My belief that video games don’t cause real world violence are no secret. There’s no science behind the idea that it does and there never has been. It’s just Tertullian all over again.
That said, there are a few things about modern war games, especially shooters like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor: Warfighter that are starting to trouble me.
I don’t think games cause violence. But they are a part of culture: They can play things up or tone things down. And I think the war games are starting to cross a few lines that I’m not sure they can come back from.
#5) Hiring Oliver North
We’ve already gotten into this, but it bears repeating that Oliver North is a convicted criminal currently enjoying an undeserved reputation among certain circles that in no way makes him ethically clear enough to be plugging a video game in any way, shape, or form.
That in of itself demonstrates a lack of awareness on Activision’s part. But it’s hand-in-hand with…
#4) The Jingoistic Rah-Rah Bulls***
These games are, in terms of writing, Team America: World Police, except with zero self awareness.
No, seriously. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is a series I don’t hesitate to refer to as having a stupid story. Battlefield isn’t much better. These games are, as fiction, so brutally divorced from modern geopolitics and even basic reality that I wonder if it was written by an adult, or by the developer’s day care.
The problem is how often these fictions adhere to party lines and “acceptable” bad guys. The new Call of Duty has us going after the Chinese, and it’s troubling how many defense contracts are centered around the idea of attacking China or vice versa.
I’m exempting games like Homefront or Spec Ops: The Line because they make a conscious attempt to break from reality a bit. But most of these games like to pretend they’re realistic.
Hey, speaking of reality…
#3) You Can Not Only Use Real Guns, You Can Buy Them From EA
Here’s a list of EA’s “partners” for Medal of Honor: Warfighter. You can buy a sniper rifle from these people.
Look, I firmly believe that most gun owners are responsible adults who respect the safety of others, but the idea of using a gun in game and then buying it over the Internet reads like a bad piece of “socially conscious” science fiction.
Except it’s actually happening. EA looked at the idea of facilitating selling weapons to its customers and said “Oh man, that’s so awesome, let’s do that.”
That leads me to my next problem.
#2) The Attempts To Pretend It’s Authentic
I’ve never been in law enforcement or the military, but I know people who work in both areas, and I have enough common sense to know there’s a vast gulf between what these games present as combat and what combat actually is. There’s certainly an enormous gap between pressing a button and having strings of code re-enact an over-the-top death by machine gun and actually firing a machine gun and killing a human being with it.
And yet they still push themselves as perfect simulations of the military experience.
These are games, not simulations. Anybody who wants to argue otherwise needs to break out some ArmA II. Again, I don’t think the vast majority of players believe they’re doing anything other than playing a game. There are a few souls delusional enough to think they’re Marines because of their k/d ratio, but they’ve got other emotional problems anyway.
All of which leads me to my main point here.
#1) All Of This Combines To Be Corporately Irresponsible
Games are stories, and stories have power.
Not to influence our actions, but every story we read changes our view of the world a little bit. This is why we generally seek out stories, true or not, that reinforce our beliefs. The best stories can actually override the very powerful controls we’ve got in place to not hear anything that might tell us we’re wrong and actually get us to think.
This is why Spec Ops: The Line was a game I gave a rapturous review of, because the story was ultimately one about responsibility and balancing the ability to hurt and kill others without crossing moral lines, no matter how blurry they may be, and the horrible cost of failing to do so.
In short, it was the exact opposite of most war games these days. Keep in mind that the Modern Warfare series exists in a world where Russia is essentially overwhelmed by a terrorist organization and Battlefield and Medal of Honor will both have you chasing after fictional and real terrorists, respectively. You are, unequivocally, the good guys.
The reality is, of course, a lot more complicated. And every time we oversimplify the realities of war and geopolitics, we do both a disservice.
Activision, EA, and others have every right to make any game they want. I’m not calling for these games to be pulled from the shelves. I am asking, however, that these publishers look at the games they’re putting out and ask themselves if these are really what they want to be remembered for.