Charles Petzold

First-Person Shooter

December 17, 2012
New York, N.Y.

It must have been about 20 years ago. I was at a friend’s house and he showed me a new videogame called Wolfenstein 3D. My friend enjoyed the dynamics of the game, which involved — as best I can recall — a first-person perspective of an armed soldier chasing people on the screen, and shooting and killing them.

I’m afraid I was rather appalled rather than enticed. The idea of shooting and killing people — even in fantasy — was distasteful and horrifying to me. This is what the computer revolution was all about? “But they’re mutant Nazi zombies,” my friend argued, I guess under the assumption that if anyone deserved to be blown away, it was a mutant Nazi zombie.

Wolfenstein 3D is now famous as spawning a whole genre of first-person shooter computer games, and they are now part of the culture in which we live.

I have never actually played one of these games. So in one sense, I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about here. Indeed, my wife and I probably constitute one of the few computer-geek households with no Xbox, no PS3, no Wii, and no games on our computers more interesting than Minesweeper, Freecell, and Bejeweled.

I now also qualify as an old fogy, so I probably have nothing useful to say about this subject or anything else. So be it.

I was once a kid, however, and I know that kids left to themselves will pick up sticks and poles, pretend that they’re rifles, and run around “shooting” each other. Evolution seems to have engrained something in our brains that foment this type of play. But time was, this play stopped around the time of puberty. Only in recent decades has it been common to see teenagers and young adults continue playing at shooting other human beings (or computer images of other human beings) in paintball and first-person shooter games.

In the two decades since Wolfenstein 3D, first-person shooter games have become much more realistic and — in more sense than one — much more deadly. Now embedded in the psychology and muscle memory of the players of these games are the skills necessary to carry out a military-style take-no-prisoners assault: the quick reflexes, the agile turns, the strategies necessary to maximize the kill count, and most importantly — how to revel in the splashing blood rather than being sickened by it.

Whether there is a demonstrable cause-and-effect in the minds of kids and young adults who play these games and their lives away from the computer screen, I don’t know. But there is now a whole generation that has assimilated the mentality of carrying out an assault and blasting people to smithereens — game players who can visualize with great accuracy exactly what it’s like to commit mass slaughter in a shopping mall, a college campus, a movie theater, a workplace, a house of worship, or a grade school.

I’m not suggesting that first-person shooter games should be made illegal. I would much prefer that our lawmakers focus on the more immediate need of banning assault weapons, restricting handgun availability, and providing for universal healthcare that encompasses the mind as well as the body.

Rather than banning these games, I’d like to see ourselves as individuals exercise the self-discipline to avoid buying these games and playing them — in effect, to shun these games as something unhealthy and repulsive, as something representing a violent mentality and mode of life that we (as civilized human beings) categorically reject.

We programmers also have an obligation to use our powers for good rather than evil. We should not only reject programming jobs involved in creating weapons or perpetuating tyranny, but also reject programming jobs that contribute to the unhealthy psychological celebration of violence.

We programmers should instead attempt to formulate computer games that teach skills useful in modern-day life — skills such as debate, compromise, and conflict resolution. Obviously this is a much greater challenge than creating games dedicated to mass murder, but I have no doubt that we programmers are intelligent enough to try at least.

As Steven Pinker’s exceptionally important book The Better Angels of Our Nature clearly demonstrates, violence is not our irrevocable destiny as human beings. Over the past millennia and centuries, violence has been declining. We are steadily but slowly becoming better people.

This is a trend to be cherished. We should do everything we can to magnify it. We must make a concerted effort to reduce violence in our lives, in our mass entertainment, and on our computer screens.