What’s Really Wrong With Video Games

Violence in video games is often decried as the cause of violence in real life – perhaps it is. I haven’t the resources to investigate that fully.

I do play video games pretty often, and I can say that while I’ve never felt violent urges after playing a video game, I did free climb the stone wall of an ancient temple in the Middle East just like in Uncharted 3. Also just like in Uncharted 3, I was caught by angry guards with AKMs, although unlike the game, they (luckily) did not shoot at me. I cannot confirm rumors of a new game called Uncharted 4: Tuohy’s Fortune, but I can say that it would be pretty awesome.

Climbing this wall was *way* harder than repeatedly pressing X while holding the left thumbstick forward.

I am, however, of the opinion that there is a pervasive message in many video games that is having a negative effect on those who play them. Simply put, this message is that the player is special.

I’ve lost track of the number of times that a narrator or NPC (non-player character) in a video game has told my character (me) that I am special, unique, gifted – “the one” – the only person who can solve some massive problem or defeat some great evil threatening the universe. Now, maybe these are just the types of games that I seek. But more often than not the message, whether overt or covert, is there.

Someone who does not have a whole lot of life experience, or someone who knowingly chooses to avoid real life in order to play games, must finally meet the harsh reality that they are in fact not special. Perhaps it is for this reason that they continue to play rather than to go outside and talk to people of the opposite sex.

The real world is scary. Cats with Hitler mustaches watch you from trees.

But the crushing realization that they are just another person in a world of billions – not special, not very unique, etc. – must bring with it a lot of pain to some. Some may deal with it just fine, and some may not. I don’t think it’s a positive message. Sure, it’s nice to be Master Chief or a Jedi (note: I am actually a Jedi) or a Spectre or an SAS/Ranger/SEAL/Delta Überkommando, but there is a difference between imagining that and remembering that you’re actually working part time at 7/11.

+10 Charisma from this bottle? I don’t think so.

Now, at the risk of sounding like some crusty old salt gamer, I miss video games that really made you think. Games in which you didn’t just follow a linear path, pushing the right buttons at approximately the right time, finally being rewarded with a cutscene extolling your virtues.  Stuff like the original Rainbow 6, which required you (or at least strongly suggested you) to plan the entire mission before you stepped off. Or, as a friend pointed out, Operation Flashpoint, which was rather open-world in its approach to the combat genre, without the ridiculousness of the Battlefield series. But even when I felt like I was truly involved in the game, it was never more than a game to me.

This girl went on a few dates with me until she found out that I wasn’t as good at Call of Duty as I said I was.

Since there will never be a real call for me to defend the frontier against Xur and the Kodan Armada, I actually chuckle at how much praise is lavished upon some player characters. To me, video games are a source of entertainment, something to enjoy with friends – not an alternate reality in which I lose myself. And we don’t really confuse the two, although it was pretty funny when my friend texted me a line from Borderlands – “Critical, biatch” – in response to my informing him that I had been severely injured (in real life).

So it’s my opinion that what is truly “dangerous” about video games is that they convince the gamer that they are better than they really are. In the absence of any other input on a person’s intelligence, fitness, or character, this may have a severely detrimental effect on that person’s view of the world, and their ability to function in it.


42 thoughts on “What’s Really Wrong With Video Games”

  1. Thanks for the article. Interesting viewpoint on it – a better one, I might add than just a surface scratching about what people supposedly get from video games. Well done.

    1. I agree, its ridiculous. My wife and I were actually just talking about this too, if our daughter wants to play sports it wont be one of those “everyone’s a winner” teams.

  2. I guess the problem is that, being someone that plays a lot of video games, and doesn’t spends a lot of time chatting up girls, I still know that when a character in a game tells me I’m special, I know they are talking to player character not me. In the same way that I know if I got shot my vision wouldn’t go red, but then my wound would disappear if I hid behind a wall.

    I watched the matrix and didn’t think I could fly after it had finished, is there any difference in playing a game?
    The main issue is the person consuming the media, not the medium of the entertainment.

    Sort of like something I’ve been hearing recently… Video games don’t kill people, people with murderous intent do…

    on a related note, you might find this article interesting


    in a what the other side thinking kind of a way

    I also recommend the extremely violent video game hotline miami 😀

  3. We’ve always had people who blame entertainment & culture for bad influences. Books were evil. Music was the devil. Dancing was a prelude to premarital sex. Video games make people kill stuff dead. 😉

    Read almost any book of historical importance and you’ll find it full of violence. I do not think video games are any more dangerous than that. People argue that it prepares you for certain actions, but in my experience it’s more a release valve for all kinds of frustrations than it is something that prepares you for the unthinkable.

