Montana Politics

In which I (unsurprisingly) Invalidate Wayne LaPierre and (uncharacteristically ) Endorse a Video Game

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I’ve said before that after a mass shooting is a poor time to talk about gun control, because it focuses the conversation on very non-characteristic crimes, rather than on the very common crimes that claim far more American lives. That said, it’s apparently the only time anyone wants to talk about gun control. So, I apologize for writing homicide yet again, but I’m not talking about guns – I’m talking about video games.

Video games, according to Wayne LaPierre, head of the NRA, are the cause of our gun violence. Strange, no? Especially since many countries with very high video game use (the Netherlands, South Korea) have remarkably low levels of violence.

But hey, maybe its just Americans and our wacky American culture that makes our video games so dangerous. If that were the case, however, the phenomenal rise in video game sales would not have coincided with a phenomenal drop in American homicides.

Americans, however, have never shown themselves to be big fans of data. That’s why Wayne LaPierre didn’t include any. Instead, he listed off some incriminating-sounding titles and described a poorly made game uploaded to Newgrounds.com by a private citizen. The game involves shooting children. It is about as fun of a ‘game’ as a glitchy copy of MS Excel, and I’m not going to mention the name here because it doesn’t deserve the notoriety its already gotten. But I will do the opposite, though it is generally beyond the normal scope of this blog – mention a game that, despite its inherent violence, demonstrates the potential of the gaming industry to contribute to our culture. I promise not to review video games regularly, but if you can make it through my comments on this one you’ll see where I’m going with this.

It would be easy to recommend or defend non-violent game like Portal (and I certainly do). However, recently my wife and I have been playing a great deal of a game called Assassin’s Creed 3. As you might guess from the title, it involves a great deal of killing. But despite the violence in the game, I point to it as an example of the increasing artistic value in video games as a narrative art form for three reasons:

1. Portrayal of Native Americans: The protagonist himself is of the Mohawk tribe, and as an added bonus, he’s voiced by a Native American actor from Montana. Yes, there the old trick of making him half white, repeated innumerable times in movies and literature, but here it is necessary within the game’s framing device, and the writers wisely had the main character raised within his tribe, thus making him culturally Mohawk. The biggest bonus here, though, is the extensive dialogue, re-created as accurately as possible. The seven million people who bought the game will end up hearing more dialogue in a Native language than most of them will hear in any other media.

2. Portrayal of violence: the violence is downright brutal, as it ought to be. Often in movies or literature, the rightness of the protagonist’s cause somehow tones down the violence. Not so here. More interestingly, every major character assassinated in the game posthumously lectures the viewer about their point of view and why their death was unjustified. The killings that thus make up the bulk of the plot are presented as the tragic but inevitable consequence of conflicting worldviews, not the simplistic triumph of good over evil.

3. Correction of history: while historical accuracy is not a chief concern when making a work of historical fiction, this particular game, set during the American revolution, forces the player to rethink deeply rooted notions about how history happened. Ingeniously, the protagonist follows much the same intellectual development as the player, initially supporting the patriot cause and George Washington uncritically. Only later is the cruel historical reality of Washington and America’s destructive actions towards Native Americans revealed. Again, seven million people will walk away from this experience with a far more complete understanding of this country’s founding than they got in any standard history textbook.

In these three ways, this particular game surpasses most narrative media available today. LaPierre and others who vilify the gaming industry as ” callous, corrupt and corrupting” bank on the fact that most voters are not readily familiar with the industry as it exists today. And so, completely without corroborating data, they deflect the problem onto an easy scapegoat. No one is arguing for unrestricted access to video games for children – they are rated for a reason, and parents should not ignore that rating. But attempting to assign blame to one particular form of expression, thus taking advantage of your audience’s unfamiliarity with that medium to ascribe all manner of evil to it, is an exploitative and irrational argument at best.

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  • See http://psp.sagepub.com/content/31/11/1573.short

    Research has shown that exposure to violent video games causes increases in aggression, but the mechanisms of this effect have remained elusive. Also, potential differences in short-term and long-term exposure are not well understood. An initial correlational study shows that video game violence exposure (VVE) is positively correlated with self-reports of aggressive behavior and that this relation is robust to controlling for multiple aspects of personality. A lab experiment showed that individuals low in VVE behave more aggressively after playing a violent video game than after a nonviolent game but that those high in VVE display relatively high levels of aggression regardless of game content. Mediational analyses show that trait hostility, empathy, and hostile perceptions partially account for the VVE effect on aggression. These findings suggest that repeated exposure to video game violence increases aggressive behavior in part via changes in cognitive and personality factors associated with desensitization.

    • And there is this http://www.upi.com/Health_News/2012/12/30/Violent-video-game-aggression-accumulates/UPI-87881356921872/

      People who play violent video games for three straight days become more aggressive and their expectations of hostility in others rise, a U.S. researcher says.

