Guest Blog by Stephen Toulouse: Starting a Conversation, Video Games and Violence

This guest post is by Stephen “Stepto” Toulouse. He made a comedy album you can get on Bandcamp (cheapest option), iTunes or Amazon and wrote a book called A Microsoft Life. He blogs at Stepto.com.

Warning: Serious post is serious. I know right?  Should be totally non-controversial.

Yesterday, Nancy Pelosi stated what a lot of us already know and research has shown: That video games don’t instill violent behavior.

Video games are an easy scapegoat for the results of real world violence. Before video games became so realistic, violent films were the scapegoat. Our American culture is unique in its embrace of violence. The entertainment industry is consistent in its reaction to these events, wrapping freedom of artistic expression in the first amendment as the gun industry wraps itself in the second amendment.

I’ve been a gamer all my life and in the industry for the past six or seven years and I think someone needs to say it: As an industry we need to stop turtling up when these terrible events happen and stop insisting that any discussion omit the impact of violent entertainment or culture on those in whom violence may be already present. We need to be part of the conversation and we should not be afraid of where it leads.

Let me tell you a story about why.

Like any discerning gun user, I was noodling over whether I wanted to switch from my SCAR-H to my new Magpul PDW-R. There were important considerations here: stopping power, range, fire rate, recoil, whether I wanted to switch to NATO 5.56 rounds from the larger 7.62’s. I had to think about the number of rounds per magazine, number of magazines I could carry, and whether or not it was a good weapon for close encounter firefights as well as longer range ones. I was hardly going to be an asset in a situation where a gunman surprised me and my friends unless I had the optimal tool for the job!

I’m 40 years old, never owned a firearm, and I’ve never touched an assault rifle. So why do I know so much about assault weapons? Video games. I was choosing the above weapons as my loadouts for Battlefield 3. I have an incredible education and wealth of knowledge about such weapons due to games like Battlefield 3 or Call of Duty. It is an education I would not otherwise have. Likewise I have an education in single or squad combat tactics, understand enfilade and defilade, trigger discipline, conservation of ammo, and suppressing fire.

In short, I have a basic level of combat training that a hundred years ago would only be available to those in the military. (Note that I’m not saying these video game skills would make me an effective combat soldier in the actual terror of a firefight. I’m saying if you wanted to train me to be a soldier, I’m already part way there) Now granted, I could also learn a lot of this from movies, Youtube videos, or books or the Internet in general. But to actually practice the execution of those concepts is easiest through games.

Worse than that, I’ve virtually massacred dozens of innocent people as a mass shooter in a Russian airport in the Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 mission “No Russian”, an emotionally wrenching mission that I can say I did not enjoy playing but I understand its place in the narrative.

Now, I’m not about to snap. I feel pretty strongly confident about that! But let’s say I began to deteriorate over months, obtain guns and then commit a terrible crime.

Is it unreasonable to ask the question of whether or not I was impacted by entertainment, or made a more effective killer because of it?

I don’t know if the answer is “yes” or “no” to the latter question, but I believe it is not unreasonable to ask it. And yet my industry tends to react with howls of outrage when it’s brought up. To be fair, it’s often brought up alongside the trigger question of “Do video games in and of themselves cause violence?” However the defensive reaction to even the idea that money should be spent looking into this has been as consistent as is the NRA’s opposition to having gun control be a part of the discussion. We (myself included) roll our eyes at having to have this argument again.

I thought a lot about myself when I was choosing those weapons in Battlefield 3. I realized that I contained a lot of knowledge uniquely specific to the killing of other human beings when I was weighing those options in the game, and it bothered me deeply. I do not believe the concept that these games are “murder simulators” (paintball would be more effective at that, video game levels and physics are meticulously designed for fun factor and aren’t terribly realistic). But the idea I had all that knowledge in my head bothered me.

So I think that we as an industry need to be a part of this conversation much more than we are right now, or we can’t expect those we think will have a bigger impact to be a part of it either. I was proud to see Electronic Arts and Activision and other companies talk to Vice President Biden on the issue. I think the reaction so far to the latest round of violence has been far less defensive than before. I also saw a lot of opinion pieces and forums posts stating it’s a waste of money to study it. I still saw some of the old defensiveness.

