I read today that Grand Theft Auto IV is predicted to break video game sales records... and that it's already being lambasted by critics who haven't even seen it yet. Although I don't buy, play, or even like today's violent games, I have to shake my head at the notion that games are sending our culture down the garden path. It's a chicken and egg scenario; are games making people like violence - or is a market for violence boosting the sales of games? I find it difficult to believe a game can single-handedly raise a nation of carjackers. Much has been made of the individuals who have played games compulsively until they dropped dead, or murderers who enjoyed computer games and expressed such freely. I submit to you that there was almost certainly something else wrong with those people beyond their chosen game pastime. For proof, I give you the hundreds of millions of mentally healthy people playing the same games with no ill effect.
Back in my day, games were simpler, but there was still often shooting and destruction. The first game to cause a real stir was Death Race (Exidy, 1976). In this game, you drive your little on-screen car around to try and catch up with "gremlins." (I.E., pedestrians.) The game was inspired by a silly B-movie released the year before. The outrage over the game was greater than the outrage over the (much more graphic) film - presumably because the game was 1) interactive and 2) found in arcades sometimes frequented by children and families.
Here's a video of the game in action:
Doesn't seem particularly shocking by today's standards, does it? Yet as a symbol, to some it represents possibly losing control of ourselves, getting sucked into a virtual world that has the power to corrupt us, to influence our thinking and our actions in the real world.
Whether Death Race or GTA IV is the potential influence in question, I hope we are not that feckless, and I hope those of us who are parents will take seriously their responsibility for their charges. Our media are a mirror of our culture; they are not our society itself. Don't blame the mirror for how you look - these games sell like they do because people want to play them.
There was another new medium that caused a panic in some circles when it was introduced - it offered a leisure-time activity that caused young people to withdraw for hours at a time, fired their imaginations, separated them from reality, etc. - this new medium was the novel.