Tag Archives: Grand Theft Auto

Should war video games be more humanitarian?

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A few weeks ago, an unusual Red Cross effort caught my eye. A special unit in the agency has been working with video-game developers to create in-game scenarios where players face consequences for violating the rules of war. As they explain on their website:

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has publicly stated its interest in the implications of video games that simulate real-war situations and the opportunities such games present for spreading knowledge of the law of armed conflict. The rules on the use of force in armed conflict should be applied to video games that portray realistic battlefield scenes, in the same way that the laws of physics are applied.

I’m having trouble telling for certain whether the agency just wants this to be an option in some video games, or whether it thinks all war games should include consequences — tribunals, courts, imprisonment — for players who go astray from the rules.

Certainly there’s room for video games to be realistic, down to the negative results if you do something you shouldn’t. After all, even in Grand Theft Auto, the supposed Grand Poobah of corrupting video games, bad things happen when you get drunk. But with war games, it entirely depends on the reason you’re playing. If it’s to learn the ins and outs of military law and history, then by all means, make a game as realistic and full of consequences as necessary to be accurate.

But what about all those people who play these games as an escape, for whom warfare and the battlefield is there as a metaphor for something else? What about those who use these games as a kind of interactive theater that produces catharsis? Interrupting that process with a military tribunal could leave those players feeling half-finished and frustrated — not relieved of their aggressions.

The comments on the NPR story about this Red Cross program are especially interesting. This one’s probably my favorite:

If a game violates the laws of nature and the laws of physics what difference does it make that it also violates the laws of the Geneva Convention? I could understand the RC being concerned if these were training video, but they’re not; they’re fantasy.

What do you think? Should war-based video games be more realistic, and feature the kinds of consequences the Red Cross is suggesting?

Tom Bissell on GTAV: ‘Play is hardly ever valued’

If you haven’t been living in a bomb shelter, you probably know by now that Rockstar Games released the latest installment in its Grand Theft Auto series this fall. Like its predecessors, it’s an M-rated open-world third-person shooter set in a fictionalized version of a major American city, where the player assumes the role of a criminal who must plan six major heists to win the game.

One of the franchise’s most devoted, outspoken and widely read players is Tom Bissell, author of Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter. Bissell played through the new GTA in four days and then unloaded his thoughts into a piece at Grantland, styled as a letter to one of the series’ criminal characters, Nico Bellic. Bissell’s responses, as always, provide key insight into the appeal of this series (once labeled by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most controversial franchise), of video games in general, and of how they came to be so maligned:

Unfortunately, the mental activity generated by playing games is not much valued by non-gamers; in fact, play is hardly ever valued within American culture, unless it involves a $13 million signing bonus. Solitary play can feel especially shameful, and we gamers have internalized that vaguely masturbatory shame, even those of us who’ve decided that solitary play can be profoundly meaningful. Niko, I’ve thought about this a lot, and internalized residual shame is the best explanation I have to account for the cesspool of negativity that sits stagnating at the center of video-game culture, which right now seems worse than it’s ever been.

I don’t think playing video games makes people more violent. You of all people should know that. I do, however, believe playing video games turns people into bigger assholes than they would otherwise feel comfortable being. Games are founded upon competition and confrontation. It’s probably no coincidence, then, that a large and extremely vocal part of the video-game audience responds to arguments with which it disagrees by lashing out. One reviewer of GTA V, Carolyn Petit of GameSpot, said the game was “politically muddled and profoundly misogynistic,” which is very much a defensible position. Petit also made it clear she loved GTA V. Twenty thousand irate comments piled up beneath her review, many of them violent and hateful. Is this reasonable behavior? Sure, if you’ve come to regard anything that stands in perceived opposition to you as in dire need of eradication. What is that if not video-game logic in its purest, most distilled form?

Bissell’s take on the franchise — and the videogame industry — has changed over the years, as he details in his letter. In fact, he’s gotten downright cynical about it. The whole letter is worth a read. Make a cup of coffee and enjoy.

After kid kills caregiver and CNN blames a violent video game, it’s time to do a little math


An 8-year-old shoots his elderly caregiver. And the police blame video games? Photo by Flickr user Whistling in the Dark.

