Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Virtual Reality: Gaming's new moral playground

As you have probably heard, young people have been rioting through the streets of English cities these past few days, shamefully destroying just about everything which stood in their path. In newsrooms, debates have been raging about the causes of this violence, with everything from a lack of opportunities for the lowest classes in society, to government cuts (mostly put forward by those trying to take political advantage of the trouble) being suggested as reasons. There has been reaction from across the social spectrum, some of it considered and sensible, some of it less so. Definitely fitting into the 'less so' category is the Daily Mail and Evening Standard, who were quick to lay the blame on videogames (as usual), their assertion based on the opinions of one Enfield resident and a police officer.

Yet as farcical as those claims are, and as unlikely as it is that these riots were instigated because a few too many under-age players got their hands on Grand Theft Auto, gaming's position as the predominant platform through which this latest generation receives their entertainment does mean it should be held up to scrutiny as to the images it presents and the possible consequences of showing those images. Don't get me wrong, I'm not defending the tabloid point of view that everything wrong with the world today is caused by videogames, but gaming is a medium which arguably presents and relies on violence for content arguably more than any other - the first person shooter, after all, is by far its most popular and populous genre. The question is not whether gaming is causing violence - after all, theatre patrons don't go and poke people's eyes out after watching King Lear - but how it is affecting the way we see and experience it.
Games, whether the Daily Mail likes it or not, are an increasingly influential part of our modern lives and culture. It is the medium which has been adopted by this generation of children and young adults in the same way that television, rock music and movies were adopted by their parents and grandparents. Every new generation of children and teenagers look for ways of finding meaning in the world and expressing themselves, often in a manner which their elders do not understand. When we are young, we see the world as it is and long make our mark on it, build new landmarks so that we can prove ourselves and our peers as worthy successors to those who have gone before us.

By doing so, the nature of life and morality undergoes changes, sometimes slight and sometimes great, with every passing generation. Think of how different life was for the average person only fifty years ago, in terms of culture and social interaction. Take that back a hundred or two hundred years and the gulf widens enormously again. The inevitability of new generations finding new media of communication and understanding is as inevitable as the previous generation resisting them. Gaming might get labelled as Satan incarnate by zealous parents nowadays, but their eyes rolled just as hard as ours when their parents had identical reactions to loud music and hippie culture. Even the written word, now the bastion of high culture and learning, was lambasted by Socrates as the end of oral traditions and the beginning of the homogenisation of philosophical thought – although given the dispiriting intellectual standards of the university degree I've just spent four years trudging through, I can't say I entirely disagree with him. If you're interested, his quote is:
If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.
Oh, how he'd have loved the internet.

It's hardly an original thought to suggest that much of what we see as reality is just a matter of perception. When Francis Ford Coppola released his adaptation of Mario Puzo's The Godfather, he intended it as a damning indictment of the Italian-American mobster way of life. Instead the real-life mob were hugely impressed by what they saw on-screen and started imitating the characters' way of talking and dressing smartly. More recently, ongoing debates over civil liberties from the past decade have drawn heavily on George Orwell's book 1984. In other words, one of the major British political questions has been strongly directed by a work of fiction. These experiences, as books or films or games, change the way we see and react to the world. What was fiction can take over the reality. How one generation sees an event can be completely different to their children, because they are using a different set of reference points.

The point I'm circuitously getting to is whether we can continue to treat gaming as nothing more than escapist entertainment when its influence on our lives and way of thinking is growing. Of course the idea that gaming could turn any remotely mentally stable person into a killer just because they've seen or caused a few too many virtual deaths is completely specious: people have had access to violent entertainment for centuries without the planet descending into blood-thirsty anarchy. (Too often, anyway). If anything, the stress relief of escapist gaming can offer an excellent means of satisfying aggressive feelings in a non-threatening way. But what gaming can do is change the way we react to certain images and events, subtly revising the moral boundaries of what is deemed acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

When a young person sees war through the context of Call of Duty, it is given a mental association with meaningless entertainment. What messages about wartime losses does that game's multiplayer send out, for example, putting players in a nihilistic cycle of war that has no goals and will never end no matter how many soldiers they kill? While it's ridiculous to suggest that the game could or should ever be viewed in such real-life contexts, as a situation it has a strangely sinister quality that's hard to shake. That does not mean they will not understand the implications of what is happening, but it will take more powerful scenes for them to have a strong reaction to it than for someone raised without access to such entertainment.

