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Video Games, Violence, and Society

June 30th, 2008


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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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