Knowing Your Enemy


“Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherf—er in the world,” goes a line in Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash. “If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.”

It’s true. Lately I’ve been feeling old, and I no longer feel like I can become the baddest motherf—er in the world. Worse, I no longer even want to. The things that frightened me as a teenager – long-term relationships, the daily commute, mutual funds – now actually attract me. And by the same token, what’s “in” seems weird and scary to me.

I look at the kids of today, with their Facebooks and their MySpaces and whatever is actually popular, given what I know is already bound to be six months out of date, and I feel nothing but confusion.

I don’t understand my own generation – indeed, I don’t feel that they are my generation anymore. As a rather significant milestone of years approaches, I understand, for the first time, the generation gap. The feeling of seeing young people and not really understanding them. I had fun when I was young; why don’t they just do exactly what I did? Why do they need to broadcast every moment of their lives? What has happened to their sense of privacy, of shame?

This is the same feeling that the anti-gaming crowd, who reared their ugly heads prematurely last week, must also feel. The fear of the unknown. The assumption that, because we don’t understand it, it must automatically be dangerous. This kind of thinking is just a step up from caveman, but I think we all feel it. It manifests itself in every mud-slinging internet argument – Westerns fear Muslims. Atheists fear the religious. Conservatives fear liberals.

It’s this same sense of confusion that seems to have inspired the report on videogames published last week by the BBFC, the U.K.’s film and game classification authority. While it may not be as famous as Jack Thompson and his ilk, the U.K.’s tabloid press has had a field day with violent videogames over the past decade or longer. From Mortal Kombat‘s cartoon gore to today’s “Killed by His Xmas Game Boy” and the hysteria surrounding Manhunt following the murder of Stefan Pakeerah, the cynical U.K. tabloids know the public often sees something wrong with gaming and exploit that to their own gain.

The BBFC report, with the aim of gaining insight into videogaming issues – popularity, addictiveness, what gamers and parents think of gaming – is surprisingly balanced and honest. It should be required reading not just for Hilary Clinton and Dr. Phil, but for every parent of a game-loving child.

And while this report could first and foremost be used to educate the media, the reaction to it predictably missed the point.

“They’re disturbing and addictive, but game violence is no threat,” said the Times of London, which shamefully crowds the first few paragraphs of their story with as many sensationalist conclusions as they could. “Young boys report that they become addicted to games that they will play from the moment they wake!” You don’t say! They also enjoy watching cartoons, eating cereal and picking their noses first thing in the morning, but I’ve yet to see that in the headlines.

If anything, the people interviewed seem quite intelligent and remarkably self-aware of the benefits and risks of gaming. The report comes down much harder on parents than on game companies or gamers, saying “some are illiterates in libraries, and they focus on what their children say they want, ignoring content.”

Still, at least the Times reported on it. Sadly, the BBFC report was largely passed over in the media in the wake of the shooting in Virginia, which marked a new low in knee-jerk reactions. The media is very good at pointing blame, and within hours were giving airtime to unsubstantiated claims that videogames had something to do with it. But the media is extraordinarily poor at accepting blame – as Sam Leith astutely points out in the Telegraph, would Cho Seung-hui’s massacre have happened if he hadn’t seen news reports of Columbine on NBC?

The day will come when Dr. Phil and Jack Thompson blaming videogames will sound as ridiculous as blaming this event on the rock music he might have listened to does today.

However, as one unnamed games reviewer in the BBFC report mentions, violence in games is “the big elephant in the room for the games industry.” Just because gaming violence doesn’t cause people to go out and kill (and it doesn’t), it doesn’t automatically follow that any level of violence in games is acceptable.

As the reaction to the reaction in Virginia shows, we as an industry have a tendency to focus on the Jack Thompson lunatics of this world and respond to legitimate questions and criticism of the level of violence in gaming with knee-jerk reactions of our own. In reality, the game industry is as poor at accepting criticism as the media is.

I would once have regarded as stupid the people who found videogames to be threatening, but now I realize I no more understood their perspective than they did mine. Instead of sitting back and laughing at Thompson’s ignorance, the games industry – and that includes you and me – need to do two things.

First, we must make our case understood, without getting sanctimonious or arrogant, without thinking that every person who opposes violent games is as deluded, stupid or cynical as Thompson and his ilk.

And second, we must examine for ourselves the good and bad of the industry, and accept that there is legitimate criticism to be made. Examine why games seem to be split down the middle between cartoonish and violent, between “kiddy” and “mature.” Why, as the game reviewer quoted above notes, “if you look at games where you play a person, the overall likelihood is that what you’ll be doing in that game is killing people.” Why developers fall back on the lazy design equation of “problem = enemy,” “solution = killing enemy.” Why publishers fall back on the equally lazy marketing techniques, publishing ever more and more gratuitous games because they shift copies easily.

Comic books, another medium misunderstood and demonized in a bygone age, at least often taught good moral messages, had heroes that could be respected and looked up to. Spider-man taught about power and responsibility. The X-Men spoke about the wrongs of prejudice and bigotry.

Can gaming make the same claim? And if it can’t, isn’t that something we need to examine? If gaming is to be mainstream, it must accept its own civic responsibilities and realize that not all criticism is ill-informed.

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