Video Game Fantasy Continues To Be The Easy Scapegoat For Violent Reality

Video Game Violence

After the two recent mass shootings in Ohio and Texas, politicians were once again quick to blame video games as a cause of the violence. During an appearance on Fox News’ “Sunday Morning Futures” program, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said that video games could be contributing factors to the horrific crimes in that they “dehumanize individuals.”

“The idea that these video games that dehumanize individuals to have a game of shooting individuals. I’ve always felt that it’s a problem for future generations and others. We’ve watched studies show what it does to individuals, and you look at these photos of how it took place, you can see the actions within video games and others.”

President Trump expressed similar sentiments the next day by singling out “the gruesome video games that are now commonplace” to blame for creating “a culture that celebrates violence.” Of course, if they really tried to “get the all facts”, as McCarthy claimed he was interested in doing, they would find that studies have failed to demonstrate a link between video game violence and real-world violence. In 2013, The New York Times looked at research on whether games negatively affect long-term behavior and came to the following conclusion:

A burst of new research has begun to clarify what can and cannot be said about the effects of violent gaming. Playing the games can and does stir hostile urges and mildly aggressive behavior in the short term. Moreover, youngsters who develop a gaming habit can become slightly more aggressive — as measured by clashes with peers, for instance — at least over a period of a year or two.

Yet it is not at all clear whether, over longer periods, such a habit increases the likelihood that a person will commit a violent crime, like murder, rape or assault, much less a Newtown-like massacre. (Such calculated rampages are too rare to study in any rigorous way, researchers agree.)

In fact, much of the research shows that time spent playing video games reduces the amount of time that young men can get into trouble. In 2011, Scott Cunningham of Baylor University, Benjamin Engelstätter
od University of Applied Sciences Darmstadt, and Michael R. Ward of the University of Texas at Arlington conducted a quasi-experimental study to identify the short and medium run effects of violent game sales on violent crime using time variation in retail unit sales data of the top 50 selling video games and violent criminal offenses from the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS) for each week of 2005 to 2008. They found that a one percent increase in violent games is associated with up to a 0.03% decrease in violent crime.

The most recent studies show that despite video games being widely available in in Europe and Japan.

Video game revenues vs violent gun death chart (source: Vox).
Video game revenues vs violent gun death chart (source: Vox)

Unfortunately, blaming real-world violence and crime on video games is hardly new. In every mass shooting since Columbine, pundits have pointed to video games as being the real culprit. Even back in the 1940s, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia of New York argued that pinball was “dominated by interests heavily tainted with criminality.”

What’s especially sad to me about this is not that video games are being used as a scapegoat, but how easily our leaders look for simple solutions to complex problems. Violent crime in the United States is a real problem, but finger-pointing to get one through a press conference or appease constituents is not taking the problem seriously. As gamers know better than anyone else, it takes dedication to achieving a goal, observation of the complete situation, innovation in finding a solution, and patience and perseverance in applying that solution that is the proper methodology to fixing a problem.

Our Campers Go The Extra Mile (And Light Year and Fathom) For Sci Tech’s Final Sci Fest

Sci Fest Session 3

Last week’s Sci Fest event was a bittersweet one for me: bitter for being Sci Tech Academy’s final session for this summer, and sweet for the ambitious video games created by our campers. While many of them had previous experience programming in Scratch and Twine, even the novice coders put in the effort to ensure that our summer would proudly end on a high note. It was an effort that paid off in games that were technically and creatively impressive, while featuring premises and goals that reinforced the camp’s value of Heritage, using the Jewish communities’s rich history of scientific and technological innovation to make the world a better place.

Here’s a run down of the game’s these innovative campers created.

Lower Camp (Grades 3-6)

A Day in the Life of a 6 Points Sci Tech Camper, by Noah & Ari

Sci Tech Camper
Welcome to your first day at 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy!

It’s your first day at 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, and your goal is to make 5 friends. However, if you do anything against the camp rules, a counselor may expel you from camp! In this story-based game developed in Twine, Noah and Ari take players on a tour of the camp, from the dorms to the dining hall to the workshop, each with opportunities to either make a new friend or get into trouble. Early playtesting with the other campers in the Video Game Design workshop revealed that the correct and incorrect choices were a bit to obvious, so we added choices in the latter half of the game where some of the opportunities to make friends involved the risk of getting into trouble, and that seemed to fix the gameplay problem.

Chore Rush, by Lyra

Curiosity (in the form of a monster) gets the better of you in Chore Rush

The premise of this adventure game developed in Twine was that Mom has asked you to complete all your chores before she returns home. It seems like a simple enough demand at first, but if you dilly-dally, monsters will come out of the closet and from under the bed to devour you for your laziness. The climax at the end of the game’s 41 passages involves your mother returning home and devouring you if your chores weren’t done in time (I required Lyra make it clear in the story that it really was a monster disguised as your mom, as a lethal real mom would send a bad message to our campers.) What made this game stand out was Lyra’s macabre and imaginative drawings of all the monsters you encounter.

