Altered lives lead to altered thinking
Originally published in October 2001.
Historical note: This was written just after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Reading this little essay, I think I was trying to make sense of it and find a way to move on. My epiphany still holds true today. Violence, ignorance, stereotypes - they are all easier than peace, knowledge, and understanding, so they persist.
During a single lifetime there are likely to be several events beyond our control that will alter our lives and our perception of the world. These cathartic events are often violent and almost necessarily unforeseen. As I write this column, the country, and indeed most of the world, is filled with sadness and dismay. Terrorists, in a misguided act of desperation, have attacked the United States. The loss of life and the destruction or damage of national landmarks has irretrievably changed the collective perception of who we are and how we should conduct our lives.
I would like to take a moment to offer my heartfelt condolences to those who have lost family and friends in this great tragedy. I would also like to commiserate with all like-minded people who feel outrage that such a heinous act should ever occur. The senseless evil this single act of terror has thrust upon us is incomprehensible in its callousness and unfathomable to a rational mind.
My intention for this month’s column was to write a review of the recently released and highly acclaimed computer game, Max Payne. However, and I must confess this disturbs me a little, the violent imagery depicted in Max Payne, while quite acceptable while I played it, is now unpalatable. It disturbs me that such a terrible event was required to change my perception. In a few moments of real-life horrific violence, the cartoonish violence of Max Payne and of computer games in general, became sickening. And the reviews of such games become woefully insignificant to the point of questioning the very existence of these games. After all, computer and video games are not really necessary, are they?
Violence is easy
I imagine this questioning of how I live my life was similar to what many of us went through in that long week after September 11, 2001. For me, this questioning led to an epiphany of sorts with regard to computer games specifically and games in general. I believe that games are important to the human being and I believe history supports this proposition. Games have been part of human civilization since the beginning. We have an insatiable need for games. I don’t know why, perhaps it satisfies some base instinct, I will let psychologists and sociologists explain that, but the need is definitely there.
So by that definition, computer games are a natural extension of our need to play games. A validation of my hobby, at least in my mind. However, the question of why computer games are so violent remained. And then it came to me – my personal epiphany. Computer games are violent because violence is easy. Just as it is easier for terrorists to strike out in desperate acts of violence rather than to confront the real issues faced by the people they claim to be fighting for, so too is it easier for programmers to code violence.
Reacting to situations and confrontations with violence eliminates complicated artificial intelligence issues in the game just as it eliminates complicated human interactions in real life. It is much easier to shoot a target than to interact intelligently with it. This gives me hope that with better technology, and with the increased knowledge of how to use it, will come better and less violent games. As computer-generated game universes become more dynamic, the violent resolution of conflict will be one of many options and not the only option. Notably, this same line of reasoning can be expressed about human relationships and the benefits of better education, and increased tolerance and understanding.
This altered thinking made me nostalgic for the games I played twenty years ago. The games that hooked me, that made me want to play computer games well into middle age. To my surprise and joy, several of these games, Infocom text-adventure games, are now available for free on the Internet. A little joy was welcome after many weary hours in front of the television filled with too many haunting images. These games don’t stimulate your mind with pixels but with the written word. Playing a computer game that forces you to visualize a situation, to imagine a solution, is tremendously rewarding.
Thinking along these same lines, I began to reevaluate the desirability of multiplayer environments. Many online games evolve into online communities with online-only friends that are often as vital as any friend in the “real world.” Community involvement can be a great comfort in times of stress such as these. Having a brisk conversation over a friendly game of chess, checkers or cards reminds one of a time when such games were played at the local courthouse, barbershop, or park. The Mayberry small town community available over a worldwide computer network. The Internet at its best.
The tragic and terrible events of September 11th have changed the world, have altered our thinking, and have united us in a common cause. Only time will tell if the world will be a better place because of this. I will only allow myself to believe that it will. However, the months ahead will be trying and decisions will have to be made from often bleak choices that offer little solace.
While at these moments computer games are insignificant, they are part of human nature and we will play games again. But for some time to come, games with violent imagery are not likely to be popular. I suggest a return to games that stimulate the imagination, that transport players to places and worlds that can only be seen in the mind’s eye. I also suggest that online multiplayer environments are a good alternative to what has passed for good computer gaming recently. Text-adventures, chess, checkers, sports, card games – these are just some of the games we can choose to play that do not involve violence. These games will help release the stress of what promises to be tumultuous world events. May we all find peace and happiness in the end.