It’s time for the videogames industry to face the gun issue


Videogames are not responsible for senseless gun slaughters such as the latest horrific example in Connecticut. This does not mean, however, that it’s perfectly okay for the games industry to carry on as though these incidents don’t happen. It’s time for those with the money and the power when it comes to commissioning and designing games to bear this ugly truth in mind as they continue to steer the industry in whichever direction they choose. Some would claim that making changes as a direct result of real-world horrors is an admission of guilt. It’s not. I’m not saying it’s time for the industry to admit guilt; I’m saying it’s time for the games industry to grow the hell up.

For those of you already pouting and stamping, snarling that I’m an idiot for wanting to take your violent games away – that’s not what I want at all. I enjoy playing all sorts of games, including violent ones. I would recommend Flower to anybody in a heartbeat, but I’ll also happily admit that Call of Duty 4 is one of my all-time favourite games. I played and thoroughly enjoyed the head-popping adventure of Zombi U, which I reviewed favourably. I am even one of those prepared to defend the inclusion of the infamous “No Russian” sequence in Modern Warfare 2. I am not of the opinion that any existing violent game should be banned, however dumb. Nor do I believe that no more violent games should be produced. In fact, I am certain that many unreleased bloodfests – including those featuring real-life weaponry – will provide me with dozens upon dozens of hours of guilt-free enjoyment

Before I set out the changes I’d like to see, I’ll explain why I want to see them. It boils down to one simple fact that year after year many gamers, developers and publishers alike fail to acknowledge: the games industry does not exist in a vacuum. Say it out loud. The games industry does not exist in a vacuum.

The videogames business has over the years grown into a global, multi-billion dollar concern that reaches out across virtually all languages, ages, races and creeds. Though games will still be picked out lazily as a scapegoat for tragedies at least a few times a year, newspapers and other media outlets do recognise that a large proportion of their audience are actively buying and playing videogames. This has resulted in some farcical Orwellian doublethink, as Eurogamer has done an excellent job of reporting in the case of The Sun’s linking Call of Duty to the Connecticut killer (who deserves to disappear into a pit of anonymity).

I live in the UK. Nonetheless, I feel confident that were I to go to my nearest games retailer and pick any ten titles at random, at least six would (regardless of genre) feature Americanised spelling and/or exclusively/almost exclusively American actors and/or cultural references unique to the U.S. This is because North America is one of the biggest videogame markets – if not the biggest videogame market – in the world. This being reflected in a way that doesn’t involve profit margins is well overdue.

Making it more difficult for American civilians to purchase firearms is the single most important step towards preventing mass shootings. It’s not the only one, though. A fact that often isn’t given the prominence it deserves is that, though other rich countries have similar gun laws, America has an alarmingly high proportionate mortality rate when it comes to firearms – twice as high, for example, as neighbouring Canada. Why? I don’t pretend to have the answer. Michael Moore has recently urged people to watch Bowling For Columbine online for free (so neither he nor the movie studio make any money as a result of the latest tragedy) if they wish to hear all he has to say on the subject. It seems possible, if nothing else, that America’s unique mixture of glorifying war and violent retribution – including widespread use of the death penalty – not to mention a staggering level of gun worship plays a part. It’s a culture of which videogames are a prominent piece in the 21st century whether we like to admit it or not.

I’d like to reiterate at this point that I do not believe that videogames have ever, in any way, directly caused one human being to murder any number of others. Despite what many on the political right like to claim, there are no reliable studies that have conclusively proven a link between violence in videogames and violent acts (or desensitisation to them) committed by people who play them. Equally however such a link has never been conclusively disproved. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that games have a minuscule yet direct influence on the behaviour of a minority of individuals – those individuals predisposed to antisocial and/or violent behaviour irrespective of contact with any sort of entertainment. Is not even the tiniest, unproven chance of doing some good under these circumstances not worth considering?

Again however nothing is clear cut in terms of the influence games do or do not have on behaviour, so let’s take a few steps back and consider the bigger picture again. The blind faith that a depressing number of Americans have in guns, and the perceived skills in marksmanship and observation that simply owning a gun bestows upon them, has resulted in the most preposterous solutions being suggested in order to divert attention away from the issue of gun control. There’s been much talk of tackling the issue of mental health and, yes, this is definitely worth looking at for many reasons. Unbelievably to my Limey eyes, I’ve more than once seen the suggestion that school shootings can be prevented by arming teachers. If your best preventative solution for the murder of children is to ensure every classroom in America contains at least one firearm, you are a moron of the highest order.

