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Playing With Death

Are video games creating highly trained killers? In some cases, they seem to be trying

 

By David King

Last night I stole a horse. Not so soon afterward, I found myself being chased by a group of angry villagers and a couple of armed guards. “Halt!” demanded the guards. “No, thanks,” I thought to myself as I clubbed an unsuspecting townsperson on the head. “You won’t get away with this!” the guards shouted, as I hurtled my stolen steed towards the city gates. Then, suddenly, I found myself between a rock and an iron mace. As I watched the guards hack and slash at my lifeless corpse, I began to wonder, “Was the horse really worth it?” So I hit the reset button and loaded a game I had saved before my criminal mistake.

Tyrone McMillan of Troy recently found himself in a similar, albeit real, situation. McMillan led police on a car chase through two counties. It ended only when his SUV collided with a Troy PD cruiser. After his arrest, McMillan explained to the police that he thought he could outrun them because he had recently been playing a lot of video games, including Grand Theft Auto.

And this local example is at the lighter end of the spectrum of the kinds of violence and lawbreaking that videogames have been blamed for influencing.

Just the other day I watched as a friend of mine fussily picked out an outfit at a sports store before gleefully butchering the cashier with a knife and then gunning down a responding officer and stealing his motor bike. He, of course, was playing Grand Theft Auto. But Devin Moore, a carjacker from Alabama, wasn’t playing a video game when he stole a police officer’s gun, then killed the officer and his partner. Moore is reported to have later said, “Life is like a video game; everybody has to die sometime.” The victim’s relatives are now suing the makers of Grand Theft Auto.

As video games have become more encompassing and more representative of reality, parents and anti-video-game groups have become more and more certain these games are capable of corrupting people.

Video games have become progressively more realistic, at least visually, and have moved away from the straightforward save-the-world-from-aliens shoot-’em-ups of the past. Now, they allow players to construct their characters; interact with complete, autonomous worlds and make moral choices. Players now get to choose whether they are going to shoot the bad guy or avoid confrontation; however, they now also have the choice to shoot the good guy.

Despite the fact that Moore or McMillan could have just as easily blamed their crimes on a violent crime novel or blockbuster action movie—and also the fact that both men are adults—incidents like theirs have energized politicians’ and activists’ efforts to find a link between video games and violence.

U.S. Sens. Hillary Clinton and Joseph Lieberman have been pushing as of late for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to launch a study of the “impact of electronic media use.” Meanwhile, other organizations have been undertaking research of their own.

The University of California and professor Karen Matthews recently released a study that claims gaming can lead to increased risk-taking of any kind, including illegal drug use. In the study, 100 men aged 18 to 21 were assigned to play one of two games: The Simpsons: Hit and Run or Grand Theft Auto III. According to the study, the men who wound up playing the more violent and realistic game, Grand Theft Auto, experienced an increase in blood pressure, were more hostile and competitive and were more likely to smoke marijuana and drink than the players who played The Simpsons.

The study results were posted as a news item on popular video-game Web site gamespot.com, and readers of the item responded as might be expected. “I suggest they just get rid of all forms of entertainment all together. You know, just to be safe,” read one post, followed by another that added, “Hell while we’re at it . . . let’s all have a book burning at 12 pm tomorrow.”

So with all the worry about video games causing violence, you might think it would be hard to find a pro-gaming government leader. You would be wrong.

“I recently learned something quite interesting about video games,” said President Ronald Reagan back in August 1983. “Many young people have developed incredible hand, eye, and brain coordination in playing these games. The air force believes these kids will be our outstanding pilots should they fly our jets.”

As much of a stretch as Reagan’s quote is, it would be naïve to think our government hasn’t considered video games as recruitment and training tools. Never mind those recruiting commercials laden with flashy graphics and extolling adventure, designed to make young men equate playing a video game with going to war. Our military has gone much further than that. In fact, right now in the game store nearest you, you can pick up one of the many installments in the America’s Army game series. Goarmy.com describes the game this way: “The U.S. Army has developed a highly realistic and innovative PC video game called America’s Army. You’ll face your first tour of duty along with fellow Soldiers. Gain experience as a Soldier in the U.S. Army, without leaving home.”

The hypocrisy of the government’s sponsoring a violent video game has not been lost on the gaming community, and that is evidenced by this review from gamespy.com: “America’s Army: Operations may very well be one of the most ironic games ever. More than a few American politicians have bolstered their careers by condemning violence in popular entertainment, particularly in video games. Now the U.S. government, by way of the Army, has produced a computer game that’s all about realistic, deadly combat. While this odd turn of events raises interesting ethical and political issues, many gamers probably just want to know one thing about this online shooter: Is it any good?”

So what is the difference between Grand Theft Auto and America’s Army? Grand Theft Auto, despite its realistic graphics and complex cityscapes, is not trying to mimic reality; on the contrary, it is offering an escape, whereas America’s Army is a game that touts its realism and professes to offer gamers a look into the real life of a trained killer. Grand Theft Auto has been rated “M,” for mature (17 and over) audiences. America’s Army is rated “T,” for teens. If you have to think of it in terms of literature, GTA is a crime adventure novel for adults, whereas America’s Army is a recruitment pamphlet for teens. America’s Army is designed to make young men consider a career in the military.

Violent video games may or may not increase the violent impulses of their users, but is Grand Theft Auto actually recruiting carjackers? Are you kidding? The makers of GTA don’t want gamers to move away from their TV screens, let alone leave the house.

dking@metroland.net


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