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Video Games, Violence, and Society

June 30th, 2008 Comments off

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I love video games. Lots of us do. Yet our love is not always shared.

Video Games, Violence, and Society: A Fundamental Assessment

Since the tragic Columbine shootings, whose perpetrators were players of the revolutionary first-person-shooter Doom, video games have been called into question for their supposed negative effects on society. While this began, naturally, with investigation of the presence of violence in games, the backlash against video games has also entered the realm of sexual content, profanity, counter-productivity, and other social taboos. –more–>It is impossible to perfectly stratify discussion about video games in society into neat categories. With that in mind, one must contemplate the following facts when considering the place of video games in society, as I will in this paper. Video games are the product of the brilliance of technology, and conceptually they are the single medium that will come ever closer to the fullest representation of reality and pseudo-realities. However, there exists a conservative element of society that imagines that video games are empty, brain-draining activities upon which children and adults spend wasteful hours, leading them to violent or lewd behavior and to the breakdown of society.

Part of this element comes from inexperience with and ignorance of video games; another part comes from an arbitrary view of society and morality; and another part, fundamentally, comes from a subconscious hatred of the good for being good. Video games are not just mindless, substance-free, sugary candies for the brain. They, like all other media, have the ability to be beautiful, emotional, intelligent, poetic, reflective, or any other adjective one can find to describe a piece of art, yet they can do it in an exceptionally new way. They put the consumer in the driver’s seat, saying, “make this experience your own,” whether it is in custom character creation, open-ended problem-solving, or pervasive ethical quandaries. A full understanding of the educational and entertaining possibilities to be offered by the medium of video games, as well as the nature of its enemies, can lead to the full realization of its potential benefits.

Non-Ergodicity and Alternate Reality

A false assumption to make about video games, especially in the modern day, is that they are ergodic- predictable, repetitive, or otherwise banal. Quite contrarily, the nature of logic and modern technology’s ability to manifest that logic on the computer screen has demonstrated repeatedly that video games (and their scientific counterparts, computer models) have lead to new kinds of situations, interactions, and understandings of things never observed before. Even in terms of game design, games have been played and optimized beyond ways that game developers would have ever expected. Though older game design may have been more directly and linearly construction with fewer possibilities, newer games have capitalized on the presence of new technologies- as well as the experiences learned from past greats- to create dynamic gaming experiences.

The more characteristics and variables programmed into more individual objects and entities, the greater and greater exponentially the possibilities become. The gradual evolution of video games is not toward “realism” per se, but toward immersion: natural consistency and dynamics. It is nonsensical to ask for realism in a game about Dungeons & Dragons, a universe jam-packed with magic, but that does not mean that anything goes: the magic must act as believably as it can, as though the game were saying “if magic actually existed, this is how it would behave. ”

It is thus a misconception that video games provide the same singular, preprogrammed experience that movies or television provide. Though, of course, individuals have subjective responses to the same content in movies and television, games provide subjectivity of two orders: the first of the player, and the second of the content that is experienced itself. Beyond the simple spontaneity implemented into the games (randomized behavior of enemies, item appearances, etc. the actual subjective presence of the player- whether it is in his ability to operate his character or his choices of action- affects the outcome of what actually occurs on-screen. The greater in complexity a game becomes, the more and more this becomes true.

This facet of video games- their non-ergodicity- is by far their most important characteristic. It is, as we have seen, what makes them unlike any media ever before.

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Video Games, Violence, and Society (Part 2)

June 30th, 2008 Comments off

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Generally speaking, the power of computers has given us the ability to imagine different objects of totally diverse natures, program them into a system of laws of interaction, and then sit back and watch the show. Biologists can now see things that are very logically real, but do not have to be directly observed or deduced by hand anymore; one researcher speaks of DNA shuffling for forecasting genetic behaviors: “we used thermodynamics and reaction engineering to evaluate and model this complex reaction network so we can now predict where the DNA from different parent genes will recombine. “[1] Economists can imagine economic actors of certain preferences, assume they are utility maximizing, plug in the amount of resources available, and learn about what kinds of things people will produce. In the same regard, the video gamer can ask, “let’s say we have a mountain lion fighting a huge wasp; who will win, and will the fight be awesome or lame? ” The process is about imagining independent things and making assumptions about their characteristics, and then throwing them into a figurative box, shaking it, and then pouring it out to find out what is there.

