Monday, November 21, 2005

Kill your friends and steal their weapons

Are the controversies surrounding videogames a cause for concern?

Ok, so I deviated from my promised topic last fortnight; a few days ago a friend who doesn’t play videogames asked me if the controversies surrounding videogames had any substance. Considering this is a question in the mind of most parents, I thought I’d answer the question from a gamers’ point of view.

While playing computer and console games in India is still picking up as a hobby, it’s already gotten into a fair bit of trouble in America and Europe, because of the content of today’s games. These days, you’ll have a hard time finding a PC or console blockbuster that doesn’t involve shooting people, driving at breakneck speeds, violent destruction of property and even stealing for acquiring better items - all this peppered with a copious amount of blood and gore. Sure, there are a fair amount of new games that are non-violent and peaceful, but why don’t they sell in numbers even remotely close to the other more ‘hardcore’ games? On the other hand, why are politicians in America and Europe fighting hard to censor game content? Why has gaming been blamed for certain instances of violent crime in America?

The answer could lie in a combination of two things: understanding youth psychology and acknowledging the fact that acceptance of new entertainment media involves completely different hooks. What appeals to 15-year-olds probably won’t appeal to 24-year-olds and vice versa – just like the effects of disturbing visuals will also be completely different depending on the age group. Can you imagine a videogame that lets players steal cars, drive fast, shoot mobsters, avoid police, pickup prostitutes, have sex and then kill them to get their money back? There is such a game called Grand Theft Auto III, which has been at the heart of the controversies worldwide, and has been strongly condemned by parents' groups, psychologists, religious organizations and politicians.

The ‘videogame’ culture or ‘MTV culture’ (as its been called by people who haven’t experienced the culture) has had its share of ups and downs in the world’s media, most of it being blown out of proportion by people who don’t understand the fundamental “bottom line” followed by older gamers: playing games is for fun and does not reflect what you will do in real life.

On the other hand, Lt. Col. David Grossman, a former psychology professor, has written several books that pertain to the subject of violence in the media, including On Killing and Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill.

He has repeatedly used the term "murder simulator" to describe first-person shooter games, and has argued that video games unethically train children in the use of weapons and, more importantly, harden them emotionally to the act of murder by simulating the killing of hundreds or thousands of opponents in a single typical video game.

Video games publishers and more importantly, youth who play video games and are active in voicing their opinions on this subject have dismissed his findings as “skewed’ and “unrealistic”. To me, there’s truth at both ends; just like most media and entertainment have an effect on our psyches – it all depends on how well we take it. Just because you see a movie that portrays violence and crime doesn’t mean that you’ll go out tomorrow and attempt to duplicate it. The same rule applies to games - just because you play a violent game that involves blowing up people with a rocket launcher doesn’t mean you’ll want to do it in real life.

For the past decade, video game violence critics have generally agreed that violent video games are at least as bad an influence on children as are television shows with the same level of violence and cruelty, and most now seem to believe that video games are more threatening to a child's well-being, because the video game player uses the controller to make an on screen character act out the violence personally. It was widely reported that the killers in the Columbine High School massacre in America were, like many teenagers, fans of first-person shooter games. They had recorded a videotape before the massacre in which they said they looked forward to using their shotguns just as in the game Doom.

Some psychologists and parents' groups have criticised video games because they believe they cause children to sit alone in the television/computer room for many hours in a row, interacting with a machine rather than running and playing outside as they exercise and improve their social skills by playing with other children.

Many respond that video games can enhance children's social interaction because many video games are multiplayer games, where two or four players can have fun competing on the same television screen, and that if a child is isolated and antisocial, this is not the fault of video games, but perhaps of the child's inborn disposition, or perhaps of the parents' lack of attention to making sure their child has enough opportunities for social interaction with other children. Additionally, with the advent of online video gaming, it is not difficult for children to find others to play with, although these experiences are often anonymous.

Anyway, the controversies surrounding videogames haven’t stopped, and led to the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) in America, which employs an age-based ratings system for all videogames, similar to movie ratings. So now parents can judge whether a videogame is suitable for their kids, and kids know which games they should buy because of the violence and gore. So games like Quake 4, Doom 3, Grand Theft Auto and a few others are rated 18+ - but just like the world’s been struggling to keep pornography and violence on television out of the reach of children and failing, games haven’t been very different. In India, where the most popular “officially sold” games are sports titles like Cricket and Football, it might seem that there isn’t much to worry about. Or is there? The ESRB ratings system for videogames doesn’t apply here; hence kids can happily walk off with exceptionally violent and gory games from large department stores across the country, all officially. Of course, this doesn’t even come close to the humungous amount of pirated games sold here to anyone and everyone, irrespective of content.

Have you walked into a cyber cafĂ© in Mumbai or Pune recently? Or even in one in Panjim? If it’s a popular one (like the one near Campal), most of the PCs will be packed with 15-20 year olds playing a game called Counter-Strike, which involves teams of terrorists and counter-terrorists playing simultaneously on the computer network, killing each other and blowing up areas using dynamite. Judging from the loud sounds of mirth, vocal camaraderie and insults, you can tell they’re having fun, for the sake of fun.

Which is what it all boils down to: Fun. Videogames can be entertaining, enable learning, improve hand-eye coordination and in this day of gaming championships and virtual economies, even earn you money. But they are played primarily because of the sheer joy one gets in playing as a team, or casting amazing magic spells or driving at breakneck speeds. Sure, there should be some discretion when introducing children to games that are meant for mature audiences. But the end of the day, all you have to do is remember that it’s all virtual, and reality is a completely different game.

In case you’d like to read more about the subject, take a look at: