If you spend any time following the gun control debate in the USA you quickly become familiar with one phrase from those trying to keep their guns in their hands: “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” I’ve been contemplating that idea in the context of computer games.
You see, I let my kids play first-person shooters. Not every first-person-shooter, but a fair range. I also play with them often enough to provide context and to be sure I know what they are doing. With a fair bit of forethought we played Left 4 Dead 2 together during the last school holidays. We played the low-gore option, but at a superficial level there’s not much more to the game than running about shooting things – there’s no way to sneak through the map for example.
In contrast, many parents don’t let their kids play games which revolve around shooting things. I’m not remotely criticizing that decision. However I find it fascinating that, just like in real life where a kid who is not allowed to have a toy gun will convert a stick or their fingers into a gun, kids get around the prohibition online. (By the way, see this astonishing story of a kid’s troubles at school after he ate bits of a strawberry Danish to make it look like a gun.)
Minecraft and Gary’s Mod are games basically designed around creation. They were designed to allow people to build things, to be creative. Minecraft, in particular, is so ubiquitous these days that it’s hard to find boys who don’t play it. And, with its blocky graphics and overt focus on creativity, it’s seen as an entirely safe.
But it takes virtually no effort to make Minecraft into a game where you can kill and damage to your heart’s content. Gary’s Mod is just as easy to turn into a shooting game and there you can summon relatively realistic animals and people to shoot at. And that’s exactly what a lot of kids do.
Now I write this with some trepidation. I haven’t done a scientific study. My entire sample group is my kids and their friends. But, with that mental health warning out of the way, I can say that it never ceases to astonish me how some kids can turn an otherwise peaceful game into a battlefield.
Then there are games like Ace of Spades, which pretty much is Minecraft made into a first person shooter. Part of what I find interesting there is that it’s clearly more acceptable to be shooting with lower-level graphics. That seems to be most people’s metric – the more cartoon-like and low-quality the graphics, the more likely kids will either be allowed to play or will be able to slip under their parents’ radar. Given that most of these games are multiplayer I’m not convinced that a blocky avatar makes an enormous conceptual difference when you know you are shooting at your mate Fred. And in some evidence of this I’ll return to Left 4 Dead 2. My ten-year-old son’s favoured avatar there is a huge, black man who likes wielding a shotgun. I have to tell you that the avatar makes no difference – when he’s grabbed by a zombie, that’s my son they’ve got and I’ll go back for him every time.
I’m not arguing that Minecraft is a violent game. My point is imply that kids will find the violence in anything if they want to. And, up to a point, I am arguing that in a multiplayer environment in particular the graphics matter less than the intent behind the actions. The lack of gore is important, but far less so if you being gore-lessly blown up is accompanied by your friend screaming in your ear that he’s happily done so. Those avatars represent people and it’s the intent of shooting your friend I have most difficulty with.
Give me a game with more gore where the kids work together and I am far happier with the violence. A bit of blood-splatter is not that significant unless you’re trying to inflict it on your friends. What you see on the screen is less important than the intent behind the players’ actions.
So I don’t see creativity or blocky graphics as a useful metric by which to judge a game. If the violence is inevitable, then there need to be different criteria. For me the best games are ones where the players work as a team against the computer rather than against each other. So in Left 4 Dead 2 players work as a team of four to negotiate the map through the zombie hordes. They have to work together, share resources and sacrifices, and engage in team tactics. Similarly in Team Fortress 2 there is a mode where the players work as a team to fight back waves of invading robots. These games have violence but its directed in a far more healthy way than when the players have to turn on each other.
Now, lest you think I’ surrounded by blood-thirsty children, I have to admit that it’s not every kid who turns every situation into a war. At a recent Nerf battle in the real world one of my son’s friends left me speechless. The game was pretty much a melee, just run around and shoot each other until you were the last boy or girl standing. The moment the game started, one of these kids took his Nerf gun, shot himself in the head and came over to chat with me. When I asked him what he was doing he simply said – “I have no interest in shooting anyone. This seemed the best way.”