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"It's not the game, it's the gun"

Doom designer John Romero reflects on recurring patterns when it comes to video game violence, multiplayer, and what counts as a game

John Romero's been making games for more than three decades, and in that time he's seen history repeat itself more than once. In his keynote presentation at the GameON Ventures conference in Toronto yesterday, Romero laid out a few of the patterns he's spotted in that span of time, some existing solely within the industry and some dealing with the industry's relationship to the larger society.

Romero's no doubt considered the latter factor at great length, as his landmark shooter Doom became an oft-cited centerpiece of the mid-'90s political posturing over video game violence, along with games like Mortal Kombat and Night Trap. Romero pointed out that similar hysteria had surfaced time and again in the past with other entertainment forms that captured youth imagination, like comics, heavy metal, and Dungeons & Dragons. And while he dismissed any concern about games feeding into violence, he did suggest an alternative culprit.

"I believe games are cultural and the violence that we see in the world goes beyond games," Romero said. "Plenty of countries play games. Canada, Germany, Japan, England, Ireland... They're all hardcore consumers of games, yet we don't see similar outbreaks of violence in these countries. It's not the game, it's the gun. It's not the computer, it's the culture. It's not the player."

"When we push the boundaries of games, when we experiment with the medium to see what it can do, there are always those who will question if the new work at the end is still within the boundary..."

Most gamers would no doubt agree with Romero's contention that games don't contribute to violence, but there might be more dissent when it comes to another pattern he identified.

"Recently the question of 'What is a game?' has surfaced," Romero said. "Computer games weren't games according to people who played board games back in the '70s. While console games were not games according to computer game players in the '80s... As we expand the boundary of games, people question whether it's a game at all. Is Gone Home a game? Is Life is Strange a game? Is Her Story a game? Yes, I think they are. When we push the boundaries of games, when we experiment with the medium to see what it can do, there are always those who will question if the new work at the end is still within the boundary, when in fact it has just pushed it."

A third pattern he laid out for the audience was the predominance of games as a social activity. Before the advent of the home computer, games were almost universally multiplayer. From chess and checkers to baseball and basketball, playing games meant playing with other people. But the first couple decades of the home computer were overwhelmingly dominated by single-player games. As Raph Koster has said, that era was "an aberration" made possible because the computers of the day lacked any kind of easy connectivity.

"Doom came at the right time, when local area networking was emerging and modems were everywhere," Romero noted. "Doom broke the single-player spell of the previous 20 years since the start of computer gaming."

As for where games are headed, Romero expects them to get even more social, driven in part by the advent of augmented reality and the continued prominence of mobile games. Pokemon Go is evidence of that future already becoming the present, but Romero also laid out some more forward-looking predictions.

"I believe procedural generation is going to reach a more impressive level as programmers and designers apply and discover more advanced techniques, such as machine learning. Procedural synthesis [of graphics] might be implemented in popular engines as plug-ins much in the way SpeedTree handles foliage generation."

Of course, all the fancy tech and plug-ins in the world won't help a game if it's simply not fun.

"I still believe that games have to have great designs to be successful. Tech by itself is not enough, but great tech combined with great design is a huge win. So what does all this great technology and design mean? It means what it has always meant. We're going to continue to have more amazing games. It means 'Game On.'"

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Latest comments (19)

Jason Sartor Copy editor/Videographer, Florida Today2 years ago
Click bait headline.
Typical response . John Romero says - Don't blame my product, blame this other product
It is not the fault of the gun. A gun is a tool. That is all it is.
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Marty Howe Director, Figurehead Studios2 years ago
?

Are you saying that video games cause real world violence?
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Richard Browne Head of External Projects, Digital Extremes2 years ago
I can't count they
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Show all comments (19)
Paul Acevedo Games Editor, Windows Central2 years ago
"Tech by itself is not enough"
Crytek game developers in attendance shift uncomfortably in their seats.

;)

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paul Acevedo on 22nd October 2016 6:14pm

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Jason Sartor Copy editor/Videographer, Florida Today2 years ago
@Marty Howe:

More so than the gun.

Just a couple of quick facts:

Despite the propaganda and hysteria about "assault rifles" ( a made-up term to describe a rife to be evil), more people die by knife attacks than rifle attacks. And it is not even close. FBI fact from 2013: Number of deaths by rifles 285, number of deaths by knives/cutting instruments 1,490. And nobody goes bananas about "knife violence" and needing to ban all knives.

As for the video game argument.

if you say video games are art, and you claim a video game is a medium and art form that can be used to convey a message, that can be used to make people stop and think, to make people challenge their assumptions or held beliefs, or that video games can be used to show other ideas to people and make them change their view and ideas - then yes, a video game can lead a person change for both good and bad.

This is why free speech and free press are so important. It allows for works such as Animal Farm, 1984, The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, Common Sense, The Federalist Papers, The Anti-Federalist Papers, The Art of War, Mein Kampf, The Talmud, Holy Bible, Koran, The Reason of Church-Government Urged against Prelaty, Areopagitica, Declaration of Independence, Constitution of the United States of America, 95-Thesis, among many others including math texts and Darwin's The Origin of Species.

Free Speech and Ideas can be scary (no safe spaces allowed here, no such thing as hate speech either, and Political Correctness can burn in hell). The exchange of ideas and thoughts, information and data are what are used the develop ideas, ways of living, world views, moral codes.

So, yes, a video game can potentially lead to violence and uprising.

That being said, I do not believe any person who is not yet already predisposed to committing violence or destruction has ever been swayed by a video game.

I have never come across a video game that has a good story, let alone one that comes close to having something interesting or meaningful to say as the previous examples of literature I have given.
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Andreia Quinta Photographer, Studio52 London2 years ago
@Jason Sartor:
Number of deaths by rifles 285, number of deaths by knives/cutting instruments 1,490. And nobody goes bananas about "knife violence" and needing to ban all knives.
Oh dear, not the knives-kill-more-people-than-guns-so-should-we-ban-all-knives analogy again...
How is a knife - a kitchen utensil by design - and "utensil" being the operative word here, even comparable to a weapon? Something that was effectively designed to be a weapon, to kill things. Unless you now tell me a significant percentage of those knife crimes were committed with hunting knives that argument never sticks, not on this side of the pond anyway, even then it would be a stretch.
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Jason Sartor Copy editor/Videographer, Florida Today2 years ago
@Andreia Quinta:

A knife and a gun are the same. They are both tools. Shooting sports are both in the winter and summer Olympics.

A gun is a tool. You can hunt with a gun, you can defend yourself, your family, property and liberty with a gun. You can sport shoot with a gun. it does not have to be used as a weapon. Just as archery also is a sport, but can be used to hunt and had been a weapon and designed as a weapon for centuries.

And some clips for you:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFy6-_fhWtA
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=khnOkJwZv_A
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M8hjZ1d42qg

Individuals or groups of individuals commit crimes. Tools do not commit crimes. A gun no more shoots anybody on its own, than a knife stabs people or airplanes fly into buildings by themselves.

And as for the argument sticking or your side of the pond,, why is it so difficult to debate facts?

The same argument that all nuclear energy is bad. You can make a nuclear bomb with nuclear technology therefore it is bad. But you can also create clean energy, it also allows us to power satellites (shocking there are no 7-11's or gas/pertol stations on the way to Jupiter to refuel).

Poor carpenters blame their tools. No inanimate object is evil or good - it simply is an object. How it is used by individuals defines if it is good or bad.

