Walking down Figueroa Street toward the Los Angeles Convention Center earlier this year, it was impossible to miss the giant white face staring down from a billboard, the eyes glowing bright yellow-orange, the pupils twisted into black spirals. The promotion for the Sega Dreamcast, a new video-game console, was designed to psych up game fans for the zoned-out bliss awaiting them at E3 — the Electronic Entertainment Exposition trade show — then getting under way.
But because it appeared just three weeks after the school shootings in Littleton, at a time when video and computer games were emerging as a favorite target of blame, the image suddenly took on new meaning. It succinctly posed the biggest question surrounding the mammoth, $6.3 billion electronic-games industry, now poised to blow past Hollywood in terms of both annual revenue and cultural impact: What’s going on behind those eyes?
Images of evil that are destroying our children’s minds, cried the critics immediately after it was reported that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were avid players of the popular shoot-’em-ups Doom and Quake. CBS’s “60 Minutes” broadcast a segment a few days later asking, “Are Video Games Turning Kids Into Killers?” Bills were introduced on Capitol Hill to ban the sale of violent video games to minors. In June, President Clinton ordered the surgeon general to study the effects of all violent media on children and young adults. He singled out video games in particular, pointing to research showing that half the electronic games a typical seventh-grader plays are violent. “What kind of values are we promoting,” chimed in Hillary Clinton, “when a child can walk into a store and find video games where you win based on how many people you can kill or how many places you can blow up?”
The industry launched a counteroffensive, arguing that the vast majority of video games sold today are not violent, and empha-sizing that no causal link has ever been established between aggressive behavior and prior exposure to violent media. “The entertainment software industry has no reason to run and hide,” said Doug Lowenstein of the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA) at E3’s opening press conference. He insisted that the simple reason the electronic-games industry is growing twice as fast as the movie business, and four times faster than the recording or book publishing industries, is that they “offer some of the most compelling, stimulating, and challenging entertainment available anywhere, in any form.”
And so the E3 love-in carried on as usual this year, with 50,000 people jammed into an enormous exhibition space to sample the hottest new games. But as I wandered through the booths amid a constant roar of car crashes, monster screams, gunfire, and deafening techno-pop soundtracks, I wondered how this industry could have become so wildly popular in some circles and so utterly vilified in others. Is it true, as game developers like to say, that future generations will look back at today’s controversy with the kind of bemusement now reserved for those grainy black-and-white images of crew-cutted right-wingers denouncing comic books and rock ‘n’ roll back in the 1950s? Or do critics have a point in saying that today’s media technology has become so powerful and ubiquitous that a laissez-faire attitude toward pop culture is naive and outdated, if not outright dangerous?
Clues to the answers lie within a peculiar subculture of young, white, American males who make up the industry’s technological vanguard. But to get a sense of what’s behind those swirling eyeballs, first you have to play some games.
According to industry ethos, the coolest electronic titles are not video games, which are played on dumbed-down console units made by Sony, Nintendo, and Sega, and account for nearly three-quarters of all game sales. Rather, the cutting edge is occupied by computer games — the other slice of the pie — because they run best on souped-up PCs that allow hardcore fans to customize a game by tinkering with its programming code.
Leaving the noisy main hall at E3, I enter a hushed room full of educational PC gaming titles and stop at the Mindscape Entertainment booth to check out the latest version of Myst , the best-selling PC title of all time. Myst earned its widespread popularity without benefit of rocket launchers or flying body parts. It’s a role-playing game that takes place on a bucolic, forested island surrounded by clouds and ocean. The images are beautifully rendered: The forest mist is finely textured, and even the crevices on the tree bark are crisp and clear. The object of the game is to figure out why a team of scientists who were doing research on the island suddenly disappeared.
The game has a stately pace as you click through the foggy pathways and walkways, searching for clues. It’s like looking at a series of pretty pictures. But if one thing is clear from spending time at E3, it’s that this industry is driven largely by the pursuit of quite a different sensory experience: raw speed. That’s true across the board, for the makers of PC games and video games alike. Sony, Nintendo, and Sega — all of which will introduce superpowerful, 128-bit game consoles to the market in the coming year — are not spending billions of dollars to create clever story lines. They are competing madly with one another to create the fastest video-game console ever, each boasting more horsepower than some of the most powerful supercomputers packed just 10 years ago.
