Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Bully: When Does a Video Game Cross a Line?

Ever since video games became more than just two dots on a screen that you paddle back and forth, people have cried out that they're too violent, send the wrong message, or make kids lazy. The last two points are debatable, but game-makers will have to plead no contest to the violence factor, which is rampant in many of the most popular games today. But at what point does a game go too far?

Reports flooding the 'net claim that a group of teachers acround the world are requesting that a new video game, called Bully: Scholarship Edition, be banned from stores. According to the Globe & Mail, the game includes all of the teen angst and self-confidence issues that are often found in the high school scene, complete with fights (including shoved heads in toilets!), naked photos for laughs, and the like.

Let me start by saying that I've seen (or heard of ) some pretty violent video games involving everything from chain-sawed killings, to ripping someone's insides out, biting off heads, and even picking up prostitutes and stealing cars. When it comes to teens and pre-teens, I've always felt that, as long as they understand the difference between fiction and reality, these games are simply for the purpose of having "fun", enjoying comraderie, and perfecting hand/eye co-ordination. But when a game involves realistic situations tailored to a young crowd (the game is rated Teen for those 13 and up), a red flag goes up in even my typically open-minded head.

What's more, the game is apparently a sequel to the already-available Bully, which also caused a stir when it was released a few years ago, although it still managed to make its way to store shelves.

It's very unlikely that a kid will find himself in a lone dungeon with some weird creatures dressed in metal, so separating that fiction from reality should be a fairly easy task for any sane-minded kid. And being a gangster that pulls people out of cars and has random shooting sprees on the streets is pretty far-fetched as well (again, for any sane kid). I don't believe that participating in games like this will affect a child's mindset in the slightest. But when you're looking at a real world environment that's just like his, especially if the kid playing the game is typically on the receiving end of such bullying in real life, it's a bit disturbing. The issue, I think, isn't so much the violence as it is the probable ability to relate to these sensitive situations.

I won't make a judgement call on the issue without having actually seen the game (which the publisher, Vancouver-based Rockstar Games, claims is "one of the funniest games you will play.") Perhaps it isn't as bad as people think. But all I can think when I read things like this is thank God for good ol' Super Mario and clean, fun (and G-rated!) games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero.


Anonymous said...

We've all read that playing video games increases eye-to-hand coordination.
We also know that visualizing violence, whether in video games or TV and movies, raises aggression and has a negative effect on the brain.

Would you drink a glass of water if it had just one drop of poison? Why not? Water's good for you?

Unless you plan to become a surgeon, what are you going to do with that slim chance of increased eye-to-hand coordination while poisoning your brain?

Please folks, let's not justify a a wanton disregard for life as a reason to poison our childrens minds.

Haven't we had enough shootings in schools? There's so much evidence that violence raises agression such as:

Peter from Montreal

Marketnews - Christine Persaud said...

Hi Peter

Thanks for the comments, but it looks like we'll have to agree to disagree. There has been NO conclusive evidence that seeing violent acts causes one to act in the same manner (violence and agression are one in the same). In fact, it can be argued (and many studies have found) quite the opposite: that for those predisposed toward violence, seeing it on TV or in a video game can actually serve as a thereupetic outlet. Sort of in the same way that someone might use a punching bag or go for a run to blow off steam when he's angry.

As for hand-to-eye co-ordination, this isn't a "slim chance" but rather a fact: any activity that requires mental stimulation, quick reflex actions, and intense concentration and movement will help to develop hand-to-eye co-ordination.

Your analogy of a glass of water with a drop of poison doesn't really fit. I'm not arguing that video games are fantastic for kids. I'm arguing that they aren't so horribly bad like so many people think. To say a video game can "poison" someone's mind is a far stretch. You might as well say that wrestling, sports, or even reality TV can poison someone as well!

As for school shootings and violence, I think the problems with those kids go way beyond their love for violent video games. You can't possibly tell me that a mentally stable child who starts playing video games will become completely corrupt. There has to be a predisposition toward these things, along with a slew of other contributing factors. This is, I guess, central to the nature vs. nurture debate.

Anyway, I appreciate your feedback, and I'm sure there are many out there who agree with you. I can tell you that I tried my hand at some mildly violent video games when I was a teen, and I am certainly far from being a violent person myself!