I think the industry should be leading the discussion, given the success of games centered on combat violence involving guns, especially real life weaponry.

To be clear I know tons of responsible gun owners, I think the problem of violence in our society is complex and multifaceted. There are no easy answers here. And perhaps I’m not seeing the measured voices of reason in the industry who want to take a look at this, or hey maybe I just have this whole thing wrong. I’d love to know what you guys think in the comments.

*One side point, I play and enjoy Battlefield games and Call of Duty games. I’ve assisted in making them and other “shooter” games better during their development. I’m not suggesting they are bad or a threat to society or anything like that. They are used here simply to illustrate a point: that video games can be very powerful educators as well as entertainment. It’s worth looking at what they are educating us on and any impact that might have.

20 thoughts on “Guest Blog by Stephen Toulouse: Starting a Conversation, Video Games and Violence”

  1. A nicely done, well thought out post.

    The only thing I’ll say is that yes, they deserve credit for the engagement and talking. But I think the industry should be wary lest they be the only ones in the room interested in a real discussion. That’s an easy way to have their goodwill used against them.

    Let me be clear: I believe both sides in the gun “debate” are equally cynical and disingenuous. There is no dialogue or even real proposals. It’s just a shouting slugfest to try and obliterate the other side.

    Having been involved in Capitol Hill politics, I can say that it is dangerous to be the only person in the room with good, honest intentions.

    And so, in that regard, while I agree with you on how being willing to participate is good. I also think the industry would be well within their rights to say they’re not going to talk to anyone until there’s real, good faith bargaining and discussions. That the industry refuses to be a piece on someone else’s board.

  2. Stepto,
    First of all thank you! This was an excellent, thought out and well reasoned post. I have to admit when I first saw the subject line I thought “Oh no, here we go again!”

    I find your open minded approach refreshing. It’s not often of late that people strive to make an honest effort to see both sides of a sticky debate. I am also a lover of FPS games and have been for years so I support the games and my ability to enjoy them. But am also reasonable enough to say there is knowledge to be gained from them. And knowledge is a tool like any other…able to be used for good or evil intent.

    I’m glad Wil asked for these “Guest Blog” entries and have enjoyed them all very much.

    Thanks again for your refreshingly open-minded post!

  3. A basic understanding of weaponry and combat tactics in no way, shape or form prepares you for actual combat. People tend to understate killing by putting it in the simplest terms of cause of effect; you shot someone, they die. What is forgotten is the part when you are holding a weapon on another person, looking at them and knowing what will happen if you pull the trigger. Police officers and our soldiers are mentally prepared and trained to handle that, Joe Normal or Jane Gamer are not. Also like yourself I doubt many gamers have ever held a weapon in real life so should you pick up a gun, even if you think you’re prepared, you will find aiming, handling difficult as well as needing to make adjustments for the recoil. Plus while you may now know to hold your breath to steady a shot when sniping, games tend to omit the more basic details such as how to load a clip with bullets, then how to put the cartridge in, clear a chamber and even how to disengage the safety!

    Lest you think I’m some scary person, my knowledge comes from my father who was a police officer for 25 years, my mother who was an avid bow and black powder hunter and my husband, the solider. I was taught at a very early age how to properly and safely handle a weapon, that they were not toys and that they could kill. So as a child and now as an adult, I have a healthy respect and fear of them.

    I’m not claiming to be an expert or the rule but despite having training and hundreds of hours in accurately firing real weapons, I suck at FPS ( I’m Seragrim @XBOX live if anyone is willing to let a sucky shooter on their team). So I don’t think gaming experience with weapons will translate to real world efficiency any more than playing Hot Shots Golf will make you a better putter.

    I can see how video games could desensitize people to violence some what though. When people tick me off or I’ve had a bad day I’ll work off the mad by hacking up zombies on Lolipop Chainsaw or letting my evil vault dweller do bad, bad things in Fallout. I’m not imagining that the people who made me mad are in the game or anything, just venting the frustration through mindless carnage but again, I know that only
    digital characters are being harmed so I feel free to be as mean and heartless as I want.