Researchers and marketers have known for decades that when it comes to kids and their toys, speed sells. Give a child a choice between a storybook and a television set, and guess which one will grab his attention. “‘Sesame Street’ learned in the ’60s that it’s best to change the scene often, move fast, keep the visual display constantly changing,” says Professor John Murray, a child psychologist at Kansas State University who has studied the effects of television violence for 30 years. “Very often just the act of playing the game, regardless of content, is what is so engaging.”
Myst is a storybook compared to the other games out in the main exhibition hall. There, I could lead a battalion of spaceships through the galaxy, make players dunk basketballs and hit home runs, and drive around a track in a race car. All of these games draw the player’s attention because of that sense of moving through space; an appreciation of the rules and subtleties of gameplay come later.
But as thrilling as these games are, something’s missing from all of them — something I can’t quite put my finger on until I come upon an enormous poster of a guy who looks like an Aryan Nation thug: blond crew cut, open vest, a gun in each hand.
Duke Nukem is one of the bad-boy “first-person shooter” games that have brought such disrepute to the industry. Though shooters represent less than seven percent of overall sales, a recent Time/CNN poll showed that 50 percent of teenagers between 13 and 17 who have played video games have played them. Ten percent say they play regularly. A breakthrough game will fly off the shelves: Best-selling shooters Doom and Quake have had combined sales of 4.2 million. (Myst and its sequel, Riven, top the sales charts at 5.4 million.)
What makes these shooter games so compelling is the addition of freedom of movement to the sensation of speed. This is accomplished by the highly sophisticated underlying technology, called “real-time 3-D.” Unlike the “pre-rendered” art of Myst — which limits your wanderings to predetermined paths — these images are not created in advance, but rather in “real time,” on the fly, with the computer calculating at astronomical rates. Thus you get a euphoric sense of entering a fantastic new world and being able to roam about at breathtaking speeds. That freedom of movement is what’s missing from the other games out on the floor at E3: The space game didn’t let me go inside the ship, and the racing simulation wouldn’t even let me get out of the car. Real-time 3-D gives you the illusion of maneuvering with no restrictions whatever.
Because real-time 3-D games and their fans stand firmly on the technology’s leading edge, they represent a new avant-garde in popular entertainment — in much the same way that innovative independent films have an impact on Hollywood far beyond what their grosses might suggest. In both cases, tastes and techniques formed in one subculture eventually migrate to the broader culture, with enormous impact.
One of the most remarkable new titles is Quake III Arena, on display at the id Software booth. The Dallas-based company has perhaps the most advanced game software on the market. The detail in Quake III Arena is stunning — you believe you can reach out and touch the stone dungeon walls. Using the mouse, you can look around 360 degrees, which immediately makes you feel inside the gorgeous picture you’re looking at. Able to go in any direction by pressing the arrow buttons on the keyboard, you instinctively start navigating this strange new universe, learning its laws of physics, mastering its peculiar rules and logic. When you jump from a launching pad located in outer space, it’s exhilarating to hurtle through the airless void. This is virtual reality for the masses, on your home computer, without goggles or a trip to the arcade.
Calling these experiences “games” understates their significance. They are closer to acid trips, altering your sense of perception in a fundamental way. Your stomach churns with motion sickness even though you’re sitting perfectly still. When you stop playing and stand up, objects in the room swim through space. The clock indicates you’ve been playing for an hour when you could swear it’s been only 10 minutes. Later, driving down the highway, you feel like you are stopped in the middle of the road while cars around you slowly back up.
But Quake III Arena, like all shooters, gives you only a few seconds to enjoy the medium before you get the message, loud and clear. As you drop hundreds of feet through space, you notice other inhabitants milling about on the landing platform below. Being a friendly sort, you approach them.
Big mistake: They open fire. Reflexively, fearfully, you begin to shoot back. Heads and arms start exploding.
