Several years ago there was this one (now defunct) page I would go to and people would post their webcams there. I think I went there because the Penny Arcade guys had their webcams there. Something about the time made webcams interesting.

Anyway if you remember anything about webcams when they were “hot” (and no I don’t mean the “dirty” ones) you’ll remember the trend was to pose for some shot, use some sort of editing software to graft a phrase on the image, and then leave that static image, in place, for a long time (I think people had started to realize that they scratched themselves too much to leave the things live for too long).

In the wake of 9/11 one of the webcams on this page (whose webcam it was escapes me) was just of the guy sitting in a room, the only illumination being from his monitor, with a rather downtrodden expression. The phrase he had typed on the top of the image was: “When I was growing up, my mother always said TV, movies and videogames would desensitize me to violence and reality.” At the bottom of the image was the phrase: “I really wish she had been right about that”

One of the topics about interactive entertainment (okay, video games) that’s always fascinated me is how it affects us, or doesn’t, or if it even can or not. Many of us in the gaming proletariat have always maintained that video games don’t effect us. We know that’s not entirely true – play Civilization IV long enough and you’ll be moving the pieces in your sleep. Play Tetris long enough and the cityscape skylines will start to beg for more pieces. But playing GTA3 didn’t make me into a violent criminal. If anything its non-repetitive gameplay actually hinders your ability to draw too many patterns in your mind.

Still, I play a lot of games where I am in a 3-D world with very realistic (or at least convincing) graphics, armed with a gun, and killing anyone I see. Sometimes the blood makes patterns on the walls. In some areas of DOOM 3, the brains literally pop out of the enemies (who are all zombies). Thanks to the invention of rag doll physics, I can now hear the crunch of their bones as their bodies traipse down every stair or rock on the way to the ground. In playing all of this it has entered my mind that I may be getting desensitized to violence. It doesn’t stop me of course.

And then this past summer I bought a game off of Steam called DEFCON. This game’s premise is essentially to implement the “Global Thermonuclear War” game from the 1983 blockbuster WarGames. A brilliant premise, especially for children of the 80’s like me, and one I can’t believe wasn’t done sooner. The graphics are low key, the gameplay is simple, and the whole notion reeks of style.

One thing, though – the game is exceptionally creepy. It’s a combination of using the rather low-tech graphics (though it’s not like the game is some EGA slouch), eerie music, and some subtle sound effects (like wind) that make the game downright spooky to play. But not because it’s some scary notion like those in the Resident Evil games, no this one is creepy because – you’re basically killing millions upon millions of people. The catchphrase of the game is “Everybody Dies” and it’s a given in the game that a large number of your people will die, too – the way to “win” (or one of them anyway) is to just make sure more of the enemy’s side dies than yours.

So it says something that in a day and age where I can play a game that lets me mow down pedestrians and kill innocent people, I get the heebee jeebees from seeing “DALLAS HIT: 5.4 MILLION DEAD” on the screen in cold stale letters. I guess it means two things – I haven’t been desensitized to violence, after all, and that context is important despite what the Jack Thompsons of the world think.

Over Christmas, I bought a Nintendo DS. I now mostly retract my earlier statementthis is now the most perfect gaming device I have ever purchased. It’s too bad it can’t do multiplayer GBA games or play GB/GBC cartridges, but after seeing my GBA games on the backlit screen, there was no going back to my GBA.

The first game I bought was New Super Mario Bros. The second game I got was Brain Age: Train Your Brain In Minutes A Day. I was sort of shocked to see that Brain Age was #10 on the top 10 console games sold in 2006, period. I figured that I was unusual in being weird enough to want to play this game (though, I did notice it was advertised in my wife’s magazine Real Simple, so perhaps Nintendo got it right about expanding their market.)

Brain Age claims, in a very “for entertainment value only” sort of way, to exercise your brain and make your mind “sharp”. It takes the research of Ryuta Kawashima and turns it into an interactive game, which is quite effective because it is considerably more interactive than a book and can calculate your progress for you (the game even plays as if you’re holding it like a book). It uses the internal clock of the DS to make it such that you can only play the games once per day, it tracks your progress on a graph, and even comes with Sudoku puzzles.

I’ve been playing this game for a few months now and, though it might be a placebo effect, I do think the game is actually effective at what it claims. Not that I think it’s made me smarter or sharper necessarily, but I am getting better at the activities daily and the nature of some of the tasks (quick rapid fire math calculations, memorizing lists of words) do seem a lot like the sorts of things we have kids do in schools. It occurs to me that this game would be excellent for schools. This is the sort of game my wife could like. Hospitals in Japan have been using it to ward off dementia. The game is selling many times better than Nintendo had ever dreamed.

