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Video Games are Bad for You? Working Up to Zero.

December 17, 2007

“What do you do?”

It’s a question I’m often asked. Now that I’m walking in the world of academia and game development, I get asked it a lot more than I ever used to. When I was in the industry full-time, everyone knew what everyone else did, and for the most part, no one cared.

When I tell people that I am a game designer and teach the same thing, it’s usually a matter of moments before the inevitable question comes: “What do you think about all those violent video games?”

It’s a question I am grateful to be asked and simultaneously dread. It means that as an industry, at least in this person’s eyes, we’re not producing much more than bouncing, blood-splattering gibs for games. It’s as if each year at GDC, we convene to decide just how violent next year’s games will be. Last year, only 8% of video games were rated M, and fewer than 1/10 of 1% were rated AO. The perennially favorite best sellers are sports games, Sims offshoots and MMOs, not Barney’s Frag Their Heads Off VI.

I am disturbed by the perception the question highlights and by what it implies. First off, it’s as if we’re not producing anything other than violent content – which just isn’t true. Secondly, it’s as if we as an industry don’t have a right to have violent content. We lavish awards upon it in other media (The Sopranos, Full Metal Jacket, Saving Private Ryan, Scarface, The Godfather, etc.), but in video games, some abhor the same content because of the perception that a) it’s for kids and b) it’s interactive. In announcing my profession, I am sometimes left to work up to zero, up to neutral, up to respectability. That’s a shame, because many of the people who ask this question are adults who might be in a position to steer very talented people away from an industry they want to enter.

I am remembering here perhaps the greatest insult I have ever received regarding my profession: in seeing a design doc I’d written for a serious game, a professor remarked, “Finally, something good to come out of video games.” I was literally speechless. After the moment had passed, I realized what had left me that way – in a single sentence, the dude had just trashed my 26-year career, the industry that I was both passionate about and protective of, and the medium of video games as a whole. Obviously, this comment had all the ongoing weight of a feather, but still, to have such a perception and to actually deliver it to someone who worked in that medium was startling both in its stupidity and its gall. Imagine saying something like that to the writer of a movie’s script: “Finally, something good to come out of films.”

Many things have faced similar scrutiny:

  • Books: The Hardy Boys were called, “explosives… guaranteed to blow your boy’s brains out.”
  • Autos: In the 1920’s, they were called “devil wagon’s” and “brothels on wheels” and people feared their introduction and what they would do to families.
  • Movies: The Hays Code sought to institute all kinds of ridiculous things, including this – good must always win out over evil.
  • Elvis: The 1950’s, those same sweet days people look back upon now, were a time when Elvis’ hips had the power to destroy all women and drive them into a frenzy. Newspapers commented that we’d reached an ultimate low and a point of depravity.
  • Long Hair: In the 1960’s, the Beatles’ long hair was setting an incredibly poor standard for American boys. Lennon was asked how he could sleep at night.
  • Comics Code: Yet another form of self-censorship designed to block words “Crime” or “Terror” in the comic title, “torture vampires” and “werewolves.” What happened to comics is perhaps most relevant to video games because of the perception that they are targeted toward kids.
  • Dungeons & Dragons: In the 1970’s D&D saved comics from front-line bashing. When a kid did something stupid, reporters would ask, “Did he play D&D?” Most interesting, D&D was implicated in a missing persons case. It was heavily reported. When the kid showed up two weeks later, it wasn’t nearly as heavily reported.
  • VCR: In the 1980’s we feared that VCRs would bring pornography into the homes of millions. It did.
  • Rock Music: In the 1980’s we also worried about how rock music was affecting people. Ozzy Osbourne was going to turn kids into bat-head-biting Satanists. People played Zeppelin backwards trying to figure out what the secret messages were. If a kid did something stupid, articles would regularly refer to the music he listened to. Ozzy Osbourne’s now a loving, caring, hard-swearing Dad in a long term marriage to which he remains devoted. Can you imagine people being afraid of Aerosmith?
  • Video Games: It’s our turn now.

This is, at best, a 20 year problem. I do not imagine that the 30-year-olds of today will be the anti-video game crusaders of tomorrow, and I also don’t imagine that the same window of time will produce people who are as unaware of video games’ past and present contributions and possibilities for the future.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. December 17, 2007 11:47 am

    As if to highlight my point, notice that somehow playing Halo and D&D is relevant to this story: Suspects in huge Ohio heist leave puzzling trail.

  2. December 17, 2007 12:27 pm

    When you mentioned Ohio, I originally thought you’d be quoting this story:

    Apparently we here in Ohio are undergoing some kind of epidemic of underage driving, with some kids as young as 8 getting behind the wheel and taking to the highways.

    Naturally, driving games are implicated as the root cause. The parents of these kids are apparently just helpless victims of the merciless game industry, or something.

  3. DGhizzoni permalink
    December 17, 2007 1:05 pm

    The article mentions that the boyfriend plays Halo and that the two of them play D&D, but the “journalist” makes no connection between those things and the actual story. Wicca, a benign religion, is also heavily mentioned, but again has nothing to do with the heist. It’s just there to pass judgment without context.

  4. December 17, 2007 1:12 pm

    Of course, but you also have to wonder why they chose those particular facts and not “she keeps a garden and goes out for karaoke every night.” It´s considered abormal.