    Real people though, I couldn’t imagine hurting. Heck I feel bad when I’m snappy with shop employees or wait staff, even when they deserve it. So I don’t think gaming has personally made me less emphatic to others or diminished my ability to see others as human beings but I couldn’t say that the same would hold true with someone with strong antisocial and harmful tendencies.

    The problem is though if the game industry admits even the slightest possibility of even an indirect link between gaming and violence, the ‘do it for the children’ crowd would pounce. These are the people that don’t even want adult gamers playing M games, so they won’t care that when proper adult supervision and selection is used when deciding which games your spawn plays can increase reading comprehension, teamwork, fine motor and math skills– they’ll rally their mob and light their torches.

    If you think about it, the Atari released in 72′ and since then billions of games have been sold without a solid connection linking gaming to violence so I think it would be better for the industry to keep this course publicly but possibly start phasing out real world guns for purely fictional makes and models with features that didn’t have real world equivalents. There’s no point in stirring the water to make it muddy, better in the long run to keep things nice and clear to show beyond a shadow of a doubt that one doesn’t connect to the other.

  4. I’m going to tangentially relate to this post via a conversation I had with someone about a 2009 article about a pornography study in Montreal that was shifted after the researchers could not find 20-something males who had never been exposed porn. My concern, being the parent of two young girls, was that the young men they will be dating would have unrealistic expectations of their sex lives, (especially after reading the January Op Ed in Salon by Isaac Abel) when it was pointed out to me that the same arguments could be made with media violence and guns. And this is the sideways logic that pulls you into both arguments.

    I think there’s a huge difference between exposure to porn and exposure to guns. You may be shooting the crap out of stuff in a video game, but you’re not sitting on your couch playing with live ammo while you’re doing it. The real question is whether or not exposure to fake violence desensitizes players to real violence, and I think that even though there are plenty of evidence based studies out there to dispute that, it’s still a question that does not have a definitive answer. My opinion is that of course you get desensitized to violence, but I can not think of a video game in recent memory that desensitizes people to tragedy. There’s a whole generation of PTSD kids out there that are benefiting from playing violent games for therapy. I can’t imagine living in a world that would take that away from them.

    The voices in the industry are fractured and corporate. There is no singular voice for the consumers of entertainment, and that is where the trade groups fail. They may claim to speak for the consumer, but without including them at the table the message is lost in translation.

  5. One minor clarification, I grew up in Texas. From age 12 I learned firearm safety on .22 rifles and later, dove hunting with 12 gauge pump action and 20 gauge auto shotguns. I’ve fired numerous sidearms and was always taught the same healthy respect and fear of firearms in general. I have never owned a firearm myself, nor touched an assault rifle. But I have a fair amount of experience with firing actual weapons.

  6. Although I tend to agree with Mr Wheaton’s point of view I can’t help but consider the impact of the ever growing ( in the terms of realism and body count ) influence that these games have on the minds of young gamers. It’s a easy call to say these games are safe when accessed exclusively by well adjusted adults but when these very violent games make it into the hands of kids then I think the debate changes and legitimacy is offered up to the crowd that is currently trying to link violent video games to violent acts.

    Sure they have an age limit, a visible sticker on the box but it’s naive to suggest those limitations have any real effect on who ultimately plays them. Is it responsible to say, “we’ve done our job, its up to the parents” and then walk away from the issue ? Truth is a childs mind is a developing mind and I do my due dilligence as a Father to make sure my sons are exposed to age appropriate entertainment. Is it ok for the industry to say in the middle of a debate as more life like, high definition and realistic content is added, “we’re disconnected from the issue because we’ve followed the terms of our mandate” ?

    I’m not trying to be a wet blanket, I’m a gamer myself, but I’ve always believed that the violent content in movies and games is detructive essentially to the mind of a child. As subjective as that sounds it still begs the question, are these industries doing enough to keep potentially damaging content out of the hands of a child?