CNN ran an article today about an 8-year-old Louisiana boy who was living with an elderly caregiver until he shot her in the back of the head Thursday, killing her. They didn’t waste much time before blaming video games. Here’s a quote from the local police:

“Although a motive for the shooting is unknown at this time investigators have learned that the juvenile suspect was playing a video game on the Play Station III ‘Grand Theft Auto IV’, a realistic game that has been associated with encouraging violence and awards points to players for killing people, just minutes before the homicide occurred.”

I have so many questions, I don’t know where to begin. Okay, that’s not entirely true. Here’s my first question:

1. Why did this little boy have access to a loaded gun?

It’s a question we’re not likely to get the answer to. Admittedly, it’s entirely possible that the boy was trained to use weapons responsibly, although part of that training involves teaching people never to point a loaded gun at another person.

2. Why are we still blaming Grand Theft Auto?

It’s worth remembering that the man most responsible for trying to create connections between this video game and youth violence, Jack Thompson was disbarred in part for his conduct in cases involving the video game. There’s no science connecting this game (or any game) to real-life violence. And let’s keep in mind that CNN and the sheriffs of Louisiana are not scientists.

3. Why don’t we trust kids to separate fact from fiction?

The kids I’ve talked to in my own research, whether they’re 8 or 12 or 18, recognized a very clear line between video-game violence and real violence. The same was true of those I interviewed for Wired in 2011. Once in a while, maybe, a kid can’t tell the difference; I remember seeing one of the early Superman movies in the theater, and my brother thinking he could jump off our play structure and fly. But he was also about 2 years old, much younger than this kid. You know who can’t tell the difference between fiction and reality so well these days? “Experts.” Oh, and Pat Robertson.

Speaking of which, I’m no expert on this kid’s life, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say if he’s living in a trailer park with a 90-year-old woman who isn’t a family member, and who leaves a loaded gun around, this kid might have bigger concerns than his video-game intake. I also find it really interesting that following this event he’s now living with his parents. I will grant that there are some kids who are better off not living with their parents, but when that’s the situation, that’s a pretty heavy thing for an 8-year-old kid to deal with on a daily basis.

I’ve already seen parents calling for the end of violent video games, but what would that solve? If this were a math equation, it would go something like:

kid + GTA + gun = fatality

Now let’s take one of those things out of the equation.

kid + GTA = fatality?

Not unless you can bludgeon someone to death with a game console.

Let’s try again:

kid + gun = fatality

Maybe. There’s still a missing factor here, that unknown something that actually made this kid kill.

We need to keep looking for it.

The video game? That isn’t it.

Can’t we make up our minds about video games?


Video games are bad for kids. No, wait, they’re not. Who’s right? Photo by Flickr user sean dreilinger.

It’s 2012, and video games have been with us for almost 40 years. Kids of all ages have been playing them for that entire time. If video games were going to cause massive changes in the behavior or psychology of young gamers, we’d know about it by now.

And yet there are large chunks of society that cling tightly to the idea that video games — violent video games in particular — are bad for kids. Take, for example, a recent article on Wired.com that asks, “Do Violent Video Games Make Kids More Violent?” In it, GeekMom writer Andrea Schwalm writes about appearing on Al Jazeera’s The Stream on the topic of kids and gaming. The show focused, specifically, on Call of Duty: Black Ops II, of which she writes:

While my teenaged sons do play some M-rated games (currently, Halo 4 and Dishonored are in heavy weekend rotation), I wasn’t familiar with the Call of Duty franchise. After watching some YouTube clips of the game online, I wondered, “Is this how foreign countries think American children spend all of their free time?”

And yet, as the host of The Stream pointed out, the truth is, the game sold $500 million in its’ first 24 hours, was a trending topic on Twitter, and is played by children. If you look at the incarceration rates in America, it seems a legitimate question: does the ubiquity of video game violence beget real-life violence?

This is the kind of ridiculous logic that sends so many people down the wrong rabbit hole. The main problem here is, she doesn’t explain who is being incarcerated — if she took a look, she would realize it isn’t kids. America’s hefty incarceration rate, in large part, is due to the massive “War on Drugs” as well as the disproportionate number of minorities being jailed; it isn’t gamer teens winding up behind bars.

