Banning Videogames — How We Misinterpret The Experience

7 Sep

Games get banned all the time.  Let that sink in for a second.  Videogames are banned, all the time.  There is too much violence for this game to be sold here, it has cultural taboos for this place over there.  While the argument put forth by fervent videogame fans worldwide that it’s hypocritical to release movies with the same offensive content might seem like defensive whining, there is something to that.  I don’t think it’s a secret.

We are under the impression that videogames not only provide entertainment, they provide experiences.  Semantics, maybe.  But if watching a dance performance is entertainment, then it is assumed that being the dancer is the experience.  Watching a shootout on television — entertainment.  Shooting someone — experience.  Experience can be accrued, entertainment cannot.  I can become better at shooting, I cannot become better at watching shooting.  It’s no surprise that some people are fearful, maybe rightly so.  But maybe we’re missing something.  Maybe we’re looking at what kind of experience a videogame creates in the wrong way, we’re thinking too directly.  But first, a brief history.

Games are so often banned in countries reformed after the second World War, in Japan and Germany, and in conservatively governed countries like Australia.  Many times violent games are refused classification, or given an adult-only classification that prohibits the game being sold in stores, killing sales.  I’m going to assume that with the current mindset the same games would be outright banned, even if there were an appropriate rating system in place.  Germany prohibits the use of the swastika, while Japan fears the depiction of characters with four fingers, because of the relation to Yakuza traditions.  America is fearful of games with shooting involved because they see a correlation between them and school shootings.  At one point, Germany even had a problem with Dead Rising because the zombies you killed looked too much like humans.

Now let’s go back to the example of watching a dance performance.  What if the experience that games provide are not that of the dancer, the same as they are not the entertainment that the spectator is watching and interpreting.  We say that games immerse us, but what if we don’t understand in what way?  

What if the experience that games have become can be better equated to the feeling of being at the dance performance.  It is the act of being somewhere, of being involved, of feeling.  Does your son, your brother, your husband, enjoy shooting people in Counter-Strike?  Do they enjoy running over pedestrians in Grand Theft Auto?  Of course not.  What they are enjoying is the feeling of the act, of the responses they get, the feedback.  They enjoy exploring the idea and the act.  When you shoot a man in a videogame you are not the shooter in the videogame, you are yourself pretending to be the shooter.  You are playing cops and robbers.  

The main argument for videogames not being seen as art is that they do not inherently communicate a meaning.  The sole reason for this is because that is what entertainment does; it is the dance performance in front of you that you can choose to interpret however you want.  But videogames are not entertainment, not by this standard.  They are something more innate, more primal and deep.  We need to have that escape, that outlet — ‘play’ is our safe place to experiment.  The player can take as much as they would like out of the experience, dig as deep as they want, but there isn’t always an inherent message.  The likes of Jonathan Blow, Jason Rohrer, and Rod Humble have most prominently produced games that communicate messages through their mechanics, but we cannot say that the majority of videogames are built in this fashion.

Now, look at a game wherein the sole action is to commit murder.  If it were to communicate a meaning in the classic sense, we could say that the game is teaching the player to murder.  But we have found that not everyone who plays violent games do commit murder.  Perhaps it is a trigger, a catalyst for violent people, we think.  Maybe so when you look at it as an experience.  Imagine yourself, the reasonable and moral reader that you are, not in the shoes of a murderer, but in the same room as one.  You can tell the murderer to pull the trigger, and he will, and another man will die.  Does this make you want to shoot someone?  Or does it give you a new perspective, that you could never have had otherwise.

Is it healthy for any culture to ban something that would explore their taboos in a safe environment?


12 Responses to “Banning Videogames — How We Misinterpret The Experience”

  1. Spooky September 15, 2008 at 3:00 am #

    Great essay man! a very good read, i also dont agree with baning ANY video games either

  2. Jon Porter September 15, 2008 at 4:54 pm #

    You may claim that I’m missing the point of this article but I believe that games should give more consequence for the murders you commit. Somehow I think this would emotionally chain the player on some level with the enemies/civilians, and it might even enhance the immersion in the game’s world.

    Thanks for a great read!

  3. TerrorByte September 19, 2008 at 6:34 am #

    Great read, good job.

    You’ve only scratched the surface though. This topic isn’t a can of worms it’s a barrel full.

    I agree, to an extent, on the difference between being a passive observer versus making a conscious decision to commit a violent or illegal act in game. I agree that violent video games can act as a trigger to some people but I’m still skeptical of claims that they are more influential than the majority of the events in a person’s life. Is it possible that playing video games could tip someone other the edge, yes, almost certainly. But are video games more likely to effect a person than say getting fired, a nasty breakup, a tour of duty overseas or a death in the family.

    I realize that it’s a fallacy to attribute blame to other events when we are talking specifically about video games but I believe that the impact of video games on the human psychology is comparable to other events in a persons lifetime. From memory studies show that parents have a much greater impact on a child’s development but don’t quote me on that.

    Further more when you do start censoring you stand on a very slippery slope and the question begs to be asked ‘Where do you start and stop censoring?’ So, a game designed to allow pedophiles to live out their fantasies should be banned because such acts are illegal? But as shown below in the case of the Spiderman comic the decision becomes less clear when illegal acts are shown but with negative consequences.

    What are factors for determining which illegal acts are acceptable to be shown to the public and which aren’t? Are films and books to be held to the same standards? And where does the nightly news fit in? In some cases it would be difficult to argue that the news is presented in an entirely objective manner. But does objectivity really matter if you’re constantly bombarded with violent acts occurring in your local community on a daily basis?

    In the 1970s a three issue story arc of the Spiderman comic was refused classification by the Comics Code Authority as it contained drug use. The story arc in question portrayed drugs completely in a negative light and acted as a morality tale for readers (!).

    If you look at the situation from the perspective of harm caused to society some interesting points are raised. I do believe that video games have the potential to be harmful to a small percentage of people but I do not think that banning them is a reasonable response. Do we then turn to alcohol? What about cigarettes or contact sports? All of the above can cause harm, how do we determine if the amount of harm caused is acceptable?

    Additionally, I do believe that video games have become somewhat of a scapegoat for this generation. And I know it’s been stated to death but I refer to similar issues surrounding rock and roll / Dungeons and Dragons and the danger the posed to society.

    In conclusion I’m not trying to persuade anyone, rather to start readers thinking about the complex issues surrounding censorship.

  4. Chammi September 19, 2008 at 11:35 pm #

    Great article Nick, it definitely had me thinking 😀
    We could add that games don’t even simulate the entire ‘feeling’ of an experience, since they usually censor out the feeling of consequence.
    I suppose that’s what happens when you turn feelings into entertainment.
    When we say a game is ‘visceral’ I think it’s our way of euphemizing that lack of consequence.

    But like you said, every healthy society needs a Dionysian outlet, and GTA is miles above public lynches.

  5. johnny November 30, 2009 at 3:24 pm #

    the goyerment should banned games besause kids are distracted to games and they get less sleep

  6. joe joe November 30, 2009 at 3:26 pm #

    kis should not play games

  7. Jeffrey Caines November 30, 2009 at 3:27 pm #

    i think that kids should ban video games

  8. Ahmad Meridieth February 7, 2011 at 3:28 am #

    We are really enjoying reading your well written read. It appears you would spend a lot of dedication on your weblog. I have bookmarked it and that i am longing for reading new article. Keep up the good work!


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