Studying the violent games we play

Could being bad be good for us?

December 02, 2003|By John Jurgensen | John Jurgensen,HARTFORD COURANT

The digital orgy of drugs, guns and 1986 neon that is "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" hit the computer-game market more than a year ago, but apparently U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman is still fired up about it. "It's awful," he said, according to press reports of a South Carolina campaign last month. "If you saw it, you'd be disgusted and outraged."

Maybe Lieberman had gotten wind that Vice City, one of the most popular games in history, had just become available to a bigger audience via a new version for Xbox machines. Or maybe he was revving up for the game maker's most recent release, Manhunt, in which a loosed death-row inmate must murder gangs of masked thugs. More likely, Lieberman was just reminding potential constituents that his crusade continues to keep such raw material out of the hands of kids.

But what - a shrill voice might be heard to shriek - about the grown-ups? Why would rational, socially adjusted, lawful citizens of a voting age harbor a desire to jack motorcycles, pick up hookers, build a cocaine empire and blast creeps with a rocket launcher?

Well, if it's a free - and virtual - country, why not?

As the holiday season arrives, good behavior is in order, but many of the toys and games adults present each other and themselves will undoubtedly reward the opposite.

Gerard Jones has done some thinking about why this is so. He wrote a book called Killing Monsters, which offers a theory that Lieberman might take issue with: Violent games offer kids fantasy worlds that help them develop. The same could be said for adults, Jones says, when it comes to diversions that play on their depraved, greedy, malevolent, perverted or socially offensive tendencies, no matter how deeply buried they may be.

"We kind of lose track of how much effort we put into behaving well on a daily basis. The cars you don't cut off. The people you don't snap at. It's a lot of work to keep your mouth shut," Jones says from his home in San Francisco. "As the world grows more complex and there's more emphasis on modulating our behavior ... there's a frustrated desire to pop off with the politically incorrect, the rude, the offensive. Some people seem content to behave well even in their fantasy life, but a lot of us need to blow off steam."

Such outlets have always been available in novelty form on the shelves of, say, Spencers Gifts stores. "Another Notch in the Bedpost," "Dirty Minds" and "Pass-Out," just to name a few.

But modern riffs on amoral amusement have been creeping into less predictable parts of the mall. Although Urban Outfitters may have purged its stores of "Ghettopoly" earlier this fall, the board game that dragged "Monopoly" into an abyss of inner-city stereotypes was not alone on the shelves. For $12, there's the card game "Weed" that lets players compete to grow dope.

Such party games are "protected by the First Amendment, but I certainly don't think they do us any good. They don't bring out the best in us," said David Walsh, the head of the National Institute on Media and the Family, an organization that rates video games and movies on how appropriate they may or may not be for impressionable young consumers.

Walsh's group focuses on electronic media for good reason: It's the genre in which technology helps to build a fantasy world where taboos can be broken most dramatically.

However, even in those fantasy worlds that weren't designed to reward bad behavior, some players bring their own to the table. For example, in The Sims Online, a virtual society that accommodates hundreds of thousands of players, cooperation makes for good strategy.

But a minority of mischief-makers roves the dollhouse neighborhoods of "The Sims," harassing other players and tearing down their characters. The game's administrators crack down on these "griefers" from above, but eventually players themselves developed their own virtual vigilante organizations to mete out punishment.

Video-game researcher Gonzalo Frasca calls these fantasy worlds a "sandbox" of experimental human behavior. "We know that we won't hit 200 mph in our car, but that potential haunts us. It's important for people to explore these experiences."

Recently, Frasca created a game called September 12th, in which the player is hunting terrorists in a Middle Eastern town. But it's impossible to kill the terrorists without collateral damage. As civilians get wounded and die, the characters that mourn them become terrorists as well.

The game can't be won.

So much for good or bad behavior. Frasca said he was going for a game that doubled as a political cartoon.

"Can we use games for understanding these kind of political events? I think we can," Frasca said. "It may become a tool."

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