Perhaps you remember an old public service ad on MTV. The setting is a classic Western showdown, two tough looking and well armed cowboys are walking slowly toward each other across a desert flat. Tumbleweeds blow by and whistling sounds contribute to the tension. As they come close to each other, mean scowls on their faces, music suddenly bursts forth. The two men link arms, and the ad finishes with them doing some kind of good old boy dance. The announcer then says, "Would you rather have seen them shoot each other?"
Crossposted at my blog, Corrente.
I had a lucky, fortunate childhood. I was raised by two parents who made enough money to care for me and my sister in a comfortable home located in a blissfully Arcadian setting. Our land was surrounded by a gentle brook on one side, and a stocked fishpond on the other, ensconced within a 300 acre forest. Deer ate on our lawn in the morning, and there were all manner of birds and butterflies in the trees.
So naturally, I spent a lot of time outside when I was young. We built forts and played adventure games in the forest, once I even tried to nurse a garden snake with a nick in its tail back to health with some rubbing alcohol and a band-aid. When I was shipped off to private school in a city, I felt pity for my classmates and their little lawns, and little adventures. Of course, I soon discovered what city living had to offer, putting a lot of grey hair on my folk's heads in the process.
But I never lost the belief that growing up in the country shaped my being, and gave me a respect and concern for life in all its forms. As I've aged, I've also come to believe that my parents made the right choice raising me in the forested wild north. Not only because it gave me a love of life, but because as a child, I had little interest in passive forms of entertainment like TV. Computers were just becoming The Next Big Thing when I was a juvvie, and I feel lucky to have been young during the time before they became the incredibly complex boxes they are today. It wasn't until I was about 13 that spending hours in front of a computer became an interesting thing to do.
When that happened, Dad and I would spend quite a bit of time at night building things. I still remember his first 6800 machine, which he built in a grey metal box and connected to a green screen. When games started to appear, he wanted me to learn about them the old-fashioned way: I was instructed to write my own programs in order to play games. Eventually, I hit puberty in a meaningful way, and despite four years of computer camps in the summers, I lost my ultrageeky interest in programming and moved on to other pursuits. I think if I'd been a bit younger when computers were first getting serious, I'd be a programmer today. Ironically, I ended up doing my graduate work in languages...of the ancient, cuneiform kind.
Now that computers are a way of life, I think a lot about how they have and continue to change our society, and the habits of day to day humanity. The Machine Age has many brilliant highlights, and many pitfalls. It's still not clear where we're going to end up: will we be raised up to the next level of the evolution of consciousness in The Singularity, or incorporated into some kind of Borg? Time will tell, and I'm glad to be alive to see it. But there are two things I truly wish computers had never brought us. One is electronic voting, and the other is the addictive, mind numbing world of immersive near 3-D gaming.
Don't get me wrong: everyone deserves a mind numbing vice. Pot, booze, kinky sex, blogging- I'm not a puritan and I think taking time out of your thinking day is a good and healthy thing to do. If people want to game, I'm as unjudgemental about that as I am for people who want to do something truly unhealthy, like go to church. Just as a couple of hours of ethical mythology a week is not so bad, so too a little gore and violence. If you like watching cars run over people or bombs dropping from the sky onto images of villages, go to it. It's a free country.
But excess of any kind is dangerous, and I believe that for too many, gaming has become an unhealthy addiction. Worse, I think many of the people most addicted to games are young. While it's true that lots and lots of adults buy and play games, it's also true that for many of the younger generation, computer gaming has replaced time honored pastimes like outdoor sports, crafting and reading. Too many kids spend too much time sitting on their asses, getting fat and developing Tunnel-Carpal syndrome, while their brains soften and their moral and intellectual development is stunted.
There are many kinds of games, and not all of them are what I'd call unhealthy. I recently read an article in a computer magazine about the increase in development of "girls" games, which focus on achieving cooperative goals for all the game's characters and employ concepts of mutual benefit and problem solving. There are games that require players to work together to win or score points, and games that call upon history and science as players build worlds and design communities. There are math based games which teach young minds about the wonderful world of math and numbers, and games that take complex problem solving to near graduate school levels. Like anything on a computer, gaming has great potential to augment the human mind and develop its abilities and potential to new heights. I don't really have a problem with these types of games.