Gaming as Art and Narrative

Some have argued that video games offer no valid mode of expression. In April 2002, U. S. District Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh, Sr. ruled that video games are not subject to first amendment protections under the constitution: “[There is] no conveyance of ideas, expression, or anything else that could possibly amount to speech. The court finds that video games have more in common with board games and sports than they do with motion pictures. “[2] Nothing could be farther from the truth, even besides the point that board games and even athletics can, too, be artistic in the creativity that goes into their rules and aesthetics. The games contemplated and cited in the court opinion, “Fear Effect,” “Doom,” “Mortal Kombat” and “Resident Evil,” were not only six to nine years old at the date of the court opinion, but had titles falsely cited as “Mortal Combat” and “Resident of Evil Creek. ”[3] This is testament to the fact that inexperience with video games has a strong positive productive relationship with total, ape-like ignorance about them.

Though to some degree this paper is guilty of it, the primary problem with much formal academic research into video games is its insistence on “boxing” characteristics of games into neat little propositional packages. Usually, it is the result of an infrequent video game player conducting a study, or a frequent gamer attempting to appeal to a broader audience with his writing. The problem with this approach lies in attempting to convey the facets of such a complex kind of thing to someone who has never experienced it. Simply to say, “imagine something like a movie, where the player holds a controller that moves a character around on screen and makes him do things” clearly fails to capture all the qualitative essence of video games, especially in the present-day context. It is the equivalent of trying to explain to an 11th-century Catholic Bishop the concept of a car as “imagine something like a carriage, but one that moves by itself. ” He, too, would condemn it, probably as the product of witchcraft, because he would not understand how it worked. The attempt, then, to “sound-bite” video game research certainly creates skewed perceptions of their supposed social implications.

Thankfully, the 7th District Court (which affected a much broader jurisdiction than the Limbaugh ruling) had previously upheld video games as free speech. The bottom line is that inanimate visual art, audio, and films are protected under freedom of expression, no matter whether their substance is contributory to public discourse or not. The same should go for video games, and relying on prejudice against the “new guy” will not suffice. Many games require just as much, if not plenty more effort than a single painting or a book. Development teams often number between thirty and two thousand people, frequently allocating many members simply to developing the plot and characters and making them believable. Besides all the technological input that must go into the game in order to make it playable on the user’s computer, the art for the “look” of the game must be drafted and implemented into three dimensional graphics, while voice-overs and sound effects must be created and integrated into the entire process seamlessly.

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Video Games, Violence, and Society (Part 3)

June 30th, 2008 Comments off

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A good game must be one with entertaining gameplay, an interesting plot, and appealing graphics and sound, meanwhile operating on a budget and somehow turning a profit.

The desire for interactivity in entertainment is, in some regards, a product of social evolution. Instead of watching television, children often play in imaginary worlds. Many adventurous persons have a passion for exploring the wilderness or traveling to different cities, to enjoy the alternative aesthetics and atmosphere. It is this same spirit that leads to the appreciation of quality video games. Movies and books do not afford the reader the kind of flexibility and freedom that video games do; the actions of the characters always happen no matter what the reader says or does, and all he can do is try to imagine otherwise. The video game provides the interface by which the audience can instead be the protagonist, for a change.

Many games, especially role-playing games, offer character customization schemes that both affect the aesthetic role of the character on screen (clothes, hair and skin color, body shape, facial features, etc. as well as his substantive role (attributes, skills, and abilities). Throughout the game, characters can collect items or earn experience that gives them more abilities, often at the player’s choice. The result is character development, which leads to close identification with the character at play and even sentimental value (try deleting someone’s character in World of Warcraft and receiving an indifferent response).

The Sims creator Will Wright keenly observed that video games are the only medium in which anyone can feel guilt about the actions of fictional characters. [4] The concept of ethics and character in video games is by no means a new phenomenon. Several games have also offered choices of actions with moral consequences. In Lord British’s Ultima series, a chronological and consistent lineage of role-playing games, one persistent feature (particularly in the older games of the series) was the determination of a character’s attributes via qualitative and ethical questions, organized along the virtues as set out by the storyline’s main religion. “Thou art sworn to uphold a Lord who participates in the forbidden torture of prisoners,” it states. “Each night their cries of pain reach thee. Dost thou: Show Compassion by reporting the deeds, or Honor thy oath and ignore the deeds? ”[5]

Most other games place ethical questions as part of the main plot and small side plots. In Deus Ex (2000), a revolutionary combination of a first-person-shooter with a role-playing game, the protagonist is faced with a startling amount of moral decisions. He must decide whether to vanquish defeated enemies at his mercy or not; he can opt to steal from or swindle the honest, for a higher payoff; at the end of the game, he must choose a course of action that will decide one of three fates for the entire world. At some junctures, the consequences of a choice he makes have little to no effect on the gameplay (no reward). This blend of moral quandaries that only sometimes have extrinsic payoffs serves to make the game far more realistic by forcing the player to think critically about his decisions.

