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Number of men I've kissed seriously: 0

May 18, 1999: countless screaming argonauts


It seems like Shakespeare started getting more popular in mainstream culture when Kenneth Branagh started making Shakespeare movies, but maybe that was just when I got to the age to notice how popular Shakespeare is, was, and always will be. One of the sad things about working in the computer game industry is that our work is so tied to an evolving medium that it ages very quickly. There's little reason to think that anything we create in our lifetime will be timeless. Then again, most of what we do isn't particularly deep art. We're making a lot more Die Hards than Othellos, at least if you judge us by the standards of non-interactive media.

The game industry just had its big convention, E3 ("E three" or "E cubed"), which is basically to hype the press and retail buyers about forthcoming products, typically those slated for this Christmas. This was particularly interesting timing, and there was a little more mainstream press coverage than normal.

Yesterday I read a pretty inane article in Salon Magazine about the game industry refusing to take seriously the idea that it may be partially to blame for the events in Littleton. Sure, maybe it's worth having reasoned discussion about. But the author of the Salon piece is either too busy trying to get out his spin, or else a moron. He dismisses several defensive statements from people in the game industry as non sequitors or worse:

...retrenching behind a carpet bomb of false dichotomies, non sequiturs and inapt reductio ad absurdums. Slashdot columnist Jon Katz, for example, seems to think raw numbers qualify as refutation, arguing: "Tens of millions of kids all over the world play computer games ... Yet violence among this group, never very high, again has been plummeting even as online use has mushroomed." Meanwhile, PC Gamer's deputy editor, Dan Morris, offers up a winningly bizarre counter-argument: "It's a safe bet that almost every person arrested for embezzlement last year had Quicken ... Just as we would never reasonably consider banning Quicken, we cannot reasonably consider banning Quake." (How do you say "argument which seems to get me off the hook" in Latin?)

What he's missing, of course, is that the business about Quicken is a statement about statistics and causality. Anyone going into a rational discussion involving statistics had better read How to Lie with Statistics, a book devoted to debunking misuse of statistics. The Quicken comment is essentially a paraphase from How to Lie. If we find that every criminal known to mankind had done thing X in the past, is thing X bad? What if thing X is 'drank milk'?

Of course, everyone drinks milk. If you investigate the statistics, you'll (presumably) find that drinking milk is not a predictor of criminal wrongdoing; there's no correlation. If 5% of the people who drank milk ended up in jail, but only 1% of the people who didn't--then we'd sit up and take notice.

The problem is that people who do bad things have an awful lot of history. Why does it matter that they listened to Marilyn Manson? If they were big fans of the Beatles, would there be a Beatlemania-backlash? Or perhaps the analogy would work better with someone less mainstream; say, Aimee Mann, whose second solo album's second word is 'fucked'! Goodness gracious! Those kids listened to Aimee Mann? What is the world coming to?

Obviously, the author of the Salon article is caught up in the notion that violent video games are relevent to killing lots of people in a way that listening to the Beatles (or using a checkbook-balancing program) is not. But that's an assumption. It's known as begging the question, since that's what he's setting out to prove in the first place. (For some of us, this whole incident flashes back to the D&D suicide media frenzy. But while D&D is violent, as I recall it wasn't that which got people, it was the whole idea that playing a roleplaying fantasy game sucked you into another world. Or maybe it was the appearance of devils and demons in the game. Maybe it was the violence. I don't remember anymore.)

If you want to go somewhere with his line of "reasoning", you need statistics on your side. And that's what game industry people argue. Millions of people have played Doom. A few of them have later gone and killed people. Is it a disproportionate number? Honestly, if the Columbine nuts are the first ones, it sounds Doomers are *less* likely to be killers.

But let's say, just for the sake of argument, that we were able to collect statistics, and the statistics said that people who had played Quake in the last year were 10x as likely to commit a violent crime.

That sounds pretty damning, doesn't it?

Factor in the fact that only a limited part of the population (young males) are very likely to play Quake, and that they in general commit a lot more violent crimes than everyone else, you'd suddenly wonder just how damning it was.

But, ok, suppose young males who'd played Quake in the last year were 2x as likely to commit a violent crime as young males who hadn't.

That sounds pretty damning, doesn't it?

The problem is that it's a correlation without causation. (So was the previous case, too.) Just because they commit more crimes doesn't mean that one caused the other.

That's pretty problematic, since the argument for reducing access to violent games is supposed to solve a problem: people are hoping it would reduce violent crime by these people.

But even if there were a statistical correlation, there'd be little reason to think it was causative. For example, people with a predisposition to violent crime might also be predisposed to like playing Quake. If you deprive them of Quake, they're not going to be any less predisposed to violent crime. There's a reason why scientific studies use control groups.

But there's little hope of collecting the sort of statistical evidence necessary to prove that violent video games cause problems, regardless of the truth of the matter. If the statistics showed no correlation, then it would pretty much disprove causation; but if it showed correlation, causation would still be open. (Until somebody did a massive scientific study which forced some people to play Quake and prevented others.)

So there's a chance that the statistics favor the industry people. Indeed, if anything, the anecdotal statistical evidence suggests there's no actual correlation, so no causation. Raw numbers could qualify as refutation, if you find the right ones. I'm not saying anyone's actually collected them yet, though.

On the other hand, there's little hope that if we got the real statistics they would provide any evidence of causation for the opposition. So they're in no hurry to find out the true statistics. Instead, they just offer guesses. They can argue that it's an "informed" guess, based on "common sense", that enacting violence in a video game may encourage you to do it in real life, but the opposite could as easily be true (that it lets you get out your aggressions), so it's still just a guess,

People in the media, though, have a responsibility to do a little bit more than just guess.

People in the game industry are surrounded by videogame violence daily. If they seem jaded to the issue, it doesn't necessarily mean that the violence means nothing to them. It may mean that they've thought through the problem years ago, dealt with it as best they can, and they've moved on.

People in the media, though, after a single incident of violence following billions of game-playing interactions, suddenly seem to think videogame violence is a problem. Just whose knee is jerking?

And if the people in the media have a responsibility to do a little bit more than just guess, you'd think they could bother investigating why videogames are so violent. When I was at that wedding last weekend, I mentioned to someone what industry I was in, and I was immediately teasingly attacked for being the source of all this evil. The conversation eventually turned to this issue: why are games so violent? From reading the media, I get the feeling a few reporters tried to ask this question, but I think they asked the wrong people. Does a key grip know why so many movies are violent?

Drama comes from conflict. There are a few kinds of conflict in movies. There's violent conflict (action movies, horror movies). There's interpersonal conflict (dramas, romances). There's even non-conflict (some comedies).

There are a few non-violent computer games, notably puzzle games like Tetris. Tetris is more like a crossword puzzle than a novel, though. You Don't Know Jack is essentially a TV game show translated to computer format. Most of what is left is violent conflict. That's because interpersonal conflict isn't technologically feasible in videogames. Computers can't do convincing simulation of people in all their glory. The depth needed for having people trying to get along but having trouble succeeding just isn't there--at least not yet. But we're fine for making monsters or sociopaths who just want to kill your virtual alter ego. So, for now, we don't have much choice but to make you play Rambo instead of Romeo.

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