What’s in a game? Don’t ask the 8th Circuit Court

Back in the day, and I mean really back in the day when I had an Apple IIe computer and a computer game called Castle Wolfenstein. The game was on a 5″ floppy disk and was essentially a puzzle maze where you were a WWII Allied prisoner trying to escape from the lowest dungeons of an old castle turned Nazi fortress. Graphically it was about as crude as it could be, and by crude I mean laughably simplistic by today’s standards. It was a one-color, two-dimensional, third-person shooter where the game characters were essentially stick figures whose arms would only extend at 45 and 90 degree angles to shoot at other characters. To “kill” a Nazi guard you had to maneuver around the screen and try to plink him before he got you. If you succeeded, your victim fell over like a tree in the forest. Nevertheless it was hours of fun as you worked your way through various rooms, traps and puzzles while searching crates for keys, ammo, grenades and bullet proof vests.

A few years later I was using a company laptop and one day in a clearance bin I saw an updated version of “Wolfenstein” on a diskette advertising new, 3-D graphics. “Cool,” I thought, and plunked down the $5, took the game home and loaded it up, finding myself in a full-color dungeon, armed with a Luger. I worked my way around a corner and a uniformed guard came rushing at me. I raised my gun and fired and — HIS HEAD EXPLODED! Blood, meat and brains went flying and I actually felt a little ill. In this case the graphics were, well, graphic and unbelievably “crude” but not in the same way as the first game. I later learned that the updated game was based on the “Doom” game engine — quite a leap forward from the tin-man stick figures of my old game. I decided it was too intense for me and turned it off, never to go back to it.

Even then, of course, the “new” graphics were still not as realistic as they are now; the game, after all, was on a little 3″ diskette, running on a computer with a processor that would embarrass a calculator today. Today’s games and game engines are highly advanced, technically, but some are still as base as they can be in their renderings of violence. I’ve changed, too, of course and I don’t mind a little of the ultra-violence in a game as long as it’s not too real. I’ve hacked and slashed my way through orcs, trolls, bug-bears, goblins and fire-breathing demon dogs without flinching (Baldur’s Gate II) or sniped German storm-troopers (Brothers In Arms) while still looking forward to lunch, but while these games are well-rendered the “dead” aren’t excessively gory and they thoughtfully disappear soon after falling. I’ve even played these with my youngest daughter, a sweet-natured girl who used to cry if someone fell off a horse in a TV show, but who now snickers if she gets the drop on a mummy and dispatches it with a spinning kick.

Perhaps this isn’t the nicest daddy-daughter activity we can engage in, but I know that there are games out there that are much worse and that strive to outdo each other in replicating the most realistic dismemberments. These games typically have “M” for “Mature” ratings. These games do not come into my house. I was thinking of this today when I read the news story that the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals had struck down (how violent!) a law banning selling “mature” or “adults only” video games.

Minnesota may not enforce a law restricting the sale or rental of “adults only” or “mature” video games to minors, according to an opinion issued Monday by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

A three-judge panel said the court previously has held that violent video games are protected free speech under the First Amendment of the Constitution. For that reason, the law can only be upheld if it is proven “necessary to serve a compelling state interest and … is narrowly tailored to achieve that end,” the panel ruled.

As I read it I was also thinking about the day a few years ago when I went into the video arcade at Valley Fair and watched an expert player using both pistols on the big-screen “House of the Dead” game to mow down realistic, nearly life-sized zombies and monsters. He was fast and unhesitant. He was accurate and stylish, often using the turn-the-gun-sideways grip so popular in today’s action movies. He was about eight years old. I wondered then if maybe something inside a young person doesn’t get seared a bit from playing a game as graphic as that (or even an older person for that matter). Could you “play” enough so that the real thing wouldn’t seem like that big of a deal?

About 15 years ago I was at a conference where we were all taken out to a dude ranch for the evening’s entertainment. One of the things you could do was engage in a quick-draw contest with a friend. In this you each had an authentic style and weight single-action revolver in a leather holster. You actually faced each other from about six feet away and when the cowpoke “referee” gave the signal you’d draw, work the single-action, aim at your opponent and pull the trigger. Sensors determined who fired first, while the referee determined if your gun was pointed in an “effective” manner. My friend Nick and I faced off three times; each time he won. The ref looked at me and shook his head. “Dude,” he said (it was a dude ranch, after all), “you’re clearing leather and cocking the gun ahead of him every time, but you don’t pull the trigger fast enough.

“Really?” I said. “I don’t feel like I’m hesitating.” We tried three more times, each time I focused on pulling the trigger with grim resolution. Three more times I died. I just couldn’t overcome the split-second hesitation, even though I knew the gun was fake and the action wasn’t for real. The ref just shook his head. “You’re a cold-hearted bastard, Nick,” I told my partner. He rather enjoyed that.

Somehow I don’t think the little kid I saw playing the game at Valley Fair would hesitate. This is a good thing, perhaps, if you’re under zombie attack for real but since that doesn’t happen much when the legislature isn’t in session I wonder if, all in all, it’s not such a good thing. I also wonder at the bizarre reasoning of the 8th Circuit Court which based it’s ruling in large part that graphic violence is protected as free speech and therefore can’t be restricted, even by age. Which, in turn, makes me wonder if the Court will now repeal motion picture ratings and allow over-the-counter sales of pr0n magazines to 10-year-olds under the same logic.

I’d like to be just as sophisticated and blasé about the potential impact of the CG-enhanced violence in games available to kids and the TV shows and movies that are so accessible. The scientists, after all, assure us that there’s a negligible effect. “Tosh,” I’ll think to myself, “the schools and parents are doing an excellent job of teaching manners, respect and impulse-control to today’s young men. What’s the worst that can happen?” And then I’ll turn from the comics page to the local news section.

A young man upset about a girlfriend issue takes a rock in a sock to a knife fight and is killed by two other young men. Another man beats his friend to death with a baseball bat. A five-year-old boy takes a knife to school in order to threaten his gym teacher. A 15-year-old boy points a replica gun at police officers, who respond with real bullets. The last article appeared in the paper two days ago, the first three articles, along with the story about the court ruling, were all in today’s paper. I’m sure it’s all just coincidence.

Let’s play two.


Then there’s this: Five arrested with weapons outside St. Paul school. Three of the five are minors.

One thought on “What’s in a game? Don’t ask the 8th Circuit Court

  1. It’s clear that something is wrong and I think it’s pretty deep. Yet we try to solve the problem with things like gun control and zero tolerance rules at school. It’s further down than a law can reach.

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