Buck-stopper: Sandy Hook puts games back in the dock

Tuesday, 18 December 2012 13:26 GMT By Dave Cook

The Sandy Hook school shootings have raised real concerns over US gun law, and elements of the press have (inevitably) cited gaming as their cause. VG247’s Dave Cook calls for time on buck-passing.

We should start looking at research carried out on affects of in-game violence without the cynical tone I often see used in such articles. Only then can we start to form insightful, genuinely meaningful stances on these complex and growing issues.

Games let us do horrific things, actions for which any civilian would be jailed and demonised. Murder, drug-use, property theft and vandalism run rife through games today, but these are condemned crimes in decent society.

Games are also a form of empowerment. They let us do these things without recourse, without guilt, and give us the power to slaughter digitally-crafted victims we will never know personally.

It would be foolish to deny that there is a lack of sympathy in games today, where squeezing a trigger or wielding a blade often takes precedent over simple objectives such as collecting things or solving a puzzle.

The triple-A industry has become besotted with the idea that high kill-counts and acts of violence are what you want in games.

Those of you who have broken away from this guided landscape to pursue abstract, passive experiences – think Journey and the rest of its artistic brethren – may look to the big budget market and scoff at the ‘sheep’ being fed the same old power-trip year-in-year-out, but mocking can gloss over the seriousness of some content. It’s actually, genuinely troubling at times.

Sandy Hook

On the morning of December 14, a gunman – who I won’t name here, as I personally feel that naming and giving press to these killers is part of why they do these despicable things in the first place – entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and killed 26 people.

The press swarmed over the shooting, naming and shaming the killer, plastering his name above newspaper folds and all over their red tops. They called him a monster.

He won. He got his 15 minutes, and will go down in history as a household name. What struck me as sad was just how much press the killer got, while the victim’s names received little coverage by comparison. This is par for the course following this kind of event, however, and won’t change any time soon.

It wouldn’t take long before a scapegoat was offered, and, as usual, gaming has been named as a potential cause of the killer’s motivation.

Here in the UK, one newspaper cited the killer’s ‘obsession’ with violent games – most notably Dynasty Warriors – as probable cause for carrying out his attacks. The publication called the killer a ‘coward’ in the first line of its article.

Another widely-loathed paper led with a headline on its front page that named Call of Duty as the catalyst for the killings.

Refreshingly, a US publication has issued a sober account of the shootings and has taken an objective and thoroughly-researched look at the correlation between gaming and the killer’s motivation.

Over on Facebook, a campaign has asked that gamers lay down arms and refrain from playing shooters on Friday in memory of those killed – although I can guarantee that the majority of people who take part will be unable to name a single victim from the shootings. I’m not exempt from this, and it worries me.

The Games Press

I chose to leave the sources of those examples unnamed as the games press is guilty of rising to the goading call after these tragedies.

This is how events like the Sandy Hook shooting have historically played out. First, the factual news reports come out after the shootings have taken place. Next, politicians and celebrities show their faces or put fingers to keyboard to express their condolences and either issue sincere regret or try to curry favour with whoever they need to curry favour with.

What follows is a spate of finger-pointing and questioning – who’s to blame? What needs to be done? Are our children safe? Is gun control required? Lastly, the games press – when games are yet again held accountable – dip their pens in acid fountains and write scorching rebuttals about how they are sick to death of their industry being placed in the stocks.

This is just as bad as the tabloid reaction.

Both game critics and gamers alike often reply with rapid-fire rebuttals that ask the media and politicians to back off, to leave our prized hobby alone, and that there is no way games like Dynasty Warriors or Call of Duty could ever make us kill innocent, real people.

Both sides are as bad as each other. Don’t forget that the games industry is still in its infancy when stacked against other, long-standing media such as music and film. Research on the ties between violence and gaming is just as young, and it’s clear there is still much work to be done.

I’m of a generation that grew up before the internet was available, where games were nothing more than blocky experiences with little resemblance of reality. We didn’t mature alongside realistic games, so it’s easy for us to scoff at the impact of violent, photo-real experiences on young minds.

Widespread media black-out of events like the Sandy Hook shootings in the gaming press aren’t the answer, but I do feel we need to stop rising to the bait of the tabloids and keep coverage of the gutter press off our pages. We should start looking at research carried out on affects of in-game violence without the cynical tone I often see used in such articles.

Only then can we start to form insightful, genuinely meaningful stances on these complex and growing issues, rather than responding to cheap, eye-grabbing news-stand fodder.