Fortunately, she turns to Doug Gentile. Now, I haven’t agreed with Gentile much on this site, but there are moments where I think he’s on the right track, moments where he puts his findings in broader context, and I’m glad to see at least one mom listening:

The only way that anyone does something seriously violent is if they have multiple risk factors and limited protective factors for violent behavior, and thankfully most of our children have a great many protective factors, can consume a lot of violent video games, and still never do anything violent.

Slightly more logical is a recent Kotaku piece from Phil Owen, which asks, “Do Video Games Make Depression Worse?” Owen also turns to Gentile who, after conducting a study on just that topic — and finding evidence that video games were indeed somehow making his test subjects’ depression worse — actually argued that it’s more complex than his results would suggest:

“I don’t really think [the depression] is following. I think it’s truly comorbid. … As you get more depressed you retreat more into games, which doesn’t help, because it doesn’t actually solve the problem. It doesn’t help your depression, so your depression gets worse, so you play more games, so your depression gets worse, etc. It becomes a negative spiral.”

Still, we can’t listen to the All-Doug-Gentile-All-The-Time Channel, can we? Thankfully, we also have the International Society for Research on Aggression releasing studies that show exposure to violent media increases the risk of aggressive behavior. (Oh, wait, Gentile is on the commission.)

This is one of those times when researchers look at the existing research and cobble it together to come up with some kind of meta-finding. The problem is, most of the research to date has been slanted in the negative direction — that is, it finds some relationship between violent video games and youth aggression, but that’s because it’s what society and researchers wanted to find, and because the research showing no such links — or showing violent games’ upsides — is just beginning to catch up.

IRSA chair Craig Anderson said, “Having such a clear statement by an unbiased, international scientific group should be very helpful to a number of child advocacy groups.” But any group that includes Anderson and Gentile — whose work overwhelmingly supports the violent-game/aggression theory — can’t be called “unbiased.” Sorry, guys.

So why is all this attention focused on video games? Has the sexuality and violence vanished from blockbuster movies, television shows, or young-adult fiction? Hardly. But for some reason, there’s little to no research — or public furor — focused on those old-hat forms of entertainment. Dan Houser, cofounder of Rockstar Games (home of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, among others), recently took note of video games’ pariah status in a recent Guardian interview highlighted on Kotaku:

“We never felt that we were being attacked for the content, we were being attacked for the medium, which felt a little unfair. If all of this stuff had been put into a book or a movie, people wouldn’t have blinked an eye.”

But it isn’t all doom and gloom. Plenty of people see the good in violent video games, or at least the harmlessness.

If violent video games — first-person shooters, say — are such lousy influences, then how are they capable of engendering sympathy? Jens Stober, a game designer and PhD student in Germany, is developing a video game in which players can assume the roles of Australian border guards or foreign refugees. Stober has written other border-centered games, such as “1378,” in which players can assume the roles of border guards or refugees fleeing East German communists. In that game, the guards can shoot fugitives, which earned Stober death threats.

But, as with many games, it’s all in the eye of the beholder:

[Stober] claims [the games] actually penalise players for shooting, and that the main aim is to educate people about political issues using game mechanics.

“You can have a gun, you can use it, but if you use it you will lose points and lose the game,” he says.

The players who are refugees must cooperate to evade the border guards while the guards try to arrest them. Along the way, the game dishes out educational factoids designed to provoke deeper thought about the issues.

Another recent article, by Brian Hampel for Kansas State University’s The Collegian, makes quite a different case for violent video games and society as a whole: he argues that our media is so violent because, well, we just like violence: “Popular culture isn’t a thermostat that dictates our tastes and trends; it’s a thermometer that shows us tastes and trends that already exist in the cultural zeitgeist,” he writes.

But his conclusions come quite close to things I’ve said at Backward Messages before, so I’d like to close with them:

It turns out that the real [culprits] behind youth violence are depression, delinquent peer association and negative relationships with adults. Who would have guessed?

You wouldn’t know it from watching news networks’ coverage of school shootings, but it’s true. Not only is violence not caused by the media, but it’s also in decline. I guess it’s easy to get the impression that we’re violent by watching the news, which could very well be the most violent medium of all.

