Blaming violent video games

Americans awoke yesterday to revolting news: a gunman opened fire on a Las Vegas concert crowd, killing at least 59 people and wounding hundreds more. This horrifying event has rekindled the country’s long-smoldering debate on gun violence. Why are mass shootings a uniquely American problem?

Inadequate mental health care and lax gun laws are likely causes,[1]  but violent video games are also frequently blamed. Critics point out that the gaming industry’s most popular franchises are war simulators, which let players wield many of the same weapons used to perpetrate real-world attacks.

Is there a causal connection between Call of Duty and mass violence? The evidence isn’t clear. One recent study contradicted previous research by suggesting that playing violent video games has no negative long-term impacts on gamers’ empathy or aggression.[2]

The data is the data, but that conclusion feels wrong to me. I resonated with Marco Arment’s reflections yesterday on Twitter:

Back when I still played video games, I loved the Metal Gear Solid franchise, which encouraged stealth over brutality. In many situations, it was actually easier to tranquilize the enemy or sneak around him, rather than fire live rounds. Knock out the stooge, then hide his comatose body so that his comrades didn’t detect your presence.

Playing Metal Gear “nonviolently” took longer, but at least I didn’t have Henchman #14’s blood on my conscience. I was plagued by the thought that violence—even imaginary violence—could damage my soul somehow. I worried that rehearsing murder would make me less empathetic. Even though the “victims” were algorithms and polygons, attacking them might undermine my own reverence for real-life humanity.

Video games aren’t unique in their tendency to normalize violence. Many other American pasttimes do the same thing. We hand our children toy pistols, then encourage them to mime-murder each other. Before our sporting events, professional soldiers toting firearms preside over a national anthem whose lyrics celebrate war. We ravenously consume MMA, boxing, and football—“sports” that treat gladiatorial violence as marketable entertainment.

These “harmless” practices aren’t the direct causes of our mass shooting epidemic. But they’re symptoms of a sickness in the American psyche, a perverse reverence for violence. We happily steep ourselves in foul waters, then act surprised when monsters emerge from the depths. ■

  1. For the record, I strongly support tighter firearm regulation, but the evidence for the potential effectiveness of tougher laws isn’t quite as clear as one might expect. ↩
  2. In fact, some psychologists have even suggested that violent games reduce violence by giving men and boys a harmless outlet.  ↩

Artwork adapted from vector imagery by Alvara Cabrera and Freepik.


N64 Classic ‘Zelda: Ocarina of Time’ beaten by blind gamer

This is incredible. Terry Garrett, a blind gamer, has beaten the Nintendo 64 classic “Ocarina of Time”. The man’s a gaming god.

How did he do it? First, Garrett relied heavily on the game’s soundscape to orient himself around its 3D space. He even used the venerable Zelda hookshot “as a form of echolocation,” listening for the difference between the weapon striking walls and whiffing through open air. He also relied heavily on software emulation—Garrett saves his game state every few seconds, then restores that state when experiments go awry.

Garrett’s achievement testifies to his perseverance and ingenuity; it took five years of occasional gameplay to finish the task. Few gamers have the patience to do that sort of repetitive, time-consuming work.

Nintendo also deserves credit—for putting such care into Ocarina’s soundscape. The game’s sound engine places each noise in its proper stereo location. Plus, key occurrences on-screen have discernible audio equivalents. For example, when Link chaperones Zelda through Ganondorf’s castle, Zelda’s feet make tiny, just-perceptible noises.[1]

What if every game developer took low-vision accessibility more seriously? What if game studios put the same care into their sound engines that they put into graphics and physics? What if every game’s sound design made it possible for blind gamers to play—withoutresorting to trial and error?

Imagine, for example, if your avatar’s footsteps reverberated more like real life. The sound would echo differently depending on your distance from the nearest wall, the texture of the floor, or the proximity of a deadly chasm. Just this one feature would allow a blind gamer to navigate virtual realms much like Daniel Kish explores the real world.

Games might even implement a “low-vision mode.” With this setting enabled, on-screen events would create constant, audible cues.

Take the recent Arkham Batman series as a theoretical example. How might these games sound if they were programmed with the sight-impaired gamer in mind? Each mob thug would grumble and yell incessantly; that way, the player could tell exactly where each foe stood, relative to Batman’s current position. Or, as the Batmobile motored through Gotham City, audio cues could distinguish open street intersections from adjacent buildings. That way, a gamer could hear exactly when to hit that e-brake. Finally, for less action-heavy sequences, Batman might speak his inner monologue out loud—describing the environment or the puzzle at hand in exhaustive detail.

If more game developers attended to such details, a standard “low-vision vocabulary” would solidify over time. These conventions would guide devs’ work and allow blind gamers to quickly grok new games. Game engines (e.g. Unreal, Unity) would incorporate these features, giving developers a head-start on building blind-accessible titles. Design studios might even hire blind game developers to ensure that their games met the needs of the sight-impaired.

UPDATE: Reader Ian Hamilton responded via Twitter with a series of helpful thoughts. In particular, he notes that many fighting games (e.g. ‘Mortal Kombat X’) already include audio cues that make it easier for sight-impaired gamers to compete. Ian also linked to an interesting Game Developers Conference panel on “Reaching the Visually Impaired Gamer”.

  1. ‘Ocarina of Time’ isn’t the only Nintendo 64 game whose sound effects empower the blind to play.  ↩
Games Tech

Living fiction

After decades of dreaming, virtual reality lies within reach. Valve, bastion of traditional PC gaming, now openly discusses a timetable ’til we have legit VR. Oculus, a VR headset start-up, has garnered accolades from the tech press. It’s no longer a question of “If we ever get VR,” but “When?”

What’s holding VR back? It’s not the visuals; we’re already close enough to photo-realism, even on the gaming console. The audio’s not a problem, either; games gamed CD-quality audio twenty years ago. Even the headset technology is catching up, packaging sight and sound into a light-weight, inexpensive package. No, the real problem is touch; how can you believe a virtual world that you can’t walk around or touch or climb?

Even without touch technology, I worry about VR addiction. Once compelling virtual worlds exist, will gamers escape dissatisfying real-world lives by slipping on their headsets? Too many young men already float through life in a gaming-centric haze, stumbling from bed straight into MMOs and FPSs, then back into bed again. Will affordable, convincing VR accelerate our decline into a Ready Player One dystopia?

Despite the risks to our humanity, and despite the remaining technological challenges, I find VR intriguing. My fascination has more to do with Star Trek than with the flashy neon worlds of Tron or Lawnmower Man. I don’t want a first-person version of traditional video games; I want the Holodeck. Picard, Data and the gang escaped into Sherlock Holmes mysteries, private eye capers, and high-seas adventure.[1]

I want to experience my favorite fiction, first-hand. Imagine having the ability to live into your favorite movies and TV shows—to try on your favorite roles. You might play Bilbo in The Hobbit, or Mikey from The Goonies. A tiny heads-up display would show you the script (if you needed it). Or maybe the AI would be more sophisticated, and non-player characters would understand your words and actions, then respond accordingly. You could rewrite the script. Go ahead; find out what happens if Bilbo refuses to pass along the Ring. Go ahead; let Chunk get killed. It’d be the ultimate Choose Your Own Adventure story.

  1. Holodeck episodes were reliably terrible. But the technology sparks my imagination.  ↩