  7. Every time I hear discussions that try to blame violent video games for the many violent gun deaths in the US, I am skeptical. While I don’t think their impact is zero, I have to think it’s pretty small. Here’s why – Canada. Canada can act as a sort of control group for this experiment we are conducting in the US. Canada has all the same video games as the US, all the same movies, and all the same TV shows. Yet the gun violence there is way less. Why? Different gun laws. Not different violent media.

  8. I never believed this!
    In the 1950s it was TV, in the 1960s it was due to the vivid colours of colour TV, in the 80s it were those “violent movies” and “violent series” — quote Dirty Harry, Rambo, Dukes of Hazard and The A-Team and now it’s video games. And I am pretty sure that in the 1800s it was due to books of the back then Robert Ludlum — excuse my ignorance for not quoting an author.

    Any child knows damn well what is make believe or what is real! Any kid learns that smacking another child hurts and therefore should not be done. Smacking! Let alone tearing through their tender flesh with an Assault rifle! Granted that if you managed to hit the central nervous system that they would not feel anything… but that’s not the point!

    The fact that children become more ruthless and people become more trigger happy is because our societies have become so hard and ruthless. I am from the Netherlands here we are pretty liberal and we used to care very well for each other. Now here too, funding in the mental healthcare is drying up and we too had a shooting by a mentally unstable 20 odd year old in a supermarket. His parents pleaded many times that their son experienced irratic behaviour! But there was no time or no money…
    In the US where healthcare is almost a luxury for some, this is even more painful!!!
    I had a person literally being assassinated right in front of my door on the through road through my town.
    I was actually rather disturbed by the fact that I did not even seem to care (live goes on) and has it seemed it was a crime syndicate killing.

    I am not a socialist at all! But as a European I firmly believe in three things everyone has the right to: Proper education, Taking financial care of a person if that person, for some reason is truly not able to work, Healthcare (the best money can buy!). I don’t mind paying more taxes if we can keep people getting these basic needs. Bear in mind that we in NL pay 52% income tax over 56K! and Americans are complaining over a mere 5% rise where 35% is the heighest bracket.

    I think that a well educated, worry free and healthy society is far less likely to become violent as there’s nothing to be gained from violence, if not there’s more to be lost than gained!

    I wonder… Would someone say the same thing about people who practice S&M? Will S&M practitioners be more violent and ruthless in social settings?

    1. There is a point in a child’s development when real and make believe do not exist and they consider everything real. Until a child is able to distinguish between real and make believe, I just don’t believe that allowing children to play an FPS is wise. To me, this is why adhering to the game ratings is so crucial. A 17 year old will view COD much differently than a 10 year old, which is why the MA rating is applicable to that franchise.

      As in anything, this requires parental involvement and more than an peripheral knowledge of what their children are up to. Also being willing to recognize that perhaps the games their kids are playing are affecting their attitudes towards others (which I have seen happen) and nix it until the child is mature enough to handle it.

      It just sucks that the most publicized gun violence tends to look like “nerds gone wild” which gives the rest of us a bad name.

      1. Hi Kristin,

        It’s true ,there’s a relatively short period where a child cannot distinguish reality and make believe! I can’t argue with that. However around the age of 6 kids damn well know what is make believe and what not. Around the age of 3 or 4 they already know that smacking someone causes pain.

        I would not have any problem to have a 10 year old playing CoD obviously I would explain what WWII was and how it was very bad but I wont make a big deal out of it.
        Then again here in Europe we are a great deal more liberal than in the US. And I live in Holland so talk about liberal :D

        At camp in college when we were 17 we sat in a tent. My buddy Sander lid up a massive spliff! Suddenly the tent “door” opened and our mentor shouted: “WHAT THE HELL IS THAT!?!”
        Sander looked through his half closed eyes and murmured: “It’s grass maon!”
        The mentor shouted: “Are you insane man! You could set the tent alight you idiot! Smoke your grass on the grass!” So Sander moved outside of the tent, sat in the rain smoking his spliff. So yeah, things overhere are a tad different than in the US ;D

        But on the record we have a lot less (statistically) aggressive youth than the US. And I bet yah that the kids here play video games a lot longer that than in the US.
        Schools here are out around 3pm and there are no extra curricular activities.

