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The Rules of the Game: Teach a Boy to shoot…

June 12, 1998

"These games are teaching kids to be violent!"

I can't tell you the number of times I've been accosted by people (usually older women) about "How can I create games that are so nasty?" and "Don't I think these games make the kids more violent?". Granted, for a while I was doing user group tours while wearing a company tee-shirt that said "I like to kill things. It makes me happy.", so maybe I was asking for it, but still it always pissed me off. I knew there was no connection between violence and video games, so I felt comfortable about what we were doing.

The same arguments have been made about media being the cause of the world's ills since mass media was created. EC Comics was brought before Congress for contributing to the violence of Juvenile Delinquency during the 50's. And in the early 80's, the stick figure video game of Berzerk was hauled up and given the same dire warnings of child-brain corruption that was given to Mortal Kombat 15 years later.

If video games contribute to violence why is it that Japan and Canada have had the same, or in the case of Japan, much worse video-game violence drilled into pre-pubescent games for a generation and a half now, yet they don't have the street violence we have.

Violence wouldn't be caused by, oh, I don't know, let's say extreme poverty, family history, or other horrible circumstances.

My favorite trump argument in this debate is the legal one. In a country where sleazy lawyers have tried every defense under the sun to weasel people out of admission of responsibility, up to, and including the famous Twinkie defense, where the defendant claimed that an excess of processed sugar was to blame for his murder of a San Francisco mayor in the late 70s, we have never seen the video-game defense. "Your honor, if my client hadn't spent his formative years in search of the double shot-gun, he never would have picked one up in real life." (Actually, that doesn't sound so bad…) If there had been even the most pathetically poor-science report with anything resembling a correlation between real violence and video-games, we, and some poor judge, would have seen it.

Recent Events Lead to Some Fresh Thoughts

But, a realization came to me last week that made me really question my preconceived notions on the relationship between violence and a specific subset of games and their particular interface.

The recent set of kids going after their class-mates heavily armed has disturbed me greatly. I still don't believe that the games are the trigger for that kind of behavior. When a mind is stretched to the edge, you can't blame the form that the insanity chooses to express itself. The Beatles were not the cause of Manson being insane, he did that all on his own. But there is an issue of skills.

When one of these kids snaps, I find myself thinking that there is also blame on the things that facilitated that expression of insanity being so amplified in it's effect. For example, it's a lot easier to kill a loved one in a moment of anger with a gun then with hands. That these kids were able to get weapons is terrible, and that they were skilled in their use is something that we need to take a look at.

Games like Quake are not the ones that I have problems with. What dangerous skill set is being learned here? The ability to fly across the numeric keypad never killed anybody. But Viruta-Cop is another matter. Creating accurate reproductions of Guns and the skills necessary to fire them…is it really necessary for the game? Is the game worse for creating proxies that still fire, that still require skill, but that the skill that we imprint in these minds doesn't map onto something that none of us want to see expressed into reality?

This is the conclusion that I find myself coming to: We do have a real responsibility here. Not for influencing the behavior of others, but for using our games to train a skill that none of us particularly wants filling the world.

Think of a better way to build the game…

Unemployed with a Theater Degree from Brandeis back in 1984, Ben Calica has been making a living in the computer and gaming business in various incarnations since then, Including: Founding Editor of New Media Magazine, First Toys Editor for Wired, one of the few single boys to write for Parents Magazine. Product Manager for the multimedia authoring system, SuperCard Director of Production for CyberFlix; (design credits on Lunicus, Creepy Castle, and conceptual design for Skull Cracker) Product Manger for the ill-fated modem for the Sega Genesis, the Edge, for AT&T [which, by the way, we decided stood for All Tiny Testi---maybe I'd better tell that another time]; Worked for NeXT long enough to get into real good argument with Steve Jobs; And recently was the guy behind Apple Game Sprockets...

He did a bunch of work on interactive drama (wrote script for MacWorld CD-ROM game of the year in 1993), before he decided it just didn't work. Spends a lot of free time now lecturing on multi-player/virtual world stuff. For a day job he works as Director of Product Development for ThinkFish, an artistic rendering company that recently merged with Viewpoint Datalabs. He could show you the secret desktop software he's working on, but then he'd have to kill you.

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