My love of gaming started at a very early age when my parents bought me a ZX Spectrum. I was only just in double digits and spent hours trying to keep my anthropomorphized egg from not falling into a river, or succumbing to the sexual exploits of a troll. Admittedly, my memories of the Dizzy series may be tainted, but it did set me up for decades of staring into a flickering screen protecting the pixelated avatar from harm, in gradually more and more violent settings.
So when word reached my rather dainty ears that State Representative Diane Franklin of Missouri was wanting to stick a 1% sales tax on violent video games I was less than enthused. She wants to capitalise on the shootings in Connecticut and plough the money raised into mental health programs, presumably hoping to “cure” the “crazy” that everyone who plays Grand Theft Auto must suffer from. Obviously, this bill is going to go the way of the dodo and Mario’s lust for Princess Peach, but it does show a deranged attitude to gaming that crops up time and time again whenever someone needs something to blame for a tragedy. Before Mass Effect (which Lanza, the spineless coward “Liked” on Facebook) we had Batman being blamed for the Aurora cinema shootings. Which is ridiculous right? The only thing that Batman can be blamed for is the people who dress in cosplay costumes when they really shouldn’t.
Hopefully I speak for millions when I say that gaming does not make you an angry killer. It can make you into an isolated, bearded weirdo, or even someone who doesn’t treat prostitutes in the way you should. I.e., not beating them to death with a bat, or pushing them out of a moving car. And saying that playing Grand Theft Auto or Assassin’s Creed can turn you into a monster, much like how a werewolf’s bite can turn you into a mindless, blood lusting beast, is insulting to anyone who ever played Pong, or defended Earth from an army of Space Invaders. Life doesn’t always imitate art, because then Bjorn Borg would only be able to return serves moving laterally. And Will Smith could only move side to side in Independence Day. (Wow, a lot of early games only had basic movement didn’t they?)
Violent gaming isn’t a new worry though; it goes all the way back to the late 90s and the release of one of the most important games of all time. Doom. Admittedly, some of the sequels did get a bit ropey, but back then it didn’t matter. If you didn’t want to play Commander Keen, really poor platformers or Solitaire then you were left with Doom. It was a necessity. Everyone was talking about Doom, and bleating on about things like Child’s Play, and various other video nasties, but like every time a controversy crops up, you just wanted it more. Was it irresponsible of my parents to buy Doom for a child who was underage? Who cares? I’m not going to go on any shooting sprees so no one will be complaining that violent gaming has taken their toll on society again.
Doom’s release in 1993 sparked an almost Cold War of violence. Every new game had to be the most violent and the most depraved. Unfortunately, not many developers took the time to develop their own engine, so they would all still feel like Doom. Which is probably why they all fell into massive obscurity. Remember Heretic? Only when prompted I bet.
It wasn’t until 1997 when another game was released that took the violence and added an unpleasant factor, to the untrained eye that is.
Whereas Doom was ultraviolent (and even bragged of a difficulty setting called that), Carmageddon took the blood splattering to the next level and added a points system to the proceedings. For those of us who don’t know, Carmageddon was the precursor to Grand Theft Auto in that it was heavily involved in a car and involved in characters getting murdered by a car.
Awarded points for the more adventurous and gruesome the killings, people went nuts because it was just around the time that ‘road rage’ was the newest moral panic and obviously Carmageddon was going to corrupt the drivers of tomorrow into wanting to smash the elderly into roadside bombs and traps. Which obviously didn’t account for all of those road crimes that occurred before 1997, but let’s not dwell on a massive flaw like that shall we?
Carmaggedon, however gory and violent, had no impact on me, or probably anybody else because, like Mortal Kombat and the other violent beat-em-ups that flooded the market in the 90s, their violence was juvenile and amateurish. There was literally no way that I was going to get into a car and start knocking over the elderly (although saying “ten points for the Gran” will probably never get boring). In fact, there was more chance of me uppercutting someone so severely that their spine flew out of their neck than there was me knocking someone over on purpose.
Even now, as I take tentative steps to learn to drive, I’m not worried that I’m going to display an uncontrollable rage and text my instructor in a sweaty panic asking whether we can upgrade the cannons on the side of his car. It’s unbelievable antics that stay behind the screen. Antics that are comical and juvenile as well as being clearly not realistic.
As clone after clone of Doom flooded the market, it took seven years of the same old same old until id software recreated their most successful gaming model and released Soldier Of Fortune, one of the most violent video games that I’ve ever seen. As id moved onto the GHOUL engine to run their games, it brought with them a new way to kill your enemies. Up until then, each character would die in a similar, scripted way which didn’t really keep up with the escalating blood lust that the games would instill in the player. Now there were 26 different ‘gore zones’ that would react in different ways when shot. For example, a shot to the head would pop it like an overfilled balloon filled with red jelly, whereas aiming for a leg would result in it skidding across the room with a bloody reminder bridging the gap between the detached limb and the enemy who was now rolling around the floor in pain.
Unfortunately this would lead the player on to create the most extravagant and torturous way of killing the enemy. It was possible to shoot off each part of the body leaving just a bloodied stump on the ground. Obviously, this isn’t a great thing and led to it being classed as a pornographic film by the British Columbia Film Classification Office. And quite rightly so.
Video games, however boring and steadfast they might be, should never show torture or rape in a positive or entertaining light. Until Soldier Of Fortune, games had always ventured on the side of caution. There were already reports of people reenacting fights from Mortal Kombat and various other ‘video game nasties’ and, although the publicity surrounding a banned game, like Postal (2003) and Manhunt (2003) can lead to a spike in sales, it always has the stigma that this game might have caused the death of someone. It’s not as simple as how people generally think of banned products (that making them scarce increases desirability) although that is true, there are developers out there who have made this game and, potentially, caused someone to torture and kill another human being. That goes beyond meagre sales, it’s mental torment and anguish that won’t go away easily.
With systems developing faster and faster with more advanced graphics engines, video games in the 00s became incredibly violent and sadistic. It wasn’t an era that is particularly glowing, compared to the 80s or 90s, but still stands alone in regards to the diversity of the medium. There have never been so massively different games being released at one time. And as the opening salvos of the Console Wars were being fired, being a gamer had never been so popular.
Consumers have never had so many violent games on the market at one time, and the number is only set to increase as new systems are released that can handle more and more complex situations and graphics. It may sound sadistic that people can’t wait to see what violence they can enact on the new Playstation, and on the face of it, it sounds very sadistic indeed. But the vast majority of gamers aren’t people who have underlying mental issues or are incredibly suggestible people. The vast majority of the gamers aren’t going to go on violent rampages. The vast majority of gamers understand the difference between fiction and reality. So it’s a shame that the vast majority of non-gamers believe that booting up an X-Box or flicking on a PS Vita is like lighting the fuse on yet another tragic event in history.