Choices: The Video Game Violence Debate

Young people play video games at the 2011 premiere of "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3" in Los Angeles. (CNS photo/Gene Blevins, Reuters)
Young people play video games at the 2011 premiere of “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3” in Los Angeles. (CNS photo/Gene Blevins, Reuters)
This has been a big week for video game fans. Crowds flocked to retailers Monday night, eagerly awaiting the midnight launch of Grand Theft Auto V, the latest in Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto series. The game, which cost a record-breaking $265 million to develop, has already more than made up its budget in pre-order sales alone. But while for some the promise of this new game has been like the thrilling countdown as the ball drops on New Year’s Eve, for me it feels more like a time bomb waiting to burst. That’s because, as a video game junkie myself, I dread the storm that is inevitably coming in the wake of GTA V — the onslaught of the question, “Do violent video games inspire real-life violence?”

Before we discuss this topic, I would appreciate if you allow me a quick aside, an opportunity to explain to you where I’m coming from. First of all, as I haven’t played GTA V, that game is clearly off the table. Same deal for anything else I haven’t played — I’m not going to pass judgment on a game that I haven’t personally experienced. Next up, my aim is to clarify some of the issues that tend to come between the people that typically attack video games and the people who typically defend them.

The question of video games inspiring real-life violence usually addresses inappropriate violent content in video games, which in turn breaks down into three basic categories: modifications (or mods for short), gore, and violence/immoral activity.

I’m tackling mods first because they’re the most misunderstood, easiest to dismiss, and (often) most controversial problem with video games that make it into the news. One of the more infamous mods of late is Grand Theft Auto San Andreas’s “Hot Coffee” mod, which allowed players to get involved in a mini-game involving sex acts where the game typically cut away to imply sexual activity. In basic terms, a mod is an alteration made by the players that changes the game in a way that was not originally intended to be a part of the game experience. Mods are user-generated content that players choose to add into the game. The “Hot Coffee” mod is akin to taking a PG-13 movie’s implied “sex scene,” and instead inserting a clip of pornography where the movie previously had faded to black.

A more infamous (and more on-topic) mod is the video game map of Columbine High School created by school shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. While the map was created using elements from then-popular first-person shooter Doom, the level was of Harris’s own invention. It came from his mind, and merely used the game’s textures and models as building blocks, disconnected from Doom itself. I’m not defending Harris, nor am I implying that Doom was not used as a foundation for the mock-up high school; what I am saying is that, were Doom not invented or accessible to Harris, there’s no saying that he wouldn’t have still built some sort of map of the school building, either using the pieces of a different game (even a less violent one) or with a simple pen and paper. The fault here is with the individual who built the map, not with the game that served as the drawing pad for it.

Many believe that excessive blood and gore in a violent video game will desensitize players and make them treat real-life injury and harm with little or no regard. I don’t disagree with this entirely — I myself am not particularly a fan of games that are too gory — but that’s why I tend to utilize gore filters when playing games like that. A gore filter is exactly what it sounds like: an in-game switch, essentially, that allows the player to turn off (or lessen) the amount of blood displayed in the game. Many games come with this feature, and in my experience it has made bloodier titles like the Gears of War and Borderlands series much more tolerable. It should be noted that this option is a choice. One must go into the options menu and turn the filter on.

Violence and Immoral Actions
At last, we come to the big one — violence and immoral content in games. Many video games fall under fire for “allowing” players to be heinously violent or commit immoral acts. While this is true in that open world games (video games where the player is given the game’s whole world to inhabit and explore as he or she chooses) give players the freedom to do what they want, it would be unfair to imply that all games encourage such behavior. In fact, games like Crackdown or L.A. Noire punish players for harming innocent civilians. Moreover, some games (like Bioshock or the Fable and Mass Effect series) offer up entirely different story endings and character interactions based on how the player’s moral choices affect the game world.

Choice really is an important factor when determining just how violent a video game truly is. The level of violence and immorality often is merely a reflection of the player’s decisions. Sure, there are games that give players the ability to shoot up random passersby on the street, but I don’t know of a single one that forces you to do something like that, with the exception of the “No Russian” level in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (which I do agree is disturbing and unnecessary — and the game offers players the option to skip past it.) Often, the most violent or inappropriate content in video games is that which reflects our own choices back at us: the moments that show us who we have chosen to let our characters (and by extension ourselves) become.

In the end, that is the most important part of the video game violence debate — choice. It’s what the whole issue boils down to, really. From the world of the game to the world we live in, choice is what determines whether or not video games “inspire” real-life violence. Almost every excessively violent and ill-directed action in a game is the player’s decision.

Moreover, practically every game that gets discussed in regard to being overly violent or inappropriate is rated “M” for “Mature” — the video game equivalent of an “R” rating in movies. Just as with an R-rated movie, retailers are required to check ID when purchasing an M-rated game, so if the buyer is not at least 17, parental supervision/approval is required. You wouldn’t allow a child to go see a Quentin Tarantino film (and if you did, you wouldn’t say it was Tarantino’s fault that the kid was exposed to his brand of over the top, bloody violence) so why should it be any different with a game?

But it’s not fair to just say that it’s the fault of the parents, either. As this article from popular video game webcomic Penny Arcade suggests, there are some people in this world, video game players or not, who simply don’t think like the rest of us, who struggle with mental health issues that would have exhibited themselves with or without the presence of games. Violence is violence — the world had it long before video games, and it’ll still be here after.