[Originally written several months ago, it is the precursor to my recent entry, "And Justice for Whom?". It is also the third chapter in a book in progress.]

The effects and affects of violence in video games on society and its individual members has been a long drawn out debate. From the days of Wolfenstein 3D onward, parents, psychologists, and politicians continue to claim that children exposed to violent video games are more prone to acting out in violence. Is there any merit to these claims and if so, to what extent?

Is video game violence something to be aware of and alarmed about? Should game developers be more conscientious of the audience and the social trends to help keep consumers safe? On whose shoulders shall this impossible responsibility rest?


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These are common questions asked by both sides of the debate surrounding video game violence. Often times they find placement in a chewed up rhetoric full of misleading facts from ‘researchers’ and ‘doctors’, sensational hyperbole spewed by politicians pandering votes, or developers justifying unethical practices and retailers clinging to profit support. Sometimes they become entrenched in mind-numbing idiocy and immediately dumped on floor by a ‘lazy parent’ or the self-titled hardcore gamer unwilling to do anything that might disrupt an entire afternoon of mainstream gaming.

No matter where the questions find themselves, regardless of who asks, and irrespective of presentation, answers given all result in the most alarming aspect of the debate: grammar.

Terms like violent rapidly transform from a simple adjective and become the centerpiece for a war – a war on an abstract noun. The first and usually most important casualty of any war is grammar. Semantics and context, which lead to understanding facts, take a back seat to private agenda and spiral into a culture war.

A sharp contrasting departure from previous culture wars involving a government and society, video game violence envelops a much larger culture war between society and corporations. Modern society has already seen culture wars on issues such as homosexual rights, gun control, abortion, and women in combat, and at times still carries on a fight over them. This culture war is entirely different due to the battlefield being both intangible and virtual. With society and corporations equally championing First Amendments Rights, and corporations claiming personhood, the government has limited reach on intervention leaving the outcome determined by us – society and our mettle to find an honest answer.

"It is of interest to note that while some dolphins are reported to have learned English – up to fifty words used in correct context – no human being has been reported to have learned Dolphinese"

-Dr. Carl Sagan, 1934-1996 (American Astronomer, Writer, and Scientist)

The context of violence is the most often overlooked portion of the discussion and is what really needs the most consideration before chastised as something negative.

The point of fact toward violence in video games being harmful, helpful, or innocuous overall is not the purpose of this piece. This piece is simply to put into perspective of how the method of debate adds to the disingenuousness of both sides.

Proponents on both sides of the violence debate tend to put forth a stack of evidence as to the affects of violence or lack of conclusion to the affects. Truthfully, a large number of studies and tests made to support both claims do a good job of being little more than confusing. On one side, countless studies alleging numbers of over two thousand over the course of thirty years claiming a direct link between perceived violence and behaviors; on the other attacks on methodology, credibility of source and questioning of numbers. Clearly, someone has an agenda – but what could it be?

Whether or not someone feels violence in video games is at a point where it is excessive, pointless, and detracts from the experience or not, violence is a part of video games. It is something some gamers believe makes the game fun, an objective of some games and adds to the intensity. But, what the act of violence and the context of that violence plays a much larger role in the debate than has been given focus.

Imagine a scene in your head. In the scene, there are women screaming, men crying, children yelling, and blood everywhere.

How many of you thought this?

How many of you thought this?

Without pictures, the description of those scenes could easily fit either image accurately even in the order presented, but without certain details such as a setting, it lacks defining context.

"All our work, our whole life is a matter of semantics, because words are the tools with which we work, the material out of which laws are made, out of which the Constitution was written. Everything depends on our understanding of them"

-Felix Frankfurter 1882-1965 (American Jurist)

When the topic of violence comes up, we automatically assume the negatives. We assume that blood is always bad in reference to violence because violent acts generally result in bloodshed and because violence is bad. We assume yelling and crying as at least brought about by anger and sadness, therefore negative.

We get an image of what is happening without given a proper setting and we do this because our minds fill in the gaps where context and semantics normally are. The truth is, most people consider birth to be the most intimate, and an overwhelmingly positive thing in their life, and yet the irony is that birth shares so much with negative perceptions of violence: blood, crying, yelling, and screaming.

