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Gamers and Weapons: Ask Dr. Mark

Mark J. Kline | 3 May 2013 16:00
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Dear Dr. Mark

I wonder if there is any correlation between videogaming and interest in weapons.
Recently, my son's guidance counselor reported that some kids were bringing knives to school (and getting into trouble for it). My son thinks these kids are fascinated with all sorts of weapons and many are serious FPS gamers.

Is there reason to be worried about the potential of gaming to inspire more widespread interest in weapons, especially in the current climate?

Videogaming is fantasy play that uses technology to "realize" all sorts of constructs. In many games, killing and weaponry are central components. In some games, this is rendered in a more cartoonish/fantastic way, while in others, realistic images of weapons and the killing process are central. We also know that games have a special ability to get into players' heads, affecting not only the content of their thoughts (through rehearsal of game play and theorycrafting), but also behavior in the real world (including choices about how to dress, how much time is devoted to game play and socializing through gaming).

I usually think of these issues as they affect the potential for habitual and maladaptive gaming that stunts or shuts down a person's real life. Your question raises another issue: Could some gamers feel compelled to take fantasy play into the real world by acquiring weapons that are so fascinating and effective within the game? If someone does this, what might it mean? Is it a way of extending a psychological attachment to a game component, a way to feel more potent or empowered, or could it indicate some other desire to have a more palpable relationship with game? Are gamers who choose to own weapons more or less likely to do this in a safe and responsible fashion, compared to others? Or, as you indicate, is this simply a correlation--people who are interested in weapons also happen to be interested in videogames that portray them.

These are difficult questions to answer and further research is indicated. As we know, there is a tendency to assume videogames somehow create a potential for violent outbursts. This has always seemed facile to me, and my personal experience of gamers tells me that most are not inherently violent or threatening in the real world. I have often wondered if gaming could provide a pacifying displacement for aggressive tendencies and thereby decrease the potential for violence in some players.

As I tried to understand this phenomenon, I came upon a very interesting article on eurogamer.net by Simon Parkin. This article suggests that gun manufacturers and some game companies may actually be in business together to promote a fascination with weapons among young children. Depending on your perspective, this might be akin to tobacco companies marketing cigarettes to kids through television and cartoon ads, a popular practice in the 1960s (I still remember many of their catchy jingles) which is now prohibited. If you agree that more kids being fascinated with weapons is a bad thing, you might accept this analogy. If you think these interests more often lead to safe and responsible use, you'd probably disagree.

In either case, it's clear that marketers recognize the power of product placement in popular videogames. While you can see James Bond shoot a gun in Skyfall, you can "actually" use the gun in a videogame, or take a virtual test drive in a car, plane or tank. Advertisers are apparently eager to promote such virtual usage experiences.

But this kind of seeding is sown into the fertile ground of who we are. Many parents prohibit their children from playing with guns and weapons, only to find them using sticks, fingers, and other phallic implements in their imaginative play. If it's in our nature to be fascinated with violence and weapons, are videogame companies and gun manufacturers really to blame for pushing those buttons for their own profit?

I don't have the answers to these questions, but I'm sure that those suspicious of the role videogaming might play in real world violence would be greatly alarmed by any research that showed gamers were more likely than others to acquire actual weapons.

All of this simply confirms what I have felt about technology, the internet, and gaming for a long time. These innovations have the potential to accentuate all our basic human tendencies. Some technology applications may tap into our violent and sexual inclinations, while others may offer us the chance to make meaningful connections and collaborate. Others may tap our capacity to be fascinated, stimulated, and endlessly entertained.

Gaming does not take place in a vacuum. As gamers, we should think about how our hobby affects us and those around us. Perhaps this should include becoming more aware of what games might want to make us become, what they are trying to sell us, what they want of us. Personally, I choose games that stretch my imagination and challenge my (fairly limited) strategic and tactical skills, but not those which glorify weapons and killing. If you choose the latter, and your interest in weaponry grows, I hope you will be able to keep this out of the real world, or accommodate it in the safest and most responsible way possible.

Dr. Mark Kline is Clinical Director of HRS, Inc, a non-profit community mental health center in Wellesley, MA. Have a question for Dr. Mark? Send it to askdrmark@escapistmag.com. Your identity will remain confidential.

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