Another example - the internet. The internet allows people to communicate and pass information. But it also allows for piracy of products, hacking, data theft, cyber attacks of personal information and national security. Should the internet be banned? And how much of the internet then should be controlled? Do you like the Great Firewall of China? Perhaps only 28 websites should be available like in North Korea?
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Marty Howe Director, Figurehead Studios2 years ago
I have never come across a video game that has a good story, let alone one that comes close to having something interesting or meaningful to say as the previous examples of literature I have given
.

who cares? The whole point of video games, is that they're FUN

For example, Half Life 2 is one of my favourite games, its fun, played it 5 times, and I still dont know what the story is about.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Marty Howe on 23rd October 2016 4:43am

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Keldon Alleyne Strategic keyboard basher, Avasopht Ltd2 years ago
@Jason Sartor:
Are we really comparing handheld sharp edged instruments that have a clear and legitimate non violent function that owners can use for the slicing of foodstuffs like apples and vegetables with a projectile emitting device that grants wielders with ridiculous amounts of destructive power at a distance?

Where is the line drawn? Like, are you suggesting it would not be ridiculous to allow every Tom, Dick and Harry access to biological and nuclear weapons? At some point no regulation is uber unsustainable, and I think firearms are a pretty logical line.

Besides if your assertion was correct, wouldn't you be seeing kitchen knives used regularly in mass stabbings all over the world? (clue: you don't).

Why is this even a discussion (particularly in a place like this, like, seriously)?

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Keldon Alleyne on 23rd October 2016 1:17pm

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Adam Campbell Game Manager, Azoomee2 years ago
Gun debate here? :/
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Anthony Gowland Director, Ant Workshop2 years ago
A gun is a tool. You can hunt with a gun, you can defend yourself, your family, property and liberty with a gun. You can sport shoot with a gun. it does not have to be used as a weapon.
FYI in more than half of your examples you're using the gun as a weapon.

Come on, if you're going to do this, you could at least come up with better dumb examples of ways that 99.9% of people don't use guns - maybe using a gun as a door stop? Or paperweight? Guns are excellent for balancing tables, if one of the legs has snapped by exactly the length of a gun. See, it's easy. Maybe you can come up with more examples of ways to use a gun that don't involve firing bullets in to living things yourself?

Anyway, I'm off to eat my breakfast with this uzi.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 2 years ago
I wonder what those BF1 soldiers are doing with the crme brle tool all the time. Why are they using their seasoning shotgun on other soldiers instead of their salad? Video games these days.
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Joo Namorado Project Manager, Portugal Telecom2 years ago
@Jason Sartor:

So you went to this report - https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2013/crime-in-the-u.s.-2013/tables/table-20/table_20_murder_by_state_types_of_weapons_2013.xls - then selected the column for the type of firearm with the lowest total to compare it with knives, instead of using the total firearms column?

Deaths from rifles: 285
Total deaths form firearms: 8.454
Deaths from knives and cutting instruments: 1.490

The picture looks a little different when you compare TOTAL firearms to TOTAL cutting instruments, doesn't it?

Plus, this table refers only to murders, leaving out the number of accidental deaths.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Joo Namorado on 24th October 2016 11:32am

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Personally I've some sympathy when Americans bring up the "It's just a tool" explanation. Europeans can read the dreadful death statistics and feel glad they don't have the same problems on this continent but hidden from us and our thinking are the millions - tens of millions - of Americans who use guns for nothing more than hunting in the same way we use a rod for fishing. There are huge tracts of America where hunting is a way of life, even a family outing, and owning a gun is completely unremarkable in a way it simply isn't for Europeans, for whom a gun generally means war. If we see hunting with weapons as a worthless minor pursuit well that's because it's not part of our way of life. We can't come at average gun-owning Americans, who have never seen a violent killing in their lives, without serious bias.

I think where the argument falls down is when Americans fail to see the logical outcome of a society where guns are freely available. There happens to be tens - maybe hundreds - of millions of US people who will never hunt and for whom guns are only dangerous weapons. And they can buy them freely. In poor neighbourhoods ruled by dealers, society is made hell by these people. The problem is that there is no accounting for use at the point of sale because the NRA acts as if any regulation, however logical and grown up, is the same as burning the constitution while pissing on Washington's grave. This is where the argument is truly childish and it's here that Americans fall for home-grown group-think (or propaganda) just as much as Europeans.

Anyway, whatever the 1st & 2nd amendment says Doom fucking rules.
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Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 2 years ago
I recommend reading the article again for those who think Romero is starting the ages old gun control argument. He talks specifically about the culture attached to gun violence in America.

