When I was 15, I made a new best friend. The first time I went to his house after school, I slid a kitchen chair over to his computer desk so we could wade through Internet videos together. In passing, he mentioned that he played Counter-Strike. What was that?
It took only a moment for him to boot it up and log in to the game's most famous map, "de_dust." It's just Capture the Flag, he explained, except with a bomb instead of a flag, and everyone has a gun. The game's two teams — the Terrorists, and Counter-Terrorists — battle over and over with one another in a small, maze-like area. The Terrorists try to set off a bomb, and the Counter-Terrorists try to prevent this.
Within minutes, my new friend had killed dozens of other players with steady, practiced headshots. He knew what gun to pick from the load-out, where to hide when the match began, when to crouch, when to strafe, when to jump. He knew how to win.
I had three thoughts:
1. This looks hard.
2. Girls don't play this, do they?
3. I REALLY want to play this.
I said all of this out loud as my friend blew the heads off of stranger after stranger. His answers were:
2. There are a few girls who play this, but not many. . .
3. . . . So, if you play it, you'll be special.
I've thought back on this memory a lot in the past few months, as I see publications across the Internet posting article after article about a possible link between virtual video-game violence and real-life aggression. Somer Sherwood wrote "In the Wake of Newtown, Violent Movies and Video Games Just Seem Wrong" for xoJane on December 21, speculating that "dudes who play those Black Ops games are missing an empathy chip in their brains." That quote haunted me for the next month, and I flashed back to it as I read Jason Shreier's in-depth January 17 piece for Kotaku, which catalogues 25 years of research about whether playing violent video games correlates with real-life aggression (results vary, it turns out).
That same day, video-game creator and critic Mattie Brice published a piece at Nightmare Mode called "Would You Kindly." In it, she wrote that the real threat of violence she faces daily as a transwoman of color makes her experience of the fantastical violence in mainstream games, especially mainstream shooters, anything but relatable or fun. Some violent games of this past year — Hotline Miami, Spec Ops, and Far Cry 3 — include sections intended to make the player feel guilty for their violent acts in-game. But as Brice's piece makes clear, one can only see these games as social commentary if one finds in-game violence to be fun in the first place.
I'm used to seeing my favorite games get trotted out as bad examples in articles about video-game violence. From Doom to Mortal Kombat to Black Ops, I've played — and enjoyed — them all. I can try to write off Sherwood's xoJane piece as misplaced fear from a person who doesn't "get" video games as a legitimate form of art. But reading Mattie Brice's piece felt different; she does understand and appreciate games as art — her criticism is informed.
So, why do I like them? When I saw Counter-Strike for the first time, why did I fall in love?
In thinking about this, I've realized that my longing to feel powerful began years before I lined up my first virtual headshot. All through elementary school, I begged my parents for karate lessons; they didn't cave until I was 11. I was the smallest kid in my class, and I was determined to get bigger — or at least, feel bigger. Before the lessons, I copied Trini's karate moves from Power Rangers. I had the Trini action figure, along with more She-Ra and He-Man action figures than you could count, and I spent nearly all of my elementary-school recess time pretending to fight imaginary enemies with my then-best friend.
We believed that there were monsters, invisible monsters, that only we could find, and that we found them by sense of smell (don't ask; I don't even know). Every single day, we saved the world.
One day, he and I tried to play a Warcraft-branded board game. He asked me which of the little plastic figurines I wanted to use. He had another male friend over, and the two of them were all set up with their archer-rogues or orcs or what have you.
"Are there any girl characters in this game?" I asked.
We dug around in the box for a while. Eventually, he found a barbarian woman; she was tiny in comparison to her male counterpart. A miniature brown plastic lady with an off-the-shoulder fur dress and a big pile of messy hair.
"You can be a barbarian," he told me. "Your name can be Barbara!"
I didn't want to be Barbara. She looked too small to me, and she didn't even have a weapon. I told him I was inventing my own character, someone way stronger.
That day kicked off the longest, most complex role-playing game we had ever created — a game in which we all invented Warcraft-inspired characters and got into very real schoolyard brawls with one another, and with school bullies, who beat us up for claiming to be orcs and magical animals. We came home with bruises and battle scars and filled our diaries with the stories.
I still see that guy from time to time, and we talk about our old elementary-school game. But he doesn't call it a game; he calls it The War. He doesn't remember everyone's real name, anymore, either. But we remember our aliases: Dragon. Death Knight. Gul'dan the Orc. Phantom. Mary Gold (that was me).
I have always been violent.
No: I have always played at violence.