In this magical environment, only one form of social exchange is permitted. The images this astonishing new technology is most often called upon to render so lovingly are rivers of blood and chunks of torn flesh.
In a middle-class neighborhood in suburban Dallas, five young guys in their 20s sit on two long, black leather couches. It’s an ordinary living room except that the couches do not face each other. They are side-by-side, facing the altar: a video screen big enough to be a clubhouse they could all climb into. Ê
These guys — “a bunch of kids who like to play games,” says Steve Gibson, a skinny 23-year-old with long sideburns, in his soft, slightly embarrassed voice — are living out the fantasy of every hardcore gamer: earning a living making and playing 3-D action games. Steve runs a gaming website called shugashack.com; the rest work at companies that have sprouted up here after the runaway success of id Software’s Doom and Quake in the mid-’90s. As shooter fans, they belong to a largely hidden subculture whose members serve as the ultimate arbiters of cool within the larger electronic-games industry.
They go wild over shooter games not because they are inherently any more bloodthirsty than the average American male — they say they simply love the real-time 3-D programs and the sensations they stimulate. When it comes to “story,” they care primarily about allowing the technology to fully express itself — which rules out peaceful adventure games like Myst that don’t push the technological envelope or provide that crucial adrenaline rush.
Dan, Jack, Steve, Patrick, and Scott are nice guys — smart, courteous, some of them shy, others outgoing — and when they say that blowing away zillions of digital characters since they were kids hasn’t made them the least bit aggressive in real life, you believe them.
“You’re detached from the violence,” explains Dan Hammans, a 19-year-old who, playing under the name Rix, has won several major Quake tournaments.
“Yeah, saying you like computer games for violence is like saying you like baseball for running,” Jack adds. “Violence is there to grab people, get them into it, and have them say, ‘That looks cool.’ But once you get into it, you don’t even notice the violence. You don’t go, ‘Oh, cool, he blew up!'”
Their comments remind me of Marshall McLuhan’s theory that all technology has a certain numbing effect, which he compared with Narcissus’ rapture at lake’s edge. Though every medium has this narcotic effect, McLuhan argued, modern technology is progressing so fast that we can finally see these changes as if for the first time, “like a growing plant in an enormously accelerated movie.”
McLuhan uttered his famous dictum — “The medium is the message” — at a time when television was the miraculous new medium, and social scientists focused on the message, which was violence. Today’s media experts say the last four decades of research (including a 1972 surgeon general’s report) have shown a clear correlation between violence on television and the development and display of aggressive values and behavior by both children and adults.
So there’s a statistical correlation. But is there direct proof of cause and effect? “Not only isn’t there proof, but there may never be proof,” says Kansas State’s Murray. But, he continues, “At some point, you have to say that if exposure to violence is related to aggressive attitudes and values, and if [the latter] are related to shooting classmates or acting aggressively — all of which we know to be true — then it stands to reason that there is probably a link between exposure to violence and aggressive actions.”
To substantiate this thesis, Murray is turning to physiology. He and a colleague are using functional magnetic resonance imaging to establish that certain areas of the brain controlling “fight-or-flight” impulses are stimulated in kids between the ages of 9 and 12 when they watch violent movies. More surprisingly, they have found, other parts of the brain are affected too — those involving memory and learning. Murray hopes these tests will eventually prove an elusive point: that repeated exposure to violent images is desensitizing, which he defines as having the effect of rendering a person “less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others, and more willing to tolerate ever-increasing levels of violence in our society.”
“The issue people are worried about,” Murray says, “is whether repeated rushes of stimulation cause the memory to store away ever-more-violent images, to be recalled later as a possible response to frustration. Are we producing hair-trigger responses and becoming so desensitized that we behave aggressively? Certainly that’s what social-science work over the last 40 years has shown — that exposure to [media] violence changes our values, makes us more likely to act out aggressively. Not by viewing a particular program, but [after consuming] a steady diet of violence.”
There hasn’t been much research into the effects of video games, Murray says, and that’s not only because they’re so new. Many of the experts believe their point has already been proven, as much as humanly possible, with television. “It’s a direct translation to video games,” says Murray. “The only thing that’s different and more worrisome is that the viewer or player is actively involved in constructing the violence.”
