Erin Hoffman's Inside Job

Inside Job: Voices of Sanity: An Interview With Gerard Jones


In the ongoing battle for diversity, stability and outreach in the game industry, all as necessary components for true quality of life, I have frequently cited Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super-Heroes, and Make Believe Violence. For this pre-holiday-madness edition of Inside Job, I had the fantastic opportunity to interview Jones himself on the issues of game censorship, parental concerns, the social context of the videogame censorship battle and more.

Jones has long been an advocate for listening to kids and considering their interests and opinions. Prior to writing Killing Monsters – whose 10th chapter, “Shooters,” should be mandatory reading in any course covering videogame ethics – Jones had little experience with game development, but since the book’s remarkable reception he is a frequent invitee at industry conferences and a respected writer on media issues.

Erin Hoffman: To start us off, what response have parents had to Killing Monsters, interacting with you personally?

Gerard Jones: The response has been almost universally positive. Glowing, even. Maybe it’s just that people who don’t like what I’m saying don’t bother to contact me personally, but nearly every first-hand response from a parent has been supportive and even grateful. Some thank me for validating their own parenting instincts, others (and these are the ones that really make me glad I wrote it) thank me for changing their minds. Most parents really want to trust their kids’ inclinations and relationship with their culture, with good reason – but there are so many people invested in frightening parents that it’s hard for them to cut through it all without support.

EH: Support is definitely something we need to work on; it tends to be sporadic and quiet, whereas the criticisms levied against various media are unceasing. The latest vogue in criticizing videogames is to dismiss or forget previous predictions and allege that now that videogames are becoming more realistic, there is more potential for lasting mental harm – that photorealism puts them in a different (and new and scary) category. What are your thoughts on this, and have you had any further development on the theory that people are less likely to emulate a videogame character than a movie character because they are already directly experiencing the former while the latter is romanticized?

GJ: This is a classic pattern in media alarmism. Every prediction of social disintegration proves to be untrue, but each new medium or entertainment form is viewed as unprecedented and therefore not bound by the old (disproven) predictions. Popular novels were attacked as social dangers in the mid-19th century, but by the late 19th century you have critics saying, “These so-called ‘comic strips’ aren’t like the wholesome popular novels of our youth, which did so much to encourage literacy.” Movies were attacked because drawing young people indoors to stare at a screen was deemed unwholesome; later on TV and comic books were attacked because they isolate viewers and readers rather than enabling them to experience powerful images in the healthy, communal context of a movie theater.

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A more recent and more pointed example: Most criticisms of TV violence in the ’60s argued that showing people killed and injured had a traumatizing effect on kids; networks and producers responded with the cleaned-up action of the ’70s, when Wile E. Coyote was never shown actually hitting the ground and exploding grenades would only send the A Team rolling unhurt through the dust. Immediately, the anti-violence critics (often including the same individuals) began arguing that the most harmful TV violence is the kind that suggests that there are no real consequences – in other words, the very stuff that they’d been encouraging. But once the more explicit consequences of violence found their way back into TV, then we’re told again that seeing blood and death is the problem. The argument changes like a reverse chameleon, so that it always stands in contrast to what’s out there. It seems as though the initial impulse is to be alarmed about the media, after which the object of alarm is found and the argument is reverse-engineered into being.

Interestingly, this is also a classic addictive pattern. The addict’s old rationalizations for acting out break down, so new rationalizations are created to keep the addict in the same relationship to the desired object. Someone tells himself he drinks because he’s broke, then he gets a lot of money – but he doesn’t quit drinking, he just rejiggers the excuse for drinking to match his new circumstances. Suddenly he says he drinks because of the pressures of having money. Addicts will continue to respond to stimuli in the same way, even when they see repeatedly that their response hasn’t worked. I think there is a compulsive quality to these attacks on media violence that has a great deal to do with an obsession with violence and a discomfort with one’s own obsession.

