The world is full of lies, and it’s hard to get through life without taking a few on board. Luckily, we’re here to sort the fact from the fiction, and find the plankton of truth in the ocean of bullshit. This week: video games myths debunked! Will they put you on a path to mass murder? And is a controller a feces-free zone?
Lie #1: Violent Video Games Cause Mass Shootings
You know what causes mass shootings? A person with a gun pulling the trigger while aiming it at people.
You can see why people would link video games and mass shootings — a lot of games involve shooting a lot of people — but the general consensus from science is nope, playing a violent game isn’t going to make you violent. A 2019 study by the Royal Society found “violent video game engagement is not associated with adolescents’ aggressive behavior.” The American Psychological Association’s Society for Media Psychology and Technology oppose their parent organization’s views on such matters, saying that publicly linking video games and violence is problematic, and “may distract society from more substantive causes of violence such as poverty, lack of treatment options for mental health as well as crime victimization among the mentally ill and educational and employment disparities.”
Before video games, it was horror movies, metal, nu-metal — there are always things to point fingers at in the wake of tragedies that do little if anything to address the actual problem. The biggest thing a country can do in order to have fewer mass shootings is to have fewer guns. Australians, for instance, love video games, with over two-thirds of Aussies regularly playing them. They play the same violent video games as American gamers, yet there’s been just one mass shooting — a horrendous incident in Darwin in 2019 that left four people dead — since 1996. The U.S. had 417 mass-shooting incidents in 2019 alone.
There have been other horrific incidents of violence in Australia in that time — murders, murder-suicides, stabbing sprees — but no mass shootings. Why not? BECAUSE THEY DON’T HAVE GUNS ANYMORE, AND YOU CAN’T SHOOT PEOPLE WITHOUT GUNS. You can be a horrible violent fuck-up, but you’re a less powerful horrible violent fuck-up than one with a gun.
But it keeps coming back to video games. Donald Trump, for instance, has suggested that video games are “shaping young people’s thoughts” in terms of violence. He is also against gun control (at the moment, anyway — it’s one of several subjects he’s done a lot of back-and-forthing on). Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin is against violent video games, but in favor of children taking guns to school, the reckless yahoo. He’s said that games have “desensitized people to the value of human life, to the dignity of women, to the dignity of human decency,” but also that when he was at school, children would keep guns in their lockers, and that was fine.
The way to reduce the amount of people who are killed with guns, then, is to reduce the access people have to guns, but the NRA is so powerful — and so many of its members more passionate about this one issue than anything else — that it’s far easier for those in power to blame whatever the people involved were playing, watching or listening to than actually try to affect any change.
Might the kind of troubled individual who ends up committing an atrocity also enjoy violent video games? Yes. Should parents monitor what their children are playing and discuss the differences between real-life and pretend violence with them? Yes. Is a varied range of hobbies and entertainment types more healthy than spending hours a day butchering people on a screen? Yes. Should an eight-year-old be playing Call of Duty? Absolutely fucking not.
There is a conversation that needs to be had about games, for sure: Why do we relax by pretending to kill people? When games engines exist that allow you to do pretty much anything, it’s kind of nuts that “shoot a bunch of people in the head” is the goal in such a large proportion of big releases. (Obviously sports titles are also huge, and there are plenty of non-violent games out there — Animal Crossing, Euro Truck Simulator, a whole world of indie oddities — but pretending to kill people is still a hobby millions of people spend hours a day doing.) There’s almost certainly something going on there that isn’t quite right.
But still, it’s really hard to shoot someone with a PlayStation.
Lie #2: Let’s Gather Round the Console for Some Good, Clean Fun!
How clean is it, really? To answer that, first we must ponder, how clean is human shit?
Games controllers are super, super gross. Think about a controller being handed from person to person in a shared apartment, for instance: Four sweaty pairs of hands all transferring their day’s dirt to the buttons, along with layer after layer of saliva and Cheeto dust from cut-scene snacking. Throw in some ass-scratching, bathroom visits (or, in extreme cases, poopsocking) and — particularly on an all-night session — ball-adjusting, and you’ve got a pretty stinky controller.
A study carried out by UNICEF and the bleach company Domestos found games controllers to contain five times as many germs by area as a toilet seat. While that’s less shocking than it might initially sound — toilet seats don’t actually contain that much bacteria unless you shit on them, and the arms of a couch contain something like 12 times the germs found on the throne — it’s still reasonably gross. Clean your games controllers! Clean your ass and your games controllers! Pause your game, leave the controller where it is, shit properly in a toilet, and clean your ass and your games controllers. Goddamn it.
Lie #3: Only Bastards Cheat
There’s cheating, and there’s cheating. If you’re playing online and you cheat, yeah, you’re a turd. And there are lots of turds about — a 2018 survey found 60 percent of online gamers had had their experiences ruined by cheaters, and 37 percent of gamers have admitted to cheating at least sometimes.
(People use all kinds of moral gymnastics to justify it, too. If you’re insistent that it isn’t actually cheating when you do it, because actually everyone else probably has a better monitor than you and a big gaming chair setup, and you don’t, so all you’re doing is redressing the balance, actually, you are a turd.)
But a one-player game? Fill your boots. It’s yours, do what you want with it. People claim that, if cheating, you’re only cheating yourself, but what if you’ve spent a bunch of money on a game and get stuck? Giving up and accepting that you’re a dumbass is surely worse than nudging yourself past your problem with a bit of console-mashing. The codes are there for a reason (generally that reason is to make life easier for developers and playtesters, but still).
