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Some thoughts on Sandy Hook and violence in games

Last week's tragic shooting in Connecticut has, not surprisingly, reopened the debate on gun control, mental health care, and violence in modern popular culture. There are, of course, those who will scapegoat videogames and use them as a conveniently simple excuse for an all too complicated issue. And the extremely vocal gaming community will respond with the fact that there's no measurable link between games and a predisposition to commit horrible acts of violence. Tonight, the NRA put out its response to calls for gun control by saying that they are willing to talk, but only if we also review the effects of video games - incorrectly equating the tools which actually kill to entertainment with no clear link to real world violence. That said, as our entire country (and the world) looks inward to attempt to salvage some good from this awful tragedy, it would be shortsighted for gamers to merely refuse to look at our hobby, which, whether we like it or not, is overwhelmingly focused on acts of violence.

I'll be the first to say that I enjoy the feeling of pulling a trigger in a game; I get a visceral thrill from fighting my way through a battlefield, nailing a perfect headshot, and generally living out the kind of action movie fantasy that I'll never get to - or luckily, have to - experience in real life.That said, it's time for gamers to really start to take a look at what else games can do beyond violence and killing - not for the sake of "the children," or to placate the Fox News commentators who point to games as a reason for real world violence - but instead for the sake of its development as an entertainment medium.

Whenever I hear people talk about what a landmark in gaming Half Life 2 was, I think back to my time with that game and a single issue that always bothered me. I have no qualms saying it's one of the best games ever made for what it did for graphics, physics, and immersion in a world, but I've always had a hard time reconciling this highly detailed world filled with rich characters with the fact that Gordon's only means of interacting with the environment is by pulling the trigger. Standing around in cutscenes, with no way to interact other than to fire bullets at my allies never sat right with me. It's always felt like there was something missing.

Games like Call of Duty, arguably, aspire for even less than Half Life, with their focus purely being on shooting and a fetishistic take on military hardware. Now, I'm not saying this doesn't have its place, though for my part, I feel as if I've lost interest in that style of game. But, what games need, especially from a PR perspective, is a sense of balance. Violence is an amazing narrative device when used correctly - but so is romance, comedy, rich dialogue. It's just that violence is the easiest of those things to pull off in a game given current technology - not to mention it's easier to build a game on mechanics that have come before it which are already familiar to both gamers and developers.

I this transition is already beginning to take place and gamers should champion it. It began with indie games that have become the medium's equivalent of art house cinema, but it's becoming a bit more common. The mainstream success of Telltale's Walking Dead could easily be looked back upon as a turning point for games. Just think about it, one of the most popular and acclaimed games of the past year is centered around protecting and setting a good example for an 8 year old girl. Sure, it has violence and gore, but they're only used when needed to move the plot along - far more of the game is focused around small, human moments. We need more of this, and I hope we get it - it's the best defense against the argument that games are only about violence and death. In the wake of the awful event in Sandy Hook, the image that gamers present to the outside world shouldn't be a soldier with an assault rifle, but Lee comforting and protecting Clementine from the horrors that plague her world.