Jan Van Looy responds to Penny

Jan Van Looy responds to Penny


An Internet response to Simon Penny that separates the transfer of gaming skills from ethics.

Simon Penny’s reasoning in “Representation, Enaction, and the Ethics of Simulation” may be summarized as follows. Repetitive tasks and active training develop subconscious reflexes and intuitions. This is so even in simulated environments, as evidenced by the fact that such environments are being used for psychological treatment and for various types of military combat training. We let our children play violent computer games, which are a type of simulation. Thus we are making our children develop subconscious intuitions, training them to kill people. We are clearing the ground for more Columbine disasters. While I do agree with Penny’s conclusion that theories of visual representation are inadequate to describe participatory media, I do not agree with how he reaches it, nor am I convinced by the theoretical underpinnings of his claims. In this riposte I will first look at a few methodological issues regarding Penny’s argumentation and theory, after which I will present my views on the matter of violence in computer games.

As some sort of disclaimer, Penny presents his goal as both academic and activist in the first sentence of his essay. In my view, this is a contradiction. An academic text can be activist, but only when the matter requires activism, when extensive research shows that something is far from how it should be, and a wake-up call is required. However, to consciously choose activism beforehand reveals a presupposition that excludes the possibility of doing academic research. Moreover, it is important to ask oneself what sort of activism one is advocating. As I will argue below, supporting the claim that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 13 and wounded 23 in the Columbine High School in Littleton before killing themselves because they played too much Doom, may well have an effect that is opposed to one’s intentions. Conservative forces and industrial lobbies can hijack such a claim and use it to justify liberal gun laws and failing socio-cultural policies. In essence, the wrong question is posed. When we see that Eric and Dylan played Doom, we should not ask ourselves why the game made them kill, because then we start from the presupposition that it did. Rather, we should ask ourselves which social, cultural, and psychological factors led them to create a customized version of the game with two shooters, extra weapons, unlimited ammunition and victims who could not fight back. Why were they unable to curb their desires and fantasies? Why could they not distinguish between the unreal and the real? Furthermore, if they had written out their fantasies or made drawings, these documents would have been seen as preparation and correctly identified as secondary to the act, not as its cause. No critic would have pleaded to abolish writing about violence. Computer games are new however, and therefore an easy scapegoat. At one point Penny states “The question is: what exactly is the user being trained to do?”, but he fails to answer it. As opposed to Grossman and Penny, I do not believe that games like Doom or Counterstrike teach me to kill. They train my hand-eye coordination, tactical insight (these are what I am rewarded for), perhaps even my handling a weapon to a certain extent, but that is something entirely different from looking someone in the eye, in real life, and pulling the trigger.

For his theoretical foundation, Penny refers to Foucault, Bourdieu and Mauss, who observe the fact that repetitive training is used to create subconscious automatisms that make us “better” citizens. While I agree with the authors’ claims in question, I must wonder why they were chosen to appear in this discussion. With all due respect, discussing the psychological effects of computer games without consulting the specialized literature is like discussing the aesthetic qualities of Ulysses without looking into literary theory. In “The Effects of Violent Video Games on Aggression: A Meta-Analysis,” John Sherry (2001) Sherry, John L. (2001). “The Effects of Violent Video Games on Aggression: A Meta-Analysis” in Human Communication Research. 27.3 (2001): 409-431. offers three theories - social learning, arousal, and priming - which seem to indicate that playing violent computer games results in aggressive behaviors. Social learning theory claims that violent behaviors witnessed in media are copied in real life; the arousal argument claims that people become aroused more easily in a violent context when having already been exposed to violence; and priming refers to the activation and strengthening of violence-related associations. Penny’s claims should probably be situated within the theory of priming. Our associative layout gradually adapts itself to the act of killing. What Penny fails to notice, however, is the very strong catharsis counterargument, which states that computer games allow players to discharge their aggressive feelings, and negotiate their arousals and anxieties, in a safe environment. As in sports, players can act out aggression that is not allowed in the real world within a rule-governed setting, and feel relieved afterwards.