Is it video games — or just plain hormones — that make teens reckless drivers?


A new study finds that kids who play video games that “glorify” reckless driving are risky drivers in reality. What if it’s the other way around?

You can tell the universities are back in session, because suddenly video-game studies are hitting the news again. This time, a cadre of researchers at Dartmouth College, led by Jay G. Hull, looked at the relationship between gamers who play
video games that “that glorify reckless driving” and their real-life driving habits.

Over a four-year period, Hull and his team worked with 5,000 teens aged 14 to 18. Half of the teens said their parents let them play M-rated games; the others weren’t allowed. Once the kids turned 16 and were old enough to drive, the researchers asked about their behind-the-wheel behavior:

A quarter of them answered “yes” when asked if they engaged in any unsafe driving habits, the researchers said. By the final interview, 90 percent said they engaged in at least one unsafe driving habit, including speeding (78 percent), tailgating (26 percent), weaving in and out of traffic (26 percent), and running red lights (20 percent).

The study found that playing mature-rated, risk-glorifying games was associated with an increase in self-reported risky driving, as well as sensation seeking and rebelliousness — qualities measured by the teens’ rating of themselves with regard to such statements as “I like to do dangerous things” and “I get in trouble at school.” And higher rankings in thrill seeking and rebelliousness were directly linked to risky driving habits, car accidents and being stopped by police, according to a statement from the American Psychological Association (APA)

However, statistics from the AAA Foundation (PDF) show that teenage drivers — particularly males — are already the most aggressive drivers on the road:

When analyzed with respect to age, the proportion of fatal-crash-involved drivers for whom any potentially-aggressive actions were coded decreased steadily with increasing age from the teenage years through about age 60, before increasing again. For example, 58.8 percent of 16-year-old drivers, 35.3 percent of 35-year-old drivers, and 26.5 percent of 60-year-old drivers had any potentially-aggressive actions coded.

There are a number of possibilities here, very few of which play into the old Jack Thompson malarkey that blames Grand Theft Auto for everything that’s wrong with kids today. There is absolutely a subset of teens who engage in riskier behavior; when Jeffrey Jensen Arnett studied metal fans in the 1980s and 1990s, he found tons of them listening to heavy-metal music. But, as with metal, I suspect it’s that thrill-seeking teens love intense experiences, and seek out those experiences in fantasy — such as video games — as well as reality.

In other words, it could be the love of risk that makes kids interested in high-stakes driving games — not the other way around. And, as long as these kids are playing out their wishes on the screen, they’re not engaging them behind the wheel, an option that keeps them much safer in the long run.

I’d also like to see some side-by-side driving statistics for teens who play these games and teens who don’t. I suspect they’re actually much more similar than Hull found — and that the problem is adolescence and hormones, not video games.

But Hull doesn’t think so. In fact, he takes it to a very slippery-slope place:

“Playing these kinds of video games could also result in these adolescents developing personalities that reflect the risk-taking, rebellious characters they enact in the games and that could have broader consequences that apply to other risky behaviors such as drinking and smoking.”

All right, readers: do you play games where reckless driving is rewarded? Why do you like such games? Does it influence your real-life driving? How so?

More parents are embracing video games — but not the idea that violent games are harmful


Psychology instructor Jayne Gackenbach and her son, Teace Snyder, play video games together — and wrote a book about the benefits of gaming.

If the name Jayne Gackenbach is familiar to you, there’s good reason — she released research in January that playing violent video games can help soldiers overcome nightmares induced by the traumas of war.

Like many such researchers, she’s also a mom. Her interest in video games started, naturally, with her kids. She told the Edmonton Journal she found her son digging into a shopping bag, and kissing the box of his first game console.

“I was like, ‘what is this?’” she remembers. “I knew (gaming) was a passion with both of them (her children), so I started doing the research.”

That led to Gackenbach playing games with her kids — on the computer, and on gaming systems, until Snyder finally told her: ‘You’re too bad, Mom.’ He’d give me 10 lives and he’d still beat me,” Gackenbach says laughing.

Gackenbach and Snyder’s co-written book, Play Reality: How Video Games are Changing Everything, is out now.

Research has shown that kids should play video games with their parents, girls especially. Not only is it good for the kids, but it also helps parents better understand the games their kids are playing, and what their kids experience while playing.

