The Violence Games (I. Subjects of Criticism)

First of three parts.

mario goomba stomp

The knee-jerk reaction of gamers to any suggestion of a link between video game violence and actual violence is to strenuously deny that such a link exists–which is basically correct (as most knee-jerk reactions are, their low place in rhetoric notwithstanding). Gamers are rightfully fed up with media-hungry charlatan “experts” like Jack Thompson and Carole Lieberman–not to mention (far more dangerous) political opportunists like Colorado’s Gov. John Hickenlooper and the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre. Or in somewhat more peppery language:

Video games, like rock music in an earlier age, is perfectly suited as a political punching bag for ritual post-disaster “discussion”: basically every young person likes them, but the old fucks that comprise the political class don’t, so it’s a great way for the people who decide basically everything to blame things on the people who decide basically nothing.

This is quoted from my piece on the Newtown mass shooting, the bleak pessimism of which is perhaps offset by the fact that it was entirely accurate.

The increasingly articulate resistance of gamers to America’s perennial morality police is a welcome development, but I don’t think that this exhausts the questions raised by violence in games. As I go on to say in the piece just quoted, “Some games deal with violence intelligently; some decadently; and some without much reflection at all. That all merits scrutiny….” So, let’s scrutinize.

LGR sympathizer Tom A pointed me to a recent Kotaku article by Jason Schreier that surveys a bunch of behavioral research on video game violence. It is fairly clear that there is no direct link between game violence and violent acts; that is, playing a violent game can’t be shown to produce violent behavior. In that sense, gamers’ instincts have always been correct–and the point must be obvious now anyway, as the explosion in gaming over the last 30 years has coincided with a general drop in violent crime (as conventionally recorded; but see below).

On the other hand, credible researchers continue to debate whether violent video games increase the immediate propensity for aggression, a much broader and “softer” category of behavior. For my part, I could easily believe this, in the same sense that sad movies make one sad for a while; or that listening to Obama makes one’s own speech briefly more pedantic. What’s the big deal? Art provokes the emotions, and only an idiot thinks that solely the “positive” emotions ought to be provoked. Even when an artwork is the proximate “inspiration” for a regrettable act–like the young men who imitated Goethe’s Werther in romantic suicide–we don’t say that the work “caused” the act.


Actually, it would beuseful to ask whether violent games can dissipate aggression by allowing someone to “play out” their anger in a harmless fashion. The claim seems common-sensical, and anecdotally even indubitable. What’s more, we know–from our friends the gun-hustlers themselves–that young people’s interest in gun sports is in secular decline, for which video games surely deserve much of the credit. Hence video games have quite likelyreduced the potential for actual violence, inasmuch as a Bushmaster rifle presents a more substantial threat to one’s well-being than a Wiimote.

However. While one can (and I did) reply to the prevalence of violence in video games with something like, “no shit video games are violent, because the world is slathered in violence already,” that’s not quite sufficient. Video game violence, while obviously a reflection of the general culture, also helps to constitute it. So if we dislike how violence permeates our culture–which surely all we leftists do, attitudes to pacifism notwithstanding–then we have to adopt an actively critical attitude to game violence as a particular manifestation thereof.

In this vein, thinking gamers need to call out one of the most execrable trends in the art: the growing collaboration of the gaming industry with the military-industrial complex. This reached a particularly stupi-comic peak with the cameo of “Secretary of Defense” David Petraeus in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2–but as theNew York Times exposed in a December 2012 article, the military, arms manufacturers, and major game developers have formed an unholy trinity for “realistic” product placement in marquee pro-military titles likeMedal of Honor and Call of Duty. It’s a doubly disturbing phenomenon when set against the pronounced rise in “legitimate” violence over the neoliberal period: mass incarceration, “free hand” policing, and constant military interventions abroad.

One might note, in fact, that the biggest tub-thumpers against video game violence always manage to “forget” the chauvinist titles when they want to bash gaming, even though these are precisely the games that might teach somebody concrete violence tactics–courtesy of military and arms industry consultants! Thus LaPierre will rant over Bulletstorm–a manifestly cartoonish farce–and Thompson will howl about Grand Theft Auto IV–an unusually intelligent tragedy. But do you ever see them take the Department of Defense to task for promoting militarism in its favored franchises? To ask the question is to answer it.

[In the next part, I’ll discuss why we enjoy violence in video games.]