    There will always be nutjobs that find inspiration in video games, books, movies, and so on. While a certain media might inspire such crazy people, I don’t think it’s fair to blame the media for it.

    This does not always need to be violent, obviously. I believe it was a russian kid who jumped off his appartment block with a feather in hand, believing he’s gently float to the ground just like his character did in World of Warcraft. Can you blame WoW for a kid being unable to distinguish game from reality? Unless you’re already in a state of mind that allows for such actions, you’d never be influenced by said game.

  4. I love your point about the protagonist commonly being portrayed as special. I have noticed that my self in games, because it bugs me. Kind of like how Smoky the Bear says it’s all on me to prevent forest fires. I don’t possess magic firefighting powers. I’m just a human like every one else. It’s time that we get together as a species because we have much greater threats than our selves. The problem isn’t guns or video games. It’s humanity in it’s entirety. We invest to much energy in hate. We need to learn to live together as our population increases exponentially for survival’s sake.

  5. This is exactly what I thought when I started playing far cry 3. The character is some random college kid from CA, who is chosen by some mystical liberian ex-marine who gives him a magic tribal tatoo, a gun, and tells him to go off and save his friends. By collecting different color leaves.

    Also, Uncharted 4: Tuohy’s Fortune would by game of the year, all years.

  6. I find this Mary Sue issue generally the case with games using the silent protagonist method of story telling. You’re either in the shoes of the chosen one, the last/first of your kind, unique snowflake or all of the above. This is why I prefer my games, if they were designed to have serious story, to have preconceived heroes complete with their own set of emotion and flaws to humanize them.

  7. Have you taken a look at the Day Z mod for the game Arma II? This looks like it would be right up your alley. No one is special. Everyone has to stay on their toes against some pretty messed up odds. The best part is, if you die, you have to start over again. From scratch. Check out this insane blurb from someone who was taken hostage while playing the game: http://www.unleashthefanboy.com/video-games/kidnapping-and-stockholm-syndrome-just-another-day-in-dayz/18274

  8. I’m a designer in the games industry and the phenomena you are referring to is what some gaming journalists have coined as the “all story” aka putting the player in the shoes of the messianic center of the universe.

    While I don’t agree with your psychological implications of the effect of on players; simply put it has been exhaustively proven in research that games do not have lasting effects in this regard. I definitely agree that it is bad writing and that narratives suffer from it. It’s one thing to give the player the fantasy of doing things that have an effect in the world around them, its another to have them single handedly avert wars, save the human race and find a cure for cancer in the same day.

    The culprits that need to be hit are bad parenting, mental illness and the real social environment that people develop in. Video games are too frequently the scapegoat of these very REAL sources of violence and antisocial behavior.

    1. Hear hear. I am involved in the industry as well, and of course there is alot of ‘hero’ based stories. It’s why there are books about Odysseus and movies about James Bond. There is escapism inherent in all entertainment forms; that’s the whole point. Andrew, you could direct the same criticisms at films or books. The medium is not to blame, as much as you could blame a gun for killing someone.

          1. Agreed. Andrew, you opened up the discussion. I happen to agree with Alexander, but I think I see where you’re coming from. A book or movie present the “special person” or “hero” in a 3rd person perspective (when you’re done reading or watching, you put that other guy away and go on with your own life, completely separate from the other guy’s), whereas a game makes the player the quintessential superman, impervious to harm and lasting mistakes which could have potentially serious negative consequences had they occurred in the real world.

          2. Frankly the only reason books represent the ‘special person’ in a 3rd person perspective is because you can’t give the reader the ability to act in a unidirectional medium. What I’m saying is; if they could they would.

            Andrew, I do not understand what you mean by saying books and movies are not the same as video games. If by that you mean they do not rely on your interaction, then yes, that’s true, but to the point of this discussion, they have no difference. With respect, film and book narrative expect us, the viewer, to step into the shoes of the main character, to live outside of ourselves while we watch/read. It is only by this principle that we empathize with the characters and story. It why a book can make us angry, or a film can make us cry. Empathy is recognizing and sharing an emotional state, and “… empathetic concern is driven by a switch in viewpoint, from a personal perspective to the perspective of another group or individual who is in need.” In this respect, games and film and books have no difference. In a game am I playing myself, Alexander? No, I am not. I am playing a character that we are to take as an extension of myself. Same as when we watch a film or read a book.