According to other critics, playing games from the point of view of the killer is making some kids start thinking and acting like assassins. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a former West Point psychology professor, has been appearing on media outlets nationwide to plug his new book, Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill (co-authored with Gloria DeGaetano), and to argue that children are getting the kind of sophisticated military training that until recently only the Pentagon could provide. “For the video game industry to claim that [research on] television and movie violence doesn’t apply to them is like saying data on cigarettes doesn’t apply to cigars,” he says.
All these experts sound convincing until you find yourself in a Dallas living room chatting with five regular guys who play Quake long into the night, night after night. The fact that 99.99 percent of the kids who play violent games don’t commit murder, they contend, disproves the experts’ theories.
And in truth, not only do the games seem utterly harmless on this night, but these guys have so much fun playing together that it’s hard to imagine the experience as anything but positive. Their camaraderie is as real as you’ll find in any locker room. “It’s how geeks get out their competitive spirit,” says Steve, “because they’re not athletic enough to play on the basketball team.”
So benign is the mood here that I’m surprised by their reaction to a new game called Kingpin: Life of Crime. I fully expect them to draw the line here — for this is a game that goes way over the top with its graphic violence and racial stereotypes. Instead, they laugh and nod their approval at what a great game Kingpin is.
Kingpin takes place in a ghetto. As the game starts, you’re lying in an alley, having been beaten up by a rival gang. You want revenge, but don’t know who to trust. You need guns and money to survive, and quickly learn that the easiest way to do that is to kill people. As you meet people on the street — like this tough, bare-midriffed chick with vaguely ethnic features coming toward you — you’re encouraged to talk to them first in case they have any valuable information.
“Shit, man,” she says, coming into view, filling up the whole screen.
Pressing letters on your keyboard produces either a positive or negative reply. You push the negative key: “Piss off.”
“Hey, fuck you too!” she says, not missing a beat. “You a badass motherfucker.”
Angry now, you push the negative key again: “You’re not talking to me, are you?”
“Now that’s it, motherfucker,” she says.
“Turn the fuck around,” you say. “You fuckin’ piece of shit.”
“Yeah, fuck you too,” she says.
“You fuckin’ want some of me?”
“I can get down with yo ass,” she says.
“You can fuckin’ kiss my ass,” you say. “I will fuckin’ bury you.”
Conversations like this can go on indefinitely in this game until you either walk away or attack with your choice of a wide variety of weapons, including pipes, crowbars, pistols, shotguns, heavy rifles, tommy guns, flamethrowers, and rocket launchers. Not only can you blow off people’s legs, arms, or heads, but Kingpin‘s glossy magazine ads encourage you to do so. “Target specific body parts,” the copy screams, “and actually see the damage done — including exit wounds.”
Kingpin is rated “M” for mature audiences by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (the voluntary system created by the IDSA), but surveys show that parents don’t follow these ratings, and stores don’t enforce them. Even if they did, any clever eight-year-old could download a full-featured demo version of the game over the Internet and play all night.
Early reviews among hardcore gamers have been spectacular. “Good is an understatement for Kingpin,” enthused the now-defunct website 4-Gamers.nu. “Amazing, stunning, and truly awe-inspiring are words which come closer to describing just how joyous this game is.”
Separating the medium from the message is not easy when it comes to technologically advanced games like Kingpin because the two are so deeply intertwined — its dreamlike, three-dimensional world will vanish unless you learn to kill.
But regardless of whether you prefer McLuhan’s theory about the numbing effect of the medium itself, or Murray’s belief that desensitization flows from the constant message of mayhem, the result appears to be the same: a gradual increase in our cultural tolerance of violence, one we don’t even notice until something shocking and new like Kingpin jolts us from our stupor.
Does that mean today’s most gruesome games will eventually become so commonplace that they will elicit nothing more than a bored yawn? That’s already happening among today’s hardcore gamers, those taste makers who must give a computer game their blessing before it has much chance of migrating to the mainstream video-console market. Which makes hanging out with the Dallas shooter fans a bit like spending time in the future.
