"It's a bizarre, surreal case of a young man almost acting like a real-life action video game," said a judge in England earlier this week, regarding a 15-year-old boy involved in a bank robbery. Or maybe he was acting like a bank robber. There should really be rules for comparing real-life events to video games.
The story, which ran on the UK's Mail Online on Tuesday, latched on to that throwaway video game reference and ran with it, padding the article with information on and a screenshot from the recently-released Grand Theft Auto V. The full URL for the story is "www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2430643/Liverpool-pupil-15-robbed-bank-gun-real-life-Call-Of-Duty-Resident-Evil-video-game.html", tacking on a pair of games that have absolutely nothing to do with bank robbery whatsoever. Dozens of outlets picked up the story as well, latching onto the throwaway video game comment.
The full quote is "It's a bizarre, surreal case of a young man almost acting like a real-life action video game — nevertheless it was a robbery." Yes, it was a robbery. A bank robbery, to be exact, which have been happening since banks. Banks predate video games by nearly 600 years.
It's not a very good comparison — just an easy one. Video games are topical. Mentioning them can get public and media figures noticed in places they'd otherwise be ignored (cough). A quick scan through the Google News archives for "like a video game" brings up countless colourful examples of video games being used to describe unrelated events. It's been going on for decades.
- A newspaper article on kids into hacking: "It's like a video game to them." - 1985
- Bicycling through city streets: "Bicycling is not like a video game. You do not earn points for passing a certain number of riders, bravely challenging half-ton cars and many-ton trucks, riding through red lights, or scattering pedestrians" - 1991
- NATO striving to avoid Serbian casualties: "Another peculiar feature of the war was Nato's avowed aim of not killing anyone. Not even Serbian soldiers, let alone civilians. It was a war of hardware against hardware, machine against machine - almost like a video game." - 1999
- A brawl at a basketball game: "Just like a video game marked "M" for mature, Friday's National Basketball Association matchup between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons became fan interactive at the Palace in Auburn Hills." - 2004
- Concussion testing: "Jean Rickerson, president of SportsConcussions.org, said the test is 'fast, reliable and accurate." It's also safe and simple. 'It's like a video game,' Rickerson said." - 2011
- Actress Sienna Miller's privacy invasion: " As I have said before it was really intimidating and scary and confusing. I felt like I was living in some sort of video game — people were pre-empting every move I made, obviously as a result of them accessing my private information." - 2011
Comparing real-world events to video games is also a favourite pastime of TV talking heads, as demonstrated in the supercut compiled by our very own Chris Person. (see above)
In some of these cases, the comparisons are apt, especially in instances where the qualifier "not" is attached. Many things are not like video games — small rocks, sheep, war and Kirstie Alley, to name a few.
There are plenty of circumstances in which video game comparisons are quite apt. Controlling anything via remote control, from a military drone to a laser surgery robot — the video game inspiration is plain. Making a complicated crossing of a busy street, hopping from one platform to another or stomping on a turtle are all examples of relatively everyday occurrences (turtle murderers) which have been emphasised by popular games. At a point in time video games (or anything) can take dominance over a concept if it owns it enough, and in that case, comparisons are welcome. If something looks like a scene from a video game, or involves normally video game-exclusive elements (COMBO!), then it is indeed like a video game.
When does a real-life is like a video game comparison fall apart?
When video games are like real-life. Which came first, the video game of stealing cars and shooting people, or stealing cars and shooting people? Video games did not invent crime. It's been around as long as there have been laws to define it.
I've no doubt there are people in the world with a predisposition for violent, anti-social behaviour who've played a video game and thought, "Yeah, that's how I'll do it," and in those cases sure, maybe "like a video game" applies, but to tag it on to a seemingly unrelated event, like the bank robbery mentioned above, is both silly and irresponsible.
Which came first, the video game of stealing cars and shooting people, or stealing cars and shooting people?
The "which came first" issue only seems to crop up with violent games. That's because it sounds completely ridiculous otherwise. Here are some examples. Feel free to share you own.
- He made a cheese omelet even better than his mother could make, like a video game.
- She arranged the blocks according to colour, like some kind of video game.
- The farmer tilled his field and fed his cows, as if he were in some sort of video game.
- He sat in his car listening to the radio for an hour, like he was playing a video game.
- The Americans landed on Normandy Beach and began killing people with guns, almost like a real-life action video game.
Any of these situations (well, maybe not the last one) could have been inspired by a video game, but speculating that may be the case is ridiculous.
Cold and dispassionate, like a video game. A phrase spoken by people who've not played video games (or at least not the right ones) in the past decade or two, generally used in reference to emotionless sociopaths or brutal situations.
Sure, in the early days of arcades, many gamers could be mistaken for emotionless drones, tight-lipped faces bathed in the alien glow of CRT tubes, hands flashing over strange buttons and knobs while the rest of the world ceased to exist. When all that mattered was making it through a maze or through to the next wave of slowly descending alien ships, we had to be focused.
It's quite different now. Video games have blossomed into emotionally-engaging (thanks, BioWare) epics, capable of moving much more than gamers' eyes and hands. Video games have made me laugh, and cry, and curse out my boss when he couldn't hear me. Games have proven quite capable of portraying strong, emotionally-charged content in a responsible and compelling fashion.
And we're no longer alone. Online multiplayer is a strong focus in today's video games, from the massively-multiplayer online role-playing games where thousands of players congregate, to first-person shooters like Halo, where players get to know each other in a more intimate setting — which sometimes leads to enhanced intimacy.
Video games move their players. They can be as subtle as a mild shudder, or as powerful as choking sob. If someone playing video games is cold and dispassionate, odds are they were headed that way long before they picked up a controller.
When you're the anchor for a national news network. Just stop.
I'm not expecting that anyone who regularly abuses the comparison is going to read this and change their ways. For all their popularity, video games will forever be misunderstood by those standing on the outside of the hobby looking in. The less we comprehend something the easier it is to assign blame or look down upon it — it's an unfortunate truth that applies to all facets of society.
I'm just laying down some guidelines so folks can easily identify comparison misuse and, hopefully, avoid doing it themselves in the future. You know, like a video game.