2/01/2006

Speed Kills: Not Video Games

Last Tuesday night, January 24th, a wealthy and exclusive residential neighbourhood in Toronto Canada was witness to an event that's growing in popularity among North American teens; street racing. Nobody might have paid any undue attention to the two Mercedes Benz cars travelling at 140 kmh (90 mph) in a 50 kmh (35 mph) zone save for the fact their actions resulted in the death of a local cab driver. One of the two cars smashed into the taxicab with such force that it folded the vehicle around a utility poll. Adding to the poignancy of the case are the discrepancies in status between the teenaged defendants and the victim of the event. While the young men are the progeny of affluent families, the late cab driver had been working as a cabbie for the last six years in order to afford to bring his wife to Canada. He was due to be sworn in as a Canadian citizen on Friday February the 3rd and had been expecting his wife to able to join him shortly after. The young men have been charged with criminal negligence causing death, dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing death, and failing to stop after an accident causing death. They are currently out on bail of $50,000 a piece and living under numerous restrictions including being prohibited from driving. A case like this doesn't need any distractions from the details of the actual events. It has already been complicated enough by the sentiments aroused concerning the circumstances of the deceased. But media outlets have begun to muddy the waters further by focusing on the fact that a certain video game was found in the front seat of one of the two cars being raced. "Did Need For Speed Kill" was the headline the following day in the Toronto tabloid The Toronto Sun and was also the theme of many a talk radio call in show. In other words did the fact that these two young men had obviously played this game at some point have any bearing on the death of the cab driver? In the article linked to above, Scott Colbourne of The Globe and Mail, author of the article linked to above, answers with a qualified yes. Mr. Colbourne writes a weekly column for the newspaper on matters relating to online and computer media and examines them within the context of our overall society and culture.
Here is my personal answer: Of course it did. Video games are now part of the wider culture, just like movies, books and car magazines, and our culture sends out some very contradictory messages about the use of vehicles as playthings…The idea that driving fast means something -- that there's a real need for speed -- is deeply ingrained in society. We have speed limits, but a car's monetary worth is partly based on how much it can surpass those limits, on how many horses it has under the hood…Scott Colbourne, The Globe and Mail Tuesday January 31/06
We are a society hooked on the power of a motor vehicle and the sexiness that goes with it. We are obsessed with their speed and the implied coolness of owning a high-powered, high performance, vehicle. Look at movies like The Fast and the Furious or anyone of hundreds that feature car chases through city streets. Street racing has been a staple in movies for ages, whether it was the showdowns on the drag strip in old fifties movies or infamous chase scenes in French Connection and Bullet. Then there are car commercials that rhapsodies about their ability to go from 0-60 in minimal times; can take corners at speed and appeal to our fantasies of being behind the wheel a lean, mean street fighting machine. What kind of image is a car manufacturer selling when they have their latest model speeding around a racetrack? Do they really think that by flashing on the screen "Professional driver on closed course" they are offering sufficient counter point to their message of speed and more speed? One only has to look at the customizations young men use to modify their vehicles to see how pervasive the need for speed has become. Scoops on the engines to increase air flow and efficiency; racing foils added to the rear of cars that increase speed, and special noise generators on the exhaust pipes that modify the car's sound to suggest more power. What other purpose can any of these accoutrements serve aside from preparing these vehicles to race? No one is going to put foils on a car so they can sedately drive the speed limit to take the car grocery shopping or go to the Laundromat. Yet we still act shocked and dismayed when we hear about incidents like the accident last week. It's become easier and easier to blame the entertainment industry for anything that happens. It used to be violence on television that was the cause of societies ills, then it was popular music with it's salacious lyrics, and now the new kid on the block are the video games Sure some of them are violent, and some of them involve high speed car driving, but so does almost every movie or television show in the theatres or on the air. But, the argument goes, in video games people are active participants and are encouraged in that behaviour. Why should playing a video game encourage behaviour of any kind, they're obviously not real. A game isn't going to make you do anything that you were not inclined to do in the first place. Toronto Police Service Detective Paul Lobsinger was quoted in the Toronto Sun article, buried near the bottom of the piece, as saying: "There is a small percentage who have difficulty separating reality and simulation, fantasy. It's a very, very small percentage… This was not the game's fault. There are millions who play this game and don't go out and do this." If these games truly did influence behaviour wouldn't there be much more wide spread behaviour of the kind depicted in them? In some ways games are probably the least likely to have the effect of pushing people into the streets to race their cars, as they do allow them to experience the thrill and the difficulty of driving a car at high speeds. Any of the racing games I have had experience with have told me how hard it is to control a vehicle when driving at accelerated speeds. They have also made me realize I probably have no business being behind the wheel of any vehicle, but that's another story. Of course there are going to be some people who can't differentiate between fantasy and reality, but they are not going to need video games to influence their decisions. Those are the types of people who cross over the line between what is socially acceptable and what isn't all on their own. Blaming entertainment media for crime or behaviour is a cop-out. It's utilizing a scapegoat in order to ignore a serious societal problem. Blaming pornography for the objectification of women is attacking a symptom not the deep-rooted societal antipathy towards them that allows pornography to exist. If we did not already believe women to be less then men that form of objectification wouldn't happen. The same applies to video games and whatever they are being blamed for this week. In the case of high-speed car races the culture of worshiping a motor vehicle has existed since they became a mass consumer item. They were marketed from the get go as being essential to defining ones masculinity. There's a reason for the jokes about male sexual prowess and cars; the car companies in their need to ensure sales created that atmosphere. Passing the buck to movies or video games allows us to feel morally superior about an incident without having to accept any responsibility. The truth of the matter is that as a society we are all guilty in the death of that cab driver last week. If we did not continue to worship at the altar of the internal combustion engine, praying for heightened status through our devotion, street races like the one that took his life would never happen. To paraphrase the National Rifle Association: Video games don't kill people; people kill people.

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