The Videogame Criticism You Don’t See

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  • When I was 16, the first guy I ever dated died of a shotgun wound. Among other things, he was a gamer.

    I’m not a gamer. I’m an educator; I grade papers on Renaissance and science fiction literature at U.C. Berkeley and review essays on a wide variety of topics at Smarthinking, an online tutoring company. In the past couple of years, my current partner has become a professional videogame critic and I have reviewed over 60 essays on videogames. I haven’t played that many videogames in my life.

    I have trouble with being represented as a gun onscreen

    Even if I had played 60 videogames, I wouldn’t feel comfortable identifying as a gamer. I remain gamer-adjacent. My students’ essays have helped me understand why.

    I’ve worked with a couple of students who are studying videogames; one says he is pursuing a career in the industry because gaming has turned him into a “master problem solver.” Another submitted a code of ethics for a gaming company. However, most of my students are gamer-adjacent, like me.

    My distaste for violence is echoed in these gamer-adjacent essays. (I also have to note that the tutoring handbook chapter I most frequently consult – the one on APA citations – has samples from an essay titled “Effects of Violent Video Games.”) Some papers don’t mention specific titles and categorize all videogames, or all “mature” videogames, as excessively violent. Other papers focus on Call of Duty or the Grand Theft Auto games.

    Many students compare sports and videogames, but I don’t find the arguments that favor sports convincing. I’ve adhered to a strict no-jock rule in my dating because I believe physically knocking people over in football is more violent than pretending to shoot aliens with a joystick.

    However, a button is no longer such an innocent thing. Bombs can level cities and nukes can destroy our world, all with a controller not too dissimilar from a videogame console.

    On the other hand, some students believe in more immediate impact, that people will mimic the violence they see in videogames. After all, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s violent attack on Columbine High School was inspired by what one of my students referred to as an “in-game battle” from Doom.

    I knew a few students at Columbine. As part of the band and choir at a high school in Ft. Collins, Colorado, I traveled to Columbine for music contests and performances. The attack happened after I had moved to Ohio, around the time that the boy who took me to see City of Angels and to the Olive Garden died of a shotgun wound.

    Mimicry has come up in many pedagogy essays, but I believe that media – including videogames – can teach people critical analysis, to think before they emulate. In fact, I’ve used a game called Conversacolor, developed by my pedagogy professor, to help my students learn analytical skills.

    My gamer-adjacent students could love games – even become gamers – if videogames taught them how to think critically about violence.

    And there are some students who argue that violent videogames can also be educational. One student wrote an essay on how God of War taught her about Greek mythology and challenged her with puzzles. Many papers (and my current partner) praise games for teaching them problem-solving skills and increasing their visual perception. But among the gamer-adjacent, there is usually a divide between violent and “educational” games, if a distinction is even made.

    My students argue that excessive, realistic death and torture will desensitize gamers. While the link between desensitization and mimicry is tenuous at best, I do believe that media affects people. Well-crafted books, films and television shows change how people think and feel. The thoughts and feelings elicited by media alter how people treat one another.

    For instance, one student compared the sexism in Super Mario Brothers and Grand Theft Auto. I’ve played a good deal of Super Mario Brothers, and can see elements of chivalry – saving the helpless princess by defeating enemies. Courtly love requires men prove their love by fighting, making violence an important part of wooing, and implies that women cannot save themselves.

    My student contrasted this with more direct acts of violence against women in the controversial Grand Theft Auto series, such as attacking “random female victims” on the street. While the sexism here is blatant, it draws from the ethos of chivalry that permeates most media today: women are helpless. Women are objects – to be won or to be assaulted.

    I remain gamer-adjacent because I see only a few gamers make this connection. Men are taught that women need to be saved – that they want to be saved – and romance should include violence. Even seemingly innocuous games reinforce this gender stereotype.

    Violent videogames don’t make me want to mimic violence or win love with violence; they trigger my anxiety. Gunshot noises in games can remind me of the people I’ve lost to bullets. I have trouble with being represented as a gun onscreen, as you are in most first-person shooters – I can’t be a thing that killed people I cared about. Resurfaced memories of gun-related traumas cause me to treat my friends and my gamer-lover differently. I have trouble connecting through resurfaced pain.