One of the primary targets of Penny’s activism is the American military lobby, which has attempted to hold onto the privileged position it enjoyed during the cold war. Being European and pacifist, I can only agree with Penny’s implicit criticism of neoconservative policy, and be horror-stricken by organizations like the Project for the New American century. http://www.newamericancentury.org/. I believe that Penny’s is a worthy cause, but one that does not justify the implicit claim that everything that comes from, or is used by, the military must be evil. The fact that The Sims and Doom are used for modeling terrorist organizations and combat situations does not prove that the technology is wrong. Penny fails to mention America’s Army: the Official U.S. Army Game, a freeware combat training simulator created for propaganda reasons. http://www.americasarmy.com/. Arguably, storytelling was also invented to recount the feats of past heroes and kings - often of a violent nature - but I believe we all agree that storytelling is not wrong. The claim that there is a strong link between the military and information technology is a well-trodden path. Military research brought us the computer and the Internet. Please note that I do not claim that there needs to be military research to obtain these results. It is true that military research has brought us many useful and humane technologies, but I believe that these (and probably many more) could have also been developed in non-military research. Computer games, however, are an exception to the rule. In contrast to what the title suggests, Spacewar, generally recognized as the first computer game, Some historians argue that Willy Higinbotham, a scientist at the Brookhaven National Laboratory invented the first game in 1958. was coded by Steve Russell at MIT in 1961. It was a typical product of Science Fiction zealotry and hacker culture and was meant as pure entertainment, not military simulation.

Penny correctly notes that the U.S. military has invested heavily in simulation training systems, and that therefore virtual training must transfer to real world experience successfully. What he fails to do is make a distinction between elements that are transferred and elements that are not. While he calls for a critical attitude towards computer games, he seems to believe that we uncritically introject integral virtual experiences. When acting in a simulation, we acquire skills. We will become better players and our reaction time, tactical insight and self-control may improve. Some of these skills will be transferred to the real world and there they can be used for better or for worse. However, I really do not see how killing a monster in Doom will make it any easier for me to kill another person. Moral judgment cannot be transferred between worlds like basic skills. For more information the application of possible world narratology to computer games, see my forthcoming article: Jan Van Looy, “Virtual Recentering: Computer Games and Possible Worlds Theory” in Journal of Narrative Theory, forthcoming. Compare it to reading a book: you learn new words, meanings, ideas, but you do not necessarily accept or imitate the actions of the protagonist. You may be inclined to, but you do not. Some time ago, someone told me that he was playing Grand Theft Auto, a game which basically consists of stealing cars, crashing cars, and committing crimes. One day he was reading a discussion on the Internet and accidentally clicked on a link to a website with an image of a (real) wrecked car. He said he had felt his stomach turn, which he found strange since he had been sweeping (virtual) pedestrians off the footpath only the night before. Game players are very aware of the virtual nature of their actions. They may willfully suspend disbelief, but they do this very consciously.

Moreover, I do not agree with Penny that enacting virtual violence is more dangerous for the player than just witnessing it. I believe that the player is constantly aware that she can start again, save or pull the plug. Whereas on television, non-fiction adopts more and more of the formal characteristics of fiction, possibly contributing to some people’s confusion as to what is real, in participatory media there is no “non-fiction.” Imagine a news item on a plane crash that allowed you to save the plane. Making a news item participatory would automatically result in its not being real. Virtuality has a paradoxical relation to reality. On the one hand, it is more real than fiction in that it allows the player to participate. On the other hand, it is much easier to distinguish virtuality from reality because it is presented to you directly. You can probe a virtual object to see if it is real. It is presented, not represented in words or images.

When I was little, my friends and I used to build camps and play soldier almost daily (hi Davy, Deborah, Jan, Catherine and the others). We all had our sword, gun, or spaceship depending on the setting of the day. Our play could not be more embodied (we actually fought with the weapons - carefully - but we fought). However, we were very aware that what we did was not real. My message in this riposte is that I believe we should not be afraid of our children playing computer games, not even violent ones. What we should ask ourselves is: why do they prefer violent, strongly competitive games to others? One explanation could be the following. When children play games they imitate the world of grownups as preparation and training: girls imitate their mother, boys their father. As such they respond to an image of what they will have to become when they are older. This image is instilled by society, not through fiction, but through news, stories, experiences in different settings, and so forth. However, as our society becomes more and more concerned with competition, performance, and perfection, the image that our children receive is a tough one, and their preference for games will be similar. The choice of games depends on the society we live in, not the other way around. It is probably no coincidence that violent computer games are less successful in Japan than in the U.S., the last country with superpower ambitions and the largest military in the world. “Video games that get lost in translation: Why most U.S. titles don’t fare well in Japan (and vice versa)” in MSNBC News. http://msnbc.msn.com/id/4780423/. If we want to create a less aggressive society, we should start by making it more relaxed and accepting. Restricting computer games would be like shooting the messenger. Please note that I am not against age restrictions for obvious reasons.


Simon Penny responds