IN my debut article for The Weeklings, I wrote about how, when it comes to video game violence and children, wee ones well-comprehend the meticulously subtle gap between real and make-believe. When a child simulates violence in a virtual environment, it doesn’t necessarily mean that child will long to inflict terrestrial harm. If you’ve ever watched a kitten play with a bird on a lure, then you might already be cued in. Cat toys, not totally unlike our own, are designed to appeal to the user’s instincts without sacrificing mental or physical safety. Whether it’s a plush bird on an elastic line, a windup mouse, or something more technologically advanced, the intended effect is to simulate stalking, pouncing, capturing, and, yes, killing, without actually prompting the animal to do so in real life. Cats are domesticated creatures, anyway, like humans on our better days. And the goal of the feline toy industry, while far less sophisticated than the mortal one, seems to be that your cat remains–no, not murderous–but ‘happy.’
That ubiquitous emotion I’d guess applies to every species of animal. Happiness, at least on a basal level (we’re not getting existential, here, though perhaps a little Tolstoyan) involves being in touch with one’s self, either habitually or intellectually, so that we better understand the consequences of our actions. Comfort flows from, amongst other things, perceptions of safety and purpose while fulfilling one’s urges. Though we encourage our cuddly companions to rip and tear their toys to bits so that they understand their ferine capacity, we don’t want them to do the same to our thumbs, forearms, ear lobes, and throats. And unless your cat is sociopathic—some of us have seen the face of feline evil, so I will not rule out the phenomenon—they tend to perceive the difference between play and reality. It’s a healthy way to sublimate rote animal impulse. Or healthier, at least, than the grim alternative: repression, and the subsequent refusal to honor the role of the unconscious in day-to-day living.
The reason I discuss this now, however, isn’t just because I’m obsessed with my new kitten and his nightly bat-out-of-hell antics, but because of a recent Public Policy Poll that reported that 68% of the Republicans believe that video games are a bigger safety threat than guns. I stumbled onto this information in a Kotaku report by Evan Narcisse, where he rightfully panned the conservative reaction with remarks like the following: “Really, America? Video games are more of a safety threat than guns?! News flash: It’s a lot harder to use a game to cause bodily harm than it is to use a gun.” A friend and fellow nerd-kin of mine quipped after reading the article, “By that same logic, we should be trying to drive over power-ups like in Mario Kart.” “Or spitting fireballs from our mouths,” I added. “Or shooting electricity from our fingers.”
After having a good laugh, however, I realized this sort of mockery comes at a fairly easy expense. It’s fun, yes, but simple. I mean, of course it’s opulently absurd to argue that video games are more dangerous than guns. Guns can be actively used to murder someone, anyway, without that much effort, while the accused can only buzz and hum on your console or mobile phone. I imagine that when the polltakers considered the evils of video games, however, they were addressing what they perceive as deeper issues within American culture. Video games, even more so than violent films and music (though those two are included in the mix), are especially signaled out for admonishment. And truth be told, I understand why.
If you weren’t part of the Nintendo generation, your eyes are likely agog at the sheer speed of evolution in the field. Some video games have become, in comparison to their 8-bit ancestors, near photo-realistic, and sometimes the violence on screen can rival that of a Chan-wook Park film. New games are tactile, fluid, responsive. Some of them have worrying themes and/or concepts. Since I’m not a firebrand, I can empathize with those who find simulations of violence worrying. Though I’m not at all bothered by the Uncharted, Infamous, Assassins Creed, Borderlands, God of War, or Grand Theft Auto franchises, to name a few, I can understand how some, and particularly the last mentioned, might make mom and pop’s palms clam up. But it is not in selectivity that resides one of the main problems with this mentality.
Not all video games are the same.
Like any artistic medium, and like people themselves (and, damn it all, like snowflakes), no two games are identical. You have some that attempt to copy each other, sure. Your Deep Impacts for every Armageddon. But for every violent action/sci-fi title you have your fantasy anime role-playing saga, your puzzle game, your artsy Indie game (yes, those exist), and that’s just to name a few in a sea of ever-expanding genres. If you keep up with the industry at all, then you know that for every Halo or Far Cry release there’s a subsequent Portal, Braid, or Journey. And to say that a game like Journey, with its lovely desert landscape and utter lack of graphic imagery is capable of causing harm is like saying that watching Bert and Ernie sleeping in the same bed will make you grow into a homosexual. If it’s anything that we’re guilty for perpetuating in our society, it is the sin of false equivalence.
Blame it on social media, or the fact that we’re living in an age of information overload that’s just too difficult to sift through successfully, but equating two seemingly reliable notions into a slogan, or two sloppily related concepts into a formula, is very much a modern cultural failure. You’ve all heard gay marriage related to animal sex and people saying Obama is worse than Stalin. Not to say that claiming video games are more dangerous than guns fall into the same ‘wickedness’ category as the previous two examples, but there’s definitely an intelligence gap here to be addressed. Ironically, just because you can imagine something is real doesn’t mean it is. And though this is a subject for an entirely different article, the Internet lends authority to those who have none.
The ability to rationalize poorly crosses political lines, and I wonder what this poll would have looked like had it involved Democrats as well, but the fact that it focused on conservatives hardly surprises me. Social conservatism has a tendency to veer, not only towards the puritanical, but the basal. This isn’t always a bad thing—rightward leanings appeal to fundamental wants such as loyalty and family, often to a fault. In the case of guns versus games, however, the tipping point arrives at a refusal to recognize the complexity of the human psyche. This may have religious echoes, I imagine. The Republican ticket seems to have a legitimate antipathy towards mankind being viewed as animals, particularly apes, and not God’s immaculate creatures. Though I’ve met Republicans who don’t think the world was created 6,000 years ago, evolution seems to be a red line issue for the party. If you’re not overly comfortable with Darwinian ideals, then instinct, or the idea of a part of yourself that is older, and more savage, than your rational faculties are willing to observe, then it must be hard to admit mortal tendencies such as lust and competition and rage. Instead, it comes down to repression and righteousness.
Like a cat who needs outlets to vent its inborn carnivorous instincts, however, to compete and fight in order to feel in charge of the limited domain he or she is given, humans also require emotional, and physical, discharge. Sports are basically warfare with pads. Video games, however, have the ability to truly simulate the impossible. To allow you to tear through enemy lines, steal someone’s car, or desquamate Zeus, without any of the consequences. Like Hollywood, there’s a championing of artistic license, all of this in order to provide smarter and more complex toys to legions of human beings who wish to better understand themselves in a safe and healthy way. Of course you can end up on the bad side of this equation, shitting into a bucket like Cartman in South Park as you disappear into digital obsolescence, but play is a part of how humans understand their increasingly complex place in the world, and anyone who tries to deny that is denying the very fabric of their being.