Video games are culturally relevant. Their production and play affects us, and we should pay attention to them. But it is important not to react to their varied content with dogma.
The Church of England's General Synod met in London on the 11th to pass a bill on violent computer games. If you are a UK resident, you can watch BBC Parliament's broadcast of the procedings here.
The bill's contents are the Church of England's business; I have no affiliation with the Church and only care about its theological and ethical "laws" insofar as they are accepted as dogma by any of the Church's followers. That said, I found the rhetoric of many of the representatives who discussed this bill disturbing.
Consider the language and tone of one Thomas Benyon, former Conservative MP for Abingdon, and now a representative of the Diocese of Oxford, who speaks a number of times throughout the debate. Benyon paints a picture for us, of
a bubbling sewer of gratuitously violent and sexual pornography DVD games [which] are washing all - er - around us. (01.29)
Benyon "know[s] that the Devil [...] has the monopoly of violent and pornographic video games." The most important deficiency in Benyon's argument is his characteristic creation of a connection between violence and pornography. It is convenient for Benyon and his intellectual peers to combine the two into a single, coherent, pervasive force determined to destroy "society." I propose a different narrative: one in which we worry about the media's depiction of violence as potentially harmful, and recognise that no representation of sex has ever harmed a responsible adult.
But the debate isn't really about adults. Even when they are not mentioned, it is obvious that the debaters are thinking about children. They are concerned that children are getting their hands on inappropriate material. Their response, given that regulation is unenforceable (and meaningless, as Philip French adds, given that online games cannot be regulated) is to encourage government and the BBFC to increase the quantity of games they censor or ban. (Benyon is outraged that "the [BBFC] see their role as advisory only [...] and are cutting only 3% of material.") French seems to believe, as I do, that this discussion is mostly posturing, and that the only satisfactory solution is to inform parents about the contents of these games.
If parents are concerned about the depictions of violence in video games, then they should play some of the video games their children want to buy. They should be encouraged that, by far, the best-selling games tend to have compulsive collecting, puzzle solving, or human relationships, rather than killing, as their core mechanic. And they should help their children make informed decisions about the kind of games which they want to play.
But this is not the narrative Benyon wishes to construct. He criticises the government's 2008 Byron report, claiming that it
relied on the proposition that parents have a liability or are interested in controlling what their children do. We think, sadly, that that is optimistic and a pious hope. (01.48)
Benyon's ambition in the debate goes beyond undoing the possible influence video games may have on children. He proves himself a windbag with his headfake final revelation:
I suspect one of the problems at the root of all this is our difficulty in our society which now rely on relative values for us to come out firmly and say what is right and what is wrong. (07.45)
Sic, by the way. I suspect that Benyon is referring to the liberalization of laws on marriage, sexual behaviour, etc which began in the UK under the government of Harold Wilson. He seems to be confusing the modern liberal doctrine that the personal lives of citizens are not political issues with kamikaze moral relativism. He even seems to believe that pornography is somehow less than healthy, sexy and fun, when he decries "the degeneracy of this sort of material and Internet porn[.]" It is clear that Benyon does not understand, and has no interest in understanding, video games, young people, or modern British culture.
Benyon makes it very easy to call him an irrelevant reactionary. He struggles with the simplest and most ubiquitous technological jargon, and refers to the curate's egg, "the exotic" Mandy Rice-Davies, and "King Canute's performance with his waves," as though purposefully trying to look out of touch.
Thankfully, it seems that some members of the Synod are less jaded and Mesozoic.
I wish to clarify my position. I do not answer as most "gamers" seem to, by claiming that video games are "just games." Art has a profound influence on the human psyche, which should be respected. I agree with the words of John Pritchard.
[It is claimed by video game manufacturers that] these games don't affect people[...] Of course our minds are changed.
Stimuli literally change the physical make-up of our brains. As you read this article, I am rewiring your neural circuitry. And so violent video games are worth worrying about. But let's get a few things straight: pornography is not violence, censorship solves nothing, Pokemon and The Sims massively outsell their more violent competitors, and the overwhelming majority of children are not being desensitized to violence by a postmodernist plot to separate us from family values.
To the Church of England: you are just theologically liberal enough to still matter. If you wish to attract young people, then you need to cull your crusty, reactionary windbags. Aping Bill O'Reilly will only make them hate you.
A Concerned Citizen.
P.S. I don't know what kind of footage there was on Benyon's DVD, but when he claimed that it contained in-game footage of "football with severed heads," I was reminded of this cheerful victory scene from Banjo-Tooie.
I have no idea if this is the scene to which he was referring. I just wanted to add some context. N