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.