I haven’t seen any evidence whatsoever that greater “realism” has any effect on a viewer. And the argument against realism didn’t exist until the earlier predictions about games had all fallen short. In the absence of any evidence, I think this has to be dismissed as another case of a preexisting fear and hostility looking for something new to prop up its untenable ideas.

And I don’t think game realism has any effect on what I said about movie emulation and game emulation. Which I still feel is sound. Sitting in a movie theater it’s not so hard to wish you were Will Smith blowing away nocturnal virus-zombies. Who wants to be that little guy in a game who jumps every time you push a button?

EH: Self-reflection and approaching both kids and ourselves with a “Why?” approach in response to things we don’t understand (rather than immediately condemning or rejecting) seems to be a big theme in Killing Monsters. In the gaming community, there is much immediate and emotional response to the criticism of game violence. How would you recommend game enthusiasts engage in the kind of internal reflection you talk about in examining why we find game violence compelling? Where do you begin?

GJ: Game fans and people in the business definitely need to outgrow the knee-jerk response. At one conference, Craig Anderson told me about the emailed threats and obscenities gamers sent him. Which is obviously stupid and insane. You’re mad at the guy for saying that your videogames make you hostile, so you’re going to send him a death threat? I did a college debate with Jack Thompson earlier this year, and one of the students yelled at him and flipped him off. I know Jack’s done a lot of provocative and irritating things, but still: What a perfect way to undermine your own argument and perpetuate the image of game-players and under-socialized and dangerous.

The people in the industry can be almost as clumsy. I remember a lot of people reacting with angry yells when that retailer in South Dallas refused to rent games to kids unless they got decent grades and behaved well in his store (“no ‘N’-word,” for example). There are some tricky issues brought up by what he did, obviously, but the general decrial that I heard from game people only served to show how they just don’t get what parents out there are feeling. Here’s a black store manager in a fairly poor black neighborhood, tons of kids coming into his store with single working parents, latchkey kids and under-parented kids, and the guy makes a stand for pushing kids to improve themselves. To lay off the electronic entertainment for a while until they’re achieving something and can maybe do better than most young men in South Dallas. And along the way he’s trying to get them to stop calling each other “nigger.” Whether or not it’s the place of a retailer to do that, the response of a lot of people – not just ultra-conservative parents or game-hating parents, but a lot of people who care about the next generation – was “Thank God somebody’s trying to look out for these kids.” A retailer who wants to push kids to do more than consume looks downright heroic. And yet what I was mostly hearing from game people was only an angry desire to protect the sacred bond between producer and underage consumer. It didn’t smell good.

One last rant: I believe game publishers, platform makers and groups like ESA are making a mistake by flatly denying the possibility of a link between videogames and aggression. They’re doing exactly what screwed the tobacco companies: flat, legalistic denial in place of a nuanced response that shows they might care about their place in the larger community. I’m not convinced by the game-violence research at all, and I think most people are in doubt, but these studies are finding something, and if you want to seem like you give any kind of damn about people, you’ve got to at least show a willingness to consider that there may be a problem here. The companies and the ESA are allowing litigation strategies to drive their responses; the Legal Department is calling the shots, which is usually trouble. That’s pretty understandable, especially when you have gigantic lawsuits hurtling at you based on a supposed game-violence link. But still, the impression that the game industry gives is that it cares about nothing but protecting its own profits from the world’s assaults and is indifferent to the lives of its consumers and the world at large. That does not incline voters, parents, citizen’s groups and legislators to be friendly.

The game business could learn a lot from the movie business as to how to wear a humane face. How to look like the community cares about people and the world but will still defend artistic freedom. A few years ago I gave the keynote at the academic track of GDC, and my theme was that the game business still lacks a human face. I was talking about the lack of an “auteur signature” more than this other issue, but it’s related. The game community doesn’t present itself as a community of people. From the outside it looks like interchangeable suits and geeks who can’t make eye contact.

Well, that turned into quite a rant, and I never did answer your question about self-examination, exactly. But I think I should stop.