            We are not in disagreement here. I agree that too much story telling these days focuses on the main character being ‘special’, but I will vehemently oppose that this is a phenomenon attributed solely to video games. It is a story telling device, just like any other medium, and film, literature, games, and old fashioned story telling are ripe with it since the dawn of time.

            One again, I am in complete agreement with your statement in general, I just feel it’s rather unfair to point the finger at entertainment media. Your beef sounds like it’s with maladjusted individuals. I do not see how a game would have ‘a sever detrimental effect on a person’s view of the world’ if the person playing is a well adjusted individual.

          3. I’ve read Metro 2033 and 2034, where it was kind of 1st person-ish, by that I mean you only knew what the main character (characters in 2034) did, there were’t moments where you knew what was waiting for them.

            Also, I disagree that games are that close to movies amd books, especially if you consider multiplayer. In many older games there weren’t even much of a story aside from you have to get to the end of the map and try to kill as many enemies as possible.
            Now in a movie or book you are doing nothing, but watching, or/and reading, it will always be the same, no matter how many times you watch/read it. Nowadays singleplayer is often there just to include it with multiplayer, but people don’t really care. Skyrim doesn’t even really have a story, and after finishing it people still treat the main character as a regular idiot. In my experience I don’t care as much about the main character in an FPS, as the other characters in the game. I think in case of adveture games, where you see the main character from a third person perspective you’re right, but in many FPS games, or games with a random map/event generation you’re wrong.

          4. To address each point briefly.

            Multiplayer is outside of the scope of the conversation as it relates to character and story narrative.

            Your views on the validity or importance of a single player campaign are opinion, not how everyone treats things.

            Older games are just that; old, the medium has evolved into an art form for storytelling.

            Games that aren’t making you involved in their story are doing a bad job, just like there are bad books.

            Usually the main character in FPSs are the ‘everyman’ with no personality so that you can fill them directly with yourself; this was the original point of Master Chief from the Halo franchise, though that is changing.

            Finally, telling someone that works directly in the field we are discussing that they are flat wrong is audacious to say the least.

            Are there more bad examples of mindless games than there are one that have the complete package the medium can offer? Yes, but that doesn’t detract from the validity of the medium as a whole. ‘Le Miserable’ and ‘A Haunted House’ are coming out about the same time…

          5. Let me try to explain whyt I mean:
            In the recent fallout games I didn’t care about the main character, but the charaters in relation to him, because what the main character did mostly were results of my actions (except for the RPG-style number requirements).
            In S.T.A.L.K.E.R. the main character was quite literally nameless, and there while I did care about some characters, I tried to keep them alive, but didn’t really care about what they have to say, there it felt really like I was the main character, there I agree with you, but never really had a feeling of being super human, because I went down just as quick as the other guy.
            Where I really cared about the main character, were games, like Syberia, The Longest Journey and their sequels (and Clive Barker’s Jericho, where the main character’s physical body died early on, and then you could choose characters), where I couldn’t really identify with the characters, but I really cared about them. These are what I’d compare to movies and books, but this is a specific genre, where you see the characters from outside and you only direct them on their way.
            What I mean, I agree, but only if you’re taking about adventure games, where the story is the main thing, not the gameplay mechanics.

    2. “…single handedly avert wars, save the human race and find a cure for cancer in the same day.”

      That reminds me of those Mass Effect player types who reload over and over again to get the best ending where everyone becomes friends, no one dies, dogs and cats live together and ice cream cones for all. I’m all for escapism, but could you imagine lame movies would be if their stories played out so picture perfect?

  9. The notion of video game violence as a causal factor for real game violence is a real concern to us in the industry as consciences creative professionals. We for the majority are well educated and understand that the product that we make are intended to do no harm to the consumer and society. I don’t even earn as much as a game designer as I would as a concept artist/illustrator for other media so you can take my word that my statements are not in defense of my livelyhood.

    Disclaimer over; the overwhelming bulk of scientific research points to the conclusion that video game violence is not causal to real world violence however association is symptomatic of psychological illness and social issues.

    I will say though in my opinion that the way violence is glorified in many games is unnecessary and distasteful in my opinion but that is as it is.

    1. “Disclaimer over; the overwhelming bulk of scientific research points to the conclusion that video game violence is not causal to real world violence” – I didn’t say it was.