The main problem with Kingpin‘s story is not the violence or the stereotypes, they say, but that it’s too self-conscious. “It burned me because it seems like they tried to be shocking,” says Jack Mathews, a baby-faced 22-year-old programmer. “Like, ‘Look, we’re saying “fuck” all the time.’ But frankly, the whole game industry is not a very mature industry.”
His last comment may reveal the most crucial point: that spending long periods of time absorbed in any medium, especially one as immersive as a video game, can keep you locked safely in a bubble, protected from the real world, in an extended state of arrested development. Growth, after all, seldom occurs without pain. Is the recent rash of school shootings being caused, at least in part, by the exponential increase in technology’s ability to numb pain by drawing kids into an isolated world where violence and aggression have no consequences?
Eugene Provenzo thinks so. The professor of education at the University of Miami, who is writing a book called Children and Hyperreality: The Loss of the Real in Contemporary Childhood and Adolescence, believes we’re only at the beginning of an evolutionary process — one that has seen the gory comic book of the 1950s evolve first into the slasher movie and now into virtual nightmares like Kingpin. “I’ve been trying hard to make people realize we’re going into a very different culture as a result of the introduction of new technologies,” says Provenzo. “Video games are extremely powerful teaching machines, and we’re still at a primitive level. We’re on a trajectory toward increasing realism, or hyperreality, that makes people start thinking they can shoot someone and it doesn’t hurt, that they can recover.”
Cultural critics like Provenzo see evidence that the damaging effects of this phenomenon are hardly limited to a few crackpot shooters in remote places like Jonesboro and Paducah. And there is something chilling in the number of kids across the country who related deeply not only to the isolation and alienation of the Columbine killers, but to the way they vented their anger.
“My social studies teacher asked if we wanted to talk about Littleton,” one high school kid in Illinois wrote in an e-mail posted recently on a website called Slashdot (its slogan: “News for nerds”). “I said I had some sense of how those two kids might have been driven crazy by cruel students, since it happens to me. I said I had thought of taking my father’s gun to school when I was in the ninth grade and was so angry.”
That was among thousands of e-mails received in the wake of Littleton by new-media columnist Jon Katz, now writing a book called Geeks. Katz wrote movingly on Slashdot about how self-described “geeks, nerds, dorks, and goths” were singled out for abuse by teachers and schoolmates after the Columbine massacre (the Illinois teenager who spoke so freely in class, in fact, came home to find three detectives going through his room); in follow-up postings they told horrible stories of being punched and kicked, tied up and beaten, and otherwise abused and humiliated. Pleas for help by these outcast kids instantly became part of the national dialogue, being entered into the Congressional Record, reprinted in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, and read aloud on National Public Radio.
“The interesting thing about Littleton is that it was the first time the country realized there is this culture out there,” says Provenzo. “It’s not happening in the cities — it’s an alienation we’ve created in suburbs and small towns, and it’s being aggravated by a whole series of media formats. Our kids are losing their handle on reality because of everything from malls to video games. Each thing may be a drop in the bucket, but the bucket is full.”
The computer-gamers gathered in the Dallas living room say they feel as though they don’t hear enough about the evils of other media — which, they point out, are far more politically powerful and entrenched than the electronic-games industry. “When people see stuff [like Littleton] happen, they say, ‘Oh, these computer freaks! Look at them, they’re freaks!'” says Jack. “But when people see violence on TV, creatures exploding and people running around shooting with a shotgun, it’s okay.”
Dan acknowledges that what he loves about playing is that feeling of “being in another world with no consequences of your actions. You can jump off a ledge and smack on the ground and enjoy it.” But there’s a crystal-clear distinction in their minds between fantasy and real life, they add quickly, and for much of the evening they argue that spending so much time in their virtual worlds doesn’t affect them at all. At one point, though, Dan slips up.
“I’ve been walking around in a grocery store and swore I heard grenades bouncing around,” he says. “Weird things like that — when you spend so much time doing it and [then] you hear a similar noise….”
