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Three things are certain in life: death, taxes and video game violence. The first are things we should be concerned about. Maybe I should be jogging more regularly. Maybe I should check my tax credits so that I’m not hemorrhaging money every pay cheque. The last thing is not something I think we should be concerned about anymore. Video game violence is no longer the threat to our youth the conservative lawyers, lawmakers and parents thought it was. It is also the cornerstone of the most popular video game genre ever: shooters. Video game violence is here to stay and it always has been. It’s time to accept this but that doesn’t mean we have to embrace it.
It takes a certain kind of individual to walk into school one day and massacre their classmates with assault weapons. To say that video games like DOOM or GTA are the root cause of horrible events like these is wrong though. The American media has always looked for scapegoats for supposedly unexplainable atrocities like Columbine or Sandy Hook. They blamed video game violence, gory action movies, heavy metal and gangster rap because it was easier than examining the culture of fear they were helping to perpetuate.
There are few other countries outside the United States of America where it’s easier to buy an assault rifle, 120 rounds of ammunition and turn an elementary school into a slaughterhouse. Attitudes towards gun control are shifting at a glacial pace and with that shift comes the realization that blaming a game for mass murder is like putting a plaster on an amputated limb.
The final nail in the coffin for the “video game violence causes real life violence” argument came in 2018 with the Stoneman-Douglas High School mass shooting. As the state of Florida and the wider United States made largely empty gestures in regard to gun control the survivors took it upon themselves to demand change. By the time the March for Our Lives took place in the middle of 2018 the leaders of the march – many of whom were current or former students of Stoneman-Douglas – were sweeping aside political and media attempts at transferring the blame onto the shooter’s mental health or other aggravating factors like video game violence. When the victims of such a devastating event like the Stoneman-Douglas shooting are able to nip these claims in the bud quicker than most experts it’s time to put these decades-old arguments in the dirt.
Although the initial agitators have stopped blaming everything from Grand Theft Auto III to Doki Doki Literature Club! it’s time for game developers, critics and gamers themselves to stop worrying about the effect video game violence is having on them and their favourite medium. From 2007 to now we’ve been trying to reconcile the violence of a lot of games with the mature, artistic stories they’ve been trying to tell. BioShock, The Last of Us, Hotline Miami, Spec-Ops: The Line and even Gears of War.
The list of games that have attempted to reconcile the ludo-narrative dissonance – ludo being Latin for play – is long but not very varied. They are all, bar maybe a couple, some form of shooter. Even Call of Duty, the most popular shooter series in the world, attempted it in Modern Warfare 2. The amount of games that tell you that murder and war crimes are bad and then force you to commit murder or war crimes is laughable. Why should I feel bad about something I’m being forced to do?
Rubbing my nose in the blood and guts I’ve just spilled across a level isn’t going to make me feel horrible about the violence I’ve committed when I had no other choice in the first place. It was fine when Andrew Ryan was asking “Would you kindly?” because that was genuinely good writing and it made my lack of choice an intrinsic part of the story. Fast forward 13 years and I’m playing The Last of Us Part II and I feel drained not by the guilt-tripping violence but by the fact that the game thinks it’s smart by forcing me through these overly familiar rhythms.
I’m not sick of feeling guilty. I’m sick of games trying to make me feel guilty about actions I had no other choice in. Playing The Last of Us Part II might not be especially fun but I guarantee you it’s more fun than sitting down for hours and thinking about why I just killed all those very real looking dogs. I’ve never made an evil or even a morally grey decision in The Witcher 3 because I know that the guilt would eat me alive in real life even if it didn’t have much of a negative effect in-game. I don’t come to games for a philosophy lesson anymore. The arguments and ideologies are all worn out. Am I saying games should stop trying to teach us about these things? No, but they need to come up with better methods than making me shoot a man in the face and then asking me to question my actions despite the game offering me no other choice.
Video game violence is not the Galaxy Brain issue we used to think of it as. Shooting something in a video game is about as primal as you get. It’s fun to point, click and watch something explode or disintegrate or flop like a puppet with its strings cut. What’s more, because it’s fun a lot of people will buy it and perpetuate the cycle of people paying for entertainment that they enjoy. Now that we know that violent video games are not the serial murder simulators people used to think they were it’s OK to be less aggressive in our questioning of the violence they sell. Should we stop questioning the violence they sell us? Absolutely not, after all every industry needs a conscience. But we need to come up with different methods and questions to interrogate how we use violence, both as a tool and a crutch, in video games. Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a new challenge level on DOOM: Eternal I’ve been meaning to get around to.