Pastimes help define a society. The Ancient Romans were known for their love of gladiatorial combat, the English have soccer and, as a Canadian, I am assumed – correctly – to be a rabid fan of hockey. Yet, what do these pastimes say about us? Some point to the Roman practice of gladiatorial combat as a root from which the doom of their civilization was born. The mob was educated to believe the idea of killing other humans was acceptable.
Today, in our global culture, we have seen the rise of videogames, movies and television as nearly global pastimes. These pastimes, which are often violent, have been cast by both supporters and detractors as our gladiatorial games. They provide entertainment and allow people to escape and see things they could never personally hope to experience. Yet, it was not until the advent of violent videogames that the line was crossed between observation and participation.
Unlike ancient times, when distance could entirely cut off one culture from another, we now live in a world where the boundaries between societies are much harder to define. Different cultures still have their preferences – try to find more than two North Americans who know the rules to cricket – but as time passes, these differences are being supplemented with common interest. Most of the world watches American films and television. And while there are differences based on language and regional preferences, the developed world plays videogames.
Rapidly, our industry has joined the big leagues. We’re one of the largest global creators of pastime content for all ages. What we create is, in part, determined by what the market wants to consume. Thus, when the world shows relentless demand for violent and otherwise morally gray videogames, it makes some question the state of our global society.
History repeats itself. That’s right; I pulled out that cliché. But, if you are someone who believes this, there is a mountain of evidence that indicates we should be worried. Where Romans had increasingly violent gladiatorial combat, we as a society have had wrestling and boxing. In recent years, we’ve seen the emergence of ultimate fighting, which is like a combination of the two: Keep the story from wrestling and the actual hitting from boxing, then remove the protective gloves. It’s not to the death, but we’re getting closer.
On the videogame end, we’ve gone from shooting alien spaceships on 2-D arcade machines, to games that let you do virtually whatever insanely violent thing you want (think Manhunt). Our pastimes have increased in violence over the years. Enabled by technology, we’ve seen movies with severed limbs, videogames with mindless rampages and TV shows where we eat popcorn while real people beat each other into oblivion.
Let me be clear: I believe it’s absolutely ludicrous to use Grand Theft Auto as a legal defense against a rampage. In the personal sense, it’s no excuse. If someone is crazy enough to shoot up anything after playing a videogame, they’ve got other issues. The videogame represents the form the violence ultimately takes, not the impulse to commit it. However, the overall trend of our love of violence in all forms worries me. Trace things back only one century. In the early part of this century, it is entirely conceivable that a child could grow into adulthood without ever seeing anything more violent than a school-yard brawl. Boxing was popular, but that was about the extent of it.
Modern entertainment media means that by age six, kids are quite probably actively controlling cartoons killing each other. By their teenage years, most children have probably seen Braveheart, limb-hacking and all, and by adulthood, they’ve probably personally conducted an all-out suicidal rampage on their PC or console. More alarming, the above example assumes responsible parental monitoring. I have met 6-year-olds who’ve already reached the Grand Theft Auto stage. This doesn’t mean society is on the verge of collapse, but it is impossible to just accept that all this exposure to violence means nothing and affects no one.
The game industry has to be careful. I am hardly the only one worried about violence in videogames and what it says about our culture as a whole. As such, I believe it’s important that we continue to self-regulate the industry to ensure games are rated appropriately. I am also totally supportive of legislation that limits who can and cannot buy games, based on rating. Videogames are always going to be perceived – fair or not – as the most dangerous medium by virtue of the fact that they enable people to personally commit the violence, no matter how fantastical.
In the Valentine’s Day issue of The Escapist, Editor Julianne Greer wrote that it is “the active nature of playing games together is what makes them special.” She was talking about love and how they are, by definition, more social than TV, books or films. However, where the positives apply, so do the negatives. In games, you decide when and where to shoot. In a movie, you simply watch someone else do it. It is a fine line, but as games get more realistic, it becomes a greater concern. It is this distinction that has been at the root of the recent controversies about games.
At its worst, Hot Coffee showed nothing worse than I can see on late night TV. The difference is, on late night TV, I would simply be observing, not participating. This point may be negligible, but it must be kept in mind when it comes to creating games.
There is, however, the possibility that all this worrying is really meaningless. Take Canada, for example. Canada has the reputation of being a polite, peace-loving and relatively non-violent nation. Yet, as far as pastimes go, our favorite one is arguably the most violent of any mainstream North American sport. Hockey encourages throwing people into walls at high speeds, fighting and all other sorts of bloody activity. Not a year goes by where someone isn’t maimed, prosecuted, paralyzed or even killed playing hockey at some level. Yet, Canadians have been lining up for years to watch and participate in this sport. If pastimes were totally indicative of a society’s temperament, the United States would have a seriously belligerent neighbor to the north. Canada is anything but.
What does all this mean? Can we do anything? Can the videogame help turn the corner? Who knows? Probably not – and almost certainly not. This is a big question with very few answers. Perhaps, this is the natural course of things. Over time, as societies age, they become more and more enamored with violence. If the game industry were to take a stand and outlaw all violent content, the videogame industry would be doing a disservice to its investors – to whom they are ultimately responsible – and people would inevitably just find an outlet for their entertainment somewhere else. We’re hardly the shepherds of the developed world’s morals – and we should not be expected to be – but like all genres, we must continue the precarious balance between responsibility and freedom of speech.
It is all fine and good to say parents should be responsible for what their kids consume, but let’s face it: Many are not, and it can’t possibly harm anyone to put some rules in place to make it hard for a kid to buy the most violent or graphic of games. The lust for violent pastimes may be inevitable, but at least then, we could be contented to know we’re at least not making things worse.
Dana “Lepidus” Massey is the Lead Content Editor for MMORPG.com and former Co-Lead Game Designer for Wish.