Regardless of any changes in America’s gun laws to come – and let’s be brutally honest, any changes that Obama fêtes will be insufficient – action must be taken to change America’s attitude toward guns as much as possible. Videogames only have a small part to play in this; but that doesn’t mean it’s a part not worth playing. If you’re one of the hand-wringers who simpers that games must be considered as art, yet you would simultaneously claim that changing the industry’s presentation of guns would achieve nothing, your opinions on the matter are worthless.

Not convinced by the altruistic viewpoint? Then let me present a selfish twist on things, the only way a certain type of person is able to view the world. The further the industry is able to distance itself from the idea of guns as nothing but playthings, the harder media will find it to cast videogames as the scapegoat. If you wish to spout lists of violent movies and TV shows with high body counts at me, I have no time for you. Yes such films and series exist, many a guilty pleasure for you and for me I don’t doubt. Such is the history and variety of these mediums, however, it’s extremely easy to point to more thoughtful examples. Examples where the bad guy racks up a high body count, but the good guy doesn’t. Examples where (take note, games industry) policemen give warnings before opening fire; even ensure that people are guilty of something before considering doling out some sort of punishment.

Films, TV, novels, theatre… the pulp fiction sits alongside more considered takes on life. There are even a great many high-profile examples of fictional men who are falling apart being examined and explained, rather than simply demonised or glorified. There is absolutely no reason videogames cannot do this, and cannot do this many times. Where is our Breaking Bad? Our A Clockwork Orange? Our Macbeth? Our Watchmen? Our American Psycho?

Besides, at a base level, a fresh perspective on guns and the way they’re used in games would surely result in new, exciting ideas and experiences. Isn’t that exactly what so many gamers crave? Consider any potential positive effects on the social climate a side effect, if you must.

I don’t like the gung-ho, brainless, offensive, war-worshipping jingoism of games such as Black Ops or the travesty that is the latest Medal of Honor (and if you’d question my previous comment about Call of Duty 4, I would argue it contains anti-war elements – intentionally or otherwise). My not liking something isn’t a good reason to ban or change it though, and I’ll grudgingly admit that such games have a place to take. They’re ridiculously popular, after all. Keep the drum-beating military shooters, however distasteful I and others may find them. Counter them, though, with games which refuse to paint war and slaughter as solutions rather than problems.

The most recent example of a game that strives to do just that is Spec Ops: The Line. As Joe noted in our review however, the multiplayer element works hard to undermine the rare and admirable thoughtfulness of the campaign – a sentiment later echoed by one of the very people who developed the game. The only game I can think of (please do correct me with more examples if you can) which combines a consistently anti-war message with the sales and publicity of a mainstream game is Sensible Software’s Cannon Fodder, released all the way back in 1993. It’s extremely easy to lose scores of soldiers, and every single one that dies is given their own individual name, and even gravestone. Consider the very name ‘Cannon Fodder’, not to mention the legendary upbeat, lyrically arid theme song ‘War Has Never Been So Much Fun’. There is precedent for games which rebel against the glorification of war, and yet are still fun to play. Build on it.

I’m not suggesting that we make and play less games with guns. We need more games with guns. A hell of a lot of the new ones, though, need to completely re-evaluate how guns are presented and used. We already have games such as the previously mentioned Zombi U where ammo is rare, and so guns are present yet are not the focus. Mirror’s Edge adds to this idea by also offering – necessitating, in fact – the alternative of athletic escape. There is even a trophy/achievement for playing the story from start to finish without firing a single bullet. Guns define the bad guys rather than the heroine, and what the hell is wrong with that idea? The industry is bursting with talent right now. There are plenty of people who could take these existing ideas, add some more of their own, and create something truly magical.

In an ideal world, this idea would be taken up by one brave publisher. It would spread, and spread, until the gaming landscape had changed forever – for the better – when it comes to the variety of ways videogames handle firearms. The games industry would ape the movie industry in a way that benefited it for once. It would take years – decades, perhaps – but it would be worth it. A minuscule part of the world’s culture (and a slightly larger part of America’s culture) rendered more thoughtful and pacifistic. No length of debate will prove whether this would ever have any sort of effect on a disturbed individual, or a society that feeds on violence. It would certainly result in a new wave of games created with a brand new mindset.

Put a gun in my hand, and give me a good reason to never use it.

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you'll find something he's written in there. Luke doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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