In the thirty-one years I've been alive, I've never robbed anyone, killed anyone, or engaged in some other crime. In fact, I made it through my whole life thus far without having once tried an illegal drug, and that includes marijuana. I don't drink, shy of the occasional, rare glass of wine on holidays, though I do smoke cigarettes and drink an ungodly amount of soda. I know what you're probably thinking... so what? Who cares? Why is that an achievement? Well, hang on a minute, I'm telling you! Yeesh! For at least twenty-seven of those years, I've been an avid video gamer. I've earned 100% completion rates in almost every Grand Theft Auto game in the franchise. I've killed hundreds of thousands of digital Nazi's, zombies, aliens, criminals, and mutated scorpions. And if you count all of the times I've used nuclear weapons in Civilization games, or the times I've died during a mission or a quest when all of humanity was relying on me to save the day, that number skyrockets into the billions. According to some, that makes me a monster, the sort of person you wouldn't want your kids hanging around with. Because to them, every casual and hardcore gamer in the world who plays violent video games is nothing more than a ticking time bomb.
A few years ago, Rick Sanchez, then a CNN anchor, was adding some color to a story he was doing about video game violence. I can't remember his exact words, but in a nutshell, he said that he wouldn't want someone in their thirties who played video games living next door to him, in fear that this individual would one day erupt into some horrible rage and brutally slaughter everyone in the neighborhood. Of course, he didn't realize that the average age of gamers is around thirty-four, so I laughed, called him an idiot (as if he could hear me through my TV screen), and chalked it up to yet another instance of a tragically-misinformed journalist, politician, or parent deciding that video game violence was the scapegoat of the day. I had the same reaction when Hillary Clinton, then my Senator in New York State, involved herself in the same nonsense, which played a critical role in my early endorsement of Barack Obama for President, I should add. Republicans have done it, too... this isn't a party thing. The one unifying factor that draws people together in the crusade against video game violence is pretty simple, really: They don't actually play the games themselves.
In 1993, when I was thirteen years old, my parents bought me a video game for the Super Nintendo, upon my request, called Doom. In Doom, you assumed the role of an alien-stomping space marine sent to a military base on Mars. After the aliens kill you (which you can't prevent from happening), you're sent down to Hell, where you end up fighting an onslaught of demons. The campy story wasn't what got parents around the nation riled up... it was the fact that Doom was showing blood, and that it was one of the earliest games to use a first-person view mode (though it wasn't the first, contrary to popular belief). My parents were always actively engaged in my early video gaming habits; my mom could give you a run for your money in the original Mortal Kombat. They carefully monitored my siblings and I as we played video games, knowing they were nothing more than one more avenue for kids to explore their imaginations, and knowing the games themselves, they were well aware of whether the content was too risque for us or not. Of course, not all parents were that involved in the lives of their children. Doom was one of the earliest games to rally angry parents behind the notion that video games were too violent, and had quickly earned the title of being one of the most controversial video games of all time, possibly even out-ranking Grand Theft Auto.
My reaction to playing (and eventually finishing) Doom was the polar opposite of what some opponents of video game violence would have guessed. I went to school the day after I finished the game, came home without having shot any teachers or fellow students, did my homework, went outdoors and played soccer with some friends, and fired up my Super Nintendo to play some more games before dinner. That was it. No violence, no sudden outbursts of vulgarity, no experimenting with drugs. Like most kids, I was more than fully capable of differentiating between what was real and what was fictional. The game had the exact same effect on me as a violent movie, comic book, or novel would have: I was entertained by it, and inspired by it to get into media in the future. That was it.
Countless studies have been conducted on the effects that video games have on players, and to date, not one credible study has concluded that video games incite violence. In fact, they've all shown quite the opposite. Video games improve hand-eye coordination, dexterity, and other motor skills. They greatly enhance your perception and attention to detail, too, according to other studies. While I haven't seen a study yet to back my position on this specific benefit, I personally believe that extensive video game playing helps improve a person's reactions to fight-or-flight situations, strengthening a person's nerve and resolve during tense situations. For every negative thing you might try to claim video games will cause, someone could strongly argue in support of at least ten benefits gaming provides us with... quite the contrary to what opponents of violent gaming often try to claim.
