Do Violent Video Games Actually Teach Us to be Peace-loving?

It’s fashionable at the moment to present the world as diving into chaos and to claim we are suffering ever-reducing personal standards and that, as a result, governments should legislate away every last bit of free will in the misguided theory that to do so means all their new rules will be followed without question. ‘The War on Terror’ is an archetypal example, a presumption by which the result is that we will be decades mopping up the mess. And Australia has its own very enlightening example in the case of Dr. Haneef, whose mere association by DNA to alleged terrorists denied him the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. Laws exist to deal with wrongdoing, but when hysterical allegations are made and new laws are put into effect as a result, the consequence is mass hysteria on all sides of every issue. One example, which may seem innocuous are the new gaming laws.

Whenever a new cultural medium is created, there are always detractors who take steps to curtail this new thing. When the printing press made it possible for Martin Luther to affordably publish pamphlets condemning the Church, people blamed that medium for bringing evil thoughts and information to the masses. These days, more cultural mediums are being invented faster than ever before, and as a result, so are more critics. Video games are coming to full maturity in that they can now start to credibly emulate reality. This makes for fertile ground where these critics and all others do begin to speculate what aspects of reality should be emulated.

As a result, computer gaming has come under attack and to some of us, computer video gaming is beloved. Currently, our ‘beloved’ is being targeted as having at least partial responsibility for the tragic events of mass shootings, even though the links are tenuous at best. Before it became fashionable to blame gaming, we had violent movies as the culprit, and before violent films, it was violent music lyrics. Even as far back as the sixties, poor old Superman’s black-and-white TV program was attacked because kids would, “don a cape and jump off the wood shed.” Happily, at least the smarter among us resisted the temptation and survived Superman.

It’s the role of children to experiment with the ‘newfangled’, and the role of parents to limit their adventures to what they know to be safe. That leaves a wide gap in between of things parents don’t know that turn out to be not only survivable, but very possibly good for mankind. Such is the case with war video games.

War games are played by any number of people who exhibit any number of psychological profiles from meek to psychotic. Despite that, most non-gamers are not aware that when it comes to real wars ─ the kind that get human beings killed, not the kind that rack up or subtract gaming scores ─ an impressive portion of war gamers are anti- war.

It’s a logical result too. During a war video game, it’s downright inconvenient to get killed in a scenario. Even though one can get back into a game (sometimes), one has to ‘travel’ to where the action is before one can continue. Those who game know this is difficult and tiresome. It’s even more so in multiplayer games when one plays with a team. In most cases, one needs the full team to be able to achieve the objective. This is as fundamental to gaming as keeping one’s lines of supply open. So the first thing a gamer learns is, it’s better to keep as many people alive as possible. Especially one’s self.

Moreover, a game based in modern times, such as the game, Battlefield, puts a gamer in a real world situation. One sees the difficulties faced by all sides, and rapidly begins to appreciate the futility of war. Struggles, such as the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan lead to the realisation that negotiation is the only way to cut through the killing, and bring these conflicts to a halt. As a result, one learns that the ebb and flow on the battlefield is unsustainable. Games are also criticised because one can play on “the bad guys” team, and therefore make the gamer cheer for the ‘wrong’ side. But that’s the whole point ─ once one starts looking at a problem from more than one viewpoint, we are that much closer to a solution to a conflict.

Rather than brainwashing a gamer into a new set of violent morals, good war video games offer the gamer the opportunity to exercise one’s own sense of fair play. In Sid Meir’s Colonization, which came out in the early 1990’s, one was able to indulge oneself by supporting the natives against the Spanish, who historically had treated those natives poorly. The game was designed in such a way that the operator was able to sell guns to the poor tribes living near Spanish settlements. When I played the game this way, the natives ran out of money, so I started giving them weapons to give them a fighting chance. It certainly didn’t help them to win the game overall, but it provided me with a great deal of satisfaction. Rather than teach me to play by the designers’ code of ethics, I was able to exercise my own moral standard.

Then there were a few games with the basis being that the gamer was an undercover agent. When it came to play testing, the developers found some of the testers couldn’t shoot a wounded colleague, even though the game required it for players to advance in the game. It’s heartening that this aspect of the game challenge was an insurmountable obstacle for some game testers, and certainly proves the point that gamers do not become ‘bloodthirsty’ simply by playing.

One might argue that some gamers get into an almost trancelike state, playing to win at all costs. It’s true that all gamers have played against other gamers who seem so locked into a game that they are unaware of what is happening around them. But even these more absorbed players know when a game is over. They don’t head home in “road rage” mode, or even own a gun necessarily. They are just people who use gaming as an escape and play hard for a win, which is a character trait much appreciated on both the football field and in the boardroom.

No one here is going to argue that regulations need to exist to restrict certain types of game content from being played by children. But adult games can aide adults in many ways when they are put into the right framework.

Ultimately the most valuable, and possibly considered by some to be the most dangerous aspect of gaming is immersion. And that’s because immersion into a medium has the potential to teach us to think differently, it has the power to let us come to terms with our fears and hatreds or confront another’s. An immersive game can show us poignant morals, instruct us to keep a cool head in a stressful situation, teaches recruitment and cultural ethics and can show us the value of things beyond their monetary worth – as long as there’s sufficient context within the game to showcase those things. In such a game violence is something that is used sparingly, and rightfully so. And maybe, for many government regulators, that’s the real danger of war video games ─ that they may cause human beings to develop their intellect enough that the games can replace the desire for actual war.

That’s why to outright condemn violence in video games is to ignore its significance in our lives and history. The best and worst moments of our cultural evolution go hand-in-hand with our most violent times, and to ignore that is to spurn the lessons of the past. Video games can help us explore these moments, but they can also allow us to explore new concepts and ideas more thoroughly before they come to pass bringing about a brighter future.

Like anything there are good and bad aspects to video games, just as good and bad have come from violence, sometimes simultaneously, but to ban tools such as violence from a game designer’s arsenal, is like banning the colour red from an artist’s palette and invites us to return to a time of fear and ignorance when burning books was accepted.

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