      1. Didn’t mean to imply you did, sorry if it read that way.

        It was mostly to take a second opportunity that the societal causes of violence are the things that need addressing and not the symptoms; i.e. video games, guns, what have you.

    1. Agreed. I was wondering if he was just drunk as hell in the other picture or if Lebanese hash was involved. Jeeez, that is a toasted guy.

    2. Hah. I dated her for a little while but it wouldn’t have worked out long term. She is a nice girl and I wish her all the best.

  10. I would agree with the wet blankets that video games tend to attract a disproportionate number of “live in Mommy’s basement until she dies” types, and to have a disproportionate effect on those who spend an inordinate time in them. In them meaning as a substitute for reality and interaction with the human race.

    I see them in gunshops, coming in quoting endless specifications like a baseball fan discussing batting or earned run averages, but not having a clue about actually hitting anything with a firearm. They’ll buy an AR carbine, benchrest a dozen mags through it while developing a savage flinch, learn to twitch/spasm a majority of rounds from it more or less onto the paper at 100 yards (only from a rest), and sneer at four position competitors who aren’t getting “real world” shooting experience on a rifle range.

    “Real world” being the the smug satisfaction of dropping a platoon of 3D Nazis in a spray of blood and guts, and running a perfect score. All while ignoring the thirty seven times they had lost, without any real risk or loss to themselves, while memorizing the game sequence. Most of them are simply pathetic, but it does seem intuitive that some of the borderline types get pushed over the edge by it all.

    I was reading an article by an Army psychiatrist a few days ago, saying that 20% of contemporary male highschool students aren’t stable enough for military service. I’m not suprised.

    The primary reason I added my two cents to the schmear was the third picture in line, the one with you and the beer bottle. Cool shirt, and greetings from a brother Fifth Marine, Bravo 1/5, 1965-1968.

    I think of the hundreds of long, calming hours learning the self control and zen state of four position smallbore shooting I encountered in scouts and high school, followed by the three weeks at P.I. learning the basics of the M-14, then the M-16 at Lejeune, and learning how to do it all right in a world filled with real people trying to make me permanently unreal.

    The muscle memory and self disipline, the total safety conciousness, the camraderie and bonding I experienced aren’t something that can be found in a simulation, and I’ll bet a large number of game addicts aren’t the type who play baseball, football, soccer, or any other endevour that might connect them to real people, require them to learn what other people expect of a friend, experience the give and take, the consideration and sublety required to function well in the REAL “real world”.

    Are they all losers? Certainly not, although I suspect that by pre-hippie standards most of them are socially clumsy, self centered, Fritos munching layabouts who expect the world to give them a living. It’s where the culture is going I suppose, and there’s not much we can do about it.

    Fragmentation, with each little splinter group becoming more isolated by it’s own clique on Facebook, it’s own games and drugs and predjudices, it’s own news networks and TV shows. Pathetic.

    Give me kids who hunt and fish, hit balls, who join Scouts and hike and camp and target shoot. Even if it means putting up with a religion I haven’t believed in for fifty years. The functional people are in a minority, but there are still quite a few of them out there.

    The slugs are just a banana peel to be cautiously avoided when navigating sad places where they cluster.

    1. Nowadays “gamers” are different from the kind you saw in 90’s movies. Consoles are widespread, and a lot of simple games are played as a hobby by people, who play only a few hours a week. On YouTube a lot of people make money from uploading videos of Minecraft or CoD, and many of those have family and go out.

      Also, I think people are getting weaker, because they don’t need to hunt for a living, they can earn their money from sitting works, in fact now those what moves economy, the world is relying on informatics, therefore people do it. The most wealthy people in the world don’t have a job requiring hard physical work (at least not their work).

  11. I’ve been playing video games steadily for more then 20 years. Also, I should mention I’ve been watching violent movies, TV shows, and listening to scary rock music that whole time. I don’t think I’m special, I’m not violent, and I’m not a social shut-in.

    What you’re talking about has nothing to with video games, just as it had nothing to do with movies, books, or music before that.

    What you’re talking about is the removal of personal and parental responsibility from our society.

    If someone has a no social life and works part time at 7/11 because they spend too much of their time playing videos games then it is THAT INDIVIDUAL’s choice and nothing else.

    If a kid has no concept of reality or how to do with reality when it hits him or her then it is the responsibility of the parents and nothing else. Not video games, not evil movies, or TV shows with foul language.

