All over a stupid video game

BoingBoing has a good summary of yesterday’s lethal swatting incident. It’s a messy and really stupid story, so I’ll give my even more abbreviated summary:

Party 1 (going by some dumbass pseudonym) gets into a dumbass argument about a video game with Party 2 (another dumbass pseudonym). Party 1 dares Party 2 to swat him, and sends him an address of another, innocent party. Party 2 then asks Party 3 (dumbass pseudonym, you get the drill) to phone in a kidnapping/murder story to the police, because he has a history of pulling dumbass stunts like that. Cops roll up to innocent house, innocent, unarmed man answers, dumbass cop murders him on the spot.

Parties 1, 2, and 3 are all accomplices in murder, and deserve lots of jail time. Trigger happy cop is an incompetent who must at least be fired, but also deserves jail time, as does the entire police force that fosters this kind of hyper-violent form of ‘peace-keeping’.

Actual predictions: Party 3 is such a flagrant ass that he’s going to get a long sentence. Parties 1 and 2 will get slapped, but probably not as much as they deserve. Trigger-happy cop will get a paid vacation and the respect and honor of his fellow thugs. Players of violent video games will continue to be dumbasses, and violent video game publishers will make more profits selling games to dumbasses. And the world will continue to spin about its axis.

Innocent man will still be dead.


  1. says

    Maker of violent video games here.

    Yes, if there was a Hell there should be a circle of it specially for piss-stains who swat other gamers. I hope these guys get buried so deep in the justice system they don’t see daylight until they are pensioners.

    As for who I make games for and who my bosses sell games to, yes, they include a cadre of dumbasses, trolls, dudebros and other wankers. Unless we are going to have a moral panic about violent video games resembling previous moral panics about violent movies and violent comic books, then this is the way it will have to go.

  2. Chuck Stanley says

    Does anyone know what story/excuses the police are telling? Why despite the false 911 call, do they just show up and shoot someone? I’m trying to imagine the scenario and I can’t even come up with one.

  3. says

    “Does anyone know what story/excuses the police are telling?”
    I haven’t seen anything on this yet, but you can be sure that it will involve “I felt threatened”!

  4. malachiconstant says

    @2: I can’t find the podcast I heard, but the general story/excuse is that everything about the situation is irrelevant except the moment before the shot is fired. If the officer’s lawyer can show that in the instant before they fired the officer feared for their life, then they’re a-okay. This means that all they need is something the victim did that could be interpreted as any way threatening is enough to clear the cop.
    Lowered his hands for a moment toward his belt? That’s enough.
    Did not obey an instruction correctly? That’s enough.
    Apparently its completely irrelevant that cops roll up on a completely innocent person, shine a light in their eyes, point guns at them, and yell multiple aggressive commands at them. If they don’t behave perfectly (according to the cop’s discretion) then it’s okay that the cop shot them.
    And, yeah, PZ, taking aim at makers and players of violent video games seems off-target here.

  5. malachiconstant says

    Ah, here it is. It’s a Radiolab spin-off legal podcast called “More Perfect”:

    “On a fall afternoon in 1984, Dethorne Graham ran into a convenience store for a bottle of orange juice. Minutes later he was unconscious, injured, and in police handcuffs. In this episode, we explore a case that sent two Charlotte lawyers on a quest for true objectivity, and changed the face of policing in the US.”

  6. felicis says

    Simple rule for police – don’t send a SWAT team unless you have some evidence other than a tip that a SWAT team is needed.

    That won’t fix all the problems with SWAT, but it would help quite a bit.

  7. says

    Obviously, I’m defending my means of living. However, I suspect that violent video games and the culture around them is just a small part of the story here.

    By the way, a good reference on the current state of research into the links between games and aggression is: Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games Is Wrong by Patrick M. Markey, Christopher J. Ferguson.