The Effects of Video Games on Society, and the Effects of Society on Video Games

The most controversial issue surrounding video games is the omnipresence of violence as central themes of their gameplay. A 2003 study of 90 popular video games discovered that 90% of teen- or mature-rated games 57% of games rated for all audiences contained violence. Of course, the entertainment value of games need not lie in flying about on dragons, shooting fireballs, and killing police officers. The Sims (2001) is a perfect demonstration of “life as a video game. ” It is precisely a game about the mundane; its tagline- “Build. Buy. Live. ”- is exactly what the player must do. Nevertheless, violence is the chief attraction in the contemporary video game world. One reason that watching violence is so appealing is that it entails experiences of a certain kind. Likewise, the reason that “playing violence” is so appealing is that it requires skills of a certain kind. The problem for us in the civilized world is that we can not have either without compromising our ethics (or our personal safety, for the more cynical), except for when we simulate it via fantasy of some kind (media, contact sports, or mock-warfare).

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Video Games, Violence, and Society (Part 4)

June 30th, 2008 Comments off

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There is nothing irrational about enjoying the inhabitation of the life of a thief, mass murderer, bully, B-52 bomber pilot, or nuclear missile commander. There is no ethical hazard inherent in enjoying those positions merely as artistic forms or mental playthings. Enjoyment of a game like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is not indicative of a pathological desire to commit crime and other acts of evil that is only restrained by the physical threat of retaliation from society. Empirical evidence simply lies against it. We are surrounded by every day examples of upstanding people who have read and written books with gruesome violence, watched gory movies, and killed a hooker or two in Grand Theft Auto. Regardless, some would try to have us think otherwise.

The social-moral argument for the prohibition of video games, just like any other means of expression or form of entertainment, is a mess of slippery slopes. Much of it stems from the misguided belief that society is some kind of input-output machine, which gobbles up what it is allowed to have and spits out some result that is supposedly representative of its goodness. Accordingly, this view treats people as such machines, further making the claim implicitly that these individuals belong to society. It is the belief that a person exists only as a means to the ends of society, which has bizarre implications; it logically entails the view, for example, that suicide should be outlawed because when a person kills himself, he is depriving society of the taxes he pays.

The correct way of treating this issue is by looking at individuals as ends in themselves with specific individual rights that cannot be violated. Trying to argue that video games have absolutely no effect whatsoever on anyone’s proclivity for violence is not only false, but it implicitly cedes the moral ground to the prohibitionist by suggesting that if he were empirically right, the prohibition would be justified. This line of thinking shifts the responsibility for violent acts from the individual to society.

If it were a matter of inevitability that violent videogames would “kill your father and rape your mother,” there would exist grounds for their prohibition. Contrarily, the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of consumers of violent videogames do not commit acts of violence because of videogames any more than they do because they are treated poorly at work or are heavily intoxicated by alcohol. If the problem lies in discriminating fantasy from reality, which is essentially what it is, why not be concerned with the responsibility of parents for their children’s upbringing?

There is yet another objection to violent video games, tangentially related to the growing “virtual” nature of military technologies, including remote-controlled bombers and guided missiles: desensitization. The argument goes that, because exposure to violent acts is habitual and separated from consequences in one’s immediate proximity, one will become less responsive to violence and more inclined to commit it. As I have written before, making a fuss of the issue of “desensitization” indicates a severe problem with society’s way of thinking in totality. If looked at on an ad hoc basis, exposure to violence is dangerous because it somehow reduces our fear and reverence for it, which allegedly is a good thing for us to have. Yet there is far more to it than that. In a prior essay, I argued,

Despite all these benefits, some object to the violent nature of the vast majority of video games. A common grievance against violence in media, particularly video games, is that it “desensitizes” children- and even adults- to the horrors of violence. This is tantamount to blaming oxygen for fire. It implies that our emotional sensitivity to violence determines our attitudes toward it. This may be the case for many people, but then does the problem lie in what they are exposed to, or in what they use to form their attitudes? [6]

Society is, once again, stuck in this belief of the individual as a stimulus-response machine with no control over what drives him. In this case, it is apparently the instinctive, negative response to a gruesome image that prevents us from doing violence. As I continue to argue, however, that idea is nonsense:

Granted, our natural aversion to violence is perhaps a built-in moral safeguard against wrongdoing, but what would make us different from animals if we relied only on innate predispositions? Simply put, an experience does not have to be emotionally traumatizing for it to bear moral significance. In the absence of moral values, fear, ignorance, and indifference are the only real deterrents against wrongdoing; when something disrupts this contingent balance, it is disingenuous to blame the disruptor and not the conditions that preceded it. [7]

Admittedly, my “oxygen-fire” analogy is stolen from James Madison’s Federalist No. 10, in which Madison discusses the danger of factionalism in politics, and possible ways to prevent it.

