Do computer games and their accompanying culture depict and influence reality?
Computer games have developed to new extremes in the past 30 years: 2D gaming shocking the world at its prime of the early 90’s, to a new realistic experience, 3D gaming which evolved at the beginning of the 21st century. The differences between 2D and 3D are clearly identified but has 3D gaming changed the behaviour of gamers forever? The evolution of gaming worlds has transformed the way gamers behave and the infinite limitation to this platform has caused elements of moral panic in the media. I will be examining and analysing whether computer games depict and influence reality, using examples such as Rockstar’s ‘Grand Theft Auto’ franchise and Bioware’s ‘Mass Effect’.
There has been increased interest in this topic regarding whether realism has gone too far and how it has an influence on the consumer’s behaviour. According to a study by Dr. G. A. Anderson on Helium.com, realism in video games is escalating to new heights all the time. She also referred to how “each game on the market is surpassing its predecessors with more sophisticated graphics and sound effects, and the realism is drawing people in huge numbers”. With the results to her study, there are pros and cons to the realism in video games; more realistic features that draw in huge numbers that benefits the game industry, but has a negative influence on consumer’s behaviour and wellbeing. She says that “there is a downside to realism, some players are so drawn into the fantasy of a game that they have time for little else”; this outlines that a small minority of gamers are experiencing this, which has a major effect on the gaming industry and the majority of gamers.
On 4th August 2008, the ‘Telegraph’ released an article with the headline ‘Grand Theft Auto blamed over Thai taxi driver murder’. The article tells the story how Polwat Chino, who was 19 years old at the time, hailed a taxi in Bangkok and when it came time to pay the fare, he stabbed the 54 year old taxi driver to death. He later tried to drive off with the taxi but was unable to drive. Mr Chino told the authorities he had been addicted to Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto IV game, part of the GTA franchise that has sold more than 70 million copies worldwide. The police quoted what Polwat was saying in his statement: “I needed money to play the game every day. My parents give me only 100 baht a day, which is not enough. I am also fed up with them fighting. They are civil servants and do not make good money”. ‘The Telegraph’ has always been a conservative leaning paper; with a poll in 2005 suggesting that 64% of its readership will most likely vote for the Conservative Party in the General Elections. The political ideologies of the newspaper are right wing; therefore its news values would focus on issues with society and debates that centre the youth of today. The article was constructed for the purpose of informing its readership about the issues of youth menacing society; a topic that has become centre of attention in a newspaper with this political ideology. However, as a story regarding an incident in Thailand, there is no moral panic surrounding this incident; however if it occurred in western society such as in the UK and the US, it is likely to be somewhat different.
The ‘Grand Theft Auto’ franchise by Rockstar Games has caused controversy throughout its existence since its first title ‘Grand Theft Auto’ in 1997. The most prominent controversy regarding the franchise had surfaced after the release of its 8th title ‘Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’ in 2004. The game, based in the cities Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas on the west coast of the US tells the story of an African American named ‘CJ’ enduring in gang culture, drug trafficking and even prostitution; as the BBC phrased it, to ‘live his dreams’. BBC News reported on 11th July 2005 that the game that sold over 1 million copies in the first week of release is being investigated in the US over reports that it contains sexually explicit mini-games hidden in its code. The controversy had first become known after a download was available on the internet which allows a user to unlock sex scenes which contains “realistic sexual acts”. The investigation was led by the industry body ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) which is investigating the ‘Hot Coffee’ modification.
After contemplating these issues of bad behaviour and influences, I had realised that the cause of consumption focuses on the theory of uses and gratifications. The belief that audiences passively receive messages has long gone. Theorists Katz and Blumler proposed from their research into audience behaviour that audiences use media texts for a variety of reasons. Many of these reasons may include information reasons, personal identity, social integration, and entertainment needs. This theory focuses on an audience-centred approach to understanding mass communication. According to aber.ac.uk, the theory is in opposition from other media effect theories who question “what media do to people?”, whereas the uses and gratifications theory focuses on “what people do with media”. In my opinion, with this theory in mind, consumers deliberately choose video games that will satisfy their needs and allow them to enhance relaxation/comfort. It assumes that consumers of video games are not passive consumers of media, proposed by the Hypodermic Needle Model, but instead, have more control over their consumption.
To contribute my own findings, I conducted a survey on 20 male and females between the ages of 14-19 years old on numerous issues relating to this debate. The main question the survey was asking ‘Do you think a ‘Grand Theft Auto’ influence people’s behaviour?’ In response to this survey, 60% responded ‘No’ and 40% responded ‘Yes’. To justify whether censorship is effective, I asked my subjects this: ‘Be honest, have you played 18 rated games when you weren’t 18?’ An astonishing 100% responded with ‘Yes’. These results to the survey indicate the potential failure of censorship and the impact on children as young as 14 years old playing 18 rated games.
Despite the increased animosity between the games industry and consumers, positive news has emerged in the media that video games can be beneficial to a range of professions. BBC News Online published a video with the headline ‘Video games to help train war reporters for combat zones’ on October 4th 2011. The new “first person shooter” video game called ‘Warco’ is being developed to help journalists to operate in combat situations. The main aspect of the game is that instead of firing a gun, typically found in a first person shooter that mostly causes controversy, the player will have to wield a video camera and produce news reports. Tony Maniaty, a former foreign correspondent for ABC Australia, explained to BBC’s Stuart Hughes how he came up with the concept of the game.