  8. DonDueed says

    From the Times story (on the Boston Globe site):

    Livingston said that Andrew Finch, who was unarmed, had not followed commands to keep his arms raised and that an officer had feared he was drawing a gun. Grainy body camera footage showed a person in a distant doorway, an officer ordering the person to walk toward the police, and a gunshot.

    Livingston is Deputy Chief of the Wichita police.

  9. hemidactylus says

    Wasn’t there a previous moral panic about violent video games post-Columbine? I am not into gaming. When I played anything it was usually Madden Football which is a simulation of a very violent sport. At some point in early 90s the game had a feature where injured players would be carted off the field in an ambulance. Not such a nice thing in retrospect.

    The height of depravity was making the tragedy of the Battle of Mogadishu into a video game seemingly inspired by the Black Hawk Down movie. On the face of it that just seemed too inappropriate. I wonder if they made the Air Cav battles in Ia Drang valley into a game too. Still too soon.

    I don’t understand the gaming subculture or at least its really messed up side effects such as misogynistic gamergate and the above swatting thing. That said there will be violent games, some perhaps fun to play. Pac Man was violent in a sense. Warcraft and simulated tank battles are inherently violent, but perhaps within proper bounds. It’s the moral character (or lack) of the players where the problem stems. And the above mentioned case intersected tragically with the problems within cop culture.

  10. says

    I am not criticizing video game makers, directly — I am criticizing violent video game players. You have to admit that there’s an ugly subculture of hateful, misogynist, racist goons who coalesce around certain video games, and that subculture launched gamergate, 4chan/8chan, and the alt-right. If video games disappeared overnight, those assholes would still be there.

    It’s like how atheism seems to have fostered this tribe of unthinking right-leaning assholes who use it as an excuse to hate feminism and Muslims. It’s not the fault of atheism. Atheism was just a convenient rallying point.

  11. robro says

    leebrimmicombe-wood @ #7 — Not a gamer or developer, but I’ve been involved in software development since 1984. I’ve been on every side of this kind of debate over the years.

    Here’s a somewhat different take: The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains by Dr. Robert H. Lustig, an endocrinologist at UCSF. He equates all forms of pleasure seeking behavior, whether it’s consuming substances (sugar, drugs), gambling, spending money, or endless hours on computer screens, to the same neuro-chemistry that leads to addiction: dopamine. He further asserts that corporations have deliberately and knowingly exploited this human tendency to seek the dopamine buzz for their bottom line, rather like the tobacco industry.

    I’m not qualified to critique his position, so I don’t mean to advocate for it. I spend my own hours plugged into screens (as I am right now). I may be as addicted to getting Likes as anybody (I’ll be checking FB next). I’m definitely addicted to sugar. I’ve also been reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow so I’m aware that we don’t have as much rational control of our decisions as we like to assume.

    It’s disturbing to consider how vulnerable we are to our own misapprehensions and other people’s exploitation.

  12. lotharloo says

    How to anonymously kill someone (or at least a random person from a house):

    Step 1: Find their address.
    Step 2: Call the cops and call them to their address for whatever reason, it does not matter.
    Step 3: Make sure to emphasize that someone in the house hold is armed and and probably angry.

    The only caveat is that if they go to the wrong address:

  13. says

    This means that all they need is something the victim did that could be interpreted as any way threatening is enough to clear the cop.
    Lowered his hands for a moment toward his belt? That’s enough.

    Yup, and recently on a youtube show (content warning for real wounds etc.) I saw some of a police training video, which people say is used to train actual police. The whole video seems to be made to make police especially on-edge. You’d think they’d have come up with better ways to handle fear other than using lethal force…

  14. microraptor says

    hemidactylus @9:

    There have been moral panics about video games since 1976, when the game Death Race was released, since that was the first game to feature killing humanoid opponents as gameplay.

  15. says

    PZ, you’re right. There’s a toxic culture, particularly around online gaming. The assholes were there before. The game is just a different medium for them to asshole in.

