I spent pretty much the whole of last weekend travelling home for my Christmas holiday, so I missed the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting story when it first broke. Another unhappy American kid had gained access to his parents' gun collection and gone on the rampage, killing 27 people and injuring two more before committing suicide. Like most young Americans, the killer was known to play videogames.
I've been looking forward to this holiday for months. I live in India for most of the year, armed with only a suitcase full of clothes, an Xbox, and a laptop. It has become a novel experience to have face-to-face conversations with people I don't work with, to sleep in a soft bed, or go outside without getting sunburn. Yesterday I drank a bottle of Irn Bru and had haggis and chips for tea and it was one of the most satisfying meals I've had all year.
Another thing I don't normally get to do is watch TV. So far I've watched a documentary on British wrestling, a program which was both called and about Old Jews Telling Jokes, and a lot of rolling news updates about Sandy Hook. Chief among them was a corker of a press conference from the NRA, in which I guess they called for the Government to clamp down on the rights of anyone with Autism and fired some figurative shots at the videogames industry for marketing violence to children.
Naturally, the thing I do most at Christmas is take advantage of my time off work to play a ton of videogames. In the five days I've been home so far, I've sunk an average of five hours a day into Red Dead Redemption - an extremely violent game about a cowboy tooling around the Old West and performing odd jobs for an endless parade of passers-by. Like Metal Gear Solid, Red Dead Redemption (generally) rewards the player for non-lethal actions, like shooting the guns out of opponents hands or bringing back bounty targets alive. Like Skyrim, it has dozens of wild animals roaming the wilderness for the player to hunt during their downtime. I don't like the idea of randomly killing animals for sport, but I enjoy virtual hunting enough that I can understand why people do it - tracking things down, sneaking up and making a clean kill involves similar thought processes to capturing Pokémon, after all.
I actually think Red Dead Redemption would go down pretty well with the NRA - it promotes some responsible uses of firearms and punishes the player for behaving recklessly. But it's set in a pretty different era of American history to what we have today, and I'd find it a little worrying if people still look to the Old West for moral guidance.
"American history" is a curious concept for Europeans to wrap their heads around. I have an American friend coming to visit next week who wants to visit some old historical sites in the North East. Some of my favourites include Dunstanburgh castle (built around 1320), Durham Cathedral (1040-ish), and of course Hadrian's Wall (completed in 128 AD). We Northumbrians grow up surrounded by history. I remember hot summer days from my childhood when my friends and I would walk through the woods to Mitford Castle and have picnics among the ruins. I mean who DOESN'T have a 1,000-year-old castle lying around in their back garden, right?
America is only 500 years old, and for half that time it was little more than Europe's loft extension. I'm glossing over the centuries of history before European settlers arrived of course, because when we talk about American culture we're predominently talking about white dudes with guns taking what they want. Red Dead Redemption is a game all about white dudes with guns taking what they want. Often these white dudes with guns are plain old bandits, thieves and horse rustlers, but then as you progress thought the story they are replaced with instruments of the US government, representatives of 'civilization' who are just as brutal and self-centred as the outlaws they're determined to quash.
I think one of the most problematic thing for groups like the NRA to understand when they start to talk about videogames is the player's agency to decide what to do. Despite Red Dead Redemption's nuanced take on violence, I have to say that my favourite thing in the game is to win duels with a flourish of surgical brutality. I tend to shoot my opponents once in each kneecap, shoot the gun out of their hand, put two bullets in their stomach, and one in their face - it makes for a really satisfying eruption of gunfire, real John Woo material. Do my actions make the game violent? Does pushing a certain combination of buttons mark me as a psychopath? I think not.
During a report on Washington's response the Sandy Hook shootings earlier in the week my brother told me that there were lots of contributing factors that led to the incident, but the easiest one to prevent was gun availability. It would - in his opinion - be easier for America to just ban guns than to, say, change its healthcare system to provide better support for people with Autism. Because all Obama would have to do is sign a bit of paper banning guns and patriotic Americans everywhere would just hand over their guns. This is the kind of assumption Europeans make about America.
Red Dead Redemption portrays the time in which the modern United States was born. It's a period of creeping federalism, of technology spreading 'civilization' across the frontier, and political meddling in foreign affairs. But it's a young and underdeveloped country, a world away from America as we know it today - a postwar powerhouse losing its grip on reality as it struggles to maintain its global position, its industrial superiority gradually sapped away and absorbed by Asia.
