Going to school on video game violence

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Video game violence

An advertisement for the game "Call of Duty: Black Ops 2" is viewed at an electronics store in New York City. (Spencer Platt, Getty Images / January 10, 2013)

The students filtered in.

They smelled of cigarettes and cold. They dropped their backpacks and peeled off their Gore-Tex. Then Lisa Buscani, one of the five instructors who teaches Ethics in Computer Games and Cinema at DePaul University, after asking her 30 or so students what they did last weekend — concerts, movies, "Dr. Who," "got drunk and hooked up" — asked if they were aware of what was going on in Washington. That "once again a few politicians are trying to lay blame for violence in the real world at the feet of the gaming world."

She asked what politicians hoped to accomplish. Several hands went up.

A guy in the back said matter-of-factly: "Create a scapegoat."

Heads nodded. She nodded. I nodded.

And yet: Don't video games have some responsibility to not contribute to an already violent culture?

The other night, at the end of my umpteenth game of "Battlefield 1943," an alarming statistic flashed across my TV screen: In the four years or so that I had been playing "Battlefield 1943," I had killed 43,291 people. I had bombed them and hit them with Jeeps, run over them with tanks, mowed them down from planes and plowed into them with boats. But primarily I shot them. Intrigued by that statistic, I popped in an old "Call of Duty" game that I once played a few times a week: Over many hours of play, I had killed 21,008 people.

To recap: I had killed — mostly shot with an assault rifle — 64,299 digital soldiers.

And how did I feel about this?

Not sociopathic. Conflicted.

I killed, virtually, so often that the groans of pain from digital soldiers became the white noise of computer war and often went unnoticed. As did the reflexive, Bourne-like way I reloaded a spent rifle. Did this desensitize me, leave me less emphatic, more prone to aggression? After particularly immersive matches, it would take a moment to break the spell. (Not unlike the way that your head readjusts after an especially absorbing movie.) I occasionally flung my game controller in frustration. That's arguably violent. Generally, though, I regarded first-person shooters as a kind of post-childhood cops and robbers, or very aggressive checkers, albeit played while looking down the barrel of a digital gun.

And yet.

I would be lying if I said those 64,299 digital kills did not weigh on me. As Buscani said, after the school massacre last month in Newtown, Conn., the familiar debate about a supposed correlation between violent culture and real shootings returned with a vengeance. Vice President Joe Biden met with representatives of the motion picture and video game industry as part of a White House offensive on gun violence; the National Rifle Association denounced video games; and during an interview with London's Channel 4 TV station, Quentin Tarantino refused to answer ("I'm not your slave, and you're not my master," he said) the inevitable question vaguely linking real violence to extremely violent movies, such as his Oscar-nominated "Django Unchained."

At a recent press conference, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said exposure to violent culture "numbs people to the cost of life," which sounds reasonable, though studies on the subject tend to be wildly contradictory and inconclusive. Even Biden told game-makers, "I come to this meeting with no judgment, but you all know the judgment other people have made."

Facts are less important than assumptions. At a GameStop in Evanston, a clerk told me that before Christmas, parents told him they didn't want to buy the first-person shooters their kids asked for (then asked for less violent alternatives). And in Algonquin, owners of the No Limit video arcade — yes, such places still exist — mothballed shooters like "The House of the Dead."

To ease their consciences.

"I never thought my action by itself would actually cure anything," co-owner Kevin Slota told me last week, "but when (mass shootings) like this happen, everyone points a finger elsewhere, and I might not know the solution, but I know I run this arcade, and I have to wake up in the morning and look at myself in the mirror."

Which sounds admirable. He didn't want to be part of the problem. The problem is — what is the problem?

And, wait, am I part of it?

Questions like those are what led me to DePaul, where its Department of Computing and Digital Media has been offering Ethics in Computer Games and Cinema since 2008. It's become one of the most popular courses in the university's game-development program. What began as a couple of tentative classes on the subject has grown to eight classes and almost 300 enrolled students. (All but one class is entirely full.) I attended a couple of classes.