    Ultimately, we can’t legislate who we sell games to. And as an industry we are trying to be mindful of ways to detoxify the communities we build. Sometimes that means designing ways to limit interaction between players in the game. For example, looking at collision mechanics that prevent certain forms of griefing, or even creating safe volumes that allow players to tag toxic players and prevent them from seeing/interacting with them if they get too close. More simply, it can revolve around restricting the palette of social interactions, through emotes and suchlike. Adding moderation tools can also help but are far from perfect.

    However, in an age of online chat, of Discord servers and suchlike. We really can’t stop people from talking to each other via voice or keyboard. And that—where people talk peer-to-peer—seems to be where the toxicity overflows. Look at many/most of these interactions and its in that social space that the friction occurs.

    I tell you true, I have no idea how to police that.

  16. says

    Moral panics about violent video games seem to occur with some regularity. I notice that it’s recent tactic of Second Amendment gun-fondlers has been to try and deflect the blame for mass shootings onto video games. Which is why it’s worth checking the research. Yes, violent video games have an effect on people, but the evidence so far suggests it’s no more than you get from violent movies. Which is to say that it will trigger aggression in a tiny number of people, but the mass of users are fine. Of course, we have far fewer mass shootings in countries like Canada, the UK, Germany and Japan, where gaming is as commonplace as in the US. I wonder why that can be?

  17. blf says

    I’ve don’t recall ever seeing a “video game” which isn’t a complete pile of crock, often (though not always) equating mechanical ability (keyboard, keypad, and / or mouse) with intelligence, vision dexterity with observation, and elapsed time with skill. (Only the last is plausible.)

    My intense dislike of “video games” is, perhaps, in part due to my poor skills in controlling the mouse, and problems in seeing poorly-designed displays (e.g., low contrast or small fonts…). Since every “video game” display I can recall suffers from one or more poor accessibility design points, I very probably do rate both the “games” and their designers as eejits: Seemingly no comprehension whatsoever of human variety.

    It is possible there is a “video game” somewhere which is accessible to people with motor and vision skills that do not match those of the designers / programmers. I assume the people designing / programming such “games” have been fired for wasting time (on accessibility) instead of adding additional implausible physics and absurd logics.

  18. Vivec says

    I mean, the entire visual novel genre of games is, by and large, probably your best bet in terms of accessibility. Barring a few outliers, the games are pretty much CYOA novels with art and voice acting, if even that, and tend to have readable or pause-able text.

  19. says

    blf, I think you’ll find there are plenty of games accessible to people without good motor skills and that have accessible interfaces. There’s whole genres of such things, from management games like Animal Crossing, to puzzle games like Papers, Please. You could start with my latest game, Hidden Agenda, from Sony on the PS4 and Playlink, which is a narrative game that doesn’t require twitch gaming skills.

    Speaking as a designer eejit, and one who has designed plenty of interfaces, for PC, console and VR, we do our best to try and comprehend the breadth of human variety. We put in a lot of effort on accessibility and focus test our work long before it reaches the public. That we occasionally fail I can attribute to time and resource pressure in development and good old-fashioned human error. But on the whole we do a fairly good job these days.

    Now, I’ve never heard of a studio that has ever sacked staff for ‘wasting time’ on accessibility. But what do I know? I’ve only been in this industry for 25 years.

  20. lotharloo says

    First, when it comes to competitive gaming, people with poor internet are similarly affected as people with poor motor skills.

    Second, games like hearthstone are turn based card games with very large competitive scenes. It doesn’t need much mechanical skill but some quick thinking as well as understanding.

    Third, at the high level even seemingly brainless shooters require very deep understanding as well as high mental power.

    But yes you are right that accessibility features are the usually the least concern for the gaming companies.

  21. John Morales says

    I’m with malachiconstant here; the primary responsibility belongs to the police, not with any gamers.

    I can’t imagine living in a place where, should someone sic the police on you, you might well die for no reason other than their proclivity to shoot first and ask questions later.