    A few of my students have PTSD from military service or other violent experiences and remain gamer-adjacent because of this. Others are single mothers who fear their gamer children will become violent (or treat other people poorly because they are desensitized to violence). A number of my students are minorities and most are economically underprivileged.

    I have heard that the videogame community needs more diversity. And while it may be best that I (a bibliophile who writes poetry with pen and paper) remain gamer-adjacent, I would like to advocate for my students. So I want to ask the gaming community: how can these college students learn about games that are educational and beautiful? How can they learn that “videogame” is not synonymous with violence?


    Marjorie Jensen occasionally tweets @metaphorjunkie and maintains a blog at DoorQ.

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    12 thoughts on “The Videogame Criticism You Don’t See

    1. rwelean says:

      I agree that we should think more about how video game violence affects us… and I also find your use of the term "gamer-adjacent" incredibly pretentious. Why is it so important that you distance yourself from the term "gamer"?

      1. Marjorie Anne says:

        I use the term gamer-adjacent because I have only a little first-hand knowledge about videogames (i haven't played very many games). Most of my knowledge is second-hand. I feel that it would be presumptuous to call myself a gamer–I don't have the gaming "cred." But I think making the term gamer more inclusive is a wonderful idea!

    2. Caitlin says:

      Play non-violent games! Look at Flower, or Fez, or any number of new indie games out now. If you want a Mario-style game that acknowledges its sexism, play Braid. You want a strong female protagonist (and antagonist)? Look at the Portal series.

      For the record, in GTA you can assault anyone, and there are men and women on the streets. If the player is only attacking “random female victims”, that speaks of the player, not the game.

      Your students need to open their eyes, and realize that not all games are the big-name shooters. Heck, not all games are *shooters*.
      I'm not saying that violence and sexism aren't problems, I'm just saying that it is wrong to classify all games as such; it's like saying all literature is like 50 Shades of Gray or the Twilight series.

      If you want more recommendations on games, email me – I have degrees in Computer Science and English, and am a gamer. You seem confused; I'd love to talk.

      1. Marjorie Anne says:

        Thank you for your suggestions! I'm currently playing Just Dance 2 and Rock Band Blitz.

        My students don't know about a lot of non-violent games, and I think this is due to the videogame industry's intense focus on violent games. Games with guns are the ones that people outside of the gaming community know about. Most don't hear about indie games–my students don't even know they exist.

        This is the problem I see: people are making great non-violent games, but they are not getting the attention they deserve! What can people within the industry or gaming community do to increase the visibility of these games? Why aren't these games widely known?

      2. @RowanKaiser says:

        Right, as Marjorie said, the issue isn't "what games exist" but rather "what games the students think 'gaming' means." Just saying "Flower exists!" doesn't make them, or most other people, think of Call Of Duty when they think of video games.

        Call Of Duty has more money, more advertising, more players, more press attention, better time slots at E3, more previews, more trailers, and so on and so on. So the issue isn't pointing individuals at different games if you have the chance, it's why COD gets so much attention.

    3. Hello! I think there are plenty of readers here who can cover the nonviolent and the poetic in videogames, so I won't touch on that. I'd like to share a little bit about sport that, while it might not change your mind completely (and that's not really my goal or intention) will help guide student work a bit maybe.

      So, sport is weird and confusing. I grew up being teased and bullied by jocks. It wasn't until I learned that I could compete in nonviolent sports that I saw a bit of the other side (I ran cross country and did wrestling, which I was surprised to find was nonviolent–choking and striking aren't allowed, so it was more a strange exploration of physics and the human body.)

      But first I'll start by agreeing on the point of American football. We are only now coming to terms with the fact that sports like football and boxing have serious physical and mental effects on their players over the long term, and it's something that sporting organizations are only now being called to task for. Over the next few decades, it's likely that strike-heavy sport is going to change radically. It's kind of an exciting time to be studying the paratexts and sociologies of popular sport.