Clean-Up Parkour, by Isaac

Clean-Up Parkour
One of the 13 levels in Clean-Up Parkour

None of the campers in our two prior sessions attempted to make platformer games in Scratch, but this one, by Isaac, included a collecting mechanic. The player earns points by cleaning up the environment by jumping to gather trash, but if you fall into a chasm, you lose health. Unlike Game Maker, Scratch doesn’t have a hard-coded acceleration variable (for simulating gravity, so we simply had the player avatar’s velocity continually decrease after jumping, until it came into contact with the color black from below.

Duel Tournament, by Levi

Duel Tournament
Which card will you choose for your duel with Espa?

Levi was a big Yu-Gi-Oh! fan, and so he created a collectible card game that payed homage to the Japanese manga series. However, one of the things that I emphasize in the workshop is to respect other creators’ copyright and trademarks, so Levi had to devise a game that was inspired by Yu-Gi-Oh! but did not copy it. The game he described in his 49 passage story wound up being very complex, and if we had more time, we would have simplified the rules so that the player could make clearer choices about which cards to play.

Galaxy Miner, by Sam

Galaxy Miner
There’s a lot of trash to mine in this galaxy!

This action game developed in Scratch takes inspiration from the classic video game Asteroid. Players maneuver their ship to earn points by destroying asteroids to collect their iron, all while avoiding a space chicken (don’t ask). Shooting the chicken earns you prestige points, but colliding into it costs you health, which you can replenish by collecting boxes of Valentine candy. However, Sam didn’t stop there. He included a shop for purchasing upgrades to your ship and weaponry.

Murder-Kidnap Investigation, by Jaxon

Even in a police investigation, there’s room for a little levity.

Tina has been kidnapped — or was it murder? — and your job is to investigate what happened. Jason’s intricate mystery told in 46 passages was a big hit with campers, especially for its surprise twist at the end. This proved to be one of our better-written Twine games this Session, although one change I would have liked Jaxon to have made was displaying the player’s choices vertically rather than horizontally. However, some authors need to have their own stylistic flourishes, and most players had had no problems navigating through the game.

Ocean Dive, by Mateo

Ocean Dive
Ocean Dive

Cleaning up the environment was a favorite topic for our campers this session, as this underwater action game demonstrates. In this action game developed in Scratch, players maneuver a diver to collect soggy trash while avoiding a deadly diver-eating shark. This was Mateo’s first Scratch game, and with a little programming assistance from my teaching assistant, Eddie, it came out quite well. The tricky part proved to be finding the right sizes for the diver, trash, and shark, as well as the proper movement speeds for each, to make the game appropriately challenging.

Upper Camp (Grades 7-9)

Braille Jump, by Noah

Braille Jump
Potatoes jumping in tandem across Braille letters formed by watermelons.

This was undoubtedly the most innovative game developed sover the entire summer. In this one or two player platforming game developed in Scratch, players maneuver a pair of potatoes through 48 levels of watermelons that form Braille letters. Along the way, players are told to go to the accompanying Twine game that provides colorful dialog between the two potatoes. Workshop playtesters seemed to really enjoy the jumping aspect of the game, but the back-and-forth between the Twine portion was a bit confusing to players at Sci Fest.

No U, by Stuart

U No
Your Martian rover discovered a meteorite crater.

The only game development environments I taught in my workshop are Scratch and Twine, but Stuart said he had expertise in Kodu Game Lab, a 3D simulation environment, and I allowed him to use it so long as he didn’t expect programming assistance from me. Not only did he prove to be a self-sufficient developer, he created the most technically impressive game to come out of this summer. Players learn facts about Mars while piloting a rover over the Martian landscape, looking for fallen meteors and other objects. Later on in the game, which consists of three levels, the player encounters a swarm of angry Martians to avoid. My one contribution to this game was the recommendation that each level ramps up appropriately in difficulty, and the end result was quite impressive, considering the amount of time Stuart had to develop the game.

Zombie Rush, by Cooper and Ben

This zombie survival game developed in Scratch was, in my estimation, the most polished game presented at Sci Fest. With programming by Cooper and original artwork by Ben, it was one of the few games to have complete title, help (both beginning and in-game) and endgame screens, as well as music. The player shoots zombies for points, while collecting ammo for offense and parts to construct a house for defense. My one concern during the conceptualization phase was that the game didn’t promote a positive, real-world message, but the pair addressed that by adding in victims that you could risk your life to save.

I was enormously proud of what the campers accomplished during the ten days each had to complete their game, and the games they presented at our final Sci Fest were a great send-off for my summer teaching a 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy.