Alan Jacobs asks us to consider the influence of the first-person shooter video game genre on the minds of young men, in particular the young men adorned in combat gear in Ferguson, Missouri:
What is it like to have your spatial, visual orientation to the world shaped by thousands of hours in shooter mode?
I want to suggest that there may be a strong connection between the visual style of video games and the visual style of American police forces … Note how in Ferguson, Missouri, cops’ dress, equipment, and behavior are often totally inappropriate to their circumstances — but visually a close match for many of the Call of Duty games. Consider all the forest-colored camouflage, for instance … It’s a color scheme that is completely useless on city streets — and indeed in any other environment in which any of these cops will ever work. This isn’t self-protection; it’s cosplay.
My heart dropped into my stomach as I read this. I never got into this style of video game, so it’s hard for me to put myself in their place. (I can tell you that I would have given anything to don a sword, sheild, and magic boomerang and live the adventures of Link.) I don’t think Jacobs is by any means claiming to know the degree of influence these games have had on these men (or even to know for sure that they played them), and nor will I.
But the prospect nonetheless horrifies me, the very idea that the discontent of the people of Ferguson, manifesting in the form of protest demonstrations, somehow offered these men an opportunity they did not even realize they were itching for: the chance to live their video games. And not Tetris.
People immerse themselves in video games all the time. I go through spates of being addicted to Civilization games, but I don’t then begin to see my life as a series of hexagons to be conquered by recently generated military units. To my knowledge, Angry Birds doesn’t compel anyone to attack pigs or become obsessed with catapults and slingshots.
But there is something particular about the 3-D first-person shooter that may have a different effect on the psyche, as its whole aim is to visually immerse a player in a world as though they were seeing through the character’s eyes (thus the term “first-person”), and almost always in a tense kill-or-be-killed situation (thus “shooter”).
The whole display would be ludicrous — boys with toys — except the ammunition is real. The guns are loaded, even if some of them have only rubber bullets, and the tear gas truly burns. And so play-acted immersion in a dystopian future gradually yields a dystopian present.
What is is like to be a first-person shooter? It’s awesome, dude.
This hypothetical (and again, it’s just a hypothetical) frightens me. The implications are grotesque – that young men armed to the teeth may be drawn to live out a first-person shooter fantasy, that they could consider a civil protest (not an invasion, not a riot, not a crime spree) the appropriate scenario in which to act that fantasy out, and that these black residents of Ferguson were alien enough to these men that they could take the place of the zombies and Nazis and extraterrestrials in their minds, as some percieved existential threat.
But the young men on the ground don’t make the decision on their own to advance, to fire into homes, to terrorize noncombatants. Someone presumably older and more experienced would be giving those orders. The zeal with which they are carried out certainly matters, but is of course entirely speculative. I wouldn’t bet these older commanders are big on Call of Duty, and are scratching a wholly different itch.