what? Postal failed. It didn't achieve anywhere near expected sales. The reviews were almost uniformly negative. It failed because it was a bad game.

Consider the "bathtub of blood" ad (for the game Blood, developed by Monolith for GT Interactive). It ran in computer gaming magazines in 1997 (for example, the front gatefold of Computer Gaming World, May 97). The dominant image of the advertisement was, literally, a bathtub filled with blood.

It's hard to imagine why anyone thought this was effective advertising. What it said was: Our game is violent. Our sense of humor is crass. It didn't actually do what an advertisement must do -- explain why the product will be fun or useful, establish a compelling value proposition for the consumer.

Only computer game developers could ever have thought this was a good idea.

In March, another advertisement, for an online games retailer, appeared in the computer gaming press (for instance, Computer Gaming World, March 99, page 89). Its dominant image is that of the naked torso of a woman, lying on an operating table, the rest of her body outside the frame. In the foreground are surgically-gloved hands, holding a scalpel. In the woman's bare flesh are incised the lines of a tic-tac-toe game.

I buy a lot of computer games. I generally buy them online. But the image of someone cutting a woman's flesh in order to play the most patently brain-dead game imaginable did not make me want to patronize this company's services. God only knows why they thought it would motivate anyone else.

Certainly, it is an arresting image. Arresting enough to make the gorge rise. Only the computer gaming culture could possibly view any of this as effective, appropriate or funny.

So perhaps the critics are correct, at least to this degree: The coolness of violence, as portrayed in computer games, has persuaded computer game developers, if no one else, that nauseating depictions of violence, whether or not effective, are cool.

In the gaming field, the response to post-Littleton attacks has been self-righteously defensive. It's just a game. It doesn't hurt you any more than TV (never mind the damage television has done to our political system, our propensity to read, and our sense of social solidarity). Games Are Cool.

That's understandable. Computer gaming people have virtually no defense other than self-righteousness. They're guilty of many of the sins ascribed to them.

But consider this: The excesses fail. Postal failed. Those ads do not deliver. Violence alone doesn't do the trick. Violence is, and should be, part of a designer's toolkit; but it is neither necessary nor sufficient.

Every year, Brian Moriarty gives a speech at the Game Developers Conference, one of the industry's main trade shows. Every year, it is the best-received speech at the conference. Moriarty is a brilliant speaker, but more than that, he is one of the industry's eminences grises -- one of the original Infocom crew, creator of Loom and Beyond Zork, now in charge of development at MPlayer (one of the biggest of the online-game communities).

Last year, Moriarty's speech was on the subject of violence in games. As he spoke, two short clips appeared on a screen behind him, repeating hypnotically. One was a clip from "The Great Train Robbery," a silent film historians call the first real movie hit, showing a mustachioed Westerner shooting a gun directly toward the camera; the other, a short sequence from Quake, showed a guard being shot.

Compelling images both -- and compelling in that both show that violence has been a important part of two very different media, virtually from their inceptions.

The speech itself was a meditation on two issues: first, the nature of violence in gaming; and second, the idea of "rhythm of play." Moriarty says that, if you observe people playing a game -- observe them, not the game itself -- you find that they engage in repeated cycles of activity. And this repetition, the rhythm created, is one of the strongest draws for people to interactive entertainment. It's hypnotic. It's involving.

Violence, he says, creates dissonance. It breaks the rhythm. Dissonance is not bad in itself; dissonance, consciously and creatively used, can be an extremely effective technique, in gaming as in music.

"If you want to include violence in your games," says Moriarty, "do it, and put your heart and soul into it, do it with awareness -- not because violence is easy, or because it shocks, but because you need dissonance, and you know how and why it strengthens your game."

To paraphrase: Violence used artistically is effective; violence used crudely is vile.

It's a lesson most computer-game developers have yet to learn -- and if one of the upshots of Littleton is that they begin to think more clearly about the issue, that will be to the good.

