Inside Job: Censorship and You

Sometimes, despite being a member of one of the most lucrative new industries in the world, I still feel like a member of a secret society, or, indeed, an underground movement. The evidence for the power and potential of videogames is around me every day, and yet in the mainstream media sphere I hear nothing but cries of the impending apocalypse through youth violence and the downfall of modern society via videogames.

The Virginia Tech shooting, in addition to being a tragedy that impacted close friends and the videogame community directly, provided a chilling Twilight Zone moment; rather than speculating on Cho Seung-Hui’s many psychological troubles, before his name was even released, media commentators were buzzing about videogames. They were judge, jury and executioner on the dangers of videogames to college-aged youth – and when the truth came out that Seung-Hui didn’t even own a single game, it all vanished like morning fog; no one spoke of it again. Not of the mistake. Not of the poisonous misconception. Not of the hypocrisy. No one apologized.

For a nation drenched in grief this was not surprising – we had other things on our minds. But as the events cooled, those moments of madness stuck with me.

Youth violence experts track a number of correlating factors in rampage shooters. Distance from peers, suicidal depression, fixation on news reports of real-world homicide. Only with Columbine did the videogame issue arise, even though, like 16 other shooters studied by Dr. James McGee for his landmark work “The Classroom Avenger” (PDF), they showed textbook signs in every other dimension of teenage vengeance shooter behavior. And now with Robert Hawkins, in another time of shock and grief, they are already at it again.

This is a very real quality of life issue. It is a quality of life issue that I exist in a world where my profession is slandered every day in the mainstream media, where parents have to duck their heads out of admitting that they work on games, where we all have to live with the bizarre internal contradiction that Halo is fun and CSI is appalling, but one is the target of attempted censorship and the other is one of the most-watched television shows in America. Videogames have a massive public relations problem that really hasn’t been addressed, can’t be addressed, by those who stand to profit directly through game sales – the media too quickly calls their motives under question. It must be fought from the ground, by the gamers and for the gamers. I’m talking to all of you.

Others, even here at The Escapist, have argued in favor of awareness of these issues and offered a variety of solutions for them. But this month I am looking at the game censorship debate and offering, for your approval, the argument for why it is critically important that we initiate a positive, rational videogame PR movement, and why there is no better time than right now.

Here’s how we do it.

The Voices of Reason
There are voices of reason on our side, and we need to support them more. One of them, Dr. Helen Smith, referenced in Gerard Jones’s Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super-Heroes, and Make Believe Violence – which is an absolute must-read for anyone who cares about videogames, and I do in dead seriousness want all of you to go out and buy it right now – keeps a blog where she discusses real work on fighting and understanding youth violence. We need to be talking more about Helen Smith and less about Jack Thompson.

Some of the heroes come from within the cultural analysts, and they’ve been doing fantastic work for a good long time. James Paul Gee has been fighting for us for a long time, and he thought he was just furthering education! Jones references Gee – as most media culture analysts looking for a game scholar do – heavily, and we all should as well.

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The other author you really want and need to read is Stephen Johnson, and specifically Everything Bad is Good for You. He is tremendously readable and yet another source of outside-the-industry clear-headedness and forward thinking. I had to fight the temptation to just fill this column entirely with quotes from Jones, Gee, Smith and Johnson.

It is up to those who love videogames and understand that interactive media is the wave of the future to educate themselves and seriously, calmly engage the public on behalf of the medium, not just because disinformation is wrong, but because while we are distracted by politicians and pundits harping on videogames, real issues of human suffering are going unaddressed. This negligence is criminal, but we fight it with a steady application of calm truth.

The Facts
So what are the key facts that we need to have at our fingertips?

  • “ORLY?”: If videogames make you violent, shouldn’t violence have increased in the last 10 years, during the rise of game popularity? Isn’t that just common sense? And yet, conversely, crime has phenomenally decreased over the last decade and a half. We should ask ourselves: If we’re getting safer (PDF), why are we more afraid? Who is this culture of fear serving?
  • Most popular games aren’t violent. Of the top 10 bestselling console games of all time, two involved violence, and both were Grand Theft Auto titles. In fact, if we were to look at the top 20 console games of all time and judge by their popularity what the majority of gamers like, it would be plumbing, racing cars and befriending small, furry creatures. We’re a lovable bunch.
  • The American Psychiatric Association reviewed videogame addiction in 2007 and does not identify it as a mental disorder, and believes that it cannot possess enough data to do so until 2012 at earliest. The experts say the jury is still out on game addiction.
  • The media has a tendency to wildly exaggerate connections in psychological studies between media violence and aggression. “Excitation states” become “proof of aggression” and “well known facts.” The most commonly referenced study still used by personal agenda anti-game activists today was a single paper written by an undergraduate at a single institution. Scores of other studies have been unable to find a causal link between videogames and real aggression.
  • Actual aggression makes you lose in most games, meaning you have to keep a cool head to win one. Because of the motor skills and cognitive function necessary to navigate through a game – most of which, even in “violent” games, is spent in land traversal, AI social interaction or questing – if you actually got adrenaline-angry, you’d screw up, lose the game and get bored. Most gamers actually have phenomenal patience.
  • Last and most importantly, games are helping people. From stroke victims to kids with cancer to childhood obesity to plain old pain relief, games are being used socially and medically in phenomenally exciting new ways. Games are being considered by educators as possibly “the most powerful learning technology of our age.”

E Pluribus, Unum
The gaming community as a whole, developers and gamers, owes it to themselves and their livelihoods to get serious about how the mainstream views videogames. We have the power to take responsibility for the grassroots spread of information. We can’t afford to sit by and let even our own motivated media do this work – independent journalists today have enough to do. And if the whole media has these widespread issues, pushing against that tide isn’t going to work. Initiating change is as simple as getting excited about the potential of this amazing medium and telling your family about it this holiday season. We don’t call people names; we just give them the truth.

The danger is real. Not that they’re going to “zomg take away our gamez0rz,” because videogames can’t be stopped. But for every incorrect assumption, for every doctor who thinks videogames are the enemy, for every politician who gets away with pandering for votes by attacking a straw man, a little bit of the potential goes out of the world. That’s one more doctor who won’t think about how games can help a scared child enter surgery (PDF). That’s one more politician who won’t engage with real issues. This is a quality of life crisis, not just for game developers or the little game industry microcosm in which we dwell but for the world and for the future.

It’s time for common sense and a positive, unified message.

Erin Hoffman is a professional game designer, freelance writer, and hobbyist troublemaker. She moderates and fights crime on the streets by night.

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