Here's the thing: The game is set 100 years ago. That's really not going back very far - there are people alive today whose grandparents would have ridden around on horses and carried a rifle for protection. It even ends in 1914, with newspapers making references to the Great War breaking out in Europe. Is it so reasonable to expect America to shake off its frontier heritage in such a short space of time? I don't think many people over here really appreciate American culture outside of the big cities, but I guess growing up in Northumberland does teach you what it's like to have foreigners associate you with a highly visible urban culture from another part of your country that actually has nothing to do with you.
I used to work with a guy who had a shotgun license and enjoyed shooting pigeons and stuff out in the fields near his mum's house. He was in his early 20's. Once when I was round at his house he shoved a shotgun into my hands and told me to check it out for myself. I was pretty terrified, in case it would somehow become loaded in my hands and go off in someone's face, and gave it back as quickly as I could. Does this sound like responsible gun ownership to you? It's good enough to qualify for a gun license, evidently.
But no, here in the UK we're generally pretty happy to live without guns and let the police do their thing. Here's the question I have not heard anyone here ask: Is that really the right attitude to have? We roll our eyes and make jokes about the paranoia of the American gun lobby - the Second Amendment-hugging wingnuts who live in fear of the New World Order taking their land or fluoridating their water - and in the meantime we've had a succession of governments, from (supposedly) both ends of the political spectrum, systematically dismantling and selling off our healthcare and education infrastructure. When we try to protest against these things the police kettle us in makeshift detention yards, and literally kill people without punishment.
Before I came home for my holiday I spent a few weeks wrapping up sidequests in my old, original game of Grand Theft Auto IV. It too is a big-budget Rockstar game that passes many comments about the United States, but I have to say that Red Dead Redemption felt much more sincere and heartfelt. I think it comes down to the fact that Grand Theft Auto was made in Edinburgh, steeped in sneering European cynicism for American values and culture, while Red Dead Redemption was made in San Diego and actually treats its characters with a degree of humanity, and I thought it made the game feel much more relatable and less depressing as a result.
Historically there have been perfectly rational (if ethically debatable) reasons for Americans to carry guns. Whether it's to help defend against/impose dominion over the native residents of the new land they were settling on, to hunt wildlife, to overthrow the British crown, or to defend yourself against criminals in places where there's no-one else around to protect you. For better or worse, America was built on guns, and driven by a distrust of powerful governments. If you were raised in such a society, wouldn't you be suspicious of government attempts to disarm you?
Do you trust the US government? Before you answer that question, remind yourself of all those secret foreign wars they engage in. Recall that 20-year period when the CIA was secretly dosing people with LSD and other drugs to study the effects. And bear in mind that President Obama himself has personally approved the execution of his own citizens without trial. The NRA argue that disarming Americans would mean that the 'good guys' are defenceless while the 'bad guys' continue to carry guns, and people here roll their eyes and talk about our crime stats following Dunblane, but here's a thought: What if the 'bad guys' the NRA are so scared of were actually the US military, or the police?
I enjoy living in countries with strict gun controls. I enjoy not owning a gun. But I don't believe there are 'right' or 'wrong' answers to these kinds of problems. If you are one of the many millions of people who live in the UK and don't have a gun license, it might sound really obvious to you that America should just restrict gun sales and be done with it, but I think you might be overlooking some of the cultural and historical differences between our countries. America will talk things over and America will reach a decision that America can live with, and that's their business.
I finished Red Dead Redemption last night. I liked the big showdown at the end, but I didn't think much of the epilogue. I've started dabbling with Free Roam multiplayer, which really just repeats a lot of the singleplayer content but puts it in an interesting multiplayer format - complex scripted events can be triggered by approaching certain areas on the map, and other players on your server can drop in and out. One wonders how this could be improved by mixing some Dark Souls style ambient multiplayer stuff into the singleplayer game - posses of live bounty hunters invading your game if you commit lots of crimes, for example.
I don't believe that games make people violent. It's an oversimplification, at least - violent videogames are played within a socio-cultural environment that is very firmly against violence, and in that context games probably provide a safe outlet for aggression rather than encourage it. But before you start sounding off to all your mates about how ridiculous the NRA sound, please remember: you may be just as ignorant about US gun culture as the NRA are about games. And perhaps a violent videogame like Red Dead Redemption, thrusting you into America's violent past, can provide outsiders with some context into where the NRA are coming from? Irony abounds.
Merry Christmas. I hope your family are safe and well.