You may have seen the news this week that Games ‘permit’ virtual war crimes. It’s terribly easy to be sarcastic about a headline like that. Terribly, terribly easy. Astoundingly easy. Not chewing a fruit pastille is simplicity itself in comparison.

It’s always important to dig a bit deeper than a headline, though, otherwise you end up with somebody being asked to take their shoes off, if they wouldn’t mind too much, as a new carpet’s just been put in, it’s quite pale you see, and before you know it the Daily Mail’s leading with “GOVERNMENT BAN SHOES, death penalty for non-compliance” and 400 people in the comment section are making the startling observation that it’s political correctness gone mad. The full report is available online, and I urge you to go and read it. Well, most of it, there are more footnotes than in the Wikipedia article on footnotes (not difficult, actually, the Wikipedia article only has six. At the time of writing, that is, I might go off and edit it into a hilarious piece of meta irony, where the body of the article is just: Footnote[1].) Have a quick scan through, at least. It generally seems pretty reasonable; at least they’ve played the games in question rather than just looking at the boxes, or, say, picking an example entirely at random, going on Fox News and denouncing a game on the basis of the vaguest of hearsay. The report is not saying “games are evil” or “ban this sick filth!”, on the first page it states “The goal is not to prohibit the games, to make them less violent or to turn them into IHL or IHRL training tools.” There’s often a knee-jerk reaction from the gaming community to a perceived attack, not entirely unjustified in the wake of Jack Thompson, Fox News on Mass Effect etc., that goes “Yeah? Well your mum ‘permits’ virtual war crimes.” Such immaturity is beneath us. Plus, they smell of wee.

The problem with the report isn’t the difficulty it has in contextualising the nature of conflicts portrayed in Army of Two and the resulting implications for the unclear legal frameworks governing private security companies, or even that any attempt at applying any sort of real-world logic to “Metal Gear Soldier[sic] 4″ surely flounders the moment it hits the sentence “The player is “Snake” and is fighting against “Liquid Ocelot””. The problem is back in the Aim of the Study:

We have chosen video and computer games as the object of our analysis because, unlike
literature, films and television, where the viewer has a passive role, in shooter games, the
player has an active role in performing the actions. Thus, the line between the virtual and real
experience becomes blurred and the game becomes a simulation of real life situations on the
battlefield.

Problematic opener, that, the old blurring the lines between reality and simulation. It goes on to try and provide justification:

The link with reality is in fact so direct that nowadays several armies rely on video games
both as a recruiting and as a training tool. Military from some states put video games on their
websites to give the viewers a virtual experience of what being a soldier is like. Such games
allow them to virtually participate in trainings, be deployed on missions, fire weapons, take
decisions in unexpected battlefield situations, etc. Military also use video games, or
“simulations” more and more often as a training tool in addition to “on the field” training.
This demonstrates the impact of video games on the players and their behaviour in reality.

True, there’s military use of computer games; Marine Doom, America’s Army, etc etc., but you’d have to be Sir Bors to get from “the military use video games as a recruiting and training tool” to “all video games involving the military are recruiting or training tools”. There are military training manuals; these manuals are books; ergo all books are military training manuals.

Even considering that most of the game players will never become soldiers in reality, such
games clearly influence their view of what combat situations are like and what the role of the
military and of individual soldiers or law enforcement officials in such situations, is.

Here’s the nub of it; firstly, coming back to the starting paragraph, I’m not convinced games would influence someone’s view of combat situations any more than literature, films or television. Secondly, it very much depends on the game, lumping everything together as “such games” isn’t very useful. If a game makes a virtue of its realism, takes care to model things as accurately as possible, markets itself as a simulation, then yes, I believe it could influence somebody’s view of what it portrays (dependant on how well the game was implemented), in the same way that a documentary or non-fiction book could influence somebody’s view. The games they selected, though, are generally unabashed entertainment that gamers don’t see as realistic portrayals of warfare any more than the average viewer considers Bonekickers an accurate portrayal of archaeology. That’s where the whole exercise looks like a case of double standards, and a bit of a waste of time. You might as well sit a conscientious police officer down in front of Point Break and ask them what they made of it:

I won’t argue that it was a no-holds-barred adrenaline fuelled thrill-ride, but there’s no way that you could perpetrate that amount of carnage and mayhem and not incur a considerable amount of paperwork.

(Thank you, Hot Fuzz. Except that’s a comedy film talking about an action film, and thus entirely irrelevant because the viewer only has a passive role. Twice.)

One encouraging thing about the whole business is that in the BBC piece they turn to gamers for a response, and not just some drooling loon in the midnight release day queue for Modern Duty 17 who mumbles “Uh, I, uh, like shooting, and, uh, stuff”. John Walker and Jim Rossignol of the inestimably splendid Rock, Paper, Shotgun chip in, and I could’ve really not bothered with most of this and just quoted:

Mr Rossignol said there was plenty of evidence that gaming violence is “fully processed” as fantasy by gamers. Studies of soldiers on the front line in Iraq showed that being a gamer did not desensitise them to what they witnessed.

He added: “Perhaps what this research demonstrates is that the researchers misunderstand what games are, and how they are treated, intellectually, by the people who play them.”

Posted by Zoso at 7:51 am