When Journalism is a Game

The June issue of Men’s Health has a Special Report by Tom McGrath titled “When Killing is a Game”. We’ve seen reports like this before, though they’re usually a bit more blunt in their style (no cuts to a van exploding for example), but I wanted to address this one in particular because it is a bit more insidious. There is a facade of moderation, but the benefit of the doubt is given to those asserting a specific claim on reality.

I’m not sure why magazines continue to accept articles on this subject when they are written by people with such little experience playing video games. Note that I did not say a gamer, I’m not asking for someone who agrees with me, just someone who has a solid idea of what I do when I say I am gaming. According to the article, McGrath has played 55 minutes of Modern Warfare 3 on the Wii. No other experience with games is indicated. This is akin to examining the issue regarding violent film, based upon having watched 10 minutes of any given movie. The author has, as far as he has communicated, arrived upon the issue with a pre-elementary level of knowledge regarding the subject. This is indicated later on with his shock about multiplayer FPSes scoring players by their ability to kill the enemy, failing to call out the asinine concept that the differences between Wolfenstein 3d and Myst is simply the presence of violence, and the conflation of World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto.

“Does virtual violence turn some boys into real killers?” Let’s presume that this is the case. I went to Wikipedia’s List of Best Selling Video Games and tallied up the sales figures on only the most heinous looking games to those who write articles such as this, using the All Platforms top 40. I then checked out Wikipedia’s List of Rampage Killers (what is Bing going to think of me? That’s right, I Chandler). They have a total of 1336 Rampage Killing incidents, around the globe, with no methods or setting filtered out. If video games spawned every one of these, we are looking at a rate of 0.00047578%. Hardly statistically significant. This isn’t particularly scientific, but fight fire with fire, right? (I’m sorry was that violent rhetoric?) In general, just taking their claim on its face, video games still seem more safe than cars, water heaters, or national parks.

But they don’t seem to even understand what video games are, yet they are measuring it against the developing human mind. How confident are they in their precise comprehension of that subject? 90%? 50%? They are wanting to make concrete statements on one subject by comparing their unknown known with what is to them an unknown unknown. Video games are becoming more immersive yes, they are looking more realistic. We still play by them by sitting in chairs using gamepads, or a keyboard and mouse like we do in normal office jobs. As a PC gamer, I slaughter hordes the same way I queue up a podcast about peaceful living – by clicking. Yes the visuals and sounds are different, but my muscles are engaging in the very same actions. I no better know the weight of a gun, or how much strength is required to reload it, let alone how to properly aim it or manage recoil.SamHD 2014-06-04 21-51-21-81

In most any game, particularly the violent first person shooters, sure the artwork is of soldiers and cities, guns and grenades. You know what the game is in practice? Cubes. The players are cubes sliding around on rectangles and triangles, tracing lines to one another. When those lines trace, counters are decremented, and when they hit 0, that cube is repositioned. This is a world where you are proficient with every weapon you touch, but every weapon you touch also boils down to being a box thrower, box swinger, or line tracer. This is a world where you meant to open a door but you accidentally took out a grenade, pulled the pin, and threw it at the door. Now you are exclaiming in either alarm or laughter as you attempt to evade the threat created by yourself. Most likely you will escape, the door will be unharmed, and you remind yourself of the difference in location between F and G on your keyboard.

There are lots of anecdotes about various killers and video games. The Columbine thugs played Doom, which is akin to saying they knew Nirvana songs other than the singles. Yes, they made one map in the game, which is akin to saying they picked up a guitar and tried their hand at Heart Shaped Box for a week. James Holmes “allegedly” (their specification, so why include it?) said that the movie theater shooting felt like a video game, which is odd because video games, especially shooters, are defined by your interaction with meaningfully resistant opposition. Not bystanders. If Holmes ever said this, he seems rather confused as to what happens in video games. Call of Duty does not have Gun Free zones.left4dead2 2014-06-05 23-19-46-84

Adam Lanza logged over 500 hours of Combat Arms earning the “staggering” number of 83,496 kills. Which by the way comes out to 2.78 kills a minute, or what anyone who spent five minutes playing would call “boring and slow”. By the way, those 500 hours were apparently over 2 years, a time span of roughly 17520 hours. A less scary way to say 500 hours is just under 3 weeks, which in the scheme of 2 years results in roughly a casual hobby. The games are not the factor here, the individuals doing the killing are. In video games killing happens as an objective. You are fighting a war, vying for a piece of territory, thwarting a plot, or engaging in a sport combat where you are seeing who has greater mastery of the game. Their actions do not mirror, even vaguely, any of these situations. Perhaps you should be investigating why these individuals are slaughtering for the sake of slaughtering, versus for some form of gain or against a perceived threat?

