Blowing Dust: Violent Games and Why I’m Not a Serial Killer

Violence in video games has been a hot topic in the media recently as It seems like it’s something that happens every time there’s a violent tragedy. We hear about how the killer had spent hours playing Call of Duty, Gears of War, or Mass Effect. It seems like they want to name some game that’s relatively well known, even if it’s not related to the case at all. I guess it’s something I have an interesting perspective on since I can look at a number of different ways. Obviously, I can look at it as a gamer. Another way I can see it is as a retailer since I spent a number of years managing an independent video game store. Granted, I don’t do that anymore but there’s a lot I’ve gotten to take away from my years spent dealing with minors who wanted to buy games and their parents. I can also look at it from the perspective of a parent.

During my time spent working retail, I saw a number of AAA game releases for the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube. These include some of the more well known games that have come under fire. I had to deal with fourteen-year-olds begging me to sell them copies of State of Emergency, Grand Theft Auto III, and Manhunt. I never would have considered it, not even once. While there wasn’t any specific legislation preventing me from doing so, I didn’t want my store to be the one featured on the news for selling Kindergartner Billy a copy of The Suffering.

Maybe taking the subway would have been a better option.

Eventually I made it a policy that we should educate parents, and explain what the M rating meant and what content a game had before they’d buy it, even if they seemed like they already made their decision. Sometimes they’d tell me “Oh, that’s not so bad” and appreciate the insight. What disturbed me is how many times I had a parent would tell me “How dare you tell me how to raise my kid.” This wasn’t always for video games, this was also for movies. I actually at one point washed my hands of a transaction as the parent was renting The Last House on the Left for their eight year old daughter who liked Scream and wanted to see some other Wes Craven films. I’m talking about the original film, not the remake. The original bordered on pornographic in combination with violence that seemed more real than the remake. I feel like it was the equivalent of sitting a child down in front of a snuff/rape film.

I’d also see people more concerned about nudity than violence. Once I had someone refuse their kid Mobile Light Force 2, which was the localization of Shikigami no Shiro with some profoundly bad box art. The parent objected because the women on the cover were showing too much cleavage. What game did they buy for their kid as an alternative? Manhunt! It blew my mind, especially after the kid was excited about how good I made the first game sound.

Tasteless, maybe. Nobody can say Duke Nukem Forever took itself seriously.

My son hasn’t wanted to play a violent game yet. He’s working on the basics still and we haven’t quite made the jump to 16-bit. If it’s not Pac-man, Phantasy Star, or a kart racer then he doesn’t want anything to do with it. I know it won’t last. There’s a number of games in the house I wouldn’t want him playing. Most of those are the games I won’t play in front of him. I’m not quite sure how I’d react if he handed me Duke Nukem Forever and asked to play it. I wouldn’t let him but I’d be less opposed to it compared to something like Heavy Rain. Even though Duke Nukem might be bloodier than Heavy Rain I’d probably be more likely to cave for it. Heavy Rain was just a bit too real.

As a child, I remember video game violence being the hot button around 1993. I got Mortal Kombat for Genesis for Christmas and my Dad wanted to see it before he’d let me keep it. I knew the blood codes, I turned it all on and showed off all the gore, fatalities and blood spatter. While he thought the game was gross, I don’t think he felt it was too realistic. In fact, I think he found it dumb more than anything. We had a brief talk about the violence and why I was playing it. Since I was more interested in the game itself than the fatalities and the blood, the subject never came up again. I never fantasized about ripping heads off of bodies or uppercutting people down into spiked pits. I’m not a serial killer. I came out fine.

You know what’s going to happen next. Everyone knows what’s going to happen next.

Many of the earlier first person shooters have been cited as being overly violent and often the cause of people going on rampages. I honestly really enjoyed Wolfenstein 3D. If you were to husk the game of the Nazi themes and all of the blood, it was still a good game. In fact, it’s one of the few FPS games I still go back and play. When I was younger I’d sit with headphones on and stare at the monitor of my 286. It would make me jump right out of my chair when I’d get shot in the back of the head after entering the room I thought I cleared of soldiers. It was an intense experience and that was why I played it. Again, I’ve never murdered anyone. Doom pushed the envelope a bit further by being more violent and throwing in satanic imagery causing it to be more in the forefront of the media scare than Wolfenstein 3D. The thing I liked the most about Doom was the customization, which I think I spent more time doing than playing the game.

I remember connecting to a BBS to download the shareware of this. Who says I’m old?

Another notorious game I remember from way back was Night Trap. My Dad actually bought it because he was curious about all of the media hype about how awful it was. It was supposed to be raunchy, sick, twisted, and bloody as hell. I always wondered what game the people who said those things had played. It certainly wasn’t Night Trap. It was more campy than anything, there was no nudity unless you count 30 year old women running around in sports bras pretending to be teenagers as nudity. I’ve seen some tame 80’s horror movies that were much worse. I think Gremlins might have been worse.

Those were the big ones that I remember. There were some older games too, specifically for the Genesis. While Nintendo was pretty strict about keeping their game content family friendly, SEGA on the other hand was a lot more lax. The first game I remember not being allowed to play was Technocop. In retrospect, my parents did me a favor, I was always curious about why I wasn’t allowed to play it. I snuck out of bed early one morning and popped it into my Genesis. It was actually the first time I had seen violence in a video game so it was a bit of a shock to me. I didn’t like it. I wish my Dad had told me “Oh, It’s kind of bloody. Kind of like Robocop. Get it, Technocop, Robocop? You don’t want to play this.” instead of telling me nothing. I guess it’s the whole forbidden fruit concept. This is why I’m glad that a few years later he sat down with me and talked about it instead of beating around the bush and flat out telling me no. I’m also glad he had paid attention to not only what I was playing, but why I was playing it.

It’s okay to kill them because they’re zombies. Trust me.

At some point there’s a major difference between wanting to play a good game that happens to be violent as opposed to wanting to play a game simply because it’s violent. I knew someone in high school who was sort of the opposite. I liked Doom because it was fun and I enjoyed playing around with the game to see what I could make it do with all of the mods. He liked it because he could shoot people and put football players and his teachers in it. He played Mortal Kombat because he wanted to see all the blood and kill people in as many gruesome ways as possible.

Did video games give him his bloodlust? No. He was drawing pictures of his classmates being murdered long before he got his SNES. He was a violent person who needed help. Blaming Doom makes as much sense as blaming Crayola for making the art supplies he used. Playing video games didn’t make him more violent. In the case of myself, I’ve played violent video games and I’m a loving parent and a pacifist. I’ll always make sure I know what my kid is playing and why he’s playing it. If there’s a game I don’t think he should play because it’s too violent, my solution is to not buy it and explain why instead of getting angry at a retailer or writing my congressman.

Oh God! Why did my parents let me play this one?

That’s not to say liking violent things isn’t okay. I enjoy horror movies, specifically the ones in the 80’s like Evil Dead 2, The Toxic Avenger, and Friday the 13th. Lots of people do, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to see something edgy and exciting. It comes down to the reason why you enjoy these kinds of things. They’re fun because they’re scary or campy not because it’s fun to watch people die. Sometimes it’s so over the top it becomes unrealistic and there’s some fun in that as well. Other times it’s fun because you know it’s not real.

Sorry if that was heavier stuff than my normal writings. Also, this wouldn’t be “Blowing Dust” without looking at some games, so let’s have a peek at some of the games that were the subject of controversy.