Rating the Murder Simulators

Originally written in December 2006 for GGL.com; images updated March 2009.

This holiday season has seen two seventh-gen console launches, so video games are back in the news. Mainstream media outlets, particularly local television news programs, seem to be devoted to two, and only two, video game-related memes, regardless of whatever is actually happening in the video game world.

The first is the hoary old “geeks wait in long lines to get a toy” meme, which is closely related to “parents fight each other to buy their spoiled kids a toy.” I guess I can’t be too judgmental – we did it here at GGL this year as well.

The other is “video games will turn your children into raging, murderous psychopaths.” For every positive story about video game culture, there are ten that decry this imminent menace to our children’s very lives.

Scientific studies claim to show a connection between “violent” video games and violent behavior in teens and grade school children. Politicians espouse anti-games rhetoric, and craft laws policing or preventing the sale of video games to children – laws that have to-date been struck down as unconstitutional. Large retailers place restrictions on video games sales, in response to pressure from pro-censorship groups.

I have already discussed why a video game cannot be “violent” or “dangerous.” This absurd idea, that video games are harmful to kids, never seems to go away, or to even die down. For politicians and religious leaders, the allure of this demonstrably false claim is easy to see. In the Sixties, these same forces assailed rock music. But now those sixties rockers are the parents; so the “culture wars” crowd must turn to things parents are less likely to understand. Today, those things are hip hop music and video games.

The most pernicious claim made by censorship advocates is that first- and third-person shooters are “murder simulators” that desensitize kids to extreme violence and train them how to kill. Some studies show that video games can excite and agitate youngsters; but it’s a big leap from there to assume games train kids to be killers.

Therefore, I have decided to review all of the “murder simulators” in our society, including video games, but not excluding the others. I challenge censorship advocates to explain why, of all the items on this list, they focus on “violent” video games.

Grand Theft Auto 2. This doesn't look so very violent...Video games

In recent years, censorship advocates have most commonly targeted Grand Theft Auto 3, and have labeled the game a “murder simulator.” The GTA games are third-person shooters – I would think a first-person shooter, like Halo or America’s Army, would better train a person to commit murder.

A few FPS games, like House of the Dead, are played with gun-shaped controllers. But most employ standard game controllers for console games, or a mouse and keyboard for PC games. They do not teach the player how to hold, load, or fire an actual gun. And Back to the Future 3 notwithstanding, I don’t think a gun-shaped controller really teaches anyone anything about real firearms.

The “aiming” skills required for an FPS game are completely different from those required in real life. “Aim assist, “friction,” and “client prediction” don’t exist in the real world. Aiming a gun is all about the wrists and arms, while “aiming” in an FPS is all about the thumbs on a console, or the mouse hand on a PC. There is no such thing as kickback with a game controller. Games often try to simulate things like kickback, muzzle flash, and reloading, but these simulations are nothing like the real thing.

Forget the guns – existence in an FPS or TPS game has little to do with real life. Movement is unrealistically smooth and quick (or the game would become boring). Video game characters are nearly impervious to pain and injury, enduring “violence” that would fell a real person, or at least put that person into shock. FPS characters can leap and climb better than a real human being. They get “health packs” and “power ups,” things we could definitely use in the real world, but which are, alas, unavailable. And when you die in an FPS, you “respawn” somewhere else. Why are all these unrealistic things included? Because it’s a game, not a simulator.

But doesn’t the army use video games to train soldiers? Sure, but they aren’t teaching how to kill, they’re teaching tactics. Before video games, they taught tactics with books, then films; now it’s games. But no drill sergeant is going to let his soldiers sit through a few gaming sessions and then send them to Iraq. The games are a small part of an intensive training course (see below). So could the Columbine murderers have learned their tactics from Doom? Sure. If their victims had been maniacal Martian demons with rudimentary decision-making powers, I suppose they could have.

The pro-censorship forces will insist that I am avoiding the real issue. Do “violent” video games desensitize our youth to violence, making them more likely to commit violence? No study has ever demonstrated this. Kids may become agitated after playing a game, but they do not objectify other humans. They maintain their sense of right and wrong. I myself am concerned about media, whether books, movies, television shows, or video games, that depict casual murder. It’s bad storytelling, and I believe it does desensitize everyone, child and adult, to the atrocities they hear on the evening news.

But it’s a huge leap from media burnout to murder. Censorship advocates want you to believe this connection is self-evident. In fact, it is self-evidently absurd, if for no other reason than this – not every person under 35 is a murderer.

In conclusion, video games are not terribly effective murder simulators. They improve reflexes and teach hallway-combat tactics; but they fail to prepare the participant for actual killing. Let’s move on.

LARPers. It is NOT weird.LARPing

Some people believe that live-action role-playing gamers represent the lowest, most pathetic level of geekdom. These people have never meet filkers, furries or fan-ficcers.

LARPing is like regular role-playing (Dungeons & Dragons and the like), except the players go to a public location, often in costume, and act out whatever their characters are doing. Players called “storytellers” act as referees, guiding the overall story and arbitrating player combats and disputes. Like most other RPGs, LARPs revolve around science-fiction, fantasy or horror themes, and involve some of the characters trying to kill other characters.

What value does LARPing have as a murder simulator? A player puts on a real outfit, travels to a real world location, and plays face-to-face against other human beings, sometimes friends but often mere acquaintances or total strangers. In most (but not all) LARPs, real weapons, fake weapons, and items that could pass for weapons are not allowed, and players may not touch each other. But in-game altercations can turn very loud and emotional. And players may see a long-term, beloved character slain as an outcome of a combat.There is real human contact, unlike with a standard video game; and you meet your enemy face-to-face, unlike an online game. And you have to deal with real emotions when you “kill” another player.

