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Welcome to the front lines of gaming. I’ve been covering the game industry on a day-to-day basis for about 15 years, mainly by immersing myself in the environment. I play games and I interview people in the game industry daily. But it sometimes helps to pull back and see the industry from afar, as outsiders might see it.
In this new weekly column, I’ll be stepping back to take a look at the week’s events and add up what they mean.
Over the past couple of weeks, I attended the Call of Duty XP fan event in Los Angeles, where Activision Blizzard entertained 6,000 hardcore Call of Duty fans with access to the multiplayer version of Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3. I covered the conference to death. But in the midst of the cavernous aircraft hangar where the event took place, something made me pause. A fellow game journalist had approached me with a question. It was a question he’d thought about carefully and typed on his mobile phone before he showed it to me. It was this: “How can we cover an event that is about a game which is a celebration of violence?”
He apologized for bringing up the heavy subject, but he knew who I was and wanted my two cents on it. It was the elephant in the room, and it came just after the crowd gave a thunderous roar of approval when, on the giant screen before us, one game character threw a knife into the eye of a villain. The question made me pull back from the event I was watching and think about what people would think in their living rooms if CNN was broadcasting it live. To many, it might seem like some kind of bloodthirsty barbarian ritual. I told the guy that my own answer to that question has evolved over the years. Some people have a sensitivity to what they see on the screen, and some don’t. To me, this depends on your ability to draw a frame around the scene and see it in the proper context. There was a time in my life when I had become hyper-sensitized to violence and I couldn’t watch it in any form. The sound of gunfire made me cringe. But the more you see such violence on the screen, the less of an impact it makes on you. When you first look at it, you have no ability to distinguish between what is real and what is an illusion. That’s when the grim reality of the violence can really shake you up.
But if you pull your focus back from the screen, you can see that you’re in your living room and you’re playing a game, something that isn’t real.
Gamers have an ability to do this. They sit back and relax and view whatever happens on the screen as entertainment. When parents walk into a room and look over the shoulder of a child playing a game, they are not drawing a box around the screen in the same way. A boy might be pretending that he’s a Marine and is protecting his country from terrorists. The fact that he’s taking out the bad guys is a good thing.
A parent might look at this scene and recoil, thinking that the kid is enjoying shooting someone with an assault rifle. Inside the boy’s head, he might think he’s pushing buttons on a controller to make something happen on a screen. Will Wright, the legendary maker of non-violent games like SimCity, says that he enjoys games such as Grand Theft Auto, an open world where you can do anything, including kill prostitutes or cops, because it creates such as a large “possibility space” for what you can do in a game. Again, a parent might see a child shooting a gun at a woman on the screen. But the kid might be testing the limits of the game, or exploring the possibility space.
It’s like going around a room tapping on the walls to see if there are any secret hiding places, because you know for a fact that the game designer has a habit of putting those hiding places in the room. You are looking for cause and effect in the game.
Jane McGonigal, author of the book Reality is Broken, observed that soldiers coming back from war actually choose to play games like Call of Duty, as a way to decompress. In fact, the Call of Duty XP event was attended by more than 500 members of the American military. That might suggest that playing violent games is not at all like the actual experience of war.
If you view the bits taking shape on the screen as real, then your actions as a gamer take on a moral significance. But if you think of them as imaginary, then you aren’t bound by morality. You can view the game as a world where you can act out fantasies that you would never do in real life. Because of this distinction, you can’t just dismiss Call of Duty fans as warmongers who should be avoided at all costs. And I think this game is extremely popular because so many of us are able to draw these distinctions. People can relate to the phrase, “It’s just a game.”
I realize that this answer to the question won’t satisfy a lot of people. It doesn’t, for instance, explain why such a roar of approval occurred when the bad guy got knifed. That seemed more like pure bloodlust. The question always gets thornier when you bring kids into it. If games are truly harmless, then why don’t we let our kids play the violent mature-rated games?
I’ve got kids of my own. Would I let them play Call of Duty? No. Should you let kids play Call of Duty? A good answer, says game analyst Michael Pachter of Wedbush Morgan, is to ask parents if they would let their kids watch an R-rated movie. Somehow, that question just doesn’t seem to register with parents until you put it to them in a form they can understand.
That leaves us with a rather unsatisfying moral relativism when it comes to deciding whether or not it’s OK to enjoy playing violent games. If you can distinguish between reality and fantasy, then it’s OK for you to enjoy these games. If you can’t, then you should stay away from them. I don’t have a hard and fast answer, and I told the journalist that my answer was really just the beginning of a conversation. All I can say is that I’m grateful for the question that the game journalist asked me. He made me stop and think about the event I was attending.
That also gets me to the point of this column.
When I’m covering stories on a minute-to-minute basis, I don’t step back and think about them. With this weekly column, I hope to do that more, and to engage in a conversation with readers about the events of the week.
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