They are Both Stupid

Reading through my daily list of online “media”, I’ve lately felt a low, almost background level of annoyance with the subject matter and tone of some of the content that has streamed my way.

Here is the problem: pick any of the current questions of our time, and listen for a while to the debate that rages in the various media. The only conclusion you can come to is that everyone is stupid. The particular trigger this time around was the most recent cycle of “blame the gamers.” You know the drill. Some violent event happens in North America (violence in, say, the Middle East is never caused by video games, it’s more complicated there) and various chest-thumpers start stamping their feet and shaking their fists and screaming about how the minds of our youth are being turned into a bloody jelly by urban crime games.

Because, really, the only game where there is juvenile and gratuitous violence and mayhem is Grand Theft Auto. There aren’t entire genres of games that are just a huge boxing ring where the winner gets to pull the arms off the loser. There aren’t games where the sole purpose of the entire enterprise is to headshot as many people dressed in the wrong color clothing as you can. There aren’t games where you kill zombies with a lawn mower. There aren’t games where you use your psychic powers to make people’s brains melt into a puddle of liquid.

Nope, the evil on this planet radiates from a single center, and that center is in the development offices of Rockstar Games. A little bit of that evil is used to burn each GTA DVD before it goes out into the stores to corrupt your children.

OK. So I am overstating the case for dramatic and sarcastic effect. But I can’t escape the feeling that this side of the argument is starting from a position of ignorance and choosing a target at random.

However, these people don’t bother me that much. They don’t really know what they are talking about, and they don’t have any interest in actually figuring out that they are ignorant boobs, but other than that they have commited no great sin.

What really bothers me is the vociferously defensive response from the gamer community. First, it’s not really clear to me that one wants to be in a position of defending violent games in general, and GTA in paticular, as some kind of cultural treasure. I realize that people find the games enjoyable and entertaining. But this by itself is not enough to justify their existence. There are all kinds of things that people find enjoyable that you do not want to defend as artistic. It seems to me that if the game industry wants to gain any credibility at all, they should start their arguments from a more realistic position: GTA and games like it are juvenile escapist fantasies. They don’t really have that much to offer from a cultural point of view. They are not intelligent or mature. They are not, for the most part, even that well written.

They are an entertaining diversion. Nothing more, nothing less.

Of course, this is not what is said. Instead, we get a series of badly argued ruminations from a variety of different angles, each one of them stupid.

You can’t prove that game are bad

The reasoning here is usally something along the lines of “millions of people play the game and don’t go crazy and shoot up their school, so how bad could it be?“.

Well, millions of people smoke cigarettes and only a relatively small percentage die a horrible and painful death as their lungs rot away inside their bodies. But that doesn’t make it a good idea.

It’s clear that people like to play these games. I don’t really think we should stop them. But that doesn’t mean we should say it’s a good idea.

The games are actually good for you

This is an extension of the argument above. If it doesn’t kill you, it must make you smarter. I suppose it’s true that at a minimum games can give you really good twitch response. The nuttier arguments in this space try to convince you that GTA teaches you the wonder of exploration, or how to experiment with your environment a la the scientific method. The most pathetic arguments try to claim that the games carry a deep and political message and therefore will teach the more observant little 10 years olds among us about their own world and history.

I think it’s stretch to claim that driving around a fictional city offing hookers is teaching kids a deep and reflective lesson on the modern socioeconomic problems of the modern urban environment. But that’s just me.

Help, Help, I’m Being Oppressed

This is a new and interesting angle that plays to the dork community’s inbred persecution complex.

The most recent example of this psychological tic was a piece in that bastion of intelligent journalism: Joystiq. The article shows an idyllic scene from Tokyo of a Japanese father helping his son out with some handheld game, and then speculates about what a wonderful world it would be if only we could lift the “stigma” of gaming from the shoulders of the downtrodden geeks of the West.

I think two facts argue against the idea of the oppressed game player. First, EA sends two bojillion copies of Madden into homes everywhere the at roughly the same time every year. You don’t do that by pandering to just the hard core. Second, most of the rest of the industry has not figured out how to escape pandering to exactly this set of people. How else do you explain something like DOAX2, a game where you make bouncy women drive jet skis.

It’s hard to look at what the hard-core gamer asks for from the world and not come to the conclusion that if indeed they are being oppressed, it’s because they were asking for it.

In the end, my advice to the people on both ends of this tug-of-war is to try and argue from a position of intelligence rather than one of either ignorance or stupidity. On the one hand, those who would rail against the destructive video game culture should perhaps play with the machines some more before coming to a summary judgement. I suggest they try out Mario Kart: Double Dash or Guitar Hero.

On the other hand, I think that the gaming community should take a more realistic look at itself and come to grips with the fact that it is still dominated by the aesthetic sensibilities of Beavis and Butthead. If you really want to convince people that games have more to offer than drive-by shootings, urban warfare, and misogyny, then maybe you should stop defendng that sort of content and show the world that you have something more worthwhile to offer. I suggest demoing Mario Kart! or Guitar Hero.