Anonymous said...

I'm not saying that playing video games automatically turns you into Ted Bundy. But unfortunately violence desensitizes a person and there are some who cannot differentiate between reality and the virtual world.

The fact that the army uses video games to train soldiers proves that playing "killing" games train you to become a better killer.

Same as pornography - there are some who watch it and it has no effect on them whereas for some just seeing it online isn't enough anymore and go out and get their fix whether the "receiver" is willing or not.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not anti-game and I think it's great that Wii is getting people of all ages off their couch.

When does a video game cross the line?
When it affects your heart and mind in a negative manner.

What can we do about it?
Legislation won't help if people aren't willing to exercise self control.

Peter from Montreal

Richard MacDonald said...

As someone who actually works on training software for the military, I feel the need to correct Peter from Montreal.

To say that these games are "killing" games used to train someone to become a better killer is quite disrespectful, quite frankly, to everyone who works on things to help in training the soldiers so that they can come back home safely.

In the product that I have worked on specifically, the software is meant to teach safe movement techniques and rules of engagement for small teams in hostile situations. There is a point-based system in place, but the soldiers actually lose points for each casualty, including the casualties of enemy soldiers.

The goal in each situation is to move through the environment as a team, opening doors and moving into new rooms properly so as to minimize danger to yourself and your other squad mates, taking down enemies in a non-lethal manner if at all possible, and rescuing all civilians caught in between.

There are some other software products, target shooting and such, that do focus on the proper use of a gun to kill enemies. That is because, unfortunately, war is a very deadly thing and a soldier must be prepared to kill. Sometimes that is the only way to keep himself safe.

In most cases, these types of products are not terribly similar to the kinds of games people play at home. A product used to train a soldier to shoot uses a real gun modified with electronic equipment to interact with the software. It is big, heavy, and has all the functionality that its real, unmodified cousin has. It even has clips that must be ejected and loaded. It can become jammed if handled improperly, even.

They use these types of products because some of them, such as the product I worked on, can replicate things that can't otherwise be reproduced. Other products, such as the shooting gallery products, are used because it is much cheaper to shoot lazers at a screen than it is to shoot real bullets at targets. And you can't shoot real bullets at human targets that move and react, something that can be done in virtual space.

I have been playing video games from a very young age, now. For 22 years, I have played everything from Super Mario Bros. to Gears of War. I have played many games in an arcade that use a realistically-shaped gun controller and require you to shoot on-screen enemies. I'm quite good at them.

I have also tried the target-practice software products used by the military. I'm absolutely terrible at them. Even pointing and pulling the trigger, the only thing these and the arcade games have in common, is vastly more difficult when the gun you're carrying is real or at least used to be real.

As for violence in games affecting real-life behavior, there has never been a conclusive study one way or the other on the long-term effects of violence in media on the mind. All studies done have been short-term, have used small sample sizes that often don't even represent a wide-enough variety of people to be useful and never take into account other factors that can weigh-in on the person's reaction at the time. There are just too many unaccounted-for variables. The problem with psychology studies is that humans make terrible control groups.

A competitive game can raise aggression during the game. It doesn't matter if it's Call of Duty, Mario Kart, or a real game of basketball out on the court. In my experience, however, this aggression goes away once the game is over. In fact, I usually feel more relaxed afterwards.

I have played more games than I can remember, including the absolute most violent games available. I would not consider myself a violent person, however. I don't want to hurt anyone. I don't even like fighting, and in high school I never threw a punch, even in retaliation. I can watch people being cut in half or decapitated in a movie or video game without blinking, but I am disturbed and sickened by videos of real world violence, even when it is actually far less violent than what is shown in the movie or game.

So to say that video games alone can desensitize someone to real world violence seems incorrect to me. I'm an example of how that simply isn't true.

To blame video games for a school shooting is like blaming Son of Sam's dog for telling him to kill those people. The dog probably didn't make him crazy.

Anonymous said...

Not important at all, but I just thought I'd point out that Scholarship Edition is actually a remake of the original Bully game, not a sequel. It has all the same content as the original, with a few added classes to go to, such as math.