You know the old adage ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same‘? The same can be said for the videogame industry. I’m fairly certain that 99.9% of North Americans didn’t realize that August, 2012, marked the 40th anniversary of the first commercial videogame console, the Magnavox Odyssey. Not only that, it marked the the 40th anniversary of the coin operated arcade machine Space War!, distributed by Nolan Bushnell. I vividly remember walking into a penny arcade on Government Street in Victoria, BC, Canada, when I was 12 years old in the the summer of 1972, inserting my hard earned quarters into that machine, and feeling supremely ripped off that it was too hard to play! I mean, the nearby Undersea Gardens aquarium had a Sega UFO electronic arcade shooting game that was much more satisfying because I could actually advance several levels!
Videogames have been around for 40 years, so you would probably think that everyone is used to them by now; they’re accepted as a legitimate form of entertainment. Well, hold onto your tinfoil hat, Sparky, because it just ain’t so. I never cease to be amazed by the controversies videogames continue to elicit from the general public after all these decades. Yes, decades. The latest episode took place last week, when a group of recent high school graduates from Port Moody Secondary School created an accurately detailed 3D level map of their school that could be played using the Counterstrike mod developed from Valve Software’s Half Life engine. Co-incidentally, Counterstrike was first created in Surrey, BC, (of all places) by Minh ‘Gooseman’ Li back in 2000. I’ve designed many 3D levels commercially, so I understand the mindset of where these young guys were coming from. In fact, they explained on their website that they built the level as a way of showing their school spirit. This was done with the intent of creating a virtual space where they could bond.
Unfortunately for these kids, they naively made the mistake of posting a video of this level on the Internet without thinking about how anyone who doesn’t like or understand first person shooters (and they exist in large numbers) might react to seeing their local high school being used as a battleground, especially given the recent tragedies at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, or the movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado. To the students’ mind, this was a Counterstrike map – no big deal. To their teachers, parents, and the RCMP, there was nothing entertaining or nostalgic about it.
Speaking as a former professional videogame developer with 22 years of experience, a long time gamer, and as a responsible ‘middle aged’ man, I think the reaction of some teachers and parents was completely overblown and utterly exaggerated. What I heard and saw were overly sensitive adults who don’t play or understand video games at all. They make up their minds based on sensational media stories that use large amounts of emotional hyperbole. These adults make emotional statements about a video game they have never played that have no basis in fact.
Given the current climate about shootings on school and post secondary campuses in North America, I understand why the police were asked to investigate this situation. But I believe it was unwarranted and needlessly contributed to public hysteria. In an increasingly paranoid society, the last thing we need are police investigating people who play video games as potential homicidal maniacs. Peer reviewed empirical research evidence shows that there is no causal connection between playing video games and school shootings. But many adults keep wanting to believe a connection exists. Thankfully, the police investigators recognized that the students were not planning something sinister. It’s too bad that some parents, teachers, and Port Moody municipal politicians were not as rational in their assessments.
Time and again I’ve heard people claim that first person shooter video games are literally the devil’s handiwork. If this claim were true, then I should be a raving homicidal maniac who would have decimated entire cities by now! I’ve played all the classic first person shooters for over 20 years and I can tell you that they’re masterpieces of art, music, and narrative for their times.
CBC Radio invited me to appear on their call in program BC Almanac, to discuss first person shooting games. I also appeared on a news segment for The National.