    And here’s my bit of fun I’ve been writing for a while.

  5. December 17, 2007 1:41 pm

    Well, the fella sure does know how to get on somebodies good side. How do you say, “Finally, something good to come out of X” when you are talking to a professor, whom of which likely has professional experience? Not sure that fella was thinking straight.

    20 years from now, video games will probably be much more interactive and much more realistic. The fact that the game industry is already targeted when some kid decides to go unload a few clips of ammo through a local mall will only be magnified in the future when computers and programmers can model extremely realistic environments. While it is our turn, I don’t know if it’ll be over anytime soon just because it’s hard to say when it’ll become the ‘same ol` thing’ to people, especially how quickly technology improves. Radio, TV, Books, couldn’t really evolve the way that our industry can.

  6. December 17, 2007 1:44 pm

    I think the last paragraph of your blog entry summarizes it all well. It’s a trend, blaming video-games, and I think it’s closer to the end of its life now. I wouldn’t say 20 years, probably less, about 10-15,

    I personally hope flying cars to be the next trend-of-evil. And that it comes soon before I’m too old to drive. Or fly. 🙂

  7. Jesse Bruch permalink
    December 17, 2007 2:45 pm

    Very well spoken. It just goes to show that video games are the most recent scapegoat in a long line of forms of media/art as targets.

    Maybe these people in the media who criticize and degrade video games should take a long look at themselves. Their manipulations of news to fit their “angle” probably has a bigger “brainwashing” affect than they claim games to have.

  8. December 18, 2007 11:46 am

    There was actually criticism that newspapers would lower the attention span of the public, back when the newspaper was new. I’ll see if I can dig up the source…

  9. December 18, 2007 11:48 am

    Aha, I found it. This is from a paper I wrote as a student comparing early criticism of the newspaper to current criticism of video games:

    E. L. Godkin (1831-1902), editor of New York’s The Nation and one of the leading cultural critics of his time, wrote in 1890 that “nothing can be more damaging to the habit of continuous attention than newspaper-reading” (“Newspapers Here and Abroad” 202, quoted in Paine 122). According to rhetoric historian Charles Paine, Godkin argued in 1865 that newspapers “are creating a new kind of reader, one more interested in entertainment than in enlightenment and increasingly incapable of critical engagement” (Paine 122).

    From the 1860s to the end of the 19th century, cultural critics across the United States, led in large part by Godkin, were lashing out at the newspaper, a relatively new form of media at the time. While newspapers had been around in the English language since London’s The Corant, first published in 1621, newspapers were becoming a major cultural force in America in the 1860s. The newfound mass literacy of the American public combined with the special circumstances of the Civil War to cause the newspaper business to boom.

    The newspaper boom rapidly extended the influence of the newspaper over the thoughts of the American public, which was cause for a high degree of anxiety from critics concerned with the negative effects of a new medium.


    Paine, Charles. The Resistant Writer: Rhetoric as Immunity, 1850 to the Present. Albany State University of New York Press, 1999. 8 Oct 2004 .

  10. Brian Shurtleff permalink
    December 18, 2007 6:53 pm

    Other media I thought up while reading your list there:

    The Internet – ALSO brought pornography into the homes of millions. 😉 And helps facilitate many new things that scare people – internet piracy, identity theft, hacking, etc.

    Rap music – Honorable mention as, hey, it’s what Jack Thompson was attacking before he decided to set his sights on video games…

  11. December 18, 2007 10:54 pm

    For that matter, wasn’t Classical music feared in its day? My understanding is that previous, most music was in the form of church hymns and the like — very slow-moving and solemn. Classical music moves quickly, and a lot of people didn’t understand it. It’s strange thinking of classical as something that rebellious teens listened to (and their parents saying “that’s not music, that’s noise!”)…

  12. ThomasJLKastner permalink
    December 19, 2007 1:05 am

    ai864 –

    Anything new is feared or rejected. In the world of art many genres that I had to study as extremely influential and important were rejected in its day. Video Games are extremely important to the art world, but people aren’t ready to accept that fact yet. I honestly don’t consider it a matter of opinion because you can decide if you like art or not but you can’t decide something isn’t art without a good reason. And I have yet to hear even a decent reason why video games aren’t artistic productions.

  13. Chris permalink
    December 19, 2007 1:34 pm

    Only once has a violent video game bothered me — when some colleagues at a research lab customized a FPS (I don’t remember which one) to use actual images of their lab as the environment you were exploring, as well as actual images of their co-workers as the people you were shooting! I’m still not sure where my internal line is, but somehow this crossed it.

    Is this any different from film? In this particular example, I think it is. If someone were to make a slasher film in which they were murdering their actual co-workers, it wouldn’t bother me because they would necessarily have obtained both the permission and the active cooperation of their co-workers. Whereas in the video game, the images were taken from public files, so no permission or cooperation was implied. If someone were to use the movie equivalent of Photoshop to put faces of their co-workers on the victims in a slasher film, then I suppose we would be back in the (to me) questionable territory.

  14. December 20, 2007 9:14 pm

    Just another incident where video games are thrown into the fire. Happened today.

  15. December 21, 2007 9:00 am

    David – I loved this follow up post, also on that site:

  16. December 21, 2007 5:50 pm

    Ahhh, What a refreshing follow up! Nice find, Thanks!

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