But I do have a problem with games that are about violence. I've seen quite a few now, even played a couple for a short time, and I confess to being puzzled and bemused. Yes, I'm a bleeding heart ultraliberal softie who loves puppies and kitties and I cry at the drop of a hat. Sue me. But I will never be convinced that there is anything "good" about a game that involves graphic images of people and things being blown up, shot, run over, raped or bombed. My ethical system teaches me that even if the game involved crowds of pitchfork bearing liberals hunting down the Bush administration and stringing them up tarred and feathered, I shouldn't play or endorse it. Better to choose one that simulated trials at the Hague, where players develop the case for the prosecution.
I have many reasons to be disturbed about the growth of violent gaming. The first is pretty old-fashioned: I think people, especially kids, should be outdoors or reading a book (even the online kind) when they're not in school or work. My folks insisted that I participate in sports at least two out of every three seasons, and I thank them for it today- I have a great body and a real appreciation for sportsmanship and teamwork. I'm also a word junkie- currently I satisfy that habit online, but I've always got two or three books going. When I look at young kids who spend several hours a day playing games on the X-box or online, I feel pity for them. Where is the human contact? Where is the development of young muscles and tissues? Where is the fresh air, and the thrill of accomplishment, real physical triumph? You just can't tell me scoring 100000000 quatloos for killing a thousand enemy images is the same thing.
I also believe that too much gaming for the young teaches all the wrong values about what it means to live in a society. Kids who learn to hide behind a computer persona will have more difficulty interaction with real live human beings in life. It was a hard lesson, but an important one for me to learn as I aged- it takes courage and skill to stick up for yourself and others when you're not pretty, popular or rich. When a young person only interacts with other people through the filter of their online character, they avoid learning that lesson. Human contact is what develops social skills, and it's what teaches people the value and unique qualities of being human. It's not real human contact when your mechwarrior blows up someone else's, that person being a thousand miles away.
Too much gaming also numbs intellectual development. Computer virtual reality is getting more complex every day, and someday we'll be able to "exist" inside an entirely virtual world. But that day isn't here yet. In the meantime, I ask: how many kids are writing their own games? How many kids are building their own X-boxes and learning about programming and hardware from scratch? Some, but not most. Parents who buy kids the latest gaming machines do so because they're "ready to go" and because there are thousands of games already written for them to play.
I've babysat for a couple of families with big boxes, and I am appalled at the degree to which these kids invest their free time in playing. When the game is on, there is no conversation beyond "Hell yeah!" or "Take that, bitch!" The kids aren't thinking about their homework, their families, or any of the mysteries of life other than what's on the screen. For the games my charges liked to play, there didn't seem to be much thinking involved at all- just an increasing series of tests of reflexes in a dizzying barrage of colorful images and sounds. Even though their eyes and fingers were moving, it was clear to me that all but a tiny segment of their brains were standing still. I also noticed that once the game was turned off, it took the kids a few minutes to "unglaze" and become able to interact with me and each other properly. Kind of like after a rock concert when your ears take a few hours to perceive the full range of sound again. I wonder how difficult those kids would find reading a complex passage in a book or tackling a math problem after several hours of computerized car chases.
My most serious concern with gaming has to do with desensitization. There are conflicting academic studies on the subject, but to me it's a no-brainer. A young mind is a formative mind, and it takes in what it perceives like a sponge takes in water. If the water is filled with shit and gore, so eventually will the sponge become shit-soaked. Even if you wring out the sponge, if it sops up too much blood, eventually it becomes stained permanently. This is what I think is happening to many young people who play violent games. I'm not alone- as the Armed Forces of our nation find it harder and harder to fill their ranks to go and die for Bush's pointless and illegal war, they pay software companies to develop "fun" military games, the better to convince kids that getting shot at in real life is cool and desirable.
Violent gaming reminds me of porn. Just like there is "good" porn, not all violent imagery is "bad." I'm no Amish rejecter of all modern culture, and I'll watch a violent or sex-filled movie as often as the next person. But I have a limit, one I'm careful to maintain, and I try to remind myself that while movies are fake, it's always a bad thing to wish for another human being to suffer. Perhaps you remember an old public service ad on MTV. The setting is a classic Western showdown, two tough looking and well armed cowboys are walking slowly toward each other across a desert flat. Tumbleweeds blow by and whistling sounds contribute to the tension. As they come close to each other, mean scowls on their faces, music suddenly bursts forth. The two men link arms, and the ad finishes with them doing some kind of good old boy dance. The announcer then says, "Would you rather have seen them shoot each other?"
