Tamryn Kirby's Essay On Violence In Video Games

Sigourney Smuts 04 November, 2008 17:32 Video Games Permalink Trackbacks (0)
Kein Mitleid[1] 

After 40+ years of research, one might think that debate about media violence effects would be over (Anderson 2003).

 The controversy and hype that surrounds popular media’s effects on society, and whether it be violent or no, has been in contention for many years, and as of yet there is no conclusive answer in sight. The issue has been diversely met: with authoritative scrutiny, parental rage and confusion, as well as scorn and dismissiveness from the youth and youth culture. Violent video games, in particular, have civilians and academics alike at a loss as to the best course of action, and more importantly, where to draw the line.  “Violence begets violence”, or so the cliché goes, and it is vaguely upon this precept that we shall look at two violent games freely available today[2]. The first, ‘Super Columbine Massacre RPG’, is an Internet-based, easily downloadable game based on the 1999 school shootings (Ledonne 2006). The second, ‘Manhunt 2’, is a highly graphic and sadistic sequel, to a game that has been banned in certain countries, and blamed for the death of a fourteen-year-old boy (Ashcraft 2007).  

When I discovered a program called RPG Maker, I knew I had to achieve my childhood ambition of designing a video game. The question of what the game’s subject would be came almost instantly; a striking event from my own formative years tugged at my instincts to make the “unthinkable” game (Ledonne 2006).

