Dangerous games?

Confessions of a Jesuit gamer

The nineties are considered by many to be the golden age of video games. It’s during that decade that a whole gamut of new video-game genres was invented which, in the years following (and up until today) have entertained millions of gamers. We might mention, for example, famous graphic adventure games such as The Secret of Monkey Island, or the birth of the first-person shooter genre, with Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM produced by Id Software. Simulation and strategy games (Warcraft, Starcraft, Command & Conquer, to name but a few) became extremely popular. The list of games would become too long if we were to take a look at consoles.

In those years I went to scuola media (the Italian equivalent of middle school, 11-14 years of age). I still remember my first experiences with a PC. Back then, most common were the 80286-processor based computers, but sometimes more powerful machines – with an 80386 or 486 processor, a few kB of RAM and a few megas of disk memory – could also be found. It’s at school that I first met with a programming language, Borland’s Turbo Pascal. Our teacher would give us some simple problems, such as calculating a given volume, which I then had to solve by writing a simple program. This was enough to light within me a passion for the world of computing. But it was video games which proved to be the decisive influence in the maturation of this passion of mine.

Due to his work, one of my uncles had a PC at home. I remember the countless hours of fun I spent playing The Secret of Monkey Island. Even today, it still remains one heck of a great adventure. Produced by Lucasfilm (yes, the same Lucas of Indiana Jones and Star Wars fame), the game is, I believe, one of the most successful games ever. What struck me so much was how a story with such a winning plot – a mixed bag of adventure, pirates, the Caribbean, side-splitting humour and brilliant characters – could be told through a computer. A story that wasn’t simply a tale told, but a sequence of events with which it was possible to interact through the issuing unique commands or by performing actions, such as talking to characters.

This, and other video games such as Wolfenstein 3D, DOOM, Warcraft and Warcraft 2, gave me a sense of the potential of computers as a tool for entertainment. And not only. I began to realise that computers were a new means of communication. A new type of media was asserting itself. Since then, my passion for informatics – which maintains a solid link to my passion for gaming – has continued to accompany me, even in my choice to enter the Society of Jesus. Today, as a Jesuit working at a school (and, coincidentally, teaching information technology), I still dedicate a part of my free time to gaming. I’m convinced, at a distance of more than twenty years since the early nineties that, apart from being wonderful and enjoyable, video games are one of the most important contemporary forms of expression, a means of conveying both culture and information, as well as dealing with important social and human issues.

A recent example of video games dealing with social issues is the new Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, released last August. The game, produced by Ninja Theory, ambitiously attempts to tackle the issue of mental illness, inviting the gamer to enter into the mind of a person suffering from psychosis through the created environment and audio-visual effects. The player takes on the role of a young female warrior from a Celtic tribe, at a time when her island was being invaded by Vikings. Being that the girl suffers from a form of schizophrenia, both psychiatrists as well as people who live with mental health disturbances were consulted in creating the game. The game begins with a message warning the gamer of content which may be disturbing to some, especially those who have suffered from similar pathologies. The game is a raw and harsh representation of the reality of mental illness, aiming to raise awareness about the pain of those suffering from this form of distress. The game’s official website contains links to specialized mental health centres around the world, which the developers’ team invites users to contact if they’d like to receive more information, or if they need any assistance related to the disorders shown in the game (especially if the gamer has experienced such disorders personally or knows people who have experienced them).

Yet the theme of mental illness is not that new to video games. In 2016, an Italian production, Town of light, released a game onto the market which addresses the issue of patient care in psychiatric institutions. It makes particular reference to the situation of mental health asylums in Italy before the Basaglia law was promulgated (a law which eventually led to their closure). A gloomy and cheerless atmosphere is recreated as a setting. A haunting soundtrack accompany the player into the experience of a young girl, René, who suffers from mental illness. The game contrasts the girl’s fine intelligence, and her sensibility, with the harsh living conditions in the asylum. Scenes alternate between the girls’ present life and flashbacks that transport her mind back to the past.

The theme of mental illness is just one example of the significant social and human issues dealt with in video games. In Life is strange, a graphic adventure game published over five episodes in 2015, the player is immersed into a story in which the protagonists are young adults who go to school in the fictional city of Arcadia Bay. The game succeeds in making the adult player relive those feelings typical of late adolescence, bringing about feelings of nostalgia. For example, the climate of the classroom in which the protagonist, Maxime, finds herself is superbly recreated. The player experiences the likes and dislikes that develop between classmates, the various affections, thrills and passions typical of that age group. An especially well-crafted and evocative soundtrack also helps in achieving this effect.

It’s true that violent video games, such as first-person shooters, are often at the centre of controversy. Many consider them responsible for increased crime and murder rates, notably in the United States. Yet even these games function as a social commentary. Some people believe that DOOM – a game which, in 1993, laid the foundations for the success of first-person shooters – was inspired by the desire to depict the violent side of the US, that of serial killers, of violence both unhinged and extreme, and of the great ease with which weapons of all kinds may be purchased.

We might ask ourselves whether such depictions of violence favour a reflection on violence, or if they simply become a catalyst of violent behaviour among gamers. Some studies actually prove that violent video games, especially if played for long periods of time, increase aggressive tendencies amongst players. This increased aggression can, in some cases – especially in fragile or pre-disposed individuals – lead to real acts of violence.

It isn’t easy, however, to give a clear-cut answer about the actual danger of such games. In fact, there’s other research out there which maintains it’s impossible to prove a direct correlation between the use of such games and the actual violence. Rather, they identify these games as having a “cathartic effect”. It’s hypothesized, therefore, that by venting aggression in the virtual world, the probability of real-world violence is actually reduced.

The issue of violence in video games remains a sensitive and controversial topic. It’s therefore pretty reasonable to maintain a certain degree of caution when playing them, judging them and especially when assessing any positive aspects. Then again, beyond such debates on a topic which has no easy answers, what’s certain is that for those who’d like to examine the world of video games and understand how they express aspects of our humanity, there’s no shortage of work or material.

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