Going to school on video game violence

Video game violence

An advertisement for the game "Call of Duty: Black Ops 2" is viewed at an electronics store in New York City. (Spencer Platt, Getty Images / January 10, 2013)

The students filtered in.

They smelled of cigarettes and cold. They dropped their backpacks and peeled off their Gore-Tex. Then Lisa Buscani, one of the five instructors who teaches Ethics in Computer Games and Cinema at DePaul University, after asking her 30 or so students what they did last weekend — concerts, movies, "Dr. Who," "got drunk and hooked up" — asked if they were aware of what was going on in Washington. That "once again a few politicians are trying to lay blame for violence in the real world at the feet of the gaming world."

She asked what politicians hoped to accomplish. Several hands went up.

A guy in the back said matter-of-factly: "Create a scapegoat."

Heads nodded. She nodded. I nodded.

And yet: Don't video games have some responsibility to not contribute to an already violent culture?

The other night, at the end of my umpteenth game of "Battlefield 1943," an alarming statistic flashed across my TV screen: In the four years or so that I had been playing "Battlefield 1943," I had killed 43,291 people. I had bombed them and hit them with Jeeps, run over them with tanks, mowed them down from planes and plowed into them with boats. But primarily I shot them. Intrigued by that statistic, I popped in an old "Call of Duty" game that I once played a few times a week: Over many hours of play, I had killed 21,008 people.

To recap: I had killed — mostly shot with an assault rifle — 64,299 digital soldiers.

And how did I feel about this?

Not sociopathic. Conflicted.

I killed, virtually, so often that the groans of pain from digital soldiers became the white noise of computer war and often went unnoticed. As did the reflexive, Bourne-like way I reloaded a spent rifle. Did this desensitize me, leave me less emphatic, more prone to aggression? After particularly immersive matches, it would take a moment to break the spell. (Not unlike the way that your head readjusts after an especially absorbing movie.) I occasionally flung my game controller in frustration. That's arguably violent. Generally, though, I regarded first-person shooters as a kind of post-childhood cops and robbers, or very aggressive checkers, albeit played while looking down the barrel of a digital gun.

And yet.

I would be lying if I said those 64,299 digital kills did not weigh on me. As Buscani said, after the school massacre last month in Newtown, Conn., the familiar debate about a supposed correlation between violent culture and real shootings returned with a vengeance. Vice President Joe Biden met with representatives of the motion picture and video game industry as part of a White House offensive on gun violence; the National Rifle Association denounced video games; and during an interview with London's Channel 4 TV station, Quentin Tarantino refused to answer ("I'm not your slave, and you're not my master," he said) the inevitable question vaguely linking real violence to extremely violent movies, such as his Oscar-nominated "Django Unchained."

At a recent press conference, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said exposure to violent culture "numbs people to the cost of life," which sounds reasonable, though studies on the subject tend to be wildly contradictory and inconclusive. Even Biden told game-makers, "I come to this meeting with no judgment, but you all know the judgment other people have made."

Facts are less important than assumptions. At a GameStop in Evanston, a clerk told me that before Christmas, parents told him they didn't want to buy the first-person shooters their kids asked for (then asked for less violent alternatives). And in Algonquin, owners of the No Limit video arcade — yes, such places still exist — mothballed shooters like "The House of the Dead."

To ease their consciences.

"I never thought my action by itself would actually cure anything," co-owner Kevin Slota told me last week, "but when (mass shootings) like this happen, everyone points a finger elsewhere, and I might not know the solution, but I know I run this arcade, and I have to wake up in the morning and look at myself in the mirror."

Which sounds admirable. He didn't want to be part of the problem. The problem is — what is the problem?

And, wait, am I part of it?

Questions like those are what led me to DePaul, where its Department of Computing and Digital Media has been offering Ethics in Computer Games and Cinema since 2008. It's become one of the most popular courses in the university's game-development program. What began as a couple of tentative classes on the subject has grown to eight classes and almost 300 enrolled students. (All but one class is entirely full.) I attended a couple of classes.

CHICAGO

More music

More