    (Yeah, I know… gun culture. Anyone may be armed and dangerous, so shooting first makes sense to them)

  22. blf says

    I’ve been in the industry for a helluva lot longer (albeit not in the “video” or “gaming” areas), and stand by my almost-unconditional assertion video interface designers & programmers are eejits who take neither major-but-not-“disabling” vision nor motor skills differences into account. It’s possible some “think” they are, but whatever the feck the eejits think they are doing or testing, it ain’t working (or at least is not very widespread). I would not be surprised if whatever — if anything — which underlies “video game” motor skills and accessibility very probably includes or relies on unverified & large doses of unchecked pseudoscience.

    I have gotten the impression in the past, especially (but not exclusively) that that pseudoscience is a case of the designer / programmer insisting “it can’t be that different from me”. The most notable example I can now think of is when I simulated what the screen looked like, to me, without the assorted corrections and enhancements I use to make it accessible. My point at the time was the “increase font size” facility was inaccessible to someone who couldn’t fecking see it in the first place, made worse my being a very small mouse target to hit (click).

    The audience did not seem to be understand — albeit my boiling-hot anger very probably didn’t help (and I’m having a hard time containing myself now (do you have any idea how long it takes to set up most(?) systems so I can just see what the feck it is I am setting up?)) — and was never addressed or otherwise corrected. Since then — over twenty years ago — I have next-to-no respect whatsoever for the eejits who think / claim they do accessible design. (There are a few exceptions, albeit my point from twenty-plus years ago is still universally(?) true.)

  23. says

    in almost any professional field, someone performing a service can be held liable of they are incompetent and hurt someone. It’s ridiculous that cops can be so hair-triggered and “I was scared” works as an excuse. Imagine if a doctor performed surgery on the wrong organ, and said “It was hard.”

    The fact that swatting exists as a thing is because cops are dangerously shooty. This was inevitable. I wish everyone involved in this tragedy would have to face serious consequences, but it’ll probably cost the taxpayers of the municipality a bunch of $ and the idiots who dropped the call will be all contrite and shit and get a slap on the wrist.

  24. jrkrideau says

    @ 25 Caine
    Re Video Game Addiction
    Sees a bit dubious but it could be a presenting symptom for more serious problems.

    Compared to some of the things in DSM-5 has dreamed up, it sounds perfectly reasonable.

  25. antigone10 says

    To say that a statement like “Players of violent video games will continue to be dumbasses” is a statement of moral panic against video games is like calling the “MeToo” movement a “sexual moral panic witch hunt”. It is so wrong that it loops back on itself as wrong.

    Video games, even violent ones, do not cause violence. At best, there is some evidence that suggests that witnessing and vicariously participating in violence can make one numb to the concept of violence, though not actual violence itself (watching people dying in war in video games and movies makes it harder for you to empathize with people dying in real wars when all you see is video of it or read about it. However, it does not stop violence that you witness in real from being just as traumatic). But if you look at me, straightfaced, and tell me that the culture around violent video games is not misogynistic, toxic, nastiness I’ve a got a bridge in New York. And it’s because people who don’t like that kind of culture are pushed out. If you play video games to unwind and have fun, and you get yelled at that you’re a b*tch/ c*nt/ sl*t five minutes in, you aren’t going to continue. It encourages ultra-competitive behavior, and most video game mechanics support this toxic culture.

    In this particular instance, the biggest problem is cops who don’t know how to police. That doesn’t make the behavior of the rest of the parties not-culpable. If you were rolling around in rural 1960s Alabama and you started talking about a black grocery-store owner cheated you, even if you didn’t put on the sheet and light a torch you are still partially responsible for the consequences because you knew what they could potentially be. Going “I didn’t fire the gun” when you handed it to someone you knew was trigger happy and told them they had something to be afraid of doesn’t clear away your guilt.

    This is fucked up. I don’t know what else to say about it.

  26. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    My intense dislike of “video games” is, perhaps, in part due to my poor skills in controlling the mouse, and problems in seeing poorly-designed displays (e.g., low contrast or small fonts…). Since every “video game” display I can recall suffers from one or more poor accessibility design points, I very probably do rate both the “games” and their designers as eejits: Seemingly no comprehension whatsoever of human variety.

