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Video Games: 30 Years Later

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It was less than two decades ago that I was enjoying the simple pleasure of plugging in my Nintendo Entertainment System and booting up a session of Super Mario Brothers 3. Back then, the kind of violence you would see in a game like that would not exceed jumping onto the heads of a red goon called a “Goomba” and whacking the nonsense out of a turtle-like enemy with the end of my racoon tail.

Nowadays, the violence found in video games mimicks the level of violence found in movies and television shows, and perhaps in a more immersive environment.

Case in point, just this week the video game developers Rockstar/Take Two Interactive was forced to change the rating of their video Game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas from Mature to Adults-Only due to code in the game that allowed you to have virtual sex with another female character in the game if you unlocked the secret.

Wait…did he say “adults only?”

That’s right, as in only individuals 18 and over can purchase the game. Twenty years ago anyone could purchase a game if you had the cash, and most likely you were younger than 18 unless you were buying it for your kid.

The issue here is not Grand Theft Auto, although it happens to be the whipping boy of the video game craze that politicians and law makers seem to love to loathe. The greater issue here is that video games have evolved faster than anyone could have expected, and we don’t know how to control it or regulate it. People ask, “But how could anyone have known?” Admittedly this evolution of the home console did sneak up on most of us, the warning signs were always there.

It wasn’t more than ten years ago that a quaint arcade fighting game called Mortal Kombat entered the lives of the teenage gamer. It sported realistic characters that were digitized into the game (unlike the cartoony fighters found in rival games such as Street Fighter), and showed blood when a character hit another character. To top it all off, characters had the option of executing a “fatality” when they defeated another character.

When I was a kid, Mortal Kombat was THE game. My friends would drool over the so-called “more realistic game,” since of course it showed blood when you hit someone and was so “hella-cool-awesome” because you could kill your opponent. This is the same “realistic” game that sported such physics as launching your opponent in the air when you uppercutted him and allowed you to juggle him in the air (I am not kidding) with additional punches when he was in the air (I am still not kidding).

The response from most adults (and law makers) was that video games were ruining our youth and that regulations needed to be put into place to make parents more aware of what their kids are playing. That was the birthplace of the modern day rating system we have of video games today. Under pressure from parents and politicians, Nintendo decided to not have real blood in the Super Nintendo version of Mortal Kombat, instead showing the blood in grey rather than red. Sega’s console, the Sega Genesis, did not follow suit, and kept their version as bloody red as the arcade.

Ten years ago we had the warning signs that video games were becoming more and more violent…and more realistic. Ten years ago we realized the need for regulation and education for parents about what their kids were playing while they were in their bedrooms. Ten years ago we should have known what video games could bring to the table ten years later.

All of this is just filler for an issue that has been ongoing for decades – is entertainment influencing the way we behave and act? Television was once under the same scrutiny, as was movies and even radio. What seperates all three types of media is that none of them are as immersive as a console video game. In Gladiator (starring Russel Crowe), you are watching him disembowel countless other soliders and gladiators with impunity. You are watching him cut off a man’s head with two swords with one swing. In Grand Theft Auto, you are controlling your character to run over a poor, unsuspecting pedesterian. You are ordering your character to perhaps fire that bazooka at the oncoming police car.

Does anyone else see the difference?

Are video games just games? Are they nothing more than a modern day play on the classic cops and robbers roleplay we acted out as kids on the playground? Or can they change the way we see the world and alter our perceptions of what right and wrong is, or what is acceptable behavior and what is not?

Video games have changed so much in the last 30 years that it’s difficult to predict what they will be like in another 30 years. Perhaps they will be virtual worlds, so realistic they mimick real life, much like the holodecks portrayed in Star Trek. These games are already taking over some lives, as certain multiplayer roleplaying games such as Everquest (or Evercrack, as some have so lovingly endeared it) have done.

Ultimately, the responsibility of these video games will be left up to ourselves as parents and as players. When we stop seeing the line between game and reality, between pretend and portray, is when we need to take a step back and realize the effect these games can potentially have. I know I will be watching carefully when my son or daughter picks up that copy of Grand Theft Auto X: Wyoming.

But maybe I’m being cynical. After all, I am an avid gamer, and in fact, my copy of Grand Theft Auto is sitting right next to me. I remember playing Mortal Kombat a decade ago, executing fatality after fatality, and then stopping briefly to write a paper on the moral implications of World War 2. Perhaps as video games are evolving, so are we as video game players.

I guess we just need to catch up.

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