I was shocked to realize, as a person who didn't even watch a lot of Westerns (I'm part Cherokee), that I not only expected them to fight, but part of me even wanted it to happen. Why would a pacifist and puppy lover like me feel that way? The answer is conditioning: we're taught to desire a violent conclusion to such a confrontation just as we're taught to want to see the climax "money shot" in porn.
That was over a decade ago, and our culture has evolved from defining "excessive violence" as a bloody Western shoot-out to what we see in gaming today. Popular games today will graphically and vividly portray the demise of the `enemy' with all the blood and gore the video cards can process. Every weapon and device for destruction is available, and programmers include drawn out and complex scenes of destruction as routine parts of a game's progress. Players can take on forms that wreak amounts of havoc formerly relegated to characters like Godzilla. Some games include images of women, shaped like Barbie crossed with Xena, being violently beaten. I avoid online porn, but those familiar with it tell me that there are "games" which allow players to commit all manner of socially unacceptable acts with girls and women; I'm sure these games have a growing following. As we all know, the younger generation has an aptitude with computers that older folks can only boggle at, I have no doubt that many x-rated games and online forums are frequented by children. Increasingly, violent games mix destruction with sexual imagery, and the subculture on and offline that has sprung up around them teaches young people all the wrong lessons about what's healthy and normal.
Obviously, I'm most concerned with young people. In our world where two parents are almost always forced to work outside the home to get by, passive babysitting devices like TV and computers become inevitable. I watched my share of cartoons and R-rated movies when the folks weren't home, and obviously I'm quite the softie. But I think there are serious differences between Road Runner dropping anvils on Coyote once a week, and four hours of anime-style interactive violent gaming per day. The effect on young minds is tangible, not negligible, and combined with other hazards to healthy youth like easily available drugs and fundamentalist religion, I really fear for the next generation.
My father went as far to argue that the Iraq war wouldn't be possible without two things: our complicit media never showing real images of warfare, and our culture of violent movies and gaming. He believes that this generation has been raised to believe that all violence is "unreal" and that dropping bombs on Iraqi villages is just like dropping them on a computer screen. It bothers me to think that he has a strong point.
For those of you reading this who are adult gamers, I'll finish with this: your mind is a precious, wonderful, limitless thing. It's also more fragile than you may realize. Ask any woman- men who consume too much porn are a turn-off. It's one thing to enjoy Rosie Palm and a couple of Playboys, it's entirely another thing to sit in front of a computer screen every night paying distant strange women to fondle themselves in front of a webcam. Guys who need to do that frequently often have real issues with women face to face. So too with violent gaming: it plays upon your animal impulses and conditions you to react to contentious situations with violence instead of thought. Yes, a rational and well balanced person will overcome that impulse, and not reach out with a fist or gun. But we don't call people who use meth daily rational and well balanced. Neither do I call people who enjoy regular doses of violent imagery healthy. The next time you sit down to play-kill someone for a couple of hours, ask yourself what else you could be doing to enrich your mind. Ask yourself why it's "fun" to see images of people suffer and die. Wonder if there are parts of your brain and soul that are wilted by regular violence, and how you feel about that.
Again, let me stress that in moderation, a little naughty behavior is a good thing. Men have told me that gaming allows them to blow off steam, and in Bush's Amurka, I get that. I'm just asking gamers to consider some of what I've talked about above, and to think of the big picture. Slowly but surely, Bush is chipping away at the values and qualities of our civilization, which for a time, was as good or better than anything humanity had accomplished in all of history. We almost became a nation that valued all human life, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or ability. We almost became a nation rich enough to help the poor, educated all its citizens, and teach all its people that they could accomplish anything. Bush is destroying those values, and while he does so, a lot of people who don't want to live in the 13th century are taking a kind of refuge in the virtual world which approximates 13th century values. Bush has an easier time convincing us that we're really a nation of uncaring, violent oppressors and sexist, racist theocrats in part because too many people think too much violence is OK. In some way, great or small, violent gaming is a part of that lesson.