        So I guess that’s proof that videogames doesn’t make the youth (more) violent.
        Violence is a trademark of poverty, anger and rage. If anything you can vent your anger and rage using a videogame.

        So I guess videogames are no issue.

  9. I played Call of Duty for several years before I had kids. After having kids, I had postpartum psychosis. I can tell you that my years playing CoD played no part in how my psychosis manifested. At all.

    What it comes down to, for those of us with mental illness, is can we distinguish between reality and fantasy? I show my five year old kids Looney Tunes, but I am also sure to ask them “Do we do that in real life?” “No, Mommy, this is just pretend.” So, obviously parenting is one way but what about when a mental illness develops? Does a patient receive therapy – cognitive or pharmaceutical – in time before the illness in the patients brain wins out and tells the patient “You know, running along the highway with a gun is really what you need to do now” or “You should stab that knife through your hand so you can see what it looks like sticking out of both sides.”?

    I was fortunate in that my psychosis symptoms manifested slowly enough that I could feel myself detaching from reality, recognized it as a medical problem and sought (and was given) excellent medical help. I think it would be awesome if we, as a society, learned more about the basic symptoms of various mental illnesses so we can help those around us when they might not know how to help themselves.

  10. I remember when authority figures pointed at Looney Tunes violence and claimed children needed to be saved from it. They were edited down, sometimes to the point of no longer making sense, and when new cartoons arrived, they were devoid of any “bad results” (GI Joe/Cobra soldiers jumping from planes or tanks comes to mind).

    This never did not stop acts of violence. I don’t think it will stop if video games are similarly edited.

    Being from Canada, I may never truly grok your culture but I feel like we’re like siblings in the same house: all the same games are sold here, all the same television is aired here, all the same movies are screened here, yet the incidents of similar violence is significantly less per capita.

    I’m left to wonder if the only real difference between the statistics is the availability of a weapon of choice?

    *Caveat: I am not against weapons appropriate for self protection.

  11. “Man is violet by nature, he doesn’t need inspiration” – Marilyn Manson after Columbine.

    You may not like the source or the quote, but regardless, sadly, it’s true. Look at history. We live in the most civilized time. Throughout history though, we, humans, practiced severe acts of barbaric sadism on each other, many times in the name of religion.

    THE reason we have these mass shootings, baring the truely damaged mind, is due to the way we still treat each other. We have left behind the physical barbarism and replaced it with sadism to the mind. People that comit these acts for the most part are unhappy and are reacting to how they are treated. No one, baring a damaged mind, who,is happy and is enjoying life goes out and commits these acts. It is those that we as society create, that commit these acts. Be careful how you treat others, because the kid you and many others pick on at school, is the one that’s going to come back and pick you as their target when they get pushed too far.

    And, this kid probably does have some training due to CoD or whatever, but his impetus is the way he has been treated. Look at the recent Dorner case. The LApd created this guy. Granted He took an awful approach, but their treatment or the way he felt he was treated created a mess.

    The golden rule is a good one. “Treat others as you would have them treat you”, but beware, it works both ways.

    Maybe a good rule of thumb? ” Don’t be a Dick.”

  12. I know this comes up a lot, but here it is again. I live in Canada. We watch and are exposed to the same media you are (and in the same quantities). The main difference between our countries (relevant to this topic) are 1) We are more socialist and therefore poor people here are better taken care of and feel less hopeless (and have better access to mental health care), and 2) We have much more restricted access to hand guns.

    So what you see in Canada is a) LESS violence overall and LESS of these “shootings” or mass slayings in general and b) far less gun crimes.

    Your country has the answers it needs, it has chosen and continues to choose what you call “freedom and liberties” over these solution. You can either a) live with it, b) do something to change it, or c) move to Canada =)

    1. Canada rocks!!! Would love to live there!
      But their immigration procedure is close to harassment!
      But when the EU keeps on eating away on our sovereignty and raping our economy and democracy, then I may (re)consider moving to Canada.

Comments are closed.