“Man!” cries Jack, interrupting him. “That’s going to make it in the [magazine] now! ‘These crazy game players!’ ‘Dan says he hears grenades while he walks around!'”
“No,” Dan protests. “What I’m trying to say is there’s no correlation between — ” He stops. Some of their employers, afraid of being sued by the families of school-shooting victims, have instructed them not to discuss the issue of electronic games and its relationship to violent behavior.
Dan starts over. “It’s so obvious to anybody who plays the game,” he says. “You’re running around in the game and you’ve got a shotgun, but it’s a 3-D model being rendered by the game, and there’s just no way I could see anybody not being able to tell the difference.” Later, just to be sure the point is clear, Dan adds, “It doesn’t transfer over to reality — that’s the biggest thing.”
But how could it not? If media doesn’t affect real-world behavior, there would be no such thing as advertising, which at last count was a $25 billion international business. Exactly how it affects us depends on the person, of course, and the effect can be quite subtle. But arguing that these games have no effect at all is absurd, given that everybody in this room is devoting his life to developing increasingly powerful ways of fooling your mind and body into believing the game experience is really happening to you.
I have one last question for these guys. Isn’t there anything else they would like to do in their miraculous virtual worlds besides killing people and blowing things up?
“It’s more fun to blow up things than to build things,” explains Dan.
Jack shrugs. “Violence sells.”
It’s years in the future. French terrorists have launched an attack on the Statue of Liberty, and you — a new agent in the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition — have been sent to stop them. What you don’t realize yet is that your employers are using you as a guinea pig in a nano-technology experiment. You are fully equipped with a range of weapons — everything from knives and pepper spray to rifles and rocket launchers. But here’s the twist: You have to think twice before blowing people away.
“If you shoot somebody and anybody hears it, alarms are going to go off and the police are going to be all over you,” says Warren Spector. The developer for Ion Storm, a Texas-based gaming software company, is standing in front of his booth at E3 excitedly describing the new game he’s creating, called Deus Ex, due out next year. “People who would have talked to you before won’t talk to you anymore. You’ll still be able to win the game — I don’t want to be disingenuous about this — but I want the player to be able to make a choice and then to really see the consequences of that choice. So suddenly we’re in a medium that isn’t just about adrenaline rushes.”
Spector is part of a small band of game developers working in real-time 3-D who are quite literally trying to separate the medium from the message. He licensed the software program that runs a popular first-person shooter called Unreal, extracted most of the shooting gameplay, and is creating a new virtual universe that bears a closer resemblance to the real world, with some of its moral complexities and hard choices.
But Spector is the first to admit that his new game probably won’t sell nearly as well as the gory shooters. And why should it? Who wants a fantasy that holds you responsible for your actions? Isn’t that the whole point of American entertainment — to provide an escape from reality? Whether games like Deus Ex manage to succeed in the marketplace against the likes of Quake and Kingpin should provide some clues as to whether interactive entertainment is ready to take any tentative steps toward acknowledging what goes on in the real world.
The stakes are high, say social critics like Eugene Provenzo, who believes that our embrace of electronic games represents nothing less than a massive renegotiation with reality, with profound implications for how kids, in particular, learn about and understand the world. As supercomputers and expanding band-width change passive television into an interactive medium that can draw us into the most astonishing simulated worlds, we are nearing a crossroads at least as important as the moment flickering television images began transforming the American cultural landscape in the ’50s.
It was decades before the effects of television were broadly debated — by which time screen violence was something kids simply took for granted as a normal part of childhood. We have the chance to do things differently this time, but it may require discussions more imaginative than the usual free-market versus government-control polemics. Entertainers from Snoop Doggy Dogg to network-cop-show producers have eased up on the brutality lately, and consumers seem more open to the possibility that today’s mass media may be creating public health problems as severe as those caused by our disruption of the natural environment during the last great technological revolution.
But a question remains: Now that the shock of Littleton has subsided, will we simply return to a fantasy world where we can pretend that the ways we choose to entertain ourselves have no consequences, like some kid zoned out in front of a computer game? If so, game’s over.
- Resources on video game violence — hear from both sides