You don't have to defend video games

The bogeyman is back. In the wake of another mass shooting, one that actually seemed to bother us this time, prominent voices are blaming video games for inciting murders. As they have since the early 1990s, those who would pin society's ills on a nebulous concept of moral decay are quick to point to violent games as a culprit. (One politician referred to the "Babylonian idiot box," which you have to admit would be an incredible name for a band.) These arguments aren't worth seriously engaging.

Why are so many people engaging them?

It is odd to see the online discourse around games, so contentious about issues of loot boxes, representation, weapons balancing, you name it, coalesce with such speed and intensity. Wherever you came down on GamerGate, whether you're hardcore or casual, whether you think games have been ruined or are better than ever, the one thing you know for sure is that Wayne LaPierre can eff right off with this stuff. Partly it's the natural tendency to band together against external threats -- I'll scream and argue with my family all day, but god help the outsider who tries to mess with them. But it also comes down to something that's a lot harder to justify: the idea that, actually, video games are Good.

I'll say it again: I don't think video games, or any other violent media, can be blamed for the actions of a deranged individual. Focusing on them as a solution to the problem of mass violence is a distraction. But so is leaping to their defense every time somebody mentions them.

Start with the plain fact that nobody's going to ban violent games. As long as there is money to be made, so will the games. Whether or not Trump administration officials are actually going to be meeting with industry representatives (it's hilarious and typical that this seems to be a matter of debate), there's zero chance that Republicans are going to take any action that will hamper an industry that generates tens of billions of dollars of revenue a year. If anything, game execs would walk out of that meeting with promises of a tax cut.

I also wonder why we are so defensive about the value of our violent games. Some games are great, and some aren't, but the inclusion of graphic content is more or less incidental to quality. Maybe something like DOOM 2016, which I loved, wouldn't be quite the same without the splatter. But I'm not prepared to say that the ultraviolence is what made it great, nor am I willing to say that pressure to have toned it down would be tantamount to censorship -- a modern-day book burning. Suppose this game were forced to lose the gore or be removed from the market. That sure wouldn't be about suppressing its ideas.

So much of the defensiveness seems, honestly, to come from a selfish place. "I play violent games and I've never committed a crime." Well, sure. That's exactly the same line of thinking you hear from all those law-abiding gun owners. Why should I have to give up something I like? Why should I even have to think about it? Surely this is somebody else's problem to solve. But I'll make a deal with the NRA: I'll give up the violent video games if you give up the guns.

Obviously there's a huge difference here, which is that you can't actually kill someone with a video game. (Especially now that so many of them are distributed digitally. But it was hard even when they came on cartridges.) The reasoning, though, conceals a more uncomfortable truth, which is that we continue to support an astounding number of rotten things in this industry with our dollars.

Let's talk crunch. The game industry is notorious for chewing up its employees and spitting them out. We're talking mandatory unpaid overtime in the weeks and sometimes months preceding a game's launch, which, in a project-based labor environment, is often followed immediately by layoffs. People who make games are overworked, underpaid, have little job security, and sacrifice their work-life balance to a literally unhealthy degree. But they're doing what they love, or something.

Or let's talk anti-consumerism. Loot boxes have been in the news lately, but they're just one example of the way game publishers use psychological tricks to identify and encourage the members of their audience most apt to fork over more money, not just once but over and over. Again, you may say, who cares? I'm not susceptible to these things. Freedom and arglebargle. But others are susceptible, and they're being exploited. There's a long list of anti-consumer practices in the industry, both among game publishers and retailers, and usually the loudest voices speaking out are the gamers themselves. We are the ones who care the most about making these things right. Let's not forget that just because Donald Trump thinks more age restrictions would be a swell idea. 

Finally, let's talk turkey. The game industry, emphasis on industry, is as culpable as any other in prioritizing profits over people. Simon Parkin's staggering exposé of the ties between game publishers and arms manufacturers remains a crucial piece of games journalism, one that should be read and discussed by anyone who actually gives a shit about reducing gun violence. I agree that the guns are the problem. Are we okay with the games we play paying licensing money to the companies that make them?

Beyond that example, let's be clear about what our relationship is to the companies that sell us games. They don't care about free speech or artistic expression or anything else that can't be valued monetarily. We exist to make a profit for them. I'm not particularly enthused about taking a (metaphorical) bullet for them, too.

Is the First Amendment worth defending? Definitely. Are video games the best proxy for doing so? Dubious. Blaming them for society's ills is a smokescreen. So is absolving them.