The article also has sprinkles of quotes from Walt Williams who worked on Spec Ops: The Line. I can only hope that they accurately quoted him with context, and will proceed forward assuming as such. Williams is generally correct in speaking of violence as being the “easiest thing to do” in games, as they are inherently binary products, much like the roles of hero and villain, or whether or not a shot has hit the target. Williams goes on to speak of shooters as being part of a “power fantasy”, something which I have already written about here, but in short the desire isn’t so much for power as it is clarity on what needs to be done. Combat scenarios with villains and specific objectives are clear work that needs to be done, with immediate and obvious results. Williams sees a power fantasy, I see a fantasy of having meaning.gzdoom 2014-06-04 21-57-01-90

At a later point Williams is quoted as saying “In real life, killing is a traumatic experience … But in video games, it’s something that can happen a hundred times a minute.” Well actually the trauma concerns those involved, and the method. The frequency happens based upon other factors, factors which video games often choose as their scenario. It is easier to do a hundred vague enemy soldiers who die from simple mathematical calculations than to create a single target who is a compelling challenge and who’s death doesn’t fall flat and rot in the crevices of the uncanny valley.

The article claims that Spec Ops: The Line’s goal was to “portray violence – and its effects – in a much more realistic way.” Yet what we got was another video game with violence, only the opposition was more murkily defined. The soldiers you can over hear having conversations you can relate with in Spec Ops are not the same soldiers you would encounter in other games. For example, most conflicts involve forces of differing geographical regions, and thus there is often a language barrier between the sides, so overhearing is less likely. Another is that the game concerns a different scenario than most – two different groups of soldiers sent to the site of a disaster with what become conflicting objectives. This is a different story.

If you have not wondered about the weight of your actions in a violent game before, put yourself in the shoes of an NPC, or questioned the options before you, I’m not going to question the video game industry. I am going to question your own personal development. I am going to question your grasp of basic empathy, or at the very least your imagination.

“For what it’s worth, Spec Ops: The Line received some positive critical notices, but it was certainly no Grand Theft Auto in terms of sales. Given the choice between moral ambiguity and a power fantasy, perhaps the market has spoken.”

It received positive reception for the story, a story that is different from other games, which makes it a poor analysis of how such games would be with deeper realizations of violent conflict. You know what it didn’t receive positive reception for? The controls, the mechanics, the moment to moment experiences of playing the game. I myself didn’t check it out because I had been told it was physically a chore to play, due to poorly implemented elements. Perhaps the market has spoken on the matter of a choice between moral ambiguity and a power fantasy? First off, Spec Ops definitely qualifies for Williams’ power fantasy descriptor (and the articles description of the Modern Combat character as well). He is a physically tough, agile man at the peak of his age and capability. He can wield any number of weapons with great proficiency, fall great distances, soak up bullets, and land precise shots over great distances while taking fire. The game has moral ambiguity, but it also has a power fantasy and these things are not exclusive.left4dead2 2014-06-05 23-22-04-84

Grand Theft Auto is primarily defined by it being an open world, that is not a power fantasy, that is an opportunity fantasy. Furthermore, that isn’t how markets work. Spec Ops released in June, near the release of Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, another third person shooter, but from an established franchise. Grand Theft Auto and Ghost Recon are relatively sure bets. They’ve been around, a gamer knows that they have a reputation to uphold, and when your gaming dollar is limited, that reputation goes a long way. Grand Theft Auto is a seventeen year old franchise, why should any initial release from a franchise compare to its numbers? Besides, GTA typically releases near the holiday season which increases the chance of being on store shelves and gamer’s minds when people start asking them what they would want as a gift, thus dodging the whole limited budget issue.

Why do publications insist on hosting articles where the author has so little awareness as to the depth of the subject when it comes to video games? Would you expect Kotaku to cover presuppositional apologetics and do a good job? Rock Paper Shotgun and modern sexuality? No. So why do people who can’t be bothered to actually spend some time gaming and among gamers continue to write articles insinuating that they have a part in the actions of clearly evil people?

In the mean time, Men’s Health, if you want an article on say, home construction, I have lived in more than one house in my life, I’ve watched an episode of This Old House, and I bet I could find three different people to interview about the subject.

I don’t want to play this journalism, it uses hacks.