I took a seat in the back of one of Buscani's late-afternoon classes last week. The debate was scattered but telling. A student said, "If someone is going to kill, I don't think it matters if they are playing 'Halo 4' or a 'Hello Kitty' game." Another, wearing a ski hat printed with images of daggers and switchblades, said, "It seems simplistic to look at the size of the issue and decide that only entertainment is the cause." Another said he worried excessive regulation would lead to, say, gamers in Utah having to follow Utah traffic laws when they played "Grand Theft Auto" in Utah. A fascinating idea that, like several of the points raised, deflected blame from the games themselves.

Buscani broke in:

"I'm inclined to disagree with all of you," she said. "Artists have to take responsibility for what they create."

Buscani, who has been teaching the course for a few years, told me later she doesn't personally feel there's a serious danger from violent games, but "the torrent," harmless or not, adds to a coarsening cultural crush. That's one reason DePaul created the course.

Charles Wilcox, a former Bell Labs spokesman who has taught communications at DePaul for 25 years, said he developed it at the request of university President Dennis Holtschneider, who had asked him that "the kids in the game-development program, the future industry professionals, start thinking of how to conduct themselves as artists, designers and programmers."

The class works like this: The first half of the semester lays a groundwork of classic philosophy. Half the time is spent discussing ideas such as "cultural relativism," the sort of philosophical framework that tends to sound familiar in cultural debates in which stridently opposing sides often claim to be morally right because they feel morally right. The second half of the semester is spent studying games such as "Grand Theft Auto," the ways in which media influences society, how moral theories apply to massive open-world games like "World of Warcraft."

Nearly every class, said DePaul instructor Kim Clark, who occasionally teaches the course, "begins with the majority of the students dismissing you outright on the idea that game violence is a problem or should even be considered one. They roll their eyes almost unanimously at you."

Students often begin the course feeling that video games carry no larger responsibility than entertainment, Wilcox said. "By the end, many come around to the idea that just because you can do something doesn't mean you should, even in a game."

When I attended Wilcox's class, it was just the second week of the course. Wilcox, who comes off like a cheerful combination of Charles Nelson Reilly and Mr. Garrison from "South Park," asked aloud if being skilled at shooting a digital gun would actually translate into skill with an actual weapon. A young woman slouched over the desk, raised her hand languidly and said her cousin is a sniper in the military, and she plays him in "Call of Duty" all the time, and, "I pretty much whomp him every single time."

To be fair, she looked tired.

But that posture, it spoke to me loudly of how seriously she took the traditional arguments about video game violence. No wonder: These students zero in on obvious contradictions and cheap assumptions, and they suspect instinctively that those who hold press conferences and go on Sunday news shows to bemoan violence in video games tend to be the same people who have no experience actually playing video games.

On the other hand, they were not — at least not yet — the best proponents: They never mentioned that that first-person shooters are just one game genre or that gaming trends favor stealth over aggression.

Also, when Wilcox asked how many felt "that games have any responsibility to the broader culture?" no one said a word.

And a question of responsibility, not questionable studies or finding a copy of a hugely popular game in a murderer's bedroom — is where this debate is headed.

Not that everyone thinks that's where it should be headed. Dmitri Williams, who lectures on video games and community at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, balked when I brought it up. He said such a call for responsibility is predicated on the assumption that video games do cause some harm. And as a researcher eight years ago at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he published a widely quoted study asserting no significant correlation between video games and aggression.

"But then again," he said, "if politicians generally cited research about the things that actually harmed us, we would be worried about very different things in this country."

I said the video game violence debate sounds eerily similar to the comic book and rock 'n' roll scares of the '50s. Williams said: "Except, once again, the problem with this country ain't rock 'n' roll. And it never was."

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

A sample of reading from DePaul University's Ethics in Computer Games and Media course:
"The Elements of Moral Philosophy," by James Rachels
"More than a Movie: Ethics in Entertainment," by F. Miguel Valenti
"Image Ethics in the Digital Age," by Larry Gross
"Realty Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World," by Jane McGonigal
"The Video Games Ethics Reader," by Jose Zagal
The International Journal of Computer Game Research

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