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First-person shooters are violent games. Yet they are not depictions of endless, orgasmic mayhem; in their solo-play mode, they are mainly about exploration and puzzle-solving, with opposition provided in the form of monsters you shoot. Though violence, and the edge-of-the-seat tension it builds, is a key part of the game's aesthetic, impressive 3D technology and art and clever "level design" (where exploration and puzzle-solving come in) are at least as important.

The "violence" is against monsters, defined as such, who are clearly attempting to kill you; the back story, such as it is, presents them as some kind of horrible, Lovecraftian intrusion into the real world. Hence they are, in a sense, totally depersonalized opponents. But the notion that this kind of thing therefore "desensitizes" people to violence and makes them more willing to commit it seems dubious. Shooters are really about the "booga-booga" fright instinct: A scary monster appears out of nowhere and roars at you; you have to turn quickly and blow it away.

And of course, you die frequently yourself. The feeling engendered is not "I'm an immortal Rambo, I'm so cool I can kill anything" -- rather, it's more like, "God, that was a hard level, those spider things with the cannon launchers are really tough, I'm glad I finally got through it."

Interestingly, the multiplayer online version is very different. You shoot not monsters but other players, who are running around trying to kill you. And they aren't depersonalized; they look just like you, you can chat with them (but rarely do because the game is too fast-paced), and so forth. This has been portrayed as something new and frightening -- but frankly, it's no different from paintball and not much different from tag.

The press has reported Lt. Col. David Grossman's claim that games like Quake are good training for murder, because they teach you to "clear a room" by moving quickly from target to target and aiming for the head. They teach you to avoid the novice hunter or soldier's mistake of shooting repeatedly at the same target until the target drops, and instead to use only a single shot.

On the basis of this, I have to doubt that Grossman has ever actually played Quake. No monster in Quake can be killed with a single shot; at least two hits are required. It is impossible to make a "head-shot"; Quake makes no distinction between shots that strike at different locations on a target's body. And if you stay still long enough to pick your targets and get off head-shots, you're dead. You must keep moving to evade enemy fire. You snap off shots when you can.

In short, Quake doesn't teach the lessons that the critics claim it teaches.

The development of shooting games over time has not been toward more and more megaviolence; rather, it's been toward prettier and more-impressive 3D rendering (Unreal) and toward more compelling story-lines, interwoven more effectively with the game (Half-Life).

Yes, these are violent games -- but as is usually the case when the media latches onto something, they have been caricatured. Violence is only a part of their appeal.

The idea that film or television or books make people violent has been debunked again and again. (For one thing, if it were true, Japan would, judging by its popular culture, surely be filled with violent pederasts instead of the civilized world's most peaceful and orderly population.)

But perhaps computer games are different -- so uniquely compelling that violence in games does breed violent behavior?

Some 25 years ago, I read through the Whole Earth Catalog. One section of the book was devoted to the war games published by Simulations Publications Inc. -- and I was then an avid war gamer (and later employed by that company) so I, naturally, read it carefully. The Whole Earth Catalog was written during the Vietnam War, a period when schools shied away from any discussion of warfare or military history as too hot a topic to consider. But, as the publication said, war has been part of human nature since time immemorial. War is worthy of study, if only so that we can avoid it by understanding it more fully. And, perhaps, war games are our best hope of avoiding future wars. Perhaps the things we find attractive about war, perhaps the impulses that lead us to war, can be satisfied through simulation.

Violence, and the attraction of violence, is a fundamental part of human nature. It is particularly appealing to young adolescent males, for it is a clean break with the rules-bound environment in which they have lived, a rejection of parental order. In every society, violence is most common among young men.

It is foolish to try to change human nature; it is immutable, or mutable only through the slow process of evolution. What can be changed is society. Society can develop institutions and mechanisms to channel antisocial impulses to pro-social purposes. That's one reason for armies, of course; they institutionalize violence in a mechanism designed to protect rather than damage society.

