Friday, October 24, 2008

To War? A Study of Video Game Violence (Halo-ish)

Originally posted at Halopedia.

The Halo series, along with other video games depicting graphic violence, has come under fire by certain political activist groups for the perceived promotional effect such games have on real world violence. In particular, the actions of the perpetrators who conducted the Columbine High School massacre have inspired much of the campaign against violent video games. Although I will admit that it is probable for violently inclined people to play games with violent themes more frequently than those more peaceable, I vehemently disagree with the suggestion that there is a direct causal relationship between people playing games depicting violence and then behaving in a violent manner.

Although hardly the first school shooting, the 1999 Columbine tragedy was the bloodiest in over thirty years, with a count of fifteen deaths (including the two perpetrators) and twenty-three wounded victims. The previous record holding massacre at the University of Texas in 1966 amassed fourteen kills in addition to wounding thirty-one others. However, the Columbine massacre was perpetrated by two relatively young men, students aged 18 and 17, the majority of the victims legally children. The incident was a shocking wakeup for the concerned parents of America, who sought an explanation to rationalize this horrific display of violence.

One of the explanations they came up with was a game called Doom. Like Halo, Doom is a first-person shooter taking place from the perspective of an elite soldier who guns down monsters bent on the destruction of the human race (albeit from Hell instead of alien planets). That the two mass murderers of Columbine were avid fans of the game and had lovingly created their own levels was a worrying fact for those analyzing the steps leading up to the massacre. The murderers even went so far as to say that details of their then upcoming murder spree would be “straight out of” “fucking Doom”.

Whenever a horrible tragedy occurs, be it brought on by natural disaster or willful maliciousness, humans begin to flounder. One of the ways people react is by trying to approach the situation constructively and create an image of a powerfully destructive force with which they can fight, and by defeating bring about justice. It is human nature to see the world in black and white, in which there are forces entirely good and forces entirely bad, and that the bad elements are foreign elements that must be cast out from us to protect our loved ones, who are otherwise perfectly innocent and pure. Reality, however, is anything but simple, and black-and-white-thinking tends to do more harm than good.

The people who decided to instigate a mass murder were not innocents who had been corrupted by the violence portrayed in games. They were people of damaged mindsets who at some point or another crossed the line and decided thinking of the killing of innocent victims as a good thing. This attempt to explain evil traits on foreign entities that corrupt ostensibly innocent individuals contains much of the same social function as the myths of demonic possession, lycanthropy, or vampirism. I believe labeling video games as the enemy that turns people evil is as affective a rationalization to transform the murderous mindset, a mysterious output of that complex soup of the human brain, into an enemy capable of defeat as the old myths and just as true, which is to say not at all.

While it is human nature to draw up these enemies we can constructively fight, it takes focus off the fact that these guys were utter slime. People need to remember that these were murderers! It was not the corruption of video games that drove these men to commit murder; it was them, their choice! Granted, there was a combination of social and medical factors that led them to the point. They were the targets of persistent bullying, suffered from depression and the effects of anti-depressants. However, it was these two individuals who made the conscious choice to ignore the laws of civilized behavior and commit mass murder. They were murderers, and accusing the games they liked of making them evil denies them responsibility for their own actions by portraying them as blank slates into which viewpoints can simply be poured. This should be insulting to everyone who hears it.

It reminds me of a rather disturbing trend I’ve noticed in old scifi books in which the male protagonist gets into a fight with his girlfriend, emotions become escalated, he strikes her physically and then rationalizes it away as the woman’s fault, which is then accepted by everyone and the book continues. WTF? This kind of thing was reasonable fifty years ago because people were really sexist until the feminist movement picked up during the ‘70s. Not saying they aren’t sexist now, but at least it’s far less acceptable than it once was.

That the murderers behind Columbine are denied responsibility for their actions strikes me as an ageist perspective. Because they were legally minors, the murderers are treated as children, with the kind of analyses one might give to the raising of a small child considered to be in a state of tabula rasa, in which the ideologies to which they are introduced make up the whole of their being, without giving respect to their own thoughts independent to those introduced by the environment. Were the crime committed by adults of several years, I would imagine the media would extend far less attention to their games of choice and more to their sick state of mind that allowed them to compare mass murder to “like fucking Doom”. I imagine a less ageist society some decades in the future will look back at today’s ageist apologists the same way we look at the past’s sexist apologists and let out an equal shudder.

I myself can be rather violent at times. When people greatly aggravate me, rage takes over, and I have been known to lash out in a brief moment of physical violence. This is my fault. It is not the fault of the people who enraged me (as aggravating as they were). I crossed the line, and I committed the crime. I freely admit to this weakness, accept responsibility, and do not pin it on anyone or anything other than myself. I suspect the advent of puberty and the rush of testosterone to be a primary factor, but it was in my mind where the choice was made.

Fortunately, I have maintained a demeanor of nonviolence for the past six years or so. It’s always a fault I need to keep an eye on, but I’m pretty sure the danger is behind me as I believe my mind’s stressed state to be caused primarily by my once unfamiliarity with the devil’s hormone (aka testosterone). During the period in which I was on edge, one of my primary means of working off aggression was playing Halo: Combat Evolved. Whenever I got really angered, I’d take a deep breath and then kill some Grunts. After the game, I’d feel calm again and could go on with life normally.

From this perspective, I can agree with the suggestion that violently-inclined individuals are more likely to be found enjoying games depicting violence than those more pacifistic in nature. However, correlation does not imply causation. For me, enacting scenes of violence in an entirely safe environment in which no one actually got hurt aided my resistance of evil urges. For other people, I imagine there could be no correlation, just an exciting game in which no one gets hurt (making it far better than most sports). Maybe some people get off on practicing sadistic acts upon realistic dolls. In the end, it doesn’t matter because it is all a fictional depiction in which no one really gets hurt; nothing but pure fantasy.

The violence depicted in Halo is relatively tame. Sure, it takes place from the point of view of a character blowing away every enemy who steps into his sights, but that is a simplistic description taken out of context. Halo is a story about defending your home from evil-doers who are trying to slaughter your people because they are filled with utter conviction that doing so is the “right” thing to do and that they will ascend to godhood if they don’t question their superiors. Halo (and Doom) is not about “Yay, I like to kill! It’s fun to kill!” but rather, “Kill those wackjobs(/demons) before they murder our civilians!” Although the Arbiter does kill good guys, he does so ignorantly and is later redeemed through his actions to bring down the Covenant. Should some civilian have shot the perpetrators of the massacre before they could do all the damage they did, their actions would have been more “like fucking Doom” and Halo then the murderers’.

In conclusion, while there is some correlation between violent folk and violent media, there is not necessarily a direct causal relationship. The act of blaming external forces takes responsibility away from the murderers themselves, who are then treated like victims instead of perpetrators. Video games do not murder people any more than abused women hit themselves. What people need to realize is that even mass murderers are people, and nothing is responsible for the actions of people more than the people themselves. Don’t blame the video games; blame the people who cross the line.

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