But then it occurs to me – if you accept the notion that Brain Age might have an effect on your mind – in this case a positive one – don’t you also have to accept the notion that other video games might have a negative effect on your mind?

The style of Final Fantasy-type games (specifically, old SNES-type games with low tech graphics) is reproducible enough that a company in Japan actually made a software package called RPG Maker whose purpose is to allow people to make their own Final Fantasy-style RPG. An individual named Danny Ledonne used a version of this software to make a game caled Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, which recreates – to some extent – the events of April 20, 1999, putting you in the role of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Seeing as how I’m the only person I know who actually thought JFK Reloaded was neat, I figured I’d give the game a go.

Final Fantasy-type games are famous for using the “opening screen of text” tactic. Usually it’s a screen of a solid color (white, black, etc.) with text on it, each line fading in, and usually some sort of weird nonsense that makes no sense whatsoever outside of the universe of the game (which you know nothing about since every Final Fantasy game is completely different). However, SCMRPG‘s opening screen read:

The purest surreal act would be to go into a crowd and fire at random.
André Breton, 1896-1966

I actually felt nauseous reading that. And the slow, meticulous pace of the opening sequence of the game was just surreal. When dippy looking 16-bit sprites are representing some androgynous fictional Japanese characters, it’s easy to have no emotional attachment to the game. When the sprites represent real-life killers who meticulously planned the then-worst school shooting in history, the experience is much different.

The author of this game did his research – just about everything in the game comes from a real-life incident or allegation (easy enough to do, since everything about that day and the killers has been documented over the years). The MIDI music is from the era. The theme song on the main page is “The Nobodies”, the Marilyn Manson song which is generally accepted to be about Columbine.

The author has come under a lot of fire for the content of the game, especially the “going to Hell” detour the game takes (more of a reference to the types of detours the Final Fantasy-style games take than a commentary on the killers) and many people have stated that the author’s initial purpose was to stir up controversy and that he only switched his story to the “social commentary” role once he got the popularity he desired. I disagree; I think he intended to make a work of art and once he figured out that the technology he wanted to employ – namely that of an old RPG-style game – would prove feasible enough for his purpose, he went ahead and finished it.

I started writing this post in February. Shortly after starting it, I made decision to start looking for a new job. In late March, a family issue gained the majority of my attention until late April, and in the last three weeks I finally secured and started another job. This is why the time to write this new post took so long this time. In the meantime though, another school shooting went down at Virginia Tech and perhaps ironically, it took place in the same timeframe as Columbine (the third week of April).

The game industry was able to breathe a slight sigh of relief when it came out that Seung-Hui Cho did not play video games (though this didn’t stop Jack Thompson from making the claim anyway). With a body count of 32 compared to Columbine’s 15, the VT shooting became the worst school massacre in history, and in the ensuing it weeks it caused a lot of speculation and finger pointing. However, it seems to have vanished from the spotlight quicker than Columbine did. Perhaps it’s the Iraq War, perhaps its that it was a college as opposed to a high school (where the students don’t have a choice in the matter of attending), perhaps it was because there wasn’t an easy pop culture target to nail it to (Marilyn Manson, etc.), perhaps it was the video and photos that the killer sent to NBC News during the tragedy, maybe it’s the misplaced blame on gun laws (a few months prior, VT made it illegal to carry a concealed weapon on campus, leading some to believe that had this rule not been put in place the massacre could have been ended by another student). Whatever it is, the focus on VT has fallen a lot quicker than Columbine’s shadow.

In any event, I’m not sure if games can really have any lasting effect on our senses anyway. On JFKaos, a JFK Reloaded fan site (the only one, probably) someone claiming to be from a marketing agency wrote into the webmaster. This person stated that Traffic, the developer of JFK Reloaded, contacted them first and came over to show the game. In the initial showing of the game, one woman was so nauseated by watching the game being played (in the game if you hit JFK’s head in the same way Oswald did it has the same “brains flying” effect as the Zapruder film) that she got nauseous and had to flee the room.

Now, I’ve seen videos on the Internet that have made me sick and given me nightmares. However, JFK Reloaded didn’t. Neither does the Zapruder film. Neither do horror movies or blood splattered on the walls in video games. Does this mean I’ve become desensitized? Does this mean society’s become desensitized? (witness how The Beatles were once seen as a corrupting influence, but now Marilyn Manson collaborates with Disney)

Or does this just mean what we’ve all known all along and no one wants to admit – different things affect people in different ways and censoring something for the masses in order to avoid upsetting a small number of people is pointless.