Can We Have a Civil Discussion about Game Violence?

The Sandy Hook Massacre reignited debates about violence in videogames, our editor-in-chief pleads for a ceasefire to the knee-jerk reactions to this debate.

Written by Drew Dixon / Published on December 19, 2012

The last week has seen a tremendous amount of arguing about game violence and honestly, I get it. I don’t agree with all the arguments that are being leveled, I think the majority of them are unhelpful knee jerk reactions (on both sides), but I get it.

Last Friday morning, a young man walked into an elementary school after having killed his mother, and shot and killed 20 children and six adults. There are no words to describe how horrifically awful that is.

The day after this tragedy, I completed the final chapter of Far Cry 3. Just before the credits, the protagonist, Jason Brody reflects on what he has done in throughout the game (warning: mild spoiler):

I’ve killed so many people I’ve lost count. I can’t come back from this. I’m a monster. I can feel the anger inside me. But I am still, somewhere inside me, more than that. Better than that.

"I didn’t write this to call for greater censorship or even to say that violence doesn’t have a place in games, but because I find myself in a seemingly endless cycle that  I no longer want to be a part of"
Far Cry 3 is supposedly a commentary on videogames and pop culture–purposefully exaggerating videogame tropes (like hyperviolence) in order to reveal them for what they are. It’s quite possible that FC3 successfully does this, I honestly can’t give you an unbiased answer at this point in time. I can, however confirm that as I finished FC3, I couldn’t shake the images I had seen of children running out of Sandy Hook Elementary and parents and teachers weeping uncontrollably. And here I was playing Rambo.

I am not saying violent videogames are to blame for the 78th American school shooting since Columbine. Honestly, the events, forces, and ideas that led Adam Lanza to Sandy Hook are surely more complicated than I am qualified to comment on. I think violence can be instructive, not just in games but in all kinds of media. I am not calling for greater censorship. I just want to say that in this moment, finishing Far Cry 3 felt gross. Gross for playing at violence and gross contributing in some small way to a culture obsessed with violence.

This last summer, well before the Sandy Hook massacre, I reflected on the excess of violent imagery I saw on display at the Electronic Entertainment Expo’s key addresses in an article for Paste Magazine:

We must not blame the videogame industry for this lack of nuance. Given the massive growth of the game industry in the last 10 years, it’s safe to say that big game companies are doing their market research. These companies are giving players what they want. Furthermore, consider that 183 million Americans play videogames for a least an hour a day and 69% of American households play games regularly. Most people in our country play videogames and the many violent games displayed at E3 were not created in a vacuum. Further videogames aren’t alone in re-imagining violence. We stylize violence in our highest grossing films (i.e. AvengersTransformers and Avatar) and rap about it in best-selling songs.

We live in a country whose military is carrying out operations in the majority of the world’s countries and that has produced a cult of school shootings that have proven to be a decidedly American phenomenon. Clearly our fascination with violence runs deeper than our love for Call of Duty games.

While there is little-to-no data signifying that videogames have made our culture more violent, it seems clear that violent videogames are products of an already violent culture. We are aware of this culture of violence but we rarely stop to consider it. For instance, we know our country’s many wars represent a tremendous loss of life. But we stop short of considering the cost and settle for thanking our soldiers for their sacrifice. We maintain a rather convenient cultural distance from the violence inherent to the real wars that real Americans are fighting.

I wonder if we cultivate a similar, if less dangerous, distance between ourselves and what the violent actions our avatars represent when we constantly praise games for giving us creative means of killing our enemies?

I didn’t write this to call for greater censorship or even to say that violence doesn’t have it’s place in games, but because I find myself in a seemingly endless cycle that  I no longer want to be a part of: mass shootings followed by accusations against violent games, followed by defensive comments dismissing those accusations, followed by more violent games, and so on. The media aren’t the only people jerking their knees.

John Herrman, writing for BuzzFeed, said:

. . . while uninformed anti-game sensationalism may be unproductive, gamers’ reflexive defensiveness is worse. It’s prevented us from having a meaningful conversation about an industry that is emotionally and morally stunted, where per-title revenue can dwarf even the most successful films of all time but which seems immune from discussions of taste and artistic merit.

I share this for a very simple reason. I would like to see a civil conversation about violence in games. I believe that violence can be important to artistic expression but surely the bevy of violence in American media tells us something about the culture we find ourselves in. I would like to see us, gamers and nongamers alike, swallow our pride long enough to discuss why we are so obsessed with violence and what effects this obsession has had on us and the culture we find ourselves in.

I love videogames–I think they are medium not only rife with artistic potential but one that is already producing works of tremendous beauty but I wonder if our cavalier attitude on this subject will keep many from seeing that potential.

I am not throwing stones, I am just asking questions. Is that ok? Can I do that?

About the Author:

Drew Dixon is editor-in-chief of Game Church. He also edits for Christ and Pop Culture and writes about videogames for Paste Magazine, Relevant Magazine, Bit Creature, and Think Christian.