And games of violence? They allow players to be violent, to act out their violent impulses, to hunt and shoot and kill -- in a way that harms no one.

Listen to the boastfulness of Quake players on TEN. They'll kill your pussy ass. They'll blow you up so good your spleen will land in Chicago and your liver in Des Moines. They're profane and obnoxious, and violently so.

They're blowing up pixels. They're killing bitmaps. They're shooting at software subroutines.

They're not a threat to public order, for chrissakes. What they're doing makes them less likely to be a threat to public order. They're getting their jones -- they're satisfying their antisocial impulses in a completely harmless way.

Violent computer games don't spur violence; violent computer games channel antisocial impulses in societally acceptable ways.

Games are good.

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For those of us who've been involved in gaming for a long time, the whole hysteria over Littleton brings forth a strong sense of deja vu.

We've been through this before. Fifteen years ago, Dungeons & Dragons was the culprit. Every time some kid killed himself and a copy of D&D was found amid the stuff in his room, the papers would run a story about how those vile fantasy role-playing games made him do it. The fundamentalists latched onto it, too; Dungeons & Dragons involved magic and spells, and to fundamentalists of a certain stripe, that means it must be inherently demonic and evil.

Poor Sandy Petersen is the man I sympathized with most. He designed Call of Cthulhu, a role-playing game based on the horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft. He's a devout Mormon. His game was repeatedly attacked, and he along with it, as one of the most demonic and evil of the lot: After all, it deals explicitly with demons from other dimensions. He found himself on panels at gaming conventions, trying to explain to gamers that all Christians were not vile, censoring, irrational scum -- and I have no doubt he found himself trying to explain to his co-religionists why all gamers weren't evil Satanic monsters.

If I feel a sense of deja vu, how much worse it must be for him. Sandy co-designed Doom II and Quake.

It's not just Dungeons & Dragons. We went through this when the Internet first came to prominence, and was blamed for sex crimes and pederasty. We went through it in the '50s, when comic books were attacked as perverting our youth, leading to the death of EC Comics and the establishment of the Comics Code Authority. We went through it in the '30s, when LaGuardia took his hatchet to pinball machines across New York.

Hell, we went through it with rock 'n' roll.

Young people are the ones most open to novelty. Consequently, they lead the way in the adoption of any new entertainment medium. Parent/teenager relationships being what they are, parents invariably view the new medium as threatening. The nature of our journalism-industrial complex being what it is, some pundits seize on the fear as a means of achieving an audience. The most threatening aspects of the medium are puffed up into a major threat to civilization. Kids find their medium under attack, and respond, naturally, by embracing the aspects under attack most wholeheartedly.

Sometimes, as with Dungeons & Dragons, the attack ultimately dissipates under the weight of its own ludicrous contradictions. Sometimes, as with EC Comics, congressional hearings and an abject surrender by the industry result.

But these attacks, all of them, have nothing to do with reality. They're about fear. They're about the fear of the new -- the fear of parents who see their children doing something they don't understand and worry about the consequences.

The attack is an argument from ignorance. It has no rational basis. It is made by people who don't understand what they attack, and find its indicia frightening. And to the degree that they have any credibility at all, it's because ugly and repulsive violence does exist within computer gaming. And if the industry has the brains God gave a biscuit, it will respond -- not by imposing censorship or another inane rating scheme, but by avoiding the kind of repulsive, exploitative violence that any idiot ought to see is not going to work anyway.

If you are concerned about violence in gaming, I have one piece of advice: Go buy a copy of Quake II. Install it on your machine. Download a walkthrough, so you won't fear humiliation when you play. And give it a try.

I think you'll find that it's not so frightening. You may even have a good time.

You might even find yourself -- like me -- shopping for a home networking kit and running cable, so you can play games with your kids.

By Greg Costikyan

Greg Costikyan's 27th commercially published game, Fantasy War, recently launched on Sony's Station; he also recently completed a report on the future of online games for Good Reports.

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