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Video Games, Violence, and Society (Part 5)

June 30th, 2008 Comments off

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One such way would be to eliminate the lifeblood of factions: liberty. Yet he concludes that this is an absurd result. In the same regard, a great thing like a video game whose consumption just so happens to be an act of individual liberty cannot be blamed when the supposed dangers “caused” by it can be prevented by the animate and thinking individual taking responsibility for action, as opposed to placing the blame upon lines of computer code.

The Real Social Gains of Video Games

For all talk about damage to society, even in the context of the existence numerous individuals lacking education to properly harness the gains of violent video games, there are many who have benefited from the virtual world. Video games provide a new ground upon which competitive urges can be peacefully satisfied. While before, only athletics and a handful of board games (like chess) offered that opportunity, the ever-expansive possibilities of computing allow greater and more diverse tests of mental skill. The internet allows for the effective social consumption of games, especially for those with limited mobility or those living in rural areas. Furthermore, the presence of the internet amplifies competitiveness by bringing players of many different skill-sets globally together, ensuring that players are more likely to be matched with challenging opponents, leading to faster and more pronounced evolution of skills.

That the U. S. military has used the video game format for its training for almost two decades now, and continues to do so, is testament to the usefulness of it in developing skill sets. Some critics like David Grossman might argue that video games “train our children to kill,” but his accusation predicates on the same notion as the accusations of all other game critics: that games are played and learned from outside of meaningful cultural and moral contexts, with a lack of discernment between fantasy and reality.

Growing thematic and symbolic education is not out of the question either. The overwhelming re-visitation of historical events such as World War II in numerous video games over the past decade has given gamers of all ages the ability to experience combat in the ruins of Stalingrad, the barren fields of North Africa, and most significantly the terrifying beaches of Normandy. These re-enactments, with the improvement of technology, have taught players more and more the nature of the sacrifices made by real individuals on those battlefields.

Some of this thematic material, of course, is the cause for part of the violent assault on video games. Their content can very much be subversive to the established interests to society, yet in a very compelling and entertaining way. To the social conservative, this is a devastating combination. As it was with Rock & Roll, more and more people are growing to love video games, and resilient social elements are hating it. In the 1950s, rock music was used as a scapegoat for social problems, and video games will be no exception to this trend. In spite of this, the gaming community is in an enviable position to put up a large fight. The intellectual nature of video games has led to the fusion of the greatest minds and producers in society- engineers, philosophers, artists, anyone who loves interactive experience- to the same interest, in preserving their right to be entertained how they please. It has also, appropriately, led to a wry smugness which ridicules and exposes “the social order” for what it truly is: the attempt to impose arbitrary values on unsuspecting individuals, via fear or guilt, if necessary.

There is no doubt that some video games are, plainly, junk, as the critics allege. They offer little in the way of wholesome or quality fun, instead following in the footsteps of the movie theater junk heap- but this is a fact that the gaming community recognizes, out of which great meta-entertainment is made. [8] Regardless of what contingent trash may float through our space-time, the strength and potential of the medium must be recognized. Just as for many major world events there were defining photographs that changed their outcomes or symbolically marked their turning points, video games may one day, too, become instruments of change.

“War, what is it good for? Making totally sweet videogames. ”


[1] “Computer Model Predicts Outcome of DNA Shuffling.

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Video Games, Violence, and Society (Part 6)

June 30th, 2008 Comments off

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” http://www. engr. psu. edu/news/News/2001%20Press%20Releases/March/maranas. html

[2] Wagner, James Au. “Playing Games with Free Speech. ” Salon. http://dir. salon. com/story/tech/feature/2002/05/06/games_as_speech/index. html

[3] Ibid. From a gaming standpoint, this is hilarious. “Evil creek”?

[4] Jenkins, Henry. Reality Bytes: Eight Myths About Video Games Debunked. http://www. pbs. org/kcts/videogamerevolution/impact/myths. html

[5] Pulled from http://www. beastwithin. org/users/wwwwolf/hacks/avatar/. The site simulates the test as it appears in the actual game, and at the end produces the resulting character of your choices.

[6] Khawand, Christopher. “War is a Force that gives us l337 Sk1llz: Why video games are more than just a diversion. ”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Google “worst video games of all time” and browse for a little; you will see what I mean.

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