This broadcast report shows a demonstration of the prototype in action which is compatible with PC’s. Action scenes of the prototype were presented to BBC’s Stuart Hughes about the main mechanics of the game and how it can be used as training purposes for entry level war reporters. The user of the game has a series of challenges that needs to be completed; for example, recording crossfire between NATO forces and the Taliban in Afghanistan, to safety concerns that needs to be highlighted when reporting in combat zones. The beginning of the demonstration by Tony Maniaty contains non-diegetic sound of Middle Eastern stylistic music. Gunfire is present throughout the demonstration with high key lighting from the sun beaming down on the external desert style environment; situated in the Middle East. In my opinion, the game focuses on the true stories that evolve today in the Middle East; an ever-lasting revolution that involves pro-Islamic fighters driving western interests out of the region, and freedom fighters overthrowing a notorious political regime. The camera on numerous occasions gives us POV shots of what it will be like to play the game, with the controls in our hands. The video is accompanied by a brief paragraph explaining what is happening in the demonstration that is amongst the BBC news video service under the Technology category. The creator of the game had stressed to the BBC reporter that it is not a first for an industry to introduce video game based training; a range of professions such as the emergency services and the armed forces has already adopted this innovated training experience. This report produces a positive light on the games industry, as video games can not only be used for pleasure, but for beneficial educational purposes too in a wide range of backgrounds.
In the novel “Reality is Broken” by Jane McGonigal, a long but interesting quote from her novel has interested me a little: “Where, in the real world, is that gamer sense of being fully alive, focused, and engaged in every moment? Where is the gamer feeling of power, heroic purpose, and community? Where are the bursts of exhilarating and creative game accomplishment? Where is the heart-expanding thrill of success and team victory? While gamers experience these pleasures occasionally in their real lives, they experience them almost constantly when they’re playing their favourite games”. These inspiring words made me wonder whether these internal feelings have caused the producers behind video games to make their games more realistic; to make gamers feel this artificial “feeling of power” and “heroics”. This quote also suggests that gamers use games, in a way, as “guilty pleasure” which “cannot be experienced in real life”. Maybe the persistent factors that exist in video games stretch too far to being far too real? Following the terrible tragedy in Connecticut on 14th December 2012, where Adam Lanza; a socially awkward 20 year old that fatally shot twenty children and six adult staff members; there had been reports that people blame the video game ‘Mass Effect’ for the shootings after a “Facebook manhunt”. In reports on Kotaku.com, people thought the shooter was a 24 year old named Ryan Lanza. Online, people quickly located a Ryan Lanza on Facebook, and searched through his profile for clues on the shootings. However it was the wrong Lanza (the actual shooter is Adam Lanza, but also has a brother named Ryan), a mob of angry Facebook users noticed that Ryan Lanza had liked Mass Effect on Facebook. In result to this, a Fox News expert had caused a moral panic in their news reports connecting the horrific shooting to video games; and that some felt like this was proof that games were to blame. Many Facebook users had conveyed their disgrace at the video game, saying that the government should “ban this game and the people who created such sickness”.
To justify the news reports surrounding this matter, people have so much hatred for video games that contain violent features and realistic weaponry; just because they feature these tools, doesn’t mean it’s a threat to the community. But who is to blame for influencing the lives of ordinary human beings causing such monstrosities? Well in my honest opinion, I feel that everyone is to blame for computer games influencing lives, not just the producers. There is a presence of censorship that prevents underage children from playing violent games, but not enough has been done to fully combat the problem. As video games in the past 5 years has been widely available for download on the internet, there is no one to prevent children from playing games that has a certain age restriction. In my own personal experience, and many of my friends, you had to lie about your age by simply saying you’re older in your date of birth, and there you go, you can download and play a violent 18 rated game. Another factor relating to the blame is the parents of gamers. Not motivating them enough has caused hardcore gamers to become more attached to the online effects that occur when playing games for long periods; someone who responded to my own survey said they play for an astounding “5 hours a day”. This is an astonishing amount, considering they’re in full time education and studying A-Levels. But their personal usage outlined in the uses and gratifications theory by theorists Blumler and Katz can explain for their purpose of high usage. It’s mainly the consumers’ personal preference that may explain the high usage; as consumers have intelligence and self-esteem that largely drive an individual’s media choice. But most of the blame has been aimed at the gaming industry for making video games that involves realistic elements within them. For the games industry to survive, each instalment in a game franchise requires some sort of realistic boost for it to successfully succeed its predecessors. These factors include increasing its market share, and increasing its profit. Failing to enhance the player’s experience from one game to another can have disastrous implications on the industry; potential bankruptcy that is common in the games industry and a sense incapability to fulfil its gamers needs.
In conclusion to my question addressing whether ‘do computer games and their accompanying culture depict and influence reality?’; I believe there is insufficient evidence to directly point the blame at the games industry; but every person/institution involved, whether it’s being a parent, a game designer or even being a gamer can contribute to this everlasting issue of game consumption and the tragic consequences of playing violent games.