Political Animal


December 17, 2012 1:40 PM A Morally Serious Videogame about Guns and Violence

By Ryan Cooper

After mass shootings inevitably someone will suggest that violent videogames had something to do with it. This time it was Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper who obliged in a interview with CNN’s Candy Crowley, while in the same interview he dodged a question on gun control (a position memorably skewered by George Carlin). Yesterday in this space my colleague Sam Knight looked at the evidence, finding that violent crime has fallen even as videogame sales have spiked, while social science has found no link between violent games and violent behavior.

Sam’s point is well-taken, but as a fan of videogames generally I confess to being a bit disturbed sometimes by the direction things have been going in the “realistic” shooter genre—games like Call of Duty, Battlefield, Medal of Honor, etc. The jingoism, the glorification of violence and high-tech military hardware, and of course the slaughter of umpteen zillion brown people all make for a rather nauseating experience for those prone to introspection.

A recent game called Spec Ops: The Line totally upended those conventions, working within the genre itself to criticize it far better than a battalion of Hickenloopers ever could. Here’s a trailer (mildly NSFW):

But like any great art, Spec Ops is far deeper than any intra-genre dispute (which is why Brendan Keogh was able to write a thoroughly excellent 50k word “critical reading” on the title). Among many other things, it is a profoundly disturbing look at how violence is carried out in the name of the American state today. I took a look at how here in detail (massive spoilers), but suffice to say that war games do not necessarily glorify their subject.

This is why it’s so grating when people like Hickenlooper (or, for that matter, Roger Ebert) reach for the same tired bucket of cliches when talking about violence and videogames. They just don’t get it, and moreover don’t seem much interested in trying.

Today much of America’s fighting is done by remote-controlled drone, executed by people at computer screens halfway around the world— a trend which is only likely to increase. It’s perhaps not surprising that a videogame would have the most profound exploration yet of both that strange, remote violence and the popular disconnection from it.

UPDATE: Alyssa Rosenberg has some good thoughts on this subject as well.


Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


  • c u n d gulag on December 17, 2012 3:27 PM:

    If, as they say, you become what you play, was true, I'm sure I'd know at least some childhood friends who became cops and/or robbers, and cowboys and/or Indians - though, I think the latter is something you're born as, and not become. But Hollywood might argue that last point with, "Dances With Wolves," and "A Man Called Horse."

    And who knows, maybe by getting your 'murder' rocks off in your Mom's basement by shooting video hookers, might actually be saving some real ones.

  • DJ on December 17, 2012 3:35 PM:

    Ebert's post sparked quite an interesting discussion about its premise: whether a video game could be art. It didn't deserve to be lumped with Hickenlooper's tired screed about violence and video games; perhaps Ebert's work was above Cooper's reading grade level.

  • Gorobei on December 17, 2012 4:10 PM:

    I posted a late response today to yesterday's article.


    Curiously, games where the player uses laser swords or plasma rifles or magic to commit acts of outrageous violence has not been linked to an increase in real life attacks using those weapons.

    So is it then the lack of access to the tools used in the game that prevents these attacks?

    Yes this analogy is absurd. As is the suggested link between violence in a video game and violence in real life. Playing a cat in a video game does not make me more inclined to groom myself using my tongue.

    The common link is people. People, as animals, harbor aggression. The ways in which people are trained to view this impulse to aggression through parenting and social acceptance in the real world is the issue. As aggression becomes increasingly marginal as accepted activity in daily life, it needs to have an outlet in an arena where it controlled. Arguably sports and fantasy are two such arenas.

    Implied violence is at the very core of our hierarchical society. If you don't comply with the will of your betters your life will be threatened in one way or another, starting with the loss of your means of living (income) or being banned from living in a particular place (sex offenders) and ranging to the explicit expression of violently being beaten or maced by riot police to being incarcerated for protesting a policy that you don't agree with.

    I am not a proponent of the old NRA saw that "Guns don't kill people, people kill people." Not least because it is incomplete in that "and people with high powered guns with high capacity magazines kill lots and lots of people."

    But the idea that we can ban our way to safety by attacking our cultural output, when that output is merely a reflection of our collective national conscience / id, seems to treat a symptom rather than to offer a cure.

  • Eric Carrig on December 17, 2012 4:26 PM:

    Let's solve it. Submit viable strategies that reduce the odds of massacres like Sandy Hook at www.at10us.com -- Pick Rights/Justice, then Access to Guns. Then enter your solution ... We will hold a vote and publicize the winning solution(s). We can demand a strategy, or we can wait for government and the media to have a "conversation."

  • square1 on December 17, 2012 5:59 PM:

    Good lord, Ryan Cooper is doubling down on the nonsensical Hickenlooper bashing?

    Anyone who thinks that the thought processes of the delusional and violent mentally ill cannot be made worse by spending 30-40 hours a week playing 1st-person shooters is seriously in denial. This is all that Hickenlooper was raising as an issue.

    And, no, I dont think that the Call of Duty series will make ordinary people into violent criminals.

  • Ron Byers on December 17, 2012 6:16 PM:

    I can't help but think we are not facing the real problem. Our society is producing lots and lots of really scary people. I just read that 6 of the top 12 shooting incidents of this type in American history have happened since 2007. Most of the shooters were young single men. I want to know more about those guys and what could have been done to identify and stop them.

  • Quaker in a Basement on December 17, 2012 8:19 PM:

    We liberals are quick to yell when a Republican politician uses violent language or a conservative website puts someone's name "in the crosshairs." These sins supposedly might incite the deranged to act out in violent ways.

    But then we're equally quick to run to the defense of violent video games?

    If we're going to get in a twist over Sarah Palin asking Republicans to "reload" or "take aim" against Democrats, then we can't also pretend that games like these have no effect whatever.

  • PB on December 17, 2012 9:56 PM:

    I watched some scenes from the game and felt disturbed, and not anxious to see more. Will people buy the product and play war, when it's too real, and not just a glorious game?

  • Tom Bisson on December 18, 2012 10:42 AM:

    Thanks for your perspective. Yesterday I posted a comment about how I see video games often contributing of a culture of violence (not necessarily the cause). I think your distinction about how games treat violence is important. Does it glorify violence? Does it promote racism or jingoism? Those are important to know.

  • Ashley on December 18, 2012 5:41 PM:

    Too many parents are using video-games as a baby-sitting tool to sit their kid on to 'play', or they give kids games not meant for their age. But Look at the behaviors from people from WoW and LoL. The communities are so heinous that PHD psychologist were hired to monitor players on LoL interactions with each-other on the games. And WoW had a problem of violent, nasty male players going off and stabbing someone saying quote

    "WoW is not a game it's my life"


    The common attitude was that these players had nasty attitudes and disregard for one-another or others while PLAYING the games or because of the games. So much that one fellow was suspended/banned for an entire year from a LoL tournament because of his aggressive attitude.


    It's time parents stop allowing their own to dwell and "live" inside the game-world so much, ESPECIALLY if they have anger-issues or other mental health issues. The sad part is there's probably plenty of gamers with mental-health issues who are just having their bad habits fed because the game-plug isn't pulled.

    Obviously there is a problem that extends far beyond gaming. But are the mentally in-stable are more likely to be influenced by the games they play if they stick around for hours playing violent games? A very real possibility they can.

    These games are becoming much too realistic and dependent on violence and guns. The first GTA game is a cartoony and unrealistic joke compared to all the recent games out int he market now. And it's an attitude often embraced and excused by both gamers and game-companies. The acts of realistic violence and embracement of gun-culture in games.