Video games have long been one of the scapegoats brought up when talking about society’s woes, from trying to pin acts of incredible violence on Doom to claiming they train people to be ambivalent about sexism and hatred. To most gamers, it feels more and more like people are out to do everything they can to prove this is the case, even if it means smudging the numbers and ignoring the input of those who actually play games. Even when studies pop up demonstrating that simply playing games doesn’t lead to aggression, or that games are significantly less discriminatory than other forms of entertainment, or that gamers themselves are incredibly diverse and typically well-rounded individuals, these go ignored. The reason people are quick to throw these accusations around is because most people only understand games on a surface level. They see characters with guns and weapons and explosions and blood, and can only assume it is completely depraved with no substance or context whatsoever. But what gets lost in translation, even when gamers fight back against the accusations, is the fact that in the vast majority of games we play we are not simply faceless macho archetypes.
We are heroes.
Think about some of the most popular games from last year (and I don’t mean they were played a lot, I mean they’re actually liked). In the vast majority of story driven games, the player character is either someone uncompromisingly moral and upright, or a lack of values is a driving part of the story that the player is expected to recognize. The two popular Game of the Year picks from last year were The Witcher 3, in which you exclusively play characters who seek to protect and help others even if it means endangering themselves, and Undertale, a game that explores morality on a deeper level. You can play the Genocide Route in Undertale, but it is an absolutely punishing experience, and the game encourages players to take the Neutral or Pacifist Route. And gamers of all kinds adored both of those titles. Even in games like Grand Theft Auto V the protagonists of the story mode still act in selfless ways, and when they do something despicable, the game doesn’t pretend like it’s okay. Even someone as unstable as Trevor, whose psychosis is heavily exaggerated just to make it clear he’s not a good person, still has moments of clarity.
When you look at the majority of titles though, there is no question. You are the hero—you save people, you protect people, your goal is not to destroy but to rescue a person or place, and in the best games that is what motivates the player. Yes, there is violence involved, but it is not violence lacking context. Look at the GOTY from the last several years. Destiny you’re defending the last remains of earth; The Last of Us you’re helping bring a young girl to safety (who you grow attached to and from this an interesting moral question is raised about the value of one persons life to themselves and others in a dire situation); Portal 2 you help your mortal enemy who later saves you; Batman: Arkham Asylum you’re playing Batman; Bioshock the player is given the choice to save Little Sisters and other characters throughout. Even in simpler games like Mario the point of the game is to rescue and protect, and while some would claim that’s sexist (because most of the time the person you’re rescuing is Princess Peach), is it really? Is it really sexist to have a desire to want to save someone you care about?
Maybe we have been looking at these things in entirely the wrong way. We see the violence and characters outside of the context of their motivations, and it becomes easy to assume it must mean the worst. But, logically, would you not be willing to kill someone with clearly evil intentions if it meant protecting someone you care about, or even just someone you know is innocent? Would you not be willing to put your life in mortal danger for them? When these things actually happen in real time we never question it—those people are celebrated as heroes. So why do we scold gamers who are essentially playing games that bolster their empathy and put them in those positions where they must be heroes? Video games for the most part are training simulators, teaching the new generation about the importance of self sacrifice, the importance of paying attention to details (which is crucial to detecting dangers and trouble in real life) and giving them an outlet where empathy is necessary and required. This is the running theme in the games that are considered by the community itself to be the best games of all time from Metroid and EarthBound to the majority of major titles from the last and current generation.
This is not just a wild presumption either. While the link between real life violence and video games is at best sketchy, usually copped up to “A school shooter owned an Xbox, so that must be it,” gamers who have saved and protected others have attributed their ability and motivation to video games. A man uses medic training he learned from a video game to save a real life, a little boy saves him and his grandma by taking the wheel and putting his Mario Kart skills to work, a growing list of gamer-funded charities to help children who are hospitalized along with other issues, and likely countless other instances that just didn’t make the news.
That is not even mentioning the many benefits that video games themselves offer, and how they have inspired so many to make tools and programs specifically to help others. Video games and “gamification” have resulted in so many resources that do everything from give people new motivation to get healthy (like Fitocracy) to hundreds of educational games and programs designed to encourage and aid children in learning, particularly children with learning disorders. Multiple studies have shown video games are effective in helping stroke victims, those going through chemotherapy, children with mental and developmental disorders—at least to help quell the symptoms. Much of this was made possible by the gaming community—developers, artists, programmers, and yes, gamers—who created an industry where all of this sprung from. And gamers love it; they love the idea of video games being used to help people.
So where does this idea that video games are creating violent terrorists come from? Even when it’s become common knowledge that violent crime has actually been on a steady decline even through the economic recession when typically crime is expected to rise. You may not be able to strictly argue video games caused the decline, but you certainly can’t claim they cause violence when the generation growing up with them has such a lowered rate of crime. So people will point to social media and to the reputation of gaming communities and try to claim they are toxic, but while even gamers themselves will concede there are toxic people in their community, the majority are not (and this is almost exclusive to multiplayer communities and often involves a lot of factors—no one tries to say hockey or football are toxic when players often fight with each other off field, they just target individual players who are particularly unsportsmanlike. So why is it gamers get painted with a broad brush in this respect?) And then, of course, there is the fact that it is much easier to see violence than it is altruism. Violence is self initiated; if a person decides to be violent, there need be no other prerequisite. So if gaming is breeding violence, wouldn’t there actually be a lot more instances of violence. Wouldn’t this become a common occurrence?
Heroism, on the other hand, is dependent on what happens around a person. Unless you join a profession where you face these scenarios all the time (which not everyone, gamer or otherwise, is equipped to do), then you will only get that chance to demonstrate an altruistic personality if the need arises—small acts of helpfulness and kindness we don’t tend to even recognize and we often overlook. I can speak for myself and for the people who I know that are also gamers: they are some of the most helpful people I know. A friend of mine who has the whole PC setup, who streams, who spends every hour not working or sleeping playing League of Legends and Super Smash Bros., will go out of his way to help complete strangers, all with the cheeriest smile on his face. And he is not an exception—he is the norm. There are a lot of gamers who may not seem like it because they are shy or they recognize they lack some of society’s expected social graces, but they still find time to help people in little ways.
What often gets labeled as “evil gamers” are not actual instances of wickedness, but rather either an unintentional or a purposeful misunderstanding of their motives. Gamers are always on the defensive, not just because of the games we play but because of the society we grew up in that so often demonizes gamers. And yet far from living up to those expectations of society that we will all turn out to be criminals and miscreants, we defied them and created a culture designed around unity and charity. And it is high time we start recognizing and encouraging that.