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Video games aren’t breeding murderers (just hate-fueled bigots)

Another swastika. I’ve lost count of how many I’ve spotted adorning the playercards of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 gamers, but I report each and every one I see. Even after murdering countless virtual soldiers in wars of the past, present, and future, my lapsed Jewish blood still freezes over at the sight of the Nazi party’s symbol. Not that my formal complaints do any good. Give an asshole a public forum, and said asshole will dutifully march off to turn an otherwise peaceful arena into a bloody warzone of juvenile barbs and hateful bile. Oorah? 

I’m not here to talk about swastikas and the lingering cultural ties to that hated symbol that offend me. Not specifically, at any rate. I got to thinking last week as I edited Anthony Agnello’s recent look at the legal ramifications of lobbing threatening statements into social media spaces. You should go read that first before you go any further here.

Ant and I were chatting back and forth about his efforts to track down some of the Twitter users that lashed out at Treyarch studio director Dave Vonderhaar over the recent Black Ops 2 patch’s slight balance changes to various weapons. I wanted Ant to try to inject the piece with perspective from some of the offending troublemakers, in the hopes of defining their unrestrained hate in more coherent terms. Unsurprisingly, no one stepped up. The only promising interview candidate turned out to be just 14 years old, Anthony told me.

Hearing this made me very angry. I never really expected any of the anonymous asshats to own their words when I tasked Ant with tracking them down, but somehow the revelation that they wouldn’t do so pushed me into rage mode. While there are surely adult offenders as well, the idea of children threatening murder and wishing cancer on another human being whose only “offense” amounts to trying to make a more perfect video game puts me in a furious state. Still, I thought it was important to at least try to give a voice to the angry parties.

There is safety in the mob, and dickheaded tendencies are always going to surface in very clear ways.

I have this one friend on Xbox Live whom I’ve never met before, someone who came to play in my group after Call of Duty: World at War‘s matchmaking paired him off with another friend. He’s a younger fellow, but we’ve been gaming together for years. Not long after he started appearing in my chat parties, I heard him use the term “Jew” as the derogatory verb form for miserly. My response to that has always been one of gentle admonishment; this unmet friend’s utterances come more from a place of ignorance than of hate, and we’ve had some very frank, eye-opening dialogues over the years about prejudice and intolerance.

This friend of mine is a relatively rational person when you sit down and talk to him. He’s still somewhat ignorant, sure, but he’s a God-fearing, church-going young man who dreams of bringing better things to both himself and his family. And yet picked out from the masses in a largely anonymous Call of Duty lobby and judged purely on the basis of his younger self’s “Jew” remarks, he’s also justifiably categorized as “just another hater.” 

That’s part of the problem. There is safety in the mob, and dickheaded tendencies are always going to surface in very clear ways. There’s no way to effectively teach tolerance on a mass scale. This friend grew up in a relative bubble and was exposed to certain behaviors and speech patterns on Xbox Live that he seemingly came to mimic. That’s how everyone else was talking, so why shouldn’t he? He might not ever say these things with his headset off, but a video game’s multiplayer lobby is very much set apart from the social makeup of the day-to-day world.

There’s so much chatter in the media focused on the “violence in games” debate. “Video games are murder simulators,” the naysayers argue. “Sociopaths are what they are, but they are often predisposed toward violent media, in whatever form it takes,” we counter. Studies happen. More discussion follows. Eventually some other shiny bit of news catches the attention of the masses, and opposing sides retreat to await the next time the debate is revived.  

Call of Duty Swastikas

What I want to know is why this on-again/off-again discussion spends so much time looking at content, at the creative stuff that the developers coded to happen inside the game? Spend just 10 minutes in a Call of Duty multiplayer lobby, or Halo, or Battlefield, or any other shooter du jour, and you’ll quickly realize that the truly toxic environment is the one fostered in public game chat. Gamers are allowed to remain anonymous on Xbox Live or PlayStation Network just as they are on Twitter or Tumblr or any number of other social media outlets. That anonymity empowers the subset of asshole gamers to befoul yet another public forum. 

No amount of moderation is going to keep the swastikas off of playercards for good. No parental control is going to stop a truly committed 12-year-old with a head full of ignorance and hate from finding a safely anonymous way to offend a group. Isn’t that the bigger problem? Horrific events like the Newtown shootings aren’t common, and they are often verifiably not directly connected to games (if they are at all). And yet every day, scores of gamers are victimized by public attacks directed at their race, creed, or sexual orientation. 

It strikes me as profoundly alarming that violent content is a more discussion-worthy topic than the bully culture that reigns in multiplayer lobbies and in-game chats. In truth, we are so used to disgusting behavior from our fellow gamers that more thick-skinned among us tend to just point and laugh. “Trolls be trollin’,” we glibly remark, before muting the offending speaker and moving on with our gaming.

This isn’t a problem that we can safely mute anymore.”

This isn’t a problem that we can safely mute anymore. The video gaming haters of the Internet feel empowered, and rightfully so. It’s not like some game publisher is going to try to get one of its customers thrown in jail, no matter how awful their behavior might be. Maybe they should though. Would it be such a terrible thing if a multi-billion dollar company like Activision stepped up and said, “Your disgusting behavior is not welcome in our games, and we are going to take every step to ensure that you behave.” Would the sales of a best-selling franchise like Call of Duty really take a hit if real effort went into fostering a friendlier playing space?

The only plan of action that I’m suggesting here is more discussion, but on different course than the conversation typically follows. A new perspective never hurts. After chatting with Anthony about his feature, with thoughts of the “violence in gaming” debate buzzing in my head all the while, I can’t help but think that we’re doing this wrong. Violence-fueled entertainment is an inescapable fact of life, and that’s been the case since long before Call of Duty, long before even the great William Shakespeare spilled his bloodbath across the pages of Macbeth

So let’s talk. Violent content in video games is no different from violent content in movies, in TV, in music, in comics, in any other form of media. Games don’t train our children to be murderers; they train them to be assholes. Shouldn’t we be working a little harder to address that?

Top image courtesy of Alexander Mak/Shutterstock

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