EH: This is The Escapist; I’m told we like rants here. And these are valuable points. Also following from the above, have you found any particular approach in speaking with parents, teachers or doctors especially effective in shifting the emphasis from condemnation to consideration of potential or inquiry?

GJ: The two elements here, as in almost any communication, are humanity and compassion. Remind them that these games are played by people. Mostly good people who feel they’re getting a lot out of them. People who will defend their games from the heart. That takes the discussion out of the realm of “those things,” our fear of technology, and brings it back to “What about that really great kid you know who loves Halo?” Then it’s an easier jump to compassion and empathy, asking why people love what they love. From there people can usually get to the next mental exercise in the sequence, which is basically: “When you see your 14-year-old playing this game, and you crave, to what extent are you feeling your own gut reaction to violence, and to what extent are you actually perceiving something about your kid?”

EH: Do you think it’s simply a matter of waiting out the storm in terms of letting the wave of videogame criticism pass in the way that other waves against movies, comic books and music have passed, or is there a danger in not taking a proactive approach in response?

GJ: No, you’ve got to be proactive, too. Comic books survived their storm, but suffered tremendous damage. The anti-comics crusade destroyed half the publishers in the business and drove the surviving comics to a very juvenile, bland level that held the industry back for decades. The game business is much bigger and less economically vulnerable, of course, but damage can be done. Proactivity, however, doesn’t mean hostility. As the game business fights for its rights, it has to prove itself to be a good neighbor and a good citizen too. Passionate game enthusiasts tend to be sardonic souls, slightly alienated from the mainstream, to whom such concepts will seem awfully corny. Game-lovers tend to like to both the victim role and the angry antagonist role. But those are roles with some huge pitfalls.

EH: The general attitude that I find with this is that a) hyperbolic response is justified because Jack Thompson is also hyperbolic and threatens physical harm on gamers, and b) what we do doesn’t matter because people will eventually get over this game censoring idea on their own. There are enough in the game community to already disagree with a) and they do tend to stomp on people who act like jerks, so they will be right there with you on that point — and b) is trickier but I think they can be convinced of the importance of responding to this seriously.

GJ: I think the first thing game advocates have to do is get over Jack Thompson. He’s not a major figure in the game regulation field. All the moderate critics of games have distanced themselves from him completely, if they even think about him anymore. It’s only hardcore game culture insiders who really even know who he is. So to react to a Leland Yee or Craig Anderson as if he were “a Jack Thompson type” – and justify one’s overreaction accordingly – is painfully self-destructive. Jack loves being “the man the videogame industry loves to hate,” and he works the game community consciously in order to maintain that role. Too many game geeks, with their love of conflict and the righteously indignant victim role, play right into that.

As far as waiting for it all to blow over, I think the key is what outcome do you want. Does the game community just want to survive and eventually be left alone, or does it want to become a valued member of the entertainment establishment and our common culture? I suspect a lot of people really do prefer the former, in which case just hunkering down might be an OK strategy. It says a lot about the different media that movie people are so desperate to be loved and respected while game people seem so happy to be ignored as long as they’re allowed to tend their own gardens. (Or am I being unfair?)

EH: What do you think the results of the attacks on videogames are on kids and society in general?

GJ: My big concern is not that the attacks will particularly hurt the games business, which is so huge and ubiquitous now, but that they just add to the psychological assaults already being heaped on young people who like so-called “violent entertainment” and to the bogus “culture wars” that are wounding America as a community. These needless battles have a divisive and alienating effect that isn’t helpful either to individuals or a society trying to deal with the legitimate fears and conflicts we are now. The attacks also create a rallying point for the cultural right wing, an interest group I think is already too powerful and too inclined to deliver us over to a dangerous brand of radical pseudo-conservatism. That’s why I think transcending the argument with a broader viewpoint is ultimately more useful than point-for-point combat.

EH: Gerard, thanks so much for speaking with us. Your advocacy for a deductive approach to understanding media culture is heroic for young people and the game community alike.

GJ: Thanks for the chance to think about this stuff. And happy holidays!

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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