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If you know anything about me, you know I’m a huge champion of video games. They gave me a passion for storytelling, creativity, and taught me how to read. Thanks, Pokemon.

I’m the first one to take issue with the inevitable game haters who think they’re a waste of time. I disagree fundamentally with those who suggest they can’t be “art”, or lack the potential for real depth of storytelling. And most importantly, I think they can be a nice way to let off a little steam.

But this scares me.

It’s a commercial for Battlefield 4. A game series, truthfully, I could never get into. But you don’t have to be a devotee to be unsettled, as the commercial assures you that the violent description of gameplay is “real”, and for “real players”. The player describes “shooting one dude”, “pop[ing] another”, and gleefully recounts that stabbing a player in the water was “just awesome”.

I played Doom. I played Halo. I understand the way these games glorify, and live in the world of, violence. Their content is not my primary issue. What concerns me is the willful mass marketing of the games as such, and the problematic nature of packaging such a game through the thrilling experience of violence. It not only raises ugly questions about EA’s marketing tactics, it sets our community back in the face of a long, overwhelmingly oppressive conversation about violence which has haunted the gaming industry for over a decade.

I’ve been reading the debates surrounding video game violence since I was in my mid teens. In the wake of the DC Navy Yard shooting last month, many were quick to turn to the fact that the shooter was “obsessed with violent video games” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/20/video-game-lobby_n_3957441.html).

It’s not a new connection. Since Columbine rocked the American fabric in the late 1990s, there’s a been a unique fixation on the role of the first person shooter in mass shootings. Just note this 2009 retrospective on Columbine, which makes some rather erroneous assertions about the FPS genre. For instance:

“You, and unfortunately parents, are clueless about what creates the video game addiction. What separates Doom from other video games and toys is one big point. They are deliberately programmed to make the player a “first person shooter.”” (http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/health/role-video-game-addiction-played-columbine-shootings-article-1.361104)

This ignores, of course, some very viable evidence which suggests that if video games are such a direct route to violence, this same data should be replicated across the video game playing world. Right? Well…

Max Fisher of The Washington Post reports differently. His analysis of video games and violence across the ten largest video game markets didn’t back up such claims empirically. As he found, “countries where video games are popular also tend to be some of the world’s safest (probably because these countries are stable and developed, not because they have video games). And we also have learned, once again, that America’s rate of firearm-related homicides is extremely high for the developed world.” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2012/12/17/ten-country-comparison-suggests-theres-little-or-no-link-between-video-games-and-gun-murders/)

This point, too, seems to have its origin in the late 1990s. A quotation from a September article published by the Atlantic Wire highlights the work of Katherine Newman, a Johns Hopkins Professor who reports in her book Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings that “millions of young people play video games full of fistfights, blazing guns, and body slams. Bodies litter the floor in many of our most popular films. Yet only a minuscule fraction of the consumers become violent. Hence, if there is an effect, children are not all equally susceptible to it.” (http://www.theatlanticwire.com/entertainment/2013/09/dont-blame-violent-video-games-mondays-mass-shooting/69499/)

Still, we grasp for straws at the world of machismo violence propagated by such games. In the search for a simple yes or no causal relationship we demonize games that can be creative, fun, gentle, horrifying, as diverse as the artistic mediums we consume or the people we meet.

My fear is not that video games cause violence. They do so no more than they cause me to fastidiously complete side quests in virtual (or real) life. Indeed, I owe my artistic sensibilities to games like Vagrant Story as much as my pop culture fiendishness to Grand Theft Auto 3. What truly scares me is the way cultural moments like this Battlefield 4 commercial feed into, rather than repudiate, the stereotypes reductive, anti-game critics are all too willing to embrace.

 

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