Mentally disturbed individuals might be influenced by video games to carry out some terrible act, but can anyone honestly say a different media form wouldn't have the same effects? Is a person playing Grand Theft Auto more likely to kill someone than a person watching the latest SAW film? If you answered "yes," then you should check your fly, because your bias is showing. And if I might be brutally honest here, let's face this fact while we're at it: the Bible has inspired more people to kill others than video games ever will. If I blame the Children's Crusade on the Bible, what will you say in response? It's not the Bible's fault... people are to blame, right? Disturbed individuals, or people who misinterpreted what the Bible meant, or perhaps some combination of the two, right? Why then would video games be more inclined to cause violence? When was the last time you heard anyone making a huge fuss over evolution being taught in schools, arguing that Will Wright, creator of the Sims franchise, actually created the universe? My guess is that you've never heard that argument. At the end of the day, parents need to be actively involved in what their children are doing, and if they have a feeling that their child might be influenced by violent video games, they need to take those games away from them. I shouldn't have to go without one of my favorite pass-times because you're a bad parent.
Some people have a hard time accepting the idea that video games are an art form. They haven't seen the sun radiating off of the Liberty City pavement in Grand Theft Auto IV. They haven't seen the incredible detail of the Washington D.C. ruins in Fallout 3, or the distant glimmer of ice in Final Fantasy XIII. A video game can, if developed properly, be more artistic and expressive than any film you've ever seen, not just because of the spiffy computer graphics or the high definition audio, but because of the deep, intriguing story lines and the full submersion of the person viewing it. You can watch a film, but you can't participate in it, or change the outcome, or interact with it directly. The Grand Theft Auto franchise gets a lot of flak for its violence, sexual content, drug references, and profanity, but the story of Niko Bellic, the anti-hero you assume the role of in Grand Theft Auto IV, is compelling and intriguing in ways that rival some Hollywood films. And if you ask anyone whose followed the Metal Gear franchise closely, they'll tell you that the adventures of Solid Snake might even surpass the plots of many Hollywood films. Not all games are art, surely. But all films aren't art, either. All music isn't art. All paintings aren't even art! Like beauty, art is in the eye of the beholder. But when you define art as emotion translated into expression through creativity, very few video games fall short of deserving the title. And at the end of the day, most art is meant to entertain you. Few art forms really compare to video games in that regard.
I once knew a girl who claimed that video games caused violence, and so I issued her a challenge: play Grand Theft Auto III (which was a brand new game at the time), and tell me what you think on the subject after ten minutes of playing. She agreed to the challenge, complaining about the game for a few minutes as she ran around on foot, particularly when she saw a prostitute on the side of the road. But that's when something fascinating happened: following my instructions, she carjacked someone. Pressing the triangle button, she yanked the car's driver out of his ride, stomping him on the head before getting in the driver's seat and speeding off toward all sorts of chaos. At the same time as she pushed that triangle button, she had flipped the switch that controlled her views on video game violence. When the ten minute mark passed, she wasn't giving me her opinion... she was asking me how to get into a tank, which she promptly started driving down the sidewalk, blasting its massive cannon in the direction of the helpless police cruisers that tried to barricade her from further destruction. Her cheering and laughter could be heard all throughout the dorm building. Just like that, ten minutes of playing video games not only changed her opinion on violent games, but gave her a new hobby.
I issue this same exact challenge to you. If you're an opponent of violent video games, I challenge you to actually play one, and try to keep the same open mind about what you're doing that my friend did. She was a young college student at the time, so if she could do it, surely a full-grown adult today can. Give it a serious go, then comment here or email me and let me know what you think. I'm very, very confident that you'll not only abandon your belief that video games cause violence, but you'll end up becoming a gamer, at least casually, yourself. And the next time a politician proposes anti- video game legislation, or some TV pundit goes on an anti- video game tirade, you can join me in looking at the TV, grunting, and changing the channel to something with more substance... or firing up your favorite video game console to take down some drug dealers!