Since the inception of the first desktop computer games, which often depicted some form of crude violence, there has been concern about the effect these games have on children. Around 1981 I wrote an editorial for Infoworld suggesting that the societal impact of computer games might be hidden.
My theory then was that the games are designed so that the player always loses and has to play over and over to ever hope to win the game (which few people manage). This resulted in the games turning children into natural losers who had to always accept defeat. As far as I know this potential sociology has never been studied. Do we have a generation of defeatists in front of us? You can’t be sure. In the meantime, other consequences are also unfolding.
This element of defeatism has remained with the newer games. The two things that changed over the years is the level of graphic realism and the sophistication of the games insofar as "simulations" are concerned.
Simulations are a well known way of teaching and many of these games are elaborate teaching machines. But just because you play Grand Theft Auto and the simulation aspect of the game means that perhaps you've learned how to hijack a car and pick up a prostitute doesn't mean you'll do it in real life. I jokingly tell people that by allowing my children to play Grand Theft Auto doesn't mean they'll become car thieves, but if they do, they should be pretty good at it.
Nobody seems to be studying any of these behaviors. Academia should be jumping all over this, but we see nothing to help us better understand any of it. Or are they keeping it a secret?
It seems that with computer games overtaking Hollywood for entertainment dollars that you might just think that somebody would be curious as to the societal and psychological effect these games have on the players and on society. It's even possible that the more violent games have a sublimation effect or a calming effect on the player. Can we find out?
We don't know anything. So what happens with the next generation of super realistic games?
The trend is clear. With newer graphics subsystems the games are going to become more and more like interactive movies with creatures and characters that will appear lifelike. It’s near photo-realistic with some games now. Will this change the impact of the games?
In 1980 you could always argue that the graphics were so cartoon-like that any violence was nothing more than the modern equivalent of Bugs Bunny getting flattened by a steamroller. The violence of old Loony Tunes cartoons far exceeded anything else in society that was directed towards children.
The Roadrunner cartoons were a perfect example. All this is parodied by the Simpsons TV show as it portrays a kid's cartoon show called Itchy and Scratchy. In this gruesome cartoon a mouse is finding various ways to horrifically disembowel a cat at every turn as the children giggle over the consequences. This is not much different than what was found in the first so-called violent computer games.
But you have to wonder that as the crude Itchy and Scratchy scenes are just tolerable as cartoons, what would they be like in super-realism? Seeing a cat disemboweled? It would be difficult to watch. Yet that's the direction of today's computer games.
Because we haven't moved from cartoon to super-realism in one jump, the change is not so apparent. The change from cartoon violence to realistic violence has been gradual. The children have been brought from one to the other in slow motion.
What effect does the realism have? I was watching a common game archetype game, you've seen it plenty of times. The hero had to fight his way through various minions and monsters ending up confronted by the typical uber-monster found at the end of any given level. This monster would give anyone nightmares. It was some sort of slimy worm-like creature with a double mouth and teeth going every which way. How this thing would even exist in any form of reality was a mystery. But there it was.
It was sickening. Of course, nothing could kill it except constant pummeling with all sorts of super weapons. Once this thing was killed then the hero could go to the next level to find some other sickening monster to defeat. At what point do children begin to find these horrid unnatural creatures roaming around in their dreams as if they existed? Does anyone see a problem here?
I'm not convinced that any of these games make kids violent, but you must wonder if the opposite is true. Children scared witless could become fearful pacifists for all you know. My concern is for the mental health of the game players after years of being subjected to visual images that are just plain disturbing. -- jcd
Revised for substack Dec. 22, 2020