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Archive for the ‘Gaming the System’ Category

In some ways, even “family friendly” video games are centered on violent acts. The first moments of Super Mario Bros. (1985), for example, likely involve the player stomping a goomba to death and repeating this act countless times over the duration of the game and its many sequels. There is a qualitative difference, though, between stomping a goomba and shooting a realistic-looking human with a virtual gun. I recently realized the desensitization to virtual violence that can take place over a lifetime of playing violent video games and that it is possible to become resensitized to this violence.

Other than NES games like Contra (1987), my first experience killing virtual humans (and dogs, incidentally) came in the early ’90s while playing Wolfenstein 3D (1992) on my family’s first computer (with a 33 mhz Intel 486 and sans sound card). Its rudimentary 3D corridors were amazing to me at the time and the ability to shoot Nazi guards and see their blood splatter seemed “cool” to my pre-teen self (and his friends). Nothing about the experience (or that of playing Doom (1993) a few years later), however, suggested that killing real people would be anything like it.

Around this time, I remember seeing the game Pit Fighter (1990) in the mall’s arcade and noting its realistic graphics. Pit Fighter used the same digitization process that later made Mortal Kombat’s (1992) over-the-top violence infamous, with real actors playing the parts of its characters. When I eventually purchased a copy of Mortal Kombat, I was sure to get the Sega Genesis version, which had a code that allowed you to see blood like in the arcade. Nintendo seemed to learn that kids like blood, since Mortal Kombat II (1994) was released on the Super NES with blood intact (unlike the virtual “sweat” of the first game), and I bought that version as a result. Again, there was nothing about the experience of playing these games that seemed to reflect real-life murder. Having never been in a fight, I certainly wasn’t going to pull out anybody’s spine or beating heart.

The beginning of college took much of my attention away from video games but I later revisited the Nintendo 64 classic Goldeneye 007 (1997) after buying it at a pawn shop early in grad school. The characters looked like faces pasted on blocks of wood so, again, I never got much of a sense of killing real people. Because of my late arrival I also missed out on the deathmatch aspect of Goldeneye. My first taste of shooting at friends in a video game came with Halo (2001) on the original Xbox. I particularly remember playing on my friend’s huge (maybe 35 inch) SDTV. This, I think, is where my desensitization to virtual violence really began.

During the single-player campaign, Halo players kill multitudes of strange-looking aliens. Multiplayer options allow players to kill each other’s space marine avatars, but helmets and body armor prevent them from looking particularly human. Starting with Halo and continuing with its sequels on the Xbox and Xbox 360, I spent hours killing various aliens, friends, family members, and strangers on the internet. The Gears of War (2006) series on Xbox 360 also tasked players with killing strange-looking aliens creatures from beneath the planet’s surface.

I spent so much time killing aliens and unrealistic-looking humans during these years that I don’t remember thinking twice about killing more realistic humans in games like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007) and its sequel (although the sequel’s immersion of the player into a terrorist act got some attention from others at the time). I also played these games with family members and didn’t think anything of “killing” them even when they looked like soldiers.

The last game based on shooting virtual people or things that I played before this year was probably Gears of War 3 in 2011. In the meantime, things like teaching, research, and changing jobs took up much of my time and the time I devoted to video games was more likely to be spent killing goombas in Super Mario 3D World (2013) or driving virtual go karts in Mario Kart 8 (2014). Over the summer, though, my curiosity was piqued by articles about Battlefield 1 (2016) and its approach to World War I. The only issue was that I did not own one of the new video game consoles or a PC on which to play it. Instead, I sought an Xbox 360 launch title, Call of Duty 2 (COD2), that focused on World War II and had gotten good reviews upon its release in 2005.

COD2 is what made me realize how desensitized I had been to virtual killing in the past. As an 11-year-old game, its representations of humans are not incredibly realistic, but I was constantly aware that the avatars I was mowing down with a machine gun represented people (a sense I do not recall having when playing its sequels five years ago). While this was surprising to me, it also worked to heighten the cost of WWII in terms of human life, a point that the creators of Battlefield 1 also make in terms of WWI. One important difference between COD2 and Battlefield 1 (which I have not played), though, is the technological advancements of the past 11 years. Battlefield 1 looks incredibly realistic, which might make the experience more jarring for those who are not desensitized to virtual violence while also furthering the desensitization of those who are. Had I not stepped away from virtual warfare for several years, after all, it is unlikely that my response to it would have been the same.

I would not argue that games like this should not exist. By many accounts, Battlefield 1 does a good job of communicating the horrors of WWI in the same way that a good book or film might. I do think it is important to be aware of how these forms of media affect us and our responses to violence, though. This is particularly problematic in terms of video games because, unlike authors or screenwriters, some video game developers seem to have a hard time envisioning solutions to problems that do not involve violence. The 2014 game Watch Dogs, for example, focused on hacking but required players to shoot a large number of people. Other than The Matrix (1999), I don’t recall a lot of movies about hacking that focused as much on gun violence as actual hacking.

This is unfortunate. Not every game involves virtual murder but it would be nice to see more room for genres that focus on other forms of problem solving. (Notably, Portal (2007) focuses on problem solving while also making light of the callous disregard the protagonists of many games have for those around them.) Adding to the problem-solving toolbox might allow more space for players to be aware of the effects their virtual behaviors have on their perceptions of violence inside and outside of increasingly-realistic game worlds. After all, if all you have is a gun, everything looks like a target.

See also: This related article at Slate that was published after I had written this but before it was posted.


“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive updates and links about the murder of Bowser’s seven children via your news feed.