A recent article on Smashing Magazine by Niels Matthijis titled When One Word is More Meaningful than a Thousand, drove a point about making coding simpler through consistent semantics and highlighted a few core concepts to effective communication;  notably:

  • The combination of context and proper semantics ensures a solid structure.
  • Semantics is all about identifying objects, but it goes beyond simply slapping a label on every object that comes your way.
  • Semantics have no point when they are not applied consistently…

To illustrate, Matthijis shows readers the popular ‘fail’ bananas: hanging above several bunches of bananas is a sign that reads ‘Curved Yellow Fruit 40 cents’. Matthijis uses this image as an example of how semantics are important in defining both context and identity. Without a proper label, shoppers can only assume that the fruit is bananas but there are numerous ‘curvy yellow fruits’ such as lemons, squash, apples, and pears. Therefore, which ‘curvy yellow fruit’ the sign depicts remains unclear without previous experience of the shopper. How would the shopper know the sign wasn't talking about Squash? They're also curved yellow fruit.

Of course, there is now also a consistency issue between stores selling bananas.

Matthijis originally applied these concepts to web programming, but they extend  far beyond into daily communication.

To apply this to video games and the debate on violence we need but to only look upon two very specific titles: Mortal Kombat and Modern Warfare 2. This is not about which is a better game, more popular, or has more fans. This is about objectively looking at the principle of violence and the lack of metric involved in labeling things as affective.

Modern Warfare 2 and Mortal Kombat both received heavy criticism for the abundance of graphic violence, representation of blood, brutality within the game, marketing devices, and advertisements, by gamers and non-gamers alike. Conversely, both also ignited a global flash-fire interest in video games that prompted good and bad gaming revolutions on social and political levels.

The two games also contain ample amounts of violence and have a point of violence; a struggle between two forces, whether internal or external, during a time when diplomatic talks and civilized meeting has long passed for reasons given only by circumstance. It is war of sorts, and there be no pens present to outmatch the sword. However, the three games while ‘excessively’ violent have different contexts to that violence yet remain ambiguously labeled ‘excessively violent’.

Developers and publishers want to justify their actions and vilify the detractors as a collective hypersensitive blow-hard using inconclusive ‘science’ to support claims of negative social affects. Fine, but in order to do this developers need to be clear in their own messages within the products they produce.

Looking Modern Warfare 2, players find themselves in a position where, as an undercover American operative infiltrating a terrorist cell who, to keep from blowing their cover, must kill civilians and police at an airport. Players may walk the first half of the mission and refrain from shooting civilians, but in order to complete the mission they must actively shoot Russian police.

The exploration of a moral grey area erodes under the context and motivations in which players find themselves. In order to advance the players have to kill authority figures, but if the player attempts taking the mission into their own hands and kill the terrorists, they cannot – the mission is becomes a failure and at no point can any amount of damage kill any of the terrorist group. What then becomes the point, especially when at the end of the mission the player character dies? The point is that the terrorists were looking to incite a war. Killing the terrorists would have made the entire game moot, fair enough. Killing the civilians becomes an extra option and while their deaths did not add to players’ game statistics, killing Russian authorities did. Therefore, the overall flow of the game was untarnished by foregoing the mission, but players could not achieve as high a score or build towards achievements and trophies (though no trophy or achievement was handed out for anything strictly in the “No Russian” mission). The words of Infinity Ward / Activision and the game mechanics of Modern Warfare 2 are telling contradicting stories.

Looking at Mortal Kombat, the game is not trying to make any point or explore some great philosophical conundrum. Instead, the game is nothing short of a digital ‘rock ‘em sock ‘em’ robot’ fight with blood and character specific gore infested fight finishes. The motivation behind the violent behavior is basic competition in which there is one a single victor. It is not a team effort – it is a cut and dry, in your face, full of action slug fest which livens things up and gets set aside from sport-like boxing with decapitations, fire, freezing, acid baths, etc. It had shock value and little more; pointless violence one might say.

What makes the two games different? Context of violence.