When something seems commonplace, we become desensitized to it no matter how unpleasant it may be. Can we honestly say we react to hearing stories of murder and rape on the news with the horror those events deserve? Many of us will sigh and perhaps voice a pithy sadness, but as soon as a fresh report begins, the previous one is forgotten. The events that truly horrify us are those whose images don't have a precedent in our minds: I don't ask this question to demean the tragedy of the events or lessen the loss of the victims, but would we have reacted to the equivalent number of deaths from 9/11 (or perhaps the 7/7 bombings in Britain) with the same despair had they taken place in more sadly familiar scenarios, such as civilian wartime deaths or a motorway pile-up? There have been shocked reactions to the recent riots because though such violence has happened before, rarely in this country has it happened on such a big scale or with such disregard for basic morality - such as the video of the wounded boy having his haversack looted by people pretending to help him.

Gaming seems stuck in adolescence in terms both historical, it being forty years since the first commercially released videogame Computer Space (nearest rival television being eighty years since an equivalent landmark), and cultural, its content fixated on the aesthetics of violence and sex with none of the complexities. I have no problem with violent games as escapist entertainment - I own Black Ops and play it online quite regularly - but as the medium grows in importance to people's lives, it needs to offer a more fully-rounded range of experiences, tackling subjects from many different perspectives so that when young gamers see parts of the world they can only relate to through their gaming experiences, they have a more complete basis on which to form an understanding. An air-strike is not just a kill-streak reward, but results in the losses of many real lives. Equally so, what political or personal reasons did the pilot have for pushing the 'drop' button? These sorts of questions don't need to be asked all the time, but do need to be asked sometimes.

As much as previous generations may continue to resist, gaming is as vital and relevant a part of modern life as any other medium, even moreso to the children and young adults who have grown up with it. There's nothing wrong with that. But maybe it is time for the games industry to grow up as well and start reflecting reality a little better, just as reality is starting to reflect the morality of gaming. It's a medium that can offer a great escape, but we must be sure we're asking the right questions so that escape doesn't turn into a trap.


1 comment:

danny said...

This is such a fantastic article. I completely agree with everything completely, and i have had a lot of such similar thoughts too but i am unable to express them anywhere near as well as you can.

I dont really know what else to say but i worry about a lot of things these days, and i often question why i spend time gaming and how it has changed me (if at all) and maybe if it does more harm than good for me. If perhaps i should be taking advantage of my own natural creativity rather than consuming others all the time.

I recently turned 25 and it worries me that i may never get up off my arse and see the world, and maybe find some sort of meaning out there, because this meaningless entertainment isnt offering it. I know many people feel the same way, even if they dont say it, i know it.

I try to make these connections with people all around me but i cant find it, there are too many barriers or they just simply arent interested, i just feel so distanced and disconnected all the time, this is the way things are for many. I think games are partly to blame but also all the other meaningless forms of escapism, and lets not forget how the internet is making things even worse.

I have had some great conversations on the internet but in the end none offers that 'connection' from actually talking with another human being. I mean everything just seems so artifical these days, everything is heading towards this and i guess what i am trying to say is that i do not want this, none of us want this, i want change. This is not the direction we want to be going.

I want REAL friends and real adventure, i dont want my friends to talk of games like Battlefield 3 as if its all they have to look forward to in their life. This isnt right! It shouldnt be like this, i dont want to post facebook comments on friends status or whatever, i want to actually talk to them and have a real meaningful conversation.

I mean surely i am not the only one who thinks like this? But apparently i am as whenever i express concern on such things people largely ignore or trivialise such things, but i suppose they are more concerned with their own affairs, and i suppose i can understand that. But maybe they dont want change and dont want to accept the state of things to come and are happy to remain immersed in their safety bubble. I think all entertainment contributes to this.

I just wish people actually had imagination and real interests these days. We need to create more and consume less, but everything is going the opposite. Perhaps people are content to consume and not tax their minds. But i am not. This makes me sad and rather lonely.

Anyway end rant and sorry for poor punctuation and things.