    It is possible there is a “video game” somewhere which is accessible to people with motor and vision skills that do not match those of the designers / programmers. I assume the people designing / programming such “games” have been fired for wasting time (on accessibility) instead of adding additional implausible physics and absurd logics.

    That’s an interesting contrast with your stated opinions of people who use recipes, which serve largely to make cooking “accessible.”

  27. says

    BLF — If I can find games that accommodate my range of motor skills, I’m sure you can, too.

    I’d also like to note that, even if you start out biffing every jump (I cut my gaming teeth on Mario), if you keep trying and keep practicing, your fine motor skills and eye-hand coordination can and will improve. This is how I started. Now, I can’t drive for shit (racing games are out), but first-person RPGs (Skyrim, Oblivion, Morrowind, Fallout 3, Fallout New Vegas), point-and-click games (Diablo 1 & 2, Torchlight 1, 2, & 3, Neverwinter Nights), I’ve found plenty that doesn’t require lightning-fast reflexes or super-acute vision. Or, for that matter, a super-up-to-date machine!

  28. says

    As for addiction, LOLNOPE. You might as well say reading too much is an addictive behavior. Video games are just another way of telling stories, and the good ones suck you right on in.

  29. KG says

    Yeah, I know… gun culture. Anyone may be armed and dangerous, so shooting first makes sense to them – John Morales@22

    True enough, but I wonder if there’s something else going on. The extraordinary level of lethal police violence in the USA, itself apparently promoted by police training methods, seems designed to produce a culture in which instant compliance with whatever a person in uniform orders is the expected response, and even momentary failure to comply for whatever reason including confusion, freezing in fear, deafness, etc. makes you responsible for your own immediate death. Even if this has not in fact been planned, the outcome would be very convenient to any would-be dictator.

    watching people dying in war in video games and movies makes it harder for you to empathize with people dying in real wars when all you see is video of it or read about it – antigone10@28

    Well, that in itself seems a pretty undesirable effect.

  30. Vivec says

    I think a lot of it boils down to “We can kill you and get off scott-free if you encounter us, therefore don’t do things that make you encounter us.”

    It’s the tacit threat of armed guards outside of an important building, but instead expanded into a cultural meme. You will respect authority, or we will kill you. Every time the cops use this power, it’s a show of force to remind people of the fact that said force could be used on them if they do anything that challenges hegemonic power structures.

  31. says

    It’s video games.
    It’s not movies.
    It’s not TV shows.
    It’s not the internet.
    It’s the freaking combination of all these things which we call culture. We get this discussion each and every time with people going “oh but just having a nekkid lady in a game doesn’t do harm”

  32. says

    blm, I think you’ll find the video games industry has moved on somewhat. As I and others have pointed out, there are swathes of games, and many genres of game, that do not require fine motor skills.

    Yes, there are many games that DO require such skills. ‘Twitch’ gaming, by which I mean the genre of action games, not the gaming channel, is a thing. But there are plenty of titles that don’t require the reflexes of a ninja. If twitch gaming and platform games frustrate you, there are a lot of other games out there that probably don’t. Someone suggested Hearthstone and I can heartily recommend it.

    The point here is that gaming is now a vast ecosystem that caters for all segments of the market, including you. And you need to look for what you find comfortable to play. So generalisations about interface designers and programmers really holds no water. Which isn’t to say there aren’t devs who are eejits. I may well be an eejit myself. However, when I design a game I look very hard at the expected audience. I usually have a lot of market and user experience research at my fingertips. What this means is that I design for the expected user, not every possible user.

    If the game is a first-person shooter, and I’ve shipped several of these, I design control systems around a range of expected users from ninja experten to n00bs. I build various forms of helper so that users of low skill can shoot accurately and compete. I design interfaces to help with situational awareness, and I design tutorial systems to ease them into the game. If the game is a turn-based tactics game, and I’ve shipped one of those too, then I’m designing a very different user experience for a different audience, and for an experience that requires different user skills.

