Rant - For the last time: Violent videogames don't kill people…

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People kill people.

Like the 17-year-old British kid who lured his 14-year-old pal to a public park with the promise of hooking up with some girls. Instead, he battered his friend with a clawhook hammer and then finished him with a knife. A horrible, senseless, brutal murder.

By all accounts, the teenager was obsessed with Rockstar's Manhunt, a brutal murder simulator where the object is to win your freedom by killing people who are paid to hunt you. You get a higher rating for using unusual weapons and stealth tactics, all the while a "director" is videotaping you and egging you on.

I'm actually playing the game now, and it's not all that great. It's certainly not as stealthy or immersive as a Splinter Cell or nearly as fun or engaging as a Grand Theft Auto. And the violence is, well, it's just kind of disgusting. The game is cartoonish and not at all well written. I probably won't even finish it. But I'd fight for Rockstar's right to create such a game.

And, quite frankly, I'm one of the most nonviolent people you'll find. For years, I avoided Doom because the idea of shooting someone didn't really appeal to me. Then I learned how stress-relieving it could be to blow away a few zombies, imps and mancubi now and then, particularly after a bad day at work. Playing it didn't make me want to pick up a gun. I still waive my constitutional right to "bear arms and arm bears," as Robin Williams says. Shooter games remain a fun escape, a way to vent off steam and -- dare I say -- relax.

I won't make the obvious argument -- that the boy was too young to play Manhunt. The game was rated 18 and up, and he was 17. He's practically old enough, and who hasn't snuck into an R-rated movie by the time they were pushing up against the age limit? Unless this kid has been playing games like this for many years, one violent videogame all by its lonesome is not enough to unleash someone's inner sociopath. But he was still too young to play it alone, without some measure of supervision.

I'd ask the question no one seems to have asked yet: Where were the parents? Surely there were warning signs. Did this kid abuse animals? Did he get into a lot of fights? Did he show a surprising lack of empathy for others? Heck, just being obsessed with a crappy game like Manhunt is a warning sign! There were, no doubt, other symptoms of antisocial behavior. You don't just flip a switch, or push a controller button, and become a murderer. It's an easy answer, one that's a lot less confrontational than, say, blaming other people in the kid's life.

Art imitates life imitating art
Art has always been in the spotlight for its role in violence. Before videogames like Grand Theft Auto (which, by the way, did not invent the concept of carjacking or even popularize it) and Doom, the media picked on movies like The Manchurian Candidate (one of JFK's favorite movies, ironically), Taxi Driver and The Basketball Diaries as well as books like The Lord of the Flies and Catcher in the Rye.

Art -- even bad art, like Manhunt -- is a mirror of society. It doesn't come from a black hole or an evil muse over in the 47th Dimension. It's inspired by what we see all around us. It may be stylized, or a parody, or an over-the-top depiction of things that are probably not an everyday occurrence for most people. But it's still part of who we are as a global society. Drop a bomb in Iraq, and you may not feel the direct impact in Omaha. But a developer may create a videogame that reflects that experience, and it won't be long before some kid in Nebraska is touched by it -- for better or for worse.

Truth be told, the premise of Manhunt is inspired by a 1932 movie called The Most Dangerous Game, which itself was adapted from a short story by Richard Connell about hunting people for sport. Most of my generation read this story in high school -- before we were 18. And I bet at least a few of my classmates skipped the words in favor of a videotape.

There's no argument that, for some people, playing violent videogames or watching bloody movies can have a damaging effect -- just like some people can drink like a fish with no ill effects while for others a drop of alcohol sends them down a self-destructive path that may not end until it claims a life or two. Perhaps these people are not mature enough to handle the rough stuff -- especially if they were exposed to it at a young age, before they've solidified their value system. Or they've suffered some severe trauma or abuse that already made the world seem phony and fake. Either way, the lines between fiction and reality blur together.

Can brutal games have a negative impact? For sure. I'm not arguing that these mass media gorefests won't desensitize us or plant nasty little ideas that weren't there before. They often suggest styles and mannerisms for those who don't have enough the creativity and individualism to develop their own. Trenchcoat mafia, anyone? But what's worse: a videogame that depicts the horrors of war accurately or a Star Wars movie that shows a massive battle with no casualties?

Choose life, and just say no
People these days want sound bite answers. They want someone or something (usually the TV) to babysit their kids for free (or the cost of electricity) so they can be free to do other things. But these problems are never that easy to fix. Outlaw something, and it just becomes that much more attractive. Remove one element like a videogame and the underlying problems remain unchecked, waiting to be triggered by something else. Consider the British kid's obsession with Manhunt an early warning sign. On some level, Rockstar's game helped reveal the problem early but, alas, the portent went unheeded. And now people are jumping to blame the messenger.

This is where good parenting makes all the difference. A grownup can put imaginary things in context by explaining the difference between fiction and the real world. This is why you're not supposed to just drop your underage teenagers off at an R-rated movie and then go shopping until it lets out (as I've observed so many times). You need to be there, in the room, to view and then explain the things that may confuse your kids or cause them to adopt a skewed world view. Over time, such warping can become permanent. Sure, it may be a little embarrassing to watch a few naughty bits next to your sweet 16-year-old, but they're going to see them anyway. Better that you're there to help shape their moral choices when they first bump up against them.

The icepick did it
This problem requires a more thoughtful solution than simply banning a videogame. Or a movie. Or a book. People have been killing other people for thousands of years. Murder itself is nothing new.

Leopold and Loeb didn't get the idea to become killers by watching Alfred Hitchcock's Rope or Sharon Stone wielding an ice pick in Basic Instinct. Attila the Hun didn't learn battle maneuvers from Age of Empires and Full Spectrum Warrior. Jack the Ripper didn't train on a diet of Doom, Resident Evil and Operation, the wacky doctor's game.

It doesn't mean they wouldn't have liked them. Just that they didn't need them to become what they were. And neither do our kids.

Consider yourself warned.


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