Violent Video Games Might Have Saved My Town

Violent Video Games Might Have Saved My Town

By David Himmel

In the continuing politicized slog that is the debate/discussion around preventing public mass shootings, I keep hearing things like, “It’s not about gun control, it’s about treating the mentally ill and not subjecting people to violent television shows and movies and video games.” Last week, NPR’s All Things Considered had a short segment on the issue. I don’t disagree that the mass shooting problem is not solely about gun control — we absolutely need common sense gun control — I disagree with the idea that violent TV shows, movies and video games cause people to shoot up their school or church or whatever.

For one, I’m convinced that many of those all wet, hot and hard for the NRA think that guns, guns and more guns are the answer because they have an unhealthy kinship with violent movies like Rambo, Die Hard, Commando, and any other Cold War Hollywood blockbuster featuring the owners of Planet Hollywood. So be careful there, Buddy, you don’t want to end up stripping yourself of your favorite films.

As for violent video games, there I’m fairly sure that if I hadn’t had access to such things I might have taken my frustrations out on a shopping mall or a university or myself. Instead, I was able to take my rage and human instinct to vanquish my enemies and focus it into an absurd fantasy of blasting monsters in Doom, Nazis in Wolfenstein and anyone I chose, especially the police and military, in Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto III.

The pro-gun folks are right. We’ll never stop evil. Bad guys will always find a way to do their bad deeds. But it’s more than excusing bad behavior for plain evil. Violence is an inherent part of the animal kingdom. Jesus Christ, have you ever seen giraffes go at it? And wouldn’t you know it, it’s always over turf or women. Not that different than the reasons humans go after each other.

Most of us humans have evolved to the point where we can manage our base instincts. Those who haven’t are often the ones we see shooting up schools, churches, concerts. Being angry, sad, vengeful… these negative feelings aren’t bad. They happen. It’s what we do with them that matters. You know that old saying: “Feelings don’t kill people, guns do.”

During a bad row, one of life’s tests, a wretched hardship, most of us find a reasonably constructive way to deal with our sadness, anger and need for vengeance. We work out, we take a vacation, we smoke weed and watch 30 Rock, we drink a few beers and play bar trivia with our pals, we rock climb or scream into a pillow or box or play video games.

A decade-plus back, I was in the midst of an on-again-off-again relationship with a woman I really shouldn’t have been with. During my twenties, my only regret is that I spent too much time with the wrong women and not enough with the right ones. This relationship, and my behavior in it as much as hers, left me confused, frustrated, angry, feeling cheated and dumb and worthless on a near daily basis.

“Why’d you stay with her, Dave? Why not just break up with her?”

Glad you asked, dickhead. Because of the sex. Isn’t that always the case for all of us? And because of pride. I didn’t want to painted as the bad guy. It was a battle of stubborn will. So, yeah, of course the sex was worth sticking around for.

 The author blowing off steam with a leisurely stroll.

The author blowing off steam with a leisurely stroll.

At the end of each day, especially the bad ones, I retreated to the comfort of my friend Christopher’s house. I needed his friendship and support. He always had at least a six-pack of Miller Lite we could drink. And he had Grand Theft Auto III for Playstation. Grand Theft Auto III is a third-person shooter game. In it, you’re involved in the criminal underworld somehow and you have to steal cars, fistfight enemies, shoot those enemies and outrun the law. If you get too much heat on you, the military comes after you. I never played the game for the story. I took the less intelligent form of entertainment.

I had secured all the cheat codes, made myself invincible and loaded up on every weapon from a six-shooter wheel gun to a Gatling gun and bazooka. I summoned tanks from the sky and drove them through people and over cars. I hijacked a military helicopter. I paid hookers for sex then beat them to death and got my money back and the money of other Johns. I perched on top of tall buildings as a sniper and fired at will. I was a monster. But I was a monster who never actually hurt a single living soul.

I found great release in manifesting this kind of violence on screen. It allowed me to completely disconnect from my troubles — the girlfriend, the overdrawn bank account, family stressors, just life — and let my lizard brain-wild ape flex his muscles. Sometimes, when I didn’t feel like beating hookers, shooting cops or driving a tank through a grocery store, I would steal a motorcycle, find a good radio station — the Grand Theft Auto games have great radio stations — and drive out of the city to tool around on the open road alone. After a few hours of mindless screen time, I was calm, ready for another day of fighting against my own daily existence. Woe was me because, well, sometimes we are woe.

 To be clear, I never once —ever — considered hurting a real person or thing. What I wanted was a world where I was untouchable, where I could find solace in my own kind of Fortress of Solitude. In real life, we can’t ever really escape away from everything whenever we want, or even need. Grand Theft Auto III gave that to me. It let me play God. That violent video game provided me with the one thing I could never have otherwise — total control.

Douglas Gentile, a psychology professor at Iowa State University who has studied the effects of violent video games and spoke to All Things Considered, disagrees that they can be cathartic. But I disagree with him because for me, pulling a man out of his red sports car and beating him to death then driving off in that car at top speed while spraying bullets throughout a crowded downtown was absolute catharsis for me.

That’s not to say that Grand Theft Auto games should be given to the emotionally enraged and unstable. I’m not sure what to do with them. I’m evolved. I don’t hold back all of my instincts to lash out all of the time, but I’m evolved enough to know the difference between the cartoonish over the top violence of a video game and the horrific impact of actually blasting a tank shell into a busy intersection. Had I not had Chris’ Playstation and Grand Theft Auto III to express my basic rage instincts, I still don’t think I would have snapped and procured an actual weapon and shot up my girlfriend at her workplace. I mean, maybe, but I really doubt it.

If anything, I probably would have broken up with her sooner.

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