Violent video games is a topic that elicits strong emotions from both gamers and media violence activists, but remains one that resonates little in popular opinion and receives far too little attention in the classroom. The dominant view seems to be that violent video games, like other forms of entertainment violence, are for the most part harmless fantasy. Violent video games are simply a new expression of the assumed human, or at least male, attraction to violence and playing war; from toy soldiers to games of Cowboys and Indians to war-themed video games, this is apparently the way it has always been.
However, our attitudes about violent toys and imagery are not fixed, but shaped by our social environment. The ubiquitous GI Joe was taken off the US market in 1976 due to poor sales, only to return with a far more muscular physique during the heavily militarized 1980s. Since 9-11, interest in war toys and war-themed video games have soared; in December 2012, just in time for the Christmas market, sales of Call of Duty Black Ops 2 surpassed one billion dollars in only 15 days (www.forbes.com 7 Dec. 2012). While women make up a significant percentage of the video game market, the online shooter game culture remains hyper-masculine. The players span the ages (indeed the average American video game player is 33), but some violent video games, like the Xbox version of the highly successful US military recruiting game, America’s Army, have been specifically marketed for teens (Nichols 2010).
Most criticisms of violent games have focused on the popular Grand Theft Auto series, where the protagonist can engage in such acts as gunning down innocent bystanders, murdering police officers or raping women (and even here the critics are typically silenced by the commonly expressed response “but I have spent hours playing these games and I have never hurt anyone!”). Despite the entertainment industry’s vocal rejection of any suggestion that violent entertainment contributes to a more violent society, much research has established a causal relationship between exposure to media violence and increased aggressive behavior, albeit the relationship is neither necessary nor sufficient (Bushman and Anderson 2001). On a more positive note, the very fact that turning off TVs and video games for just 20 weeks has been shown to bring about a significant reduction in physical and verbal aggression in schools, with the most aggressive kids benefiting the most, is suggestive of the impact (Robinson, et al. 2001).
But the issues raised by violent video games go even deeper, and call for an educational response. Significantly, war-themed video games, where the violence, regardless of how extreme, is directed at our enemies, have received little popular or academic attention (King and Leonard 2010). War-themed video games are valued for their authenticity: tremendous attention is given to ensure that the availability and explosive impact of weapons, the effects of night vision goggles on aiming, the exact movement of a soldier clearing a building, and the buttons on historical uniforms are just right. The scenarios are either historical re-enactments, revisionist ones, where players can win their country’s lost wars, or anticipatory histories, where one can go to war in current or emerging “hot spots”; in all cases, though, violence is not the last option, but the first and only option. The subtitle for a video game reenactment of the First Gulf War said it all: “No Diplomats, No Negotiation, No Surrender” (Stahl 2010: 98). The ethical and political questions about war, thus, become replaced by the single one of “how to fight”. Moreover, while the player is captivated by the realism of the game, the carnage of real war remains both absent and typically unnoticed by the player. This raises a key question: as video games become “the medium and metaphor by which we understand war” (Stahl 2010: 112), does making peace in the real world become more difficult? And, if so, how, as educators, should we respond?
This second issue of Inspire Solutions examines these issues, as well as a number of others, and stresses the necessity for educators to take video games and their messages seriously. You will find an article, “War Is Not a Video Game – Or Is It?”, where I expand on the issues raised by war games and present some of my students’ reactions to their deeper look at the games they commonly play. The frequently sexist gaming culture and limited representation of women in video games is a topic addressed through a couple of excellent videos and you will find links to numerous useful articles, including David Leonard’s provocative argument that a “pedagogy of peace” requires educators to bring video games into their classrooms. Finally, we will end on a positive note with Michelle Smith’s wonderful discussion of her video game project to promote Cree culture. Her essay brings up many important issues, including the educational value of socially responsible games, while implicitly illustrating the complexities raised by talking about violence.
Humanities, Dawson College
Selected Works Cited
Bushman, Brad J. and Craig Anderson. “Media Violence and the American Public: Scientific Facts Versus Media Misinformation.” American Psychologist (June/July 2001): 477-489.
Robinson, T.N., et al. “Effects of Reducing Children’s Television and Video Game Use on Aggressive Behavior: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. 155 (2001): 17-23.
King, Richard C. and David J. Leonard. “Wargames as a New Frontier: Securing American Empire in Virtual Space.” Joystick Soldiers: The Politics of Play in Military Video Games. Eds. Nina B. Huntemann and Matthew Thomas Payne. New York: Routledge, 2010. 91-105.
Nichols, Randy. “Target Acquired: America’s Army and the Video Games Industry.” Joystick Soldiers: The Politics of Play in Military Video Games. Eds. Nina B. Huntemann and Matthew Thomas Payne. New York: Routledge, 2010. 39-52.
Stahl, Roger. Militainment, Inc.: War, Media and Popular Culture. New York: Routledge, 2010.