My Time at the Arcade or The Problem with Drones and “Remote Killing”

I was a child of the 80’s and 90’s and, growing up in the digital revolution of Generation X, I was inevitably introduced to one of the world’s greatest entertainment innovations. Video games. I’m not writing to cast another generalizing shadow claiming that video games are wholly wrong. There are many games and platforms that might help develop some quality character traits like perseverance, critical thinking and collaboration. There are also some games that allow users to enter highly imaginative worlds where creativity and fantasy thrive. My thoughts here are focused on a specific thread of gaming evolution that seems to have become the pervasive genre. As my mom called them…killing games. Much has been said, written and about games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, but my thoughts and feelings about these games never really percolated until my students started work on our current project exploring the legality and ethics of domestic and military drones. The conversations we have had about privacy, constitutionality, policing and “remote killing” has been interesting if not disheartening. Many of my student are numbed to the destruction of a human life. I am sure that if they were faced with a “‘real-life” situation it would be different, but many of them were emotionless when talking about the taking of lives and projects like Not A Bug Splat or statistics about the collateral damage incurred during drone strike missions. I also noticed that I wasn’t as struck or repulsed as I would have hoped. I was a bit disappointed with myself and realized that I, too, may have fallen victim to the ethical novocaine that killing games can be. My history of video games dots an interesting thread from the relative innocence of 1980’s arcade games to the joystick-controlled drone warfare triggered by kids who grew up playing the same games I did. As a younger child I had an Atari 2600 gaming system. It was “high-tech” and amazing at the time, but now seems archaic and the football game I played (seen below) hardly seems to be the predecessor to Madden that it truly is. Eventually I received a Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas. I became enthralled with the thing. Graphics were improved from the Atari, game variety was vastly increased and new accessories were available at major retailers all the time. I used the Power Glove, I shot about a million ducks on Duck Hunt and I earned amazing personals bests in California Games. I was a Nintendo kid. Mario and Luigi and King Koopa were awesome and entertaining, but eventually the culture of the games started to change. Eventually, I was part of a generation of boys who fell in love with Contra. It lured us with intense music, machine guns and ads like this: Away from home I was also being inundated by the weird allure of arcade games that offered a similar thrill. My favorite at the time was Final Fight which, as it’s own Wikipedia page describes, “is a side-scrolling beat-’em-up produced by Capcom.” I used to spend hours at the video rental store in my hometown pushing quarters into this machine: The 80’s also pushed a new gaming platform into our homes. The personal computer was great for educational games like The Oregon Trail and Number Munchers, but really captured the adrenaline of youth when Wolfenstein 3D came on the scene. As the grandfather to all First-Person Shooters, Wolfenstein 3D enamored users with Nazi enemies, big guns, secret passages and a three dimensional playing platform. Throughout the 90’s the gaming industry found a major market pushing the boundaries of video violence through increasingly realistic graphics, advancements in computing speed and internet playing options. Nintendo, Sega and other companies found themselves in a sort of gaming arms race. The Super Nintendo was met by the Sega Genesis. The Nintendo 64 was answered by the Sega Dreamcast. Sony broke onto the scene in 1994 with The Playstation, which vaulted gaming into the disc-based world that we are just now departing from. All the while the popularized games were affecting us.

Mortal Kombat made violent deaths attractive by offering bonus points for extremely graphic “fatalities”.
Another Mortal Kombat “Fatality”
Street Fighter was one of the most popular arcade and home system games of the 90’s.
A torture scene from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
A scene from “No Russian” a mission on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. The user’s mission is to kill all civilians and police officers then escape the scene.

These games have made us increasingly comfortable with hitting, fighting, shooting, and even killing. Children around the world received the validation of bonus points and other extras for intensely violent deaths or beating their opponents with vicious combinations of kicks, hits and strikes from weapons. Over time a generation of gamers has inevitably become conditioned. In some ways the controller and the screen have become a portal that buffers our ethics, our disgust and our empathy toward other human beings. We aren’t as affected by killing or getting killed as we used to be and now “real war” and “virtual war” are converging.

An MQ-1 Predator Drone instructor with the California Air National Guard remotely controls his drone.
A young boy using a joystick-controlled video game console.
A young boy using a joystick-controlled video game console.

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