      Study co-author Brad Bushman, professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University, and colleagues, said although other experimental studies have shown that a single session of playing a violent video game raised short-term aggression, this is the first to show longer-term effects.

      “It’s important to know the long-term causal effects of violent video games, because so many young people regularly play these games,” Bushman said in a statement.

      “Playing video games could be compared to smoking cigarettes. A single cigarette won’t cause lung cancer, but smoking over weeks or months or years greatly increases the risk. In the same way, repeated exposure to violent video games may have a cumulative effect on aggression…”

      The study, published online ahead of the print edition of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, showed after each day, those who played the violent games had an increase in their hostile expectations and reacted more aggressively.

      • If these effects are large and cumulative, wouldn’t you expect that with the rise in violent video games would come a rise in youth crime? And yet we observe the opposite. We would expect South Korea and the Netherlands should be exceptionally violent countries, yet they are not. Somewhere the lab results do not directly correlate to real life criminal acts.

          • Is the social fabric also much different here than in the Netherlands, the UK, France and Canada, all of which have higher video game consumption and yet a fraction of our murder rate?

            Social fabric is the key here, but you’re missing the glaring differences between the US and all of those countries – economic inequality, as well as drug policy and practice. I don’t doubt that video games make a person more aggressive as you get more and more into them – but I highly doubt that those increased levels of aggression translate into murder rates. Perhaps someone should do a study of the aggression associated with playing football for an hour, compared to playing soccer, while we’re looking at social fabric.

            Whatever the levels of aggression are in a society, murder rates seem to be more heavily influenced by the economic inequality in the country (which makes sense, as steep inequality leads deeply-rooted resentment, hopelessness, and the development of alternative cultures where violence is a more accepted and even valued personality trait), as well as the prevalence of criminal drug trafficking (because drug dealers kill people).

  • Those at the bottom are more often the perpetrators – and victims – of gun violence. But just as conservative politicians are untouched by cuts to social assistance, they are unaffected by most of the gun crime that has turned the United States into a kind of war zone for the poor. The Globe and Mail

  • From “polymic” eight months ago.

    “Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian man currently on trial for the terrorist attack that resulted in the death of 77 people on July 22, 2011, in Norway, admitted to playing violent video games like Modern Warfare to plan for the killings.”

    • ” Modern Warfare to plan for the killings.”

      He also practiced shooting, you know, actual guns. If playing Modern Warfare is such effective combat training that playing it is more significant than actually firing weapons, then the army can cut out basic altogether and just recruit their Special Forces out of suburban basements. That might help with the DoD cuts we discussed earlier.

      • Without a “plan” he wouldn’t have been able to isolate his 77 victims.

        Planning was a more important factor in his mission. If you’d played Modern Warfare you’d notice that they simulate the reloading functions of several weapons along with aiming and hiding/cover/ambush strategies.

        Then there’s Norway’s strict gun control. From Huffpo.

        “Those who believe tighter gun laws are necessary acknowledge they are no panacea. Norway has strict gun controls, but Anders Behring Breivik shot 69 people dead in July 2011 with a pistol and a rifle he acquired legally by joining a shooting club and taking a hunting course.”

        • ” If you’d played Modern Warfare you’d notice that they simulate the reloading functions of several weapons along with aiming and hiding/cover/ambush strategies.”

          I’ve played more than my share of Modern Warfare, and here’s the thing – there’s nothing in the game anything like the circumstances of shooting up an island of unarmed teenagers. COD4:MW is a cover based shooter, meaning that the most important thing to remember is that there are always bullets flying at you, and so the game trains you to be forever in cover. There were very few shots fired at Anders Breivik, and so its hard to see how COD helped him plan his shooting.

          I can see how a game of that nature would be helpful to someone who is totally ignorant of firearms – the down the sights shooting mechanic familiarizes a person with the iron sights of a variety of weapons, and could give an idea of what kind of re-loading times should be expected and planned for (though in COD reloading is always performed at optimal speed, somewhat unlikely in real life).

          However, if a person is using a video game to train for some shooting event, why would they buy a commercial one when the Army has made freely available a much more accurate combat simulator for free?

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/America%27s_Army

          In the end, a person actually trying to prepare for using a gun in combat is far better served familiarizing themselves with their weapon at a legal firing range (which both Breivik and Lanza did) and using specially designed simulation software. Again, if commercially marketed games were such good tools for planning and training for combat, the army would use them.

          • Interesting. Did the fact that you’re game player offend you when these traits were discovered?

            Welcome to the party. I own assault weapons.

            • I think we do have that in common, Ingy – both of us are arguing against alleged causes of our high rates of murder that are constitutionally questionable and statistically unsupported, but politically popular.

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