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Parts 1 and 2 of Anita Sarkeesian’s video series examining gender tropes in video games are now available, and are embedded below. In addition to exploring some of the things that most gamers probably don’t think about, the story of Sarkeesian’s series also serves to remind us that misogyny is alive and well in America. Shortly after launching a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the series, Sarkeesian was inundated with attacks (she gives a personal account here):

Two hours is all it took for her video to go viral with over 100+ misogynist comments. The same video that would later garner tens of thousands of comments and over 300,000 views was barely the tip of the iceberg. What started as typical internet backlash soon grew to include threats of extreme violence on several of Sarkeesian’s personal profiles.

Her social media accounts were targets of false reports of fraud, spam and even terrorism. Hackers tried to break into her website and email account. Some even attempted to locate and distribute her personal information including email, phone and home address. Sarkeesian’s Wikipedia page was edited to include sexism, racism and pornographic images. Finally, a game was made in her likeness called, “Beat the Bitch Up,” where upon a few clicks her picture would grow to be increasingly battered and bruised.

In the time since her campaign launched, it doesn’t seem like the internet has grown up much, as comments on websites linking to the work demonstrate. Commenters on completely unrelated videos also invoke Sarkeesian in a negative way, such as those regarding a version of Donkey Kong that a father hacked to allow his daughter to play as a girl (incidentally, the father in this case inverted the very trope that Sarkeesian talks about in these videos). Reading comments like these is disheartening, but it is good to see that Sarkeesian has not backed away from her efforts. The fact that her Kickstarter campaign far exceeded her goals is also a sign that not everybody on the internet is a sexist asshole – the backlash has also allowed her to reach a wider audience. Enjoy!

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On Facebook I recently came across a game called “Spent” that lets you spend a month in the life of a person who makes just above minimum wage (don’t worry, you don’t need a Facebook account to play it). The game is made by a group called Urban Ministries of Durham in North Carolina and progresses day by day as you deal with various situations (what do you buy at the grocery store? Do you deal with your health problems or put them off?) that people in poverty may face. As you make decisions the game provides information (the sources and information that they provide is summarized here). Essentially, it is like Life except you don’t get to choose a station wagon and there don’t seem to be any happy endings.

It seems like this might be a good game to have students play before a class discussion or assignment on poverty in order to help them contextualize the sorts of choices that people in poverty have to make on a daily basis.

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A recent post by D.B. Grady at The Atlantic criticizes the ad campaign for Modern Warfare 3, the latest in Activision’s hugely successful Call of Duty video game series. In part, it reads:

The advertisement trivializes combat and sanitizes war. If this were September 10, 2001, maybe it wouldn’t be quite so bad. Those who are too young to remember Vietnam might indulge in combat fantasies of resting heart rates while rocket-propelled grenades whiz by, and of flinty glares while emptying a magazine into the enemy. But after ten years of constant war, of thousands of amputees and flag-draped coffins, of hundreds of grief-stricken communities, did nobody involved in this commercial raise a hand and say, “You know, this is probably a little crass. Maybe we could just show footage from the game.”

Responding to this, Ben Kuchera at Ars Technica notes that the problem isn’t with the advertising but with the game itself:

For gamers, there is nothing new or striking about how the ad shows war, because that’s the way the game shows war: we wear the skin of a soldier and take part in armed conflict as if it were a thrill ride. We design our in-game avatars, and we virtually kill people in locations based on the real world, with dramatic music and a presentation that seems to tell us the game is a very serious thing. All the while, we’re cheering on our kill-streaks and laughing as bodies fly hither and yon. From the outside looking in, or if you’re not familiar with war games, it is a very disturbing way to spend your free time.

The imagery used in the ad may be shocking to non-gamers, but the ad itself isn’t the problem. The popularity of this sanitized, no-consequences form of virtual war is what should have critics talking. Activision didn’t have to create a commercial to sell millions of copies of Modern Warfare 3, the game would have been a monstrous hit without this commercial; gamers have been drowning themselves in pixelated bloodshed and gleeful violent for decades.

When we discuss ways that the media leads to desensitization it is important to remember which medium is leading the charge. Increasingly, this medium is video games. This doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy violent games any more than we shouldn’t enjoy The Bourne Identity, but I think it does mean that the dialog surrounding these games needs to mature so that we can think critically about their effects.

 

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Once in a while, a large corporation does something nice (of course, once in a while, the same corporation goes to court over the likenesses of student athletes).  In this case, though, Electronic Arts responded to a young girl’s request to allow the creation of female players in NHL 12.  Even if the corporation saw it as a publicity opportunity, it is still a nice example of social action on the part of Lexi Peters:

“I asked my dad, ‘Why aren’t there girls in the NHL video game?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know, write a letter.’ So, I did,” Lexi told the Globe and Mail from her home in Buffalo, N.Y.

She sent a typewritten letter to the executives of one the largest video game makers in the world, asking them to add women players.

She wrote: “It is unfair to women and girl hockey players around the world, many of them who play and enjoy your game. I have created a character of myself, except I have to be represented by a male and that’s not fun.”

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Users of Microsoft’s Xbox Live online video game service are now free to express their sexuality in their gamertags (the names that others see when online).  While users have been banned from the service in the past for having gamertags such as “thegayergamer,” the latest terms of service allow them to use the following terms:

Lesbian
Gay
Bi
Transgender
Straight

The fact that gamers are no longer limited in the expression of their sexuality is a obviously a good thing.  Unfortunately, a number of 15-year-old boys are likely to use these changes to further fuel their homophobic attacks.

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People who want to be accountants, chemists, and sociologists aren’t the only ones who go to college.  College Humor has dug up the college schedules of video game stars Mario, Link, and Fox McCloud.  I am glad that the course on “Woman Studies: Vulnerability and Frequency of Capture” includes an attempt at prevention, though this seems to be a prime example of blaming the victim.

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