It's not about the people who buy guns because they are afraid they will some day have to defend their home and family. It's about the people who buy guns because they want some day to defend their home and family.

It's that culture, that fetishises guns, makes them an integral part of the power pose. And it's actually one area where video games can claim a moral superiority flag, because television and film have really gone out of their way to eroticise the way guns are shown, whereas games don't have a lot of full-blown "gunwank" scenes (one where some time is exclusively devoted to how awesome a gun is and how cool it makes you).

Seven. Point. Six. Two. Millimetre.

Full.
Metal.
Jacket.


There is only one country in the world that has fatalities annually from people trying to have sex with shotgun barrels.

That's what he's talking about.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Bonnie Patterson on 24th October 2016 6:45pm

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John Emerson 3D Environment Artist 2 years ago
Mr. Romero makes a good point in that the root cause of violence is not generally video games. However, it should not be stated that video games cannot potentially lead to increased casualty counts. Anecdotally, as someone who has played video games my whole life, and trained a little with law enforcement, it was rather eye-opening to realize that the actions I took in a controlled fire situation with firearms were the very same actions a competent and well trained law enforcement or military person would take (in my case, checking and correcting a jammed rifle). When asked about how I knew what to do (without pre-instruction on that particular firearm), I replied to the instructor "video games." While anecdotal, compounding that experience with an active shooter scenario wherein the suspect has played games, and as a result understands their weapon(s) even better and could result in more rounds being fired, should cause the industry to ask whether there are certain actions that are truly necessary in a game (e.g., demonstrating proper reloading and/or jam corrections). This is not to say that we can't, as firearms are a much broader topic and should continue being discussed society-wide rather than limited to media portrayals.

For American society, firearms are an important component of our nation's foundations. In many households, they exist solely as a means of hunting and sport shooting. However, the rates of mishandling and accidental discharges resulting in injury/death to self or others is far too high. Firearms are not the problem, rather it is the ease of access to purchase, medical aid provided to mentally ill or unstable persons, and reduced regulations in training/carry requirements that are the most significant problems for society and gun owners alike.

@Jason Sartor: On your point about whether assault rifles is a misnomer, I think you would be well served to read nearly every single credible source on firearms handling and the legal definition of assault. Every firearm, regardless of whether it is a long-gun or pistol, regardless of whether it is semi-automatic, double-action, or automatic (regardless of the source of repeating action) is intended to damage/destroy the object it is aimed at and its presence is enough to cause imminent fear of harm or death in surrounding persons (either unfamiliar or familiar with firearms; i.e. assault). Why open carry except to intimidate would-be assailants? Except the intimidation carries over to others as well. As for the nomenclature of "assault rifle", there does exist a class of rifle underneath that category that is universally accepted. Typically, it is a long-gun with self-repeating action requiring no additional actions on the part of the operator to continue firing uninterrupted.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by John Emerson on 24th October 2016 7:04pm

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Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 2 years ago
@Jason Sartor:

"Free Speech and Ideas can be scary (no safe spaces allowed here, no such thing as hate speech either, and Political Correctness can burn in hell). The exchange of ideas and thoughts, information and data are what are used the develop ideas, ways of living, world views, moral codes."

Some definitions for you:

Hate Speech: Material that agitates for violence and prejudicial behaviour against a protected group.

Safe Space: A forum for discussion in which it is forbidden to attack, intimidate or otherwise attempt to silence other participants.

Political Correctness: Not being racist, sexist, homophobic et al.

It's not free speech when you can deliberately drive your opponents out.

On a side note, have you actually read Mein Kampf? It's obviously important as an example, but literature it most definitely isn't, in the same way that those crayon pictures parents put on their fridges aren't impressionist masterpieces.
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 2 years ago
I came in for the story but stayed for the comments. Pass the popcorn.
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Ian Jarvis artist 2 years ago
@Jason Sartor: 'I have never come across a video game that has a good story' Do you even play games? What the hell are you doing here?!
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