      And that's the crux of it: sports seem monolithic within our lifetimes, but they actually change quite a bit in conformance or parallel with wider intellectual, social, and ethical motions in their host societies. A good intro to this is Holt's Sport and the English. For instance, he makes the case that the development of modern team sports parallel a civilizing (I know this is loaded, but we can use it carefully here by limiting our focus to Britain only and not extendin the idea of civility to other nations with different value systems) impulse in British society. Basically, organized team sport replaced animal sport, and it came at a time when, for one of the first times in British history, political control was being transferred nonviolently. It's kind of crazy to learn that the ASPCA was involved in the push for team sport, but it makes sense when you see that what these sports replaced were things like fox hunting, bull fighting, bulldogging, dog fighting, and various sports involving the slaughter or roosters.

      So that's the question that students of videogames are in the position to answer now: what does it mean to contemporary society that many of our most popular sports are digital? Is it simply a retreat from jock culture or the very real physical and mental trauma suffered by players of professional sport, or is it something else?

      1. Pardon the couple of typos, wrote that out on my phone! Biggest one was ASPCA, meant SPCA!

      2. @RowanKaiser says:

        I think the "sport-like" nature of a lot of the games that people play for months on end – your CODs or your WOWs – might be a big part of the appeal. I'm sure you could go all evo-psych and talk about how they're practice for defending the tribe or whatever, but regardless, these kind of team activities do seem to be popular.

        But of course it's not "simply" a replacement of dangerous sports. Video games were becoming popular well before we knew about the dangers of football, and they're popular in countries where football is soccer as well. But they do connect with similar instincts, yes.

        1. Yeah I didn't mean to imply it was a simple answer; that's why I left a bunch of questions at the end!

          But I think it's important to remember that the fact that most eSports develop around games with swords and guns and space marines doesn't mean this is the only way that videogames and sports can grow and change together. There are plenty of opportunities for eSports that don't depict violence (I mean, people who are Guitar Hero, Trackmania, and FIFA pro-gamers are early proof of that).

          I'd question your timeline in your second graf a bit, in the context of the professionalization and "sportification" of videogames. Sure, they were popular before the widespread examination of long-term trauma caused by a lot of sports, but they weren't professionalized. If you take the two big watershed moments from each of these impulses, Muhammad Ali becoming the public face of sports-related Parkinson's (1984) and the first "cyberathletes" to compete in Doom (93-94), it at least follows chronologically, even if there isn't any strict causation (just one part of the overall move, which I think we both agree).

    4. Philip says:

      I'm reminded of what my brother says when someone remarks about video-games and violence: "And what do you read?"

    5. Rob Haines says:

      The 'violence in videogames' debate has been going on pretty much as long as games have existed; why are we shooting the aliens in Space Invaders first, rather than inviting them to some intergalactic Camp David? (The answer, presumably, being that technology wasn't advanced enough at the time to deal with more than point-to-point contact of sprites.) And in recent years, it seems like the discussion's improved, from vitriolic headlines directly linking school shootings to copies of Grand Theft Auto and the like to a slightly more nuanced weighing up of the benefits and potential risks of shaping minds through direct interactions with an interactive media.

      While I can't help but feel that a realistic dialogue is a good thing, there still seems to be a problem with the way that two essentially disparate elements of the argument tend to be lumped together: the question of whether violent videogames turn people into killers is very different to whether videogames as a media rely too heavily and readily on violence as their primary form of interaction.

      I would happily debate the first question for hours. Personally I don't believe that it's the case; if someone isn't naturally – through environment or psychology – inclined towards violence, no amount of playing Grand Theft Auto is going to make them commit illegal or immoral acts. It's possible that games may act as a trigger for those already inclined towards such acts, but in that case gaming differs little from music, or books, or being scowled at by the staff at the local diner.

      But do I feel self-conscious, embarrassed for the art-form which I've taken to my heart, when colleagues at my day-job talk about games they've seen their children play, full of cursing and violence and lingering decapitations? Where the only interaction with anything in the game world is through gunning down enemy combatants? Am I not skirting the argument by pointing out games like Flower, or SimCity, when the huge, crushing weight of the majority of games lies on the point-to-point contact of my bullet and my enemy's face, topped off with an aggrandized, visceral exploration of the interior of their skull?

      Our technology's way beyond that of Space Invaders by now. But we're still stuck back in 1978.

    6. That chap from upstairs says:

      Show them Journey, Flower and Fl0w.

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