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GAMING: PLAYING TO KILL

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In the age of the internet, people have easy access to first person shooter games such as Soldier of Fortune
In the age of the internet, people have easy access to first person shooter games such as Soldier of Fortune

When images of the New Zealand Christchurch mosques’ attack started to come out, the reaction, after the initial shock would probably have been: this looks like a gory video game.

Despite write-ups and web-videos commentating with the strictest intention of blaming access to firearms and radicalism as the two main perpetrators in any heinous act of violence, one can’t deny or even overlook the visual similarity.

With a camera strapped on first person view (the viewpoint of a person), the video — live-streaming the massacre to social media followers — has the eerie aesthetic of watching someone play a first person shooter. Picking ammo. Loading. Shooting. Killing.

Two separate incidents were planned in Christchurch, each happening at different locations, within hours of each other. One news report showed a map of the area with timings. The entire exercise reeked of a Real Time Strategy game.

Tech Insider, a popular YouTube channel of the business newspaper Business Insider, had posted a video titled Stop Blaming Violent Video Games For Mass Shootings 11 months ago. The video, unimaginatively, put up arguments in favour of violent video games, crediting the effective videogame rating system ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) for a job well done.

There is an argument that radicalisation and lack of gun control are bigger causes than violent video games for shooting sprees like the one in Christchurch, New Zealand. But with a lax ratings regime, especially around the world, can video games escape all blame?

The video also fleetingly shows a statistic advocating that violence in video games does not influence gamers worldwide, and that most acts of gun violence come from America, where gun control is often derided by powerful lobbies because of a constitution written more than two centuries ago.

Another video from late night political-satirist Trevor Noah also took the same line, while making fun of President Donald Trump on his lax stance on gun control. This video also came out months before the incident.

There is a popular argument that Japan — a country widely known for gory video games and hyper-violent and pornographic anime — does not have gun violence; the reason, it is argued, is a strict compliance on gun control. Rather than entertain the notion of violence, the masses have easy access to platforms that fulfill baser human instincts.

Like the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), the ESRB is a self-regulating organisation that assigns a rating system to video games. The higher the rating, the harder it is for underage children to get their hands on content of violent or adult nature.

Old commercials of the ESRB system showed parents denying children games where limbs were torn off, or blood and gore were the main selling points. The campaign looked good on television. Its implementation in real life, especially in countries where the system did not exist, is a different story altogether however.

Not yet a teenager in the early-90s, owning a newly released Sega Mega Drive gaming system (known as Sega Genesis in the US), I literally witnessed the ESRB system take life. Genesis’ games were gorier than Nintendo’s. A title called Splatter House gave players control of a masked maniac who looked like Jason from Friday the 13th. Blood, gore and guts were ‘splattered’ — as the title promised — all over the place as he bludgeoned monsters. The violence was deemed ‘suitable’ for kids, because the characters on screen were made of blocky pixels.

Most immersive video games tend to be immaculately designed war games, where players spend a lot of time training their brains to strategise long-term objectives. At its most basic level, the argument is less about control and more about moral responsibility and maturity.

Things took a turn for the worse, however, in 1993 and 1994, with the release of Night Trap and Lethal Enforcers, two titles that Sega thought, at the time, would give them an edge in the console wars.

Night Trap was the first game in history that used full-motion video in an interactive gameplay format. In the game, a group of scantily clad young women were terrorised and held hostage by alien vampires, who looked like lecherous men and women.

Mortal Kombat’s photorealistic characters killing each other in gruesome finishing moves ignited a debate, bringing politicians into the fold
Mortal Kombat’s photorealistic characters killing each other in gruesome finishing moves ignited a debate, bringing politicians into the fold

In Lethal Enforcers, the player shot gangsters, hoodlums and terrorists who looked like real people. To make matters worse, Sega released the game with a game controller that looked like a badly-coloured plastic toy gun. The player would aim the gun at the television set, shooting villains as they popped up on screen.

However, it was the console release of Mortal Kombat — a fighting game with photorealistic characters killing each other in gruesome finishing moves and later adapted into a popular movie and its sequels — that really ignited the debate, bringing politicians into the fold. US Senators Joseph Lieberman and Herb Kohl held a Senate committee hearing that pushed video game companies into starting the ESRB.

Video games which, till that time, had a vague rating system were suddenly deemed too violent. Blood splatters in Mortal Kombat, for example, were cut out altogether in future releases, although one could still punch a man off a 50-foot platform as he plummeted down to a spike-filled pit. But to unlock full gore, one just had to enter a code at the start screen on the controller (I still remember the button and joypad combination, that unlocked a hidden option).

The code breaks and fatalities were publicised in most gaming magazines; back in the day, internet was still in its infancy, being almost non-existent in Pakistan. As children — some under 10 — we didn’t care much at the time. It wasn’t until 15 years later, when video games became the new normal, that I realised how radically things had changed.

About roughly 10 years ago, my three young cousins (one of them, younger than 10) were playing God of War — a violent hack and slash game — unsupervised, on their new Playstation 2. The game showed topless women and simulated sex. Obviously the parents didn’t know about — nor did they understand the necessity of child supervision when the children were playing video games.

A few years before that, a friend’s younger brother — another action game-junkie — had shot his father with a pellet gun in a fit of rage. His actions were instinctive, as I was later told, and his style mimicked that of a popular game character. Frustrated, it was the only thing he thought he knew to get out of an argument.

In the age of the internet, people have easy access to games. Pirated copies of videogames are available in game stores and DVD shops. Most simply download from torrent sites or game servers in a matter of hours.

In Fortnight, a currently trending third-person shooting game, players are dropped off on deserted islands where they have limited time to shoot and kill other players. Let that sink in for a second: the players are virtually killing other players, some of them, less than 15 years of age. It’s an immersive but emotionally damaging exercise that may look harmless on the surface.

And it’s not just a question about shooting someone in the head. Most immersive video games tend to be immaculately designed war games, where players spend a lot of time training their brains to strategise long-term objectives. At its most basic level, the argument is less about control and more about moral responsibility and maturity.

Clips from the Christchurch shooter’s livestream, up until he starts shooting, were shown unflinchingly across televised media in Pakistan. Most channels opted to first boost ratings, and then talk about the implications.

From what I surmise, the shooter and his cohorts were apathetic to how the day would turn out. Instead, they wanted to put on a show for like-minded alt-right radicals, hoping the way they pull off the massacre would stir up their main audience — immature youngsters on social media — into following suit.

After all, how different — or harder — is it from a video game?

Published in Dawn, ICON, March 24th, 2019