The blog Bruce On Games has a recent post dealing with that perennially popular topic: violence and video games. Bruce makes the claim that “established old media have vastly more shocking content than video games. This is an irrefutable fact.” He then supports this by using an online service that lets users search for particular words in the Bible. He found that the King James version has “harlot” in it 48 times, “sodomite” 5 times, “fornicator” 5 times, “smite” 133 times, “kill” 208 times and “maim” 7 times. This proves, I suppose he’s saying, that the Bible is more violent than (or at least as violent as) any videogame. His conclusion is that all media should be age rated based on the same standards.
While I agree with Bruce that all media have violence, I don’t think all media violence has the same effect. Johnny Got His Gun does not have the same effect (promote the same values) as Call of Duty 4. Reading the word murder is not the same as watching a murder in a movie, which is not the same as committing murder in Super Mario Brothers, which is not the same as bludgeoning someone to death in Manhunt. These are very different expressions of the same act and non-gamers are not going to seriously consider arguments that they produce an equal effect on people.
In the Values At Play project we’re trying to look at how values can be expressed through video games, and the potential to teach empathy through assuming character roles is one of the most exciting possibilities for future game development. As game proponents, however, we cannot say games have a unique ability to teach by giving users agency and then also say games should be judged by the same standards as all other media. Games are different, that’s why they’re so exciting.
All this, of course, is not to endorse discrimination against games, or censorship, or heap scorn upon videogame violence. I don’t think videogame violence opponents are only videogame critics, I would imagine this is the same crowd that picketed with Tipper Gore for music ratings and cheered for the V Chip. Telling this crowd “The Bible is violent,” while true, is simply not going to win any converts. Instead, I think it needs to be emphasized that violent videogames are but one segment of the market. And we need more games that use violence in thoughtful ways to critique violence. Catch 22 is dark and violent, so is Schindler’s List. But these works are obvious commentaries, not pure titillation.
The best way to silence the videogame violence critics is simply to mature the medium and diversify its offerings. This is happening; games like Bioshock and Mass Effect are filled with moral ambiguity. We just need more games like this. And also, let’s not forget that our society is conservative and always has been. It is slow to adopt new norms and adjust to progressing sensibilities. Look at a list of books that have been banned over the years and later heralded as masterpieces (Ulysses to name one). Half a century ago comic books were the scourge of the earth; today videogames get a bum rap. A decade from now videogame violence will sell life insurance and something new will be shocking. This is “progress.”