 On the twentieth of April 1999, the now infamous Columbine High School shooting took place. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, then only 18 and 17, shot and killed twelve students and a teacher, as well as maiming twenty-three others. The incident sparked media fanfare, and speculation was rife as to what could and would drive two teenage boys to such an extreme. At the time, everyone and everything ‘subversive’ or ‘deviant’ was placed in the cross hairs, including rock star Marilyn Manson, Satan, Wicca and Duke Nukem, a popular first-person-shooter game that Harris and Klebold had enjoyed playing (Pham 2005)(Robinson 1999). It was this and similar role-playing games of a violent nature that bore the brunt of the guilt, and subsequent studies on aggression manifested by video game-exposure, frequently use Columbine as an example of to what extremes this type of hostility can drive its subject (Anderson & Dill 2000: 772). Seven years later, inciting severe opposition and backlash from a multitude of fronts, Danny Ledonne released “Super Columbine Massacre RPG!”, or SCMRPG!, via the Internet website www.columbinegame.com (Ledonne 2006). The game was, and still is, described as tasteless and vulgar, and Ledonne for over a year remained relatively anonymous, known only as ‘Columbin’ during rare online interviews (Ibid 2006)(Vaughan 2006).  However, in his artist’s statement on the site, Ledonne defends his creation, claiming that the true raison d’être of SCMRPG! is to deepen and redefine our understanding of the shooting, by not portraying the perpetrators as heroic in any way, but rather at times frustrated, confused and out of control kids, leading writer Ryan Moore, of ‘The Pale Writer’, to comment that “it reminds us that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the murderers of Columbine, were victims of Columbine, as well” (Ledonne 2006). SCMRPG! is a violent response to a violent day, but one that delves past the shock factor and into the heads and behind the barrels, giving a deeply insightful and yes, disturbing, look at what we know and do not know about the events and conditions surrounding Columbine (Kuchera 2007). Rockstar Games, notorious developers of the gangster game series ‘Grand Theft Auto’, last year released - or at least attempted to release - their latest offering: the sequel to the bloody and vicious ‘Manhunt’, which first hit shelves in 2003. The game follows the two protagonists, Daniel Lamb and Leo Kasper, test subjects of a “secret research facility”, as they systematically hunt down and kill, in the most sadistic and gruesome ways possible, everyone still within the compound ([Author unknown] 2007). The unprecedented level of violence in the game has led it to be banned in many countries, as was its predecessor, and Rockstar Games spent much of 2007 in court with the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) fighting for a modified, watered down version to be allowed release. Rockstar Games was, after many court battles back and forth, eventually awarded the right to release both its censored and uncut versions, under an ‘M’ (Mature) and an ‘AO’ (Adults Only) rating respectively. The ban remains intact in regards to The Republic of Ireland, Australia and certain European countries. Manhunt 2 is vastly different in concept, presentation and subject matter to SCMRPG, in that it is a ‘self-contained’ narrative that is purely fictive, as opposed to the alternative, which is based on true events and incomplete evidence. In SCMRPG! and Manhunt 2, points are scored by killing civilians, but only in the latter game is each kill is rated according to gruesomeness. The more brutal the murders, the higher the point rewards. Super Columbine Massacre RPG! does not match the type of in-your-face, sadistic horror that Manhunt 2 seems to exhibit, and the real violence inherent in the game play is in the subject matter and reference to reality only, whereas Manhunt is infamous for its graphic and callous approach to tortuous killing (Parfitt 2007). The high-quality graphics blur the line between reality and the virtual set, and the player is given the ability to react to and use the environment around him or her to their sick advantage, including shoving victims’ faces into fuse boxes. SCMRPG! is intentionally done in a simplistic 16Kb format, reminiscent of original Super Nintendo games, the same kind of games that the creator and Harris and Klebold would have grown up playing, and as such it is fairly restrictive in terms of what the player can and cannot do, especially in comparison to Manhunt 2. In the uncut versions of the PlayStation 2, PSP and WII Manhunt 2 games, there is even a scene in which the protagonist castrates and murders an enemy with a pair of pliers. This censored scene has been successfully hacked and accessed by adventurous players of the ‘M’ rated game before, however Rockstar Games have had no serious legal implications from this so far. Video games today are lumped together with rap, heavy metal, federation wrestling and action movies into a box labelled ‘Trouble’. Among that box’s contents, easy scapegoats, controversy and misunderstanding make for effortless shouldering of society’s blame and shame, saving us from having to face up to other, some would say, more important issues at play (Robinson 1999). As discussed in Jonathon L. Freedman’s essay, “Evaluating the Research on Violent Video Games” Craig A. Anderson, in an earlier paper[3] had identified 35 separate research reports on video games, utilising over 53 sets of test subjects (Freedman 2001). But, of those, only nine published works dealt with the issue of violence in video games and their potential effect on players (Ibid 2001). It is therefore easy to see why some academics are reluctant to make an assertion one way or the other, given such a relatively small and hotly contested body of evidence (Ibid 2001). Brooks Brown, former student of Columbine High School, survivor of the infamous shooting incident, and friend to perpetrators Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, says himself that “Dylan and Eric were already very, very violent people… They just weren’t taught how to deal with stress and frustration”, continuing with his own take on the ongoing video game debate, saying that he feels the effects caused by violent media is comparable to that of advertising (Pham 2005). Now 25, Brooks says that  

[Adverts] are not designed to make you do anything you’re not inclined to do. My guess is that 99.9% of people who play video games have absolutely no inclination to kill people. Video games, like advertising, only push you to kill if you’re a violent person anyway (Ibid 2005).

 B.A. Robinson of ‘ReligiousTolerance.Org’, posted a list shortly after the attacks of almost all the possible ‘causes for Columbine’ outlined in the media and political arena since April 1999, as well as objections and ‘observations’ regarding the more unusual ones (Robinson 1999). “Insufficient level of family violence” was, according to the site, Senator Frank Shurden of Henryetta, Oklahoma’s argument, while the senator was busy proposing a state bill to allow parents “ordinary force” when disciplining their children. The bill was later passed with an overwhelming majority vote (Ibid 1999). Senator Gary Bauer, while running for the Presidency in 2000, took a similar tack, this time blaming the low level of violence exhibited by teachers, insisting that a better reaction to Harris and Klebold’s reported Nazi-style salutes would be the threat of a broken arm or two (Ibid 1999). Columbine has since 1999 become the ‘poster-child’ and most frequently used and favourite example for many psychologists and civilians alike when discussing the dangers of video games regarding the youth of today. But the more information considered, the more possibilities questioned, the more one may come to realise that there is very little justifiable reasoning for placing the guilt of Columbine solely on video games, there are too many complex issues surrounding the situation, that no single rectified flaw could have changed the outcome, or that of the many other violent incidents wrongly blamed on mass media.  It is a proven fact that violence in video games as well as the media at large has an effect on one’s aggressive responses (Anderson 2003); but before we clear the shelves of games and gaming consoles, perhaps we should consider the violent content that anyone can come across just by watching the seven o’clock news any given evening? Should we silence the journalistic media too, and keep ourselves in ignorant bliss? Critics protest and claim that violent video games are a much more powerful influence over their audience because of their interactive nature[4]; this is probably true, but the same principle applies: it comes down to the individual to show some discretion as to the practices and pastimes they chose to follow, and in terms of minors, the responsibility lies with the parents or caregivers to remain involved and aware[5]. In the words of Danny Ledonne: 