Or maybe you’re just bored, in which case experimenting with immortality or unlimited resources might create an entirely new experience, a blank canvas for creativity and escapism rather than following a pre-set narrative or adhering to the rules of physics. Kooky cheats that mess with gravity or dramatically increase the size of characters’ heads just add new dimensions to gameplay. There’s a reason millions of people can recite the Konami code at the drop of a hat. Cheat away!
Lie #4: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas Had Porn in It
Controversy is a strange thing. The Grand Theft Auto series is filled with all kinds of bastardry, but the element of it that put ants in most people’s pants was a physical display of affection that wasn’t even accessible to most.
In the “Hot Coffee” minigame within GTA: San Andreas, players could control the protagonist, CJ, as he had sex. It used the same control system as the dancing minigame, the idea being that the better job you did of it, the more rewards you got and the better things were for everyone. It was abandoned before being finished — presumably because it was abundantly clear that people would go completely apeshit — but the code remained.
The way game development works means you can’t just erase huge swathes of a game, as subsequent work builds on what’s already there, and whipping out a chunk of the game is likely to lead to bugs — maybe the wireframe of the bed built for the minigame is used elsewhere, or a snippet of character animation is repurposed. It seems safer to just leave it but remove the routes by which a player would get to it. Developer Michael Russell (not associated with Rockstar Games, the company behind Grand Theft Auto) described it at the time thusly: “The feature is there and works, other code is reliant on it, the art is used in other sections of the game, what do you do? The safest bet is to just make it so that the minigame is never called by the main game.”
Accessing “Hot Coffee” required modifying the game (only very slightly, but still), but an understanding of technology rarely goes hand-in-hand with the kind of moral outrage that erupted — as far as the yahoos who got up in arms about it were concerned, a video game for kids (it wasn’t for kids, it was rated M) was exposing them (it wasn’t exposing anything to anyone, you had to go very much out of your way to find it) to the making of the beast with two backs. JESUS CHRIST.
The game was reclassified from an M to an AO (Adults-Only, a classification no other title released by a major publisher has ever had), meaning several big chains refused to stock it. This led Rockstar to do a recall and reissue the game with the ability to modify the game data removed in order to get it back to an M and return to store shelves. Order was restored, and everyone moved on knowing their kids were safe to just commit virtual crimes and not go makin’ filthy whoopee.
It’s a game where you kill a lot of people! CJ is a great character, but he does a lot of bad things! The idea that not only having sex, but trying to do a good job of it, is somehow worse than shooting people in the head, is pretty weird. It’s not like a “press X to thrust” mechanic was going to result in a generation of magnificent lovers or anything, but of all the things done to women in video games — and this is a franchise that (in)famously let you pay sex workers for health bonuses, then murder them to get your money back — at least this would be one where nobody died.
Lie #5: Working on Something as Great as [Insert AAA Title Here] Must Be Amazing!
While it’s surely a great feeling to be part of an enormous-selling, critically-adored, triple-A, boundary-shifting game, getting the thing out there isn’t exactly a walk in the park. Release dates are set with huge amounts of work still to go, along with colossal amounts of pressure on everyone involved to do everything they can to improve the game in every way possible, from minor tweaks to huge sweeping changes introduced at the last minute.
“Games development is often called a ‘passion industry,’ one that lots of people want to get into, will do anything to get into, and genuinely have a drive to make things in as part of their creative output,” says Jaime Cross, general secretary of U.K. Game Workers Unite. “Sadly, this also means it’s pretty ripe for exploitation of workers and especially newer people wanting to join the industry.”
“Crunch” has become very common, a period where normal working hours are abandoned in favor of as much overtime as a worker can manage. Rockstar Games’ Dan Houser claimed to work 100-hour weeks for a period on Red Dead Redemption 2 (he later clarified that this wasn’t something expected from other employees). A 100-hour week is the equivalent of working from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week, and somehow finding another two hours from somewhere. It’s unsustainably hardcore. Even if you shave 30 hours off that, it’s exhausting.
“While most people will be okay with sticking a few extra hours in over a week or to meet a deadline, or choosing to do a bit of extra work themselves because they want to or are in the groove, we also have extended periods of it that stretch into weeks or months,” says Cross. There are tales of stressed-out games workers coughing up blood, suffering PTSD and essentially living in fear, constantly reminded that while overtime is “voluntary,” you’d better not have any plans for the weekend, and there are plenty of other people who’d love your job.
And as Cross explains, when a game’s release date gets pushed back, it might look from the outside like a bit of a reprieve for exhausted workers, but it generally just means a longer period of the same crushing hours. It also doesn’t end with the game’s release — constant patches, fixes and DLC mean a successful game is never truly “finished.”
“The toll on workers’ physical and mental wellbeing is serious, and the social impact on them equally so,” says Cross. “Not being able to see friends, family and loved ones, not being able to have leisure time that is your own to do as you wish. Not many people would be willing to give that up for such extended periods of time, but the games industry’s culture of fear and instability around employment, coupled with the passion side of things, allows them to get away with a lot of nasty stuff.”
Things are hopefully improving, with more conversations about workers’ rights and pushes toward unionization. Earlier this year, writers for the mobile app Lovestruck successfully went on strike, ultimately reaching an agreement.
Next time you sit down ready to enjoy a game you’ve been excited about for months, spare a thought for the people who made it and spent months screaming in stress and agony — after all, without AAA, you can’t spell “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH!”