Modern Warfare 2: glorifying violence?

The game Modern Warfare 2 is set for release tomorrow.

To many people, this is monumentally irrelevant.

But they misunderstand the zeitgeist. Modern Warfare 2 is likely to gross $338 million on its first day of release, and be the highest selling game ever. By comparison, the highest rating movie of last year, the Dark Knight, took $150 million in its opening weekend. In Britain, annual computer game revenue is four times that of box office revenue, and more than music and dvd sales.

So the controversy that surrounds this release is not a peripheral concern.

Modern Warfare 2 includes a scene where you can control a player involved in a terrorist attack at an airport. The murder of civilians is permitted. Can this be justified?

If a film can depict violence without glorification, can a game?

glory [ˈglɔːrɪ]
n pl. -ries
1. exaltation, praise, or honour, as that accorded by general consent

By this definition, games glorify violence. Progress and success are generally measured by killing.

But it’s in the same way that Tetris glorifies stacking boxes or Minesweeper glorifies sweeping mines. So the statement ‘games glorify violence’ is truistic.

Whether the gamer relishes the violence depends on the emotional context.

Let’s look at the last Modern Warfare game, the original to tomorrow’s sequel. It distinguishes itself from older-style games by imbuing war with morally and emotionally ambiguous events.

One of the first scenes involves your character being ordered to kill civilians. The event is not rewarded with points. Later, a character you have controlled for much of the game dies horribly, no matter what you do. There is one scene apparently designed to make you feel sick, where you mow anonymous people down from an AC-130 gunship, without risk and to a background of childish commentary from your co-pilot. In the end, the campaign you fight is a strategic failure, despite your hard-won scene-by-scene victories.

This is not like a war movie starring Tom Cruise where you can be sure he is on the side of good, and that he will be alive and triumphant in the final frames. It is not like Street Fighter, where fights are fair and victory is clear cut. The cumulative effect of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is not of elation.

If a game is disturbing, can that be a bad sign? Surely the visceral reaction we have to this killing is a sign of moral sensitivity. Could the sickening effect of these scenes be a deterrent to violence?

What do the data say? Do games affect the statistical incidence of violence or change our reactions to it?

As it turns out, there is evidence on both sides. While it is impossible to prove the absence of an effect, there are plenty of studies showing no statistical link. You would expect a few positive results too, and they come from serious sources.

These stats don’t settle the debate about Modern Warfare 2, because they don’t distinguish between ‘morally sound’ violence (shooting pixels representing armed bad guys), and ‘morally unsound’ (shooting at unarmed civilian pixels).

From wrestling in the original olympics, to the entertainment of Roman Colosseum, the bloodbaths at the end of Hamlet, and The Godfather, violence has been adapted to the media of the age. Can games be any more corrupting than these?

What are your thoughts?

Does control make a difference? Is photorealism relevant? Have you ever been sickened by a computer game? What was your reaction to that? Even if games were a ‘murder simulator‘, would that be bad?

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

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