    The expected user base often includes people with varying levels of disability, including visual impairment. So we design in the ability to customise the experience with controls and interface for a wide range of users.

    And studios and publishers of any size these days will have a user experience team to help. Which means that rather than building on pseudoscience, as you claim, we build on actual experience with members of the public, and have laboratories to test our products with audiences. Gatekeepers to certain ecosystems, such as Microsoft and Sony, have large checklists of technical requirements that explicitly address accessibility issues and try to pick off problems with visual accessibility, with colour vision deficiency, contrast, font clarity and suchlike, long before a product reaches market. I don’t think anyone would claim the system is perfect by any means, but I think it is better than it ever was.

    You’re welcome to continue making unsupported assertions about contemporary gaming and the folks that make them. But you might want to look into this a little closer.

  33. antigone10 says

    I would say it is a VERY concerning effect. Anything that diminishes our ability to care, understand, and feel for one another has some dark consequences. But that is not the same as it causing violence.

  34. lumipuna says

    Apparently, some cops like playing first person shooters. As in, show up to a call and shoot the first person you see.

  35. dorght says

    I watched the video and all my standard reasons of poor police training went out the window. There didn’t seem to be a confusion of voices shouting contradictory instructions. Just a single voice giving clear instruction. With some tragic timing the victim brought his hands up to face level just as the lighting and hence shadows changed making it appear he was holding something black.

    But given that, a person in their own home, or hotel room (similar case) has every right to be intoxicated, stoned, medically incapacitated, or just stupid and thus incapable of immediate, rational, and continuous obedience to instructions, even life threatening ones. The ongoing tragedy is that police refuse to learn from their mistakes. The entire concept of adapting tactics and training to the real world is bypassed in order to cover their asses.

  36. says

    If cops were replaced with robots, they wouldn’t react in self-defense (or imagined self-defense). This would save the lives of cops, and the lives of the innocent people killed by fearful cops. Soon, I hope.

  37. says

    I think I will add my own two cents to this idea that its games, or even the sort of players that play them, which make up a “problem”. No, its a subset of idiots that play them. These same idiots got pissed over some games released on steam *purely because* they where not traditional games, with traditional interfaces, which made “sense” to them. They literally went flipping nutso over it. Its this same bunch of morons that created gamer’s gate, who turned the 4-chan anime website into a place for nothing but people who literally joke about living in mom’s basement, and do *everything* they do just to shit on other people. Sure, there are “subgroups” in there that, ironically, actually have social a conscious, or are not purely in it to be assholes, but its whole “purpose” is to anonymously post crap, and the more obnoxious, whether or not the poster even believes in it or not, the better.

    No. These people show up in “any” competitive game. They are the clowns that show up in, say, Second Life, in the “general adience” area, with a free account, dressed as a giant penis, just to see how long it takes to get banned from the “lame ass not really a game world”. They are the sort that would, and probably have, popped into online-multiplayer versions of minecraft, to spout fowl language in chat, when mostly kids are playing the game. They are, to put it simply, dangerous, out of control, jerks, who no more take their violent first person shooter games seriously than they do anything else. Its purely a more “immersive” way to be assholes, and shit on everyone that isn’t in their group.

    It literally wouldn’t matter, honestly, PZ, if every game on the planet was as mild and non-violent as Tetris – if you put a chat box in it, so people could comment on the game play, these people would be there yelling at each other, and sending cops off to shoot up innocent 4th parties, because they can’t stop at calling each other names (or, just not be total jerks in the chat). Its an entire flipping subculture of these lunatics out there. And, the games, nor the game contents, had jack all to do with their existence.

    Heck, if this article on the subject is right, they might even be a major reason why we have the literally king of these sorts of assholes as POTUS.

    I mean, its not like anyone paying attention is surprised that the place so many of these freaks hang out is also the source of other forms of toxic waste.