John Carmack, who helped develop the classic first-person shooter Doom, says video games like his make players less aggressive. Should we listen to him?
When John Carmack helped develop the first Doom video game, released in 1993, chances are good that he didn’t realize what its effect would be. The game became so popular in the mid-1990s — when it was played by an estimated 10 million people — that it is credited with turning the practice of playing video games from a nerd hobby into a semi-mainstream pastime. So many people enjoyed this early first-person shooter, with its immersive quality, its low-fi horror, its ability to leave you craving your next turn at the computer, that it was bound to offend someone.
It has been called, among other things, a “mass murder simulator,” despite the fact that the single mass murder connected with Doom — at Columbine High School in 1999 — seems more closely connected with the mental condition of the teens who pulled it off. In general, according to research by the U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education, school shooters tend to be much less interested in video games than other boys their age, and much more prone to depression and attempted suicide.
And yet, in 2011, when Carmack claims that games like his are not progenitors of aggression, people still pause. After all, didn’t video games have something to do with Anders Breivik’s Norway rampage?
Here’s what Carmack told IndustryGamer:
“I really think, if anything, there is more evidence to show that the violent games reduce aggression and violence. There have actually been some studies about that, that it’s cathartic. If you go to QuakeCon and you walk by and you see the people there [and compare that to] a random cross section of a college campus, you’re probably going to find a more peaceful crowd of people at the gaming convention. I think it’s at worst neutral and potentially positive.”
I can hear you saying, “Of course he would say that. He helped create these kinds of games. He’s biased.” Yes, of course he’s biased. Probably most of the people involved in this topic are biased. To his credit, Carmack is closer to the gaming culture than most of the people who oppose violent video games are — and closer, even, to that culture than the researchers who claim such games are harmful. By “closer” I don’t mean he’s part of it, although he is. By “closer” I mean he sees it on a regular basis, the same way a waiter in a restaurant sees hundreds of people eat and knows that most of them don’t overeat, or get sick from their meals.
In the shouting about violent video games, it’s easy to forget that when you’re playing the game, you’re not usually just the protagonist, you’re the hero. In Doom, you’re a space marine whose job is to keep a demonic horde on Mars from attacking Earth after the rest of his regiment is killed by those demons. You’re saving your own planet, and all of mankind. That’s pretty heady stuff, no matter who you are.
As it happens, a new study reveals what many of us already know: people play video games to experiment with different roles. More specifically, to try on an idealized personality and see how it fits:
“A game can be more fun when you get the chance to act and be like your ideal self,” says Dr. Andy Przybylski, a research fellow at the University of Essex who led the study. “The attraction to playing video games and what makes them fun is that it gives people the chance to think about a role they would ideally like to take and then get a chance to play that role.”
Why do you play video games? Does the ability to play your “ideal self” appeal? Do you think Carmack is right about violent games’ influence? I’d love to hear your thoughts.