The “Virgin Mary” of Video Games?

 Many years ago, a scientific study of the effects of jockey underwear on male fertility indicated that the additional warmth in the genital region led to lower sperm counts. The manufacturers of jockey underwear immediately joined together at a press conference, without consideration of the scientific merits of the study, and essentially said “no, impossible, these folks don’t know what they’re talking about, it’s harmless”. 

 This reminds me of the typical reaction of video game fans when a study (however scientific) suggests a causal link between video games and real-world violence. “No, impossible, these folks don’t know what they’re talking about, it’s harmless,” usually with no consideration of how the study was done.

 In the first case, the manufacturers worried about their sales, their livelihood. In the second, video game fans have a lot less to worry about, but react similarly.

 I saw reactions that reminded me of this when Dr. John Sharp of SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) made a fascinating observation. He said images of the Virgin Mary appeared in “somewhere around 90% of all works of art” of the Italian Renaissance. His question: was there anything similar in video games. He suggested “guns”, and his reaction was “My first thought is this isn’t very good.” (http://bbrathwaite.wordpress.com/2009/02/24/what-is-the-mary-of-games)

 When I read Dr. Sharp's original post I said, "of course". Yet some of the responses were really puzzling.  In general, instead of facing the obvious, respondents tried to explain it away.  For example, someone suggested “If you look at firearms in terms of the second amendment, all implied violence aside, they represent freedom.”  What does the second amendment have to do with video games?  One respondent talked about the computer interface being natural for shooting. Another talked about the fascination of young people with “Ninjas, Monkeys, Pirates, Zombies and Robots…” Both quite true, but that’s missing the point.

 As I kept thinking about fantasy role-playing and about games in ancient-medieval settings, I realized that a better formulation would be "instruments of killing" rather than "guns". That led me one step further: perhaps Mary was often included in Italian Renaissance art as a human representation of the divine, a way to bring God into the picture without trying to depict the divine--an idea more than a person or thing. To me, the "Mary" of video games is more general than guns or instruments of killing, it's "depictions of violent death." Limiting the discussion to "guns" or anything less than violent death diverts us from the real situation.

 I tried a little experiment, keeping in mind that the Wii and DS have taken us some distance away from representations of violent death, compared with a few years ago. I looked at the reviews in a recent issue of “Gameinformer” magazine and the previews and reviews in an issue of “PC Gamer” magazine. How many of the games include depictions of violent death? I don’t know all the games, of course, but it’s usually possible to tell from the review.

 Seven of 14 in Gameinformer included depictions of violent death; two of the non-depiction games were violent wrestling and boxing, and some others included killing but likely not a graphical depiction of it. The tally was 15 of 20 in PC Gamer.

 Yes, casual games are much less likely to show or otherwise involve violent death, but it’s the “big” games we see reviewed in the magazines that make or break the reputation of the industry.

 Let’s go back to Dr. Sharp's suggestion that this is not good: no wonder some people think video games promote violence, when depictions of violent death are so very common.

 Notice that tabletop games are rarely blamed for violence; even in those tabletop games where guns are theoretically present.  

 For instance, in wargames, the players rarely think of what they're doing as involving killing, they think of it as strategy and tactics, as a way to win the war or battle. There is no blood, no body counts, no explosions, no ragdoll bodies flopping around. How many people who play the boardgame Risk, to cite a common example, think of the elimination of pieces as the death of people?  Hardly anyone, in my experience. Board wargamers are fascinated by strategy, not by slaughter. And the appearance of slaughter is entirely absent.

On the other hand, I recall the days when tabletop Dungeons & Dragons was blamed for youth suicides. (Do a Google search for “Dungeons and Dragons blamed for suicide”, you’ll find great variety in the 8,400 hits.)  Many of the claims turned out to be based on bad data, and in any case it was just as possible to blame many other causes of youthful angst (“oh, I didn’t make the football team”, “oh, my boyfriend dumped me”). D&D became an excuse for inattentive parenting, and video games can be a similar excuse now. Parents blame the games rather than recognize their own fault. Do I think video games promote violence in the young? No more than American football or cage fighting or TV or films. But that doesn't actually answer Dr. Sharp's question, does it, it just makes it a broader question.

What about scientific research?  Surely by now we should have a definitive answer about the link (or lack of link) between video games and violent behavior?  Why aren't the results of the research clear to most people? 

The famous phrase that disparages the manipulation of statistical data for personal reasons--"there are lies, damn lies, and statistics"--can often be applied to formal research, "scientific" or not.  The ideal of the scientist, carefully relying on facts to objectively make evaluations, is only an ideal.  In practice, scientists can never divorce their personal subjective point of view from their work.   As Thomas Kuhn most famously discussed in "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions", scientific theories often prevail not because they are rationally adopted by the existing scientific community, but because up-and-coming scientists adopt the new one, and the older people gradually retire or die off until the new theory is the "standard" one. 

Further, if it took us decades to convincingly demonstrate to smokers that tobacco kills, even though researchers knew it long before, why shouldn’t the more subtle distinctions in the question of games and violence take decades to sort out?

 The Wikipedia entry for "video game controversy" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Video_game_controversy), much of it about crime and violence, is itself judged not-up-to-standard by Wikipedia’s editors.  Its references help illuminate the great variety of opinion and "scientific results" of research.  Of course, a summary of the results on the American Psychological Association web site (http://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2003/10/anderson.aspx) asserts that "Studies provide converging evidence that exposure to media violence is a significant risk factor for aggressive and violent behavior".  This piece lists a series of "myths" about such research, for example that "Violent video game research has yielded very mixed results."  Yet even here, a large proportion of the references are to works of the writer of the summary.

 Finally, there's a great deal of money in the video game industry, hence a lot of money potentially available to help discredit or redirect research.  Whether it is used to that purpose, I do not know.

 Still, when you can read something like the following in a major video game magazine, you must realize there's something wrong:

 Preview of God of War III, GameInformer 191, Mar 2009

"As one of the bosses . . . nears death, the camera switches to first person. Kratos approaches and begins to beat the boss with his bare hands. . . the entire scene is viewed and heard from the perspective of the victim, complete with the wet crunches of every solid blow. If this is what the team has completed at this phase of development, we can't wait to see how the other sequences shape up."

 In another case, Kratos slowly and quite graphically rips off someone's head. Thus we offer gruesome depictions of violent death as “entertainment.”

 To the populace at large, the predominance of the sight of violent death helps identify the hardcore game industry as a ghetto for immature boys interested in power trips and destruction! As long as depictions of violent death are the “Virgin Mary” of video games, video games will be treated as an immature industry only aimed at puerile entertainment, not “art”, and hence unworthy of comparison with entrenched arts such as painting, film, “serious” music, even comic books!

 Don't react like the jockey shorts manufacturers. Open your eyes and SEE why "the unwashed", those who don't play video games, don't like and don't trust the violence in video games. Recognize the problem, then you can decide what (if anything) you can or want to do about it.