    “I don’t think I’m special, I’m not violent, and I’m not a social shut-in.”

    Why? Because my parents taught me the difference between right and wrong, reality and virtual reality. Most of all they taught me that I am responsible for my own actions.

    Whatever perceived problems people think video games or any other inanimate objects cause in humans has nothing to do with the objects, and everything to do with the person and their upbringing. Whatever happened to blaming the person.

    1. Which is why I said “someone who knowingly chooses to avoid real life in order to play games.”

      You are arguing with an imagined portion of this article.

  12. I also wanted to add that the stereotypes of the anti-social nerd living in his mom’s basement or the raging “Cartman-like” 15 year old are simply that, a stereotype. Look at the demographics –

    Source: The Entertainment Software Association (2012) (http://www.theesa.com/facts/gameplayer.asp)

    – The average gamer is 30 years old and has been playing for 12 years. Sixty-eight percent of gamers are 18 years of age or older.

    – Forty-seven percent of all players are women, and women over 18 years of age are one of the industry’s fastest growing demographics.

    – Today, adult women represent a greater portion of the game-playing population (30 percent) than boys age 17 or younger (18 percent).

    – Sixty-two percent of gamers play games with others, either in-person or online. Seventy-eight percent of these gamers play with others at least one hour per week.

    – Thirty-three percent of gamers play social games.

    – Gamers play on-the-go: 33 percent play games on their smartphones, and 25 percent play on their handheld device.

    – Ninety percent of the time parents are present when games are purchased or rented. Ninety-eight percent of parents feel the Entertainment Software Rating Board rating system is helpful in choosing games for their children. Seventy-three percent of parents believe that the parental controls available in all new video game consoles are useful.

    – Parents also see several benefits of entertainment software, with 52 percent saying video games are a positive part of their child’s life. Sixty-six percent of parents believe that game play provides mental stimulation or education, 61 percent believe games encourage their family to spend to time together, and 59 percent believe that game play helps their children connect with their friends.

    1. Most women don’t count, as they play non-violent games. Exceptions? Sure, and every one of them is cool, but all the ladies I know who play are doing girly games with unicorns and rainbows.

      Smartphones and handheld devices. How pathetic. They can’t function without bringing their electronic fix with them. If 68% of gamers are above 18, that means 32% are below it, meaning millions of people.

      90% of parents are with the kids when they buy, meaning when something really violent gets bought the other 10% of the time, Mom or Dad doesn’t have a clue.

      The benefit the parents see is a free babysitter. It’s not all video games we’re talking about, it’s the violent ones. And it’s not all players of violent video games we’re discussing, it’s the unstable ones who slide a little (or a lot) further than they might have otherwise. The world would probably be safer if they’d only abused trapped squirrels or beat off to bondage and degradation comics.

      For most kids, all heavy gaming means is lousy physical condition (60% of highschool grads are unable to pass a military physical, another 20% are essentially nuts)), but the at risk Momma’s boys are, I suspect, risking something a lot more dangerous to all of us. Again, I spend many hours a week in gunshops on business, and I see and hear them drooling over the “rock and roll” looking toys doing their ‘Walter Mitty” imitation of macho. Rather consistently pudgy geeks in their early 20’s. Professional virgins who have long since traded any hope of girls for too many Cheetoes and the esteem of their sad peers.

  13. I don’t care about playstation games or bottles of beer … but who is that comely lass?? Out with your secrets! LOL

  14. FTL, QuakeLive, the Left4Dead games and PAYDAY: The Heist are really good at showing how bad I am at games.

  15. Great post. I think you’ve raised a very good point. Advertising has changed somewhat over the years but when I was running and gunning advertiser associated individual worth and acceptance on what you had as opposed to what you are. The shirts you wore, the car you drove were all linked to what you as an individual are. Regrettably much of that conditioning carried itself through the generation to moms and dads that self actualize from pursuing careers – not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that. Children require both time and attention. Technology, steps in and delivered the WWW, iphone, iPad. As empowering as these devices are, the substituted parental time and attention. They don’t strength interpersonal relationship skills because you can flame anyone. Furthermore, there is no transparency on the internet you can be anything that you want to be, real of fantasy. When you aggregate the “I’m special” effects that you alluded to in your piece. You can have disastrous consequences.
    Interestingly enough, the avg. age of today’s gamer is 37 years of age.

    Great piece!

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