So, as a murder simulator, LARPing is not terribly satisfying. There are no weapons, no acrobatics, no visual scenes of violence. But you do pretend to kill people, and those people are standing right in front of you, expressing either real or “in-character” dismay at their own deaths. And because of that one characteristic, I proclaim LARPing to be a superior murder simulation experience to video games; it provides a human element missing from any computer game, even an online or LAN game.

Paintball player.Paintball

Now this sporting activity can, in all fairness, be called a “murder simulation.” You put on real military gear, go out to the real woods, and use a real gun to shoot real people. All the things that FPS games fail to simulate – holding a gun, aiming, firing with kickback, reloading, dodging, hiding, running, jumping, keeping sweat out of your goggles, even the pain of getting hit – all these things are REAL. And in paintball, one shot and you’re down – unlike video games with their health packs and respawns.

Of course, nobody gets hurt – not seriously, anyway. That’s what makes paintball a murder simulation, not murder.

Searching online, I could not find anyone claiming that paintball will teach young people to kill. Any reference to a paintball ban I could find was based on paintball guns being used in vandalism or in hold-ups. Strangely, no one is concerned that the real murder simulation is being used to train killers.

Now someone’s going to complain that I hate paintball. I have absolutely no problem with this sport whatsoever. I used to participate in something similar using shinai in a local park. I do not believe for a second that some kid is going to be turned into a murderer playing paintball.

But one wonders how the self-appointed stewards of child safety can justify attacking video games, and doing nothing about the horrific scourge of paint-filled plastic balls shot from air guns.

Hunting. It's pretty classy!Hunting

I’m tempted to say that sport hunting isn’t a murder simulation, it’s murder. Tempted, but I will restrain myself from sounding like one of those asshats at PETA. Killing an animal is not murder (with perhaps a few exceptions). And whatever your views on hunting, it does not help anyone to equate killing a deer with killing a human. They are not ethically equivalent. At all. Not even close. Not even on same planet.

That said, as a murder simulator, hunting takes paintball and elevates it to the next level. Not only do you get a real gun with real bullets, but you do real killing. Not the killing of a human, but still.

If I were planning to actually go out and kill people, I would practice by going hunting. It creates the single most realistic environment to hone those murdering skills. In fact, it has everything but human victims. If I’m worried that any of my victims will fight back, I’ll just hunt boar.

Surprisingly, I couldn’t find any online complaints about hunting teaching kids to become murderers. Anti-hunting activists focus exclusively on the suffering of animals. Just for even suggesting a link between hunting and murder, I’m sure I’ll get nasty emails from the NRA and other pro-gun extremists. Fire away (heh heh). I’m not suggesting that hunting creates murderers. I’m suggesting that hunting is a much better way to learn to commit murder than a video game.

No, seriously, it's this long when it's flaccid...Military training

Now we reach the crème de la crème of murder simulations.  In the military, people who have actually killed people will give you a real gun and teach you to kill people. Not how to shoot targets, or to hunt deer – how to kill people. And they won’t stick just to guns, either. You’ll learn tons of fun mêlée and ranged combat techniques. You’ll go out to the real desert and shoot at real people with real bullets. And when you’re ready, they’ll send you out to commit real murder.

Oh, here we go. Suggest that what the military does is “murder,” and you must be a Commie pinko subversive terrorist. My argument has nothing to do with whatever it is soldiers do in the field; whether it is murder, or justifiable homicide, or self-defense, or peacekeeping. My only concern is, does military training teach you the skills to be a murderer better than a video game does?

Unlike any other type of training, military training teaches young people to dehumanize other humans. Whether this is justifiable or not is beside the point. The military teaches people to kill people, and to feel minimal remorse afterwards. End of story.

Whether or not military training is good or bad or both, whether or not a trained soldier is a good or bad person or both, that soldier is eventually returned to society, where there is not a Viet Cong or Iraqi insurgent around every corner. I’m not aware of any “untraining” to re-instill human compassion back in a soldier. It seems police officers sometimes have the same problem, suffering from the possibly unavoidable dehumanizing aspects of their work. And yet, should we lock up our veterans? Should we ban military training? Or should we create a kindler, gentler military?

I suppose we only need ask these questions if we are so concerned about the effect of murder simulations on our society. Will we prevent murders if we never, ever teach anyone how to kill, and never ever represent murder in the media? This is an open question, and a much more complicated one than some people would like for you to believe. But let me suggest that actually teaching people how to use a gun and kill people MUST be more dangerous than creating a game where people fake-kill fake-people.

Conclusion

So there we have it: five different murder simulators, all accepted by mainstream American society, but only is one under attack as detrimental to the moral hygiene of our youth. Strangely, only one is not traditionally associated with right-wing political values, but rather with Hollywood and the entertainment industry. And strangely, it’s the same one.

Is it possible that those who wish to censor video games aren’t really concerned with the safety of children? That the real goal is not to prevent children from learning how to murder?

If so, then I can’t imagine what the real goal of all this is. Even the U.S. Army created a video game, a “violent” tactical FPS, to promote recruitment, apparently with some success. Could the real goal, for politicians, be to get votes from Baby Boomers ignorant of gaming? Could the real goal for pundits be to get their faces on CNN?

Nah. That would just be cynical exploitation, not of the games industry, which can defend itself just fine, but of children. Politicians and pundits wouldn’t exploit children, would they?