Even in this presentation, there is a key element missing: Us – our perceptions and the motivation to be moved by them.

Our perceptions, the way we make connections, hinges upon both semantics and context. On the surface we can state something of a basic truth about violent equality within both games, but only until we become specific that the differences emerge:

"Both games are equally violent games"

This is true – both games contain violence.

"Both games have equal violence"

Debatable, but true in principle.

"Both games portray violence equally"

Not true at all.

Semantics and Context makes a world of difference, yet the debate tends to keep both games and all violence contained, in a stasis of generalization; frozen and faceless.

Over time the level of violence has risen from a simple noggin knockin' wooden mallet of Bugs Bunny to a close to photorealistic intestines being ripped from the torn belly of mythical beasts in God of War 3 and the pile of dead civilians in Modern Warfare 2? A better question, what possessed anyone to believe that it is not okay to sell "Song of the South" in stores because someone might think it racist, but perfectly okay to create and sell interactive games where points are scored for flaying flesh and rupturing a skull – and then defend tooth and nail free release and sale of them? Is possible offense and degree of violence towards a specific group less of an brow raising offense than virtual interactive violence indiscriminately?

Perhaps part of the answer lies in a recent report by Live Science indicating that today’s younger generation, nicknamed Generation Me (anyone born in the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s), display a score 40% lower on a measure of empathy than their elders did thirty years ago.

Sara Konrath, a researcher at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, says that the current group of college students may be some of the “most self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident and individualistic in recent history.”

Context of the study aside, many are sure to find themselves a little uptight about Konrath's allegations, but looking over the growing trend of social media, her perceptions and allegations seem to have a backing with truth.

The web is full of websites that attempt to gain notoriety, and feed themselves through attachment to social media sites. Not only is this a perfect business model and strategy for websites trying to get popular and / or turn a profit, but it promotes by example the same selfish behaviors in their users.

Social media, one of the modern trends gracing every home and nearly every handheld device on the market today. It is all about expressing 'your' views and what's happening with 'you' and because social media methods engender self-absorption, users heavily engaged in social media exhibit the behaviors everywhere. For example, with Twitter, the point is to express what is going through one's mind at any particular moment; even if someone finds the 'teet' relevant and no errant motives exist in the 'tweeting' strategy (i.e. shameless promotions, ads, spamming, etc.), it is self-indulgent which is a selfish behavior.

Perhaps then, the common social media outlets lack a strict strategy for users, or at least only enforce the initial strategy for as long as that strategy is profitable outlet?

AshleyMadison.com, a website with a social media set-up also has a business model directed at uniting people comfortable with participating in infidelity. AshleyMadison.com and sites similar certainly hopes that reports like Konrath's continue supporting selfish behaviors leading people to indulge themselves irrespective of the promises they make. Clearly, the site strategies can and do shift to adjust for profitable margins. And, it is clear that in the externalization of social media concepts the term 'profit' applies to more than money. Does the debate regarding violence in video games have an area that profits both or either side?

While there is a clear bias to the perception of the AshleyMadison.com staff and perhaps some of the findings thus potentially taken from original context, it is important to note that Generation Me has never known a world that put duty before self, and believes that the needs of the individual should come first. Unlike those in previous generations, Generation Me was raised with the whisperings of "You must love yourself before you can love someone else”, so it is not the result of outright selfishness, but rather entrenched culture.

Generation Me is actually two generations combined: Generation X and Generation Y. Generation Y has also been called "Next Generation", "Nintendo Generation" and "iGen" to note the heavy reliance upon modern technology to interact with one another. This indicates an decline on frequency of key components in inter-personal communication such as body language and tone of voice – two prominent measures of context.

This begs the question: If those in Generation Me show a decrease in empathy, could it indicate that the generation simply lacked empathy to begin with?

The answer to this question will not be answered until generation following Generation Me looks back comparatively against them and given the current social trends, wonder: Will they?

In the balance hangs the answer with the observation that children seldom listen to adults, but always copy them.

to be continued…

{Hopefully the book will reach completion around February or March of 2011 as it is around 30-40% complete currently, without any heavy editing started.}

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