It’s certainly a lot better than the mainstream approach. A recent study by Player2.com found that most parents don’t check the age rating on video games. Given the recent legislative efforts to keep M-rated games out of minors’ hands, this is saying something.

Many anti-violent-game legislators seem to feel that kids are buying these games illicitly somehow, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. It’s likely that many parents are buying these games for their kids — without looking at the labels — but also are not buying into the hype that violent games are harmful:

Interestingly, 61 per cent of parents do not believe that violent video games affect their children’s behaviour in a negative way; with 76 per cent of these parents stating that violent games do not mirror real life and so did not believe that they could affect behaviour.

The survey also discovered that just over half of parents would not be concerned if their child was playing an 18+ game, but 54 per cent would be concerned if they found them watching an 18+ film.

There’s a new book out on the game that sparked much of the video-game controversy over the past decade: Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto, by David Kushner. Kushner examines the creation of this series, its popularity, and how it earned its reputation as the most controversial game of all time. One of the things Kushner addresses in his interview with CNET is how Grand Theft Auto IV (and its hidden sex scene) taught game buyers and parents a very important lesson:

It finally got out the message that games are played by adults, that this can be an adult medium, just like we have “The Sopranos,” “Goodfellas,” etc. And I do believe that the GTA decade brought the end of that debate.

Until then, many had assumed that video games were just for kids — and that all video games, at all rating levels, were somehow suitable for kids. Now, it seems, more parents are aware; and they’re still okay with their kids (teens, most likely) playing these games.

Oklahoma lawmaker calls for “sin tax” on violent video games, despite available logic


Oklahoma lawmaker Will Fourkiller wants to tax violent video games to pay for childhood anti-obesity and anti-bullying programs. Sort of.

Oklahoma legislator Will Fourkiller has become the latest politician to go up against violent video games. He’s making news for proposing a tax on violent video games. His bill, if passed, actually would collect a 1-percent sales tax on all games rated “T” or above — that is, all games aimed at kids 13 and older — whether they’re violent or not. The tax would only apply in the state of Oklahoma.

Proceeds from the tax would go toward two Oklahoma funds that pay for childhood outdoor education and bullying prevention — worthy programs, certainly. Unfortunately, that’s because he believes the research connecting video games with obesity and with bullying. First, studies have not really singled out violent video games (PDF) as a cause of obesity — they tend to focus on all media. And there’s no compelling research suggesting violent video games cause bullying; in fact, studies so far have found no such correlation.

And then there’s this:

There’s even a game called Bully, Fourkiller pointed out, a situation he reportedly found unbelievable.

Does Fourkiller realize that the game’s name is a nickname for the fictional Bullworth Academy, where the game is set? In fact, the game’s goal is to defeat the school bully. (For what it’s worth, it’s rated “T.”)

Oddly, Fourkiller also referred to a case in which Ohio’s Dustin Lynch “shot a police officer and stole his car. He had been playing Grand Theft Auto.” Apparently Fourkiller didn’t get the memo that this case had been laughed out of court and an attorney involved in the case, Jack Thompson, was disbarred — in part for that involvement.

For more on why Fourkiller’s bill is ill-conceived, Time offers: Oklahoma Bill to Tax Violent Video Games Is Clueless and Inconsistent. Writer Matt Peckham explains:

Worse, in a sense, is that the Oklahoma bill singles out video games and ignores other forms of entertainment, from television to movies and books to music. The evidence any of those mediums elicit meaningfully negative behavior in consumers is equally dubious, uniting them with video games as victims of “moral panic” by people either too uninformed or ideologically blinded to absorb or accept the prevailing science.

For whatever reason, Fourkiller requested that his bill be considered under “emergency rules” because it is “immediately necessary for the preservation of the public peace, health and safety,” according to the text. (It’s unclear how this is any more of an emergency now than it was during any other point during Fourkiller’s legislative career — except that he’s up for re-election this year).

Again, I think the ideals and programs Fourkiller wants to support are mostly good ones. He wants to keep kids out of trouble, get them exercise, and keep them from hurting each other. But this tax, and its wonky application, makes no sense. If you were going to raise money for such programs, how would you go about it?