Find out what your kids are playing, talk to them, get in touch with them. I mean, most of these cases have kids that have fallen through the cracks, they hate life, they say it, and these I feel are the root causes, not whatever video game or book or movie they happen to pick up that weekend (Sliwinski 2006).

 A conclusive, not to mention undisputed, answer has yet to be found in the field of evaluative psychology pertaining to video games, and so in the meantime sceptics and ‘civilians’ alike are entitled to their own opinions on the subject. Violence has permeated our play and games, ever since the days of ‘Red Rover’, ‘Tag’ and other such playground competitions[6], and still remains in contact sports such as rugby and boxing. But the aggressiveness and maliciousness found in digital games today is unlike any seen before, and it will continue to push the envelope as society looks for bigger and better thrills: it’s a pattern we have always followed[7], and we need to understand and assess what is harmless, and what could potentially damage us as a civilisation.       

[1] German phrase meaning “no mercy”, found in amongst Eric Harris’s writings and used in ‘Super Columbine Massacre RPG!’ (Vaughan & Crecente 2006).

[2] ‘Manhunt’ and ‘Manhunt 2’ are, at the time of this work, still banned in certain countries, however they are only barred from sale or purchase: possession or interaction is legal, except in a very few cases. Certain versions, including the modified and uncut versions of Manhunt 2 have been leaked onto the Internet, and are potentially acquirable (Parfitt 2007).

On Rockstar Games’ home website, as part of their legal disclaimer there is a clause that says although the website and ordering facilities are available to all, not all geographical locations are legally able to import the game. However nowhere on their site is there any list or indication as to which countries will not be able to access the game ([Author Unknown] 2008a). Amazon.com, too, gave no indication as to the legality of an order, and Kalahari.net did not stock the game itself, only a soft-cover guide (http://www.amazon.com ; www.kalahari.net/books/Manhunt-2-Signature-Series-Guide/632/30614041.aspx )

[3] Cited by Freedman as Anderson, Craig A. & Bushman, B.J. 2001. “Effects of Violent Video Games on Aggressive Behaviour, Aggressive Cognition, Aggressive Effect, Physiological Arousal, and Prosocial Behaviour: A Meta-Analytic Review of the Scientific Literature” In Psychological Science, 12, pp353-359.

[4] (Anderson 2003)(Olsen 2008)(Pham 2005)(Dill 2007)(Thompson & Haninger 2001)

[5] Jason Della Rocca, executive director of the International Game Developer’s Association, said it well while commenting on Grand Theft Auto, that “Likewise, no one in the movie industry expects children to watch ‘The Godfather’ or ‘Kill Bill’. It’s the same with ‘GTA’. It was never meant for children” (Pham 2005).

[6] “In the cutthroat social ecosystem of the playground, games are often contexts for asserting and challenging social power” (Salen & Zimmerman 2004: 477).

[7] “In the 1980’s, arcade games like Pac-Man became dominant. In Pac-Man, a yellow orb with a mouth raced around the screen chomping up ghosts and goblins. At this point, some eyebrows were raised questioning whether young people should play such ‘violent’ games” (Anderson & Dill 2000: 772).

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