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Video Senior Game Designer Talks About Game Violence, Real Violence, and Lead (Video) 223

William Volk may not be the world's oldest game designer, but he's up there. He started out as a play tester for Avalon Hill in 1979, and since then has worked for Activision and other major players in the game space. His current job is with PlayScreen, where he's working on their Word Carnivale iOS game, which is not violent at all. But over the years Volk has worked on slightly violent video games and has watched public outcries over video game violence since 1976. He's also tracked how much less violence we've seen since lead was removed from gasoline. (Editorial interjection: Aren't most remaining pockets of massive gun violence in cities where many poor kids grow up in apartments that have lead paint?) Due to technical problems during the interview, some of the conversation is missing, primarily about the recent spate of multiple murders. It seems, for instance, that Newtown shooter Adam Lanza was heavily into violent video games, which is sure to spark plenty of new discussion about how they affect players. But then again, as Volk reminded me in an email, "If people were influenced by video games, a majority of Facebook users would be farmers by now," a meme that has been floating around Facebook since last year, if not earlier.

Robin Miller: Hi, William Volk. Tell us about yourself and what you do.

William Volk: I am not the oldest living game designer in the world but I did get started as a playtester in ‘79 and currently I am the chief creative officer of PlayScreen, which does casual games mostly for the iPhone. We do social casual games. Our biggest game right now is Word Carnivale. Word Carnivale is a very cool game.

Robin Miller: Wait a minute. Is it a game in which you shoot at people?

William Volk: The only thing you do violently in Word Carnivale is pop balloons. What it is, it is letters on balloons that you find words by drawing on the balloons and they give a satisfying pop when you actually find the word. And if you like popping bubble wrap, it feels like that. It has that sort of sound of popping bubble wrap. So it is satisfying to find words, because you are not just finding the words, you are actually popping bubble wrap.

Robin Miller: Is the NRA trying to get you to give a copy to every child in America? Does it promote killing?

William Volk: No, it does not promote killing. Nor does it teach gun handling unfortunately or fortunately. It is just balloons, it is just popping balloons, I am sorry.

Robin Miller: What about other games that you’ve worked on in the past? Haven’t you done some...

William Volk: I haven’t done any violent games. The only thing I can say is the biggest game I am known for is in 1993, I was the technical director and did a lot of the UI for Return to Zork. And in Return to Zork there were millions of ways of dying, but most of them involved doing the wrong things to a character and then this sort of guy would show up and he would laugh at you, and say, “You are finished” and that was the end, he would steal all your stuff or whatever. And there were a lot of ways of dying, but there was nothing violent except I guess there is one scene where a woman pulls a shotgun at on you but she doesn’t fire; she just pulls the shotgun out at you because you are intruding into her place. It is a very famous scene, so if you searched Return to Zork + shotgun, you’d actually see a picture of this woman holding a shotgun. We actually used real actors on a bluescreen to do that game, and that was 1993, it was my most well-known title until recently.

Robin Miller: Okay. But what about other things? Like earlier I think you were telling me another time about Sega Genesis, and how violence got into video games?

William Volk: You know, I looked it up in the pause we had and there’s a game dating back to ‘81 or ‘82 called Berzerk, and that was the first game that had controversy I know about violence. There was also an arcade game based on a movie called Death Race 2000, that was in the arcades in the ‘70s. Death Race 2000 is notable for a couple of things; one, it is a terrible movie; two, it stars David Carradine and a young unknown actor called Sylvester Stallone. It was Stallone’s first big film. He had done some minor stuff including I guess some adult film, but his first big role was in Death Race 2000. He had a small role in that. And it was a horrible film. But Death Race 2000 basically was a film where people were racing cross country and earning points for running over people. A film. And so they made a video arcade game out of it, and that got into a lot of controversy. So that was in the late ‘70s. Death Race 2000, I believe.

Robin Miller: So it goes all the way back to then? So we are not talking about

William Volk: Let me just see the date on that because I think I can find the date on that. Just a second. Death Race 2000, 1976. Death Race 2000, I was a freshman in college. So Death Race 2000 was the first video game that sparked a discussion, a game which challenged players to run over stick figures with cars. Death Race 2000 made national news on shows such as 60 Minutes, and caused an outcry so bad that video arcades removed the game. And then the game I mentioned just now, in 1981 was a game called Berzerk and it became notable because some player died from a heart attack shortly after playing the game.

Robin Miller: I remember that.

William Volk: Yeah. You are a stick figure with a handgun and the objective is you kill as many of the stick figures before they kill you. So it was a shooting game. And what’s interesting is in the article that just comes it notes that the actual gun murders per 100,000 people in 2010 was the lowest it has been since 1981 which happens to be the year that Berzerk came out. So the gun violence per population has gone down. Of course, if you’ve been reading the internet lately, you’ll know that there is a theory out there which is very remarkable that said that right about the time the current children were growing up is when we took lead out of gasoline.

So if you look up violence and crime rate and lead, you will see there is a very cogent theory out there that says when Nixon took lead out of gasoline or Ford, which was very hard, and I’ll show a good article about how that happened, actually eventually since it affects children more than it affects adults, they claim that that is a correlated factor to the decline in violence.

So what’s interesting about everything that’s happened is that violence has declined in America, it doesn’t feel that way, but it really has since the ‘80s. And lead used in gasoline, the drop in lead blood levels actually reflects itself when those children grow up and the reduction in crime. So I’ll send you a link to that. So fascinating, isn’t it?

Robin Miller: What I am saying the scary part is they were telling us that lead, one of the reasons that lead was dead, is because it made the kids more violent, and this was talking about high, the kids were eating paint in some apartments in Baltimore.

William Volk: The most popular games in volume are probably the casual games like Angry Birds, and the word games you saw, and they are the real big rising stars in terms of the number of people playing them. Angry Birds is the most popular game in history.

Robin Miller: And how many people get killed in Angry Birds?

William Volk: The only things that get killed in Angry Birds is pigs and they just pop and disappear. And by the way, I did an exploding pigs game a year before Angry Birds came out called Pigs A Pop’n which is actually still available in the iTunes Store. Once again, I pioneered the game idea that was obviously was a good one, blowing up pigs is a very popular thing. So we did Pigs A Pop’n in 2007 and 2008. So anyway, Angry Birds, Words with Friends, Ruzzle! our game Word Carnivale, those kinds of games very popular. They have nothing to do with violence at all. They are really about skill. On the video game side, the console side, it is a much more limited audience in terms of demographics, yes there are women who play these games, but the demographics for most of these console video games are younger men and they like first person shooters and they have liked first person shooters since the day Doom came out in 1993 or so or Castle Wolfenstein in 1991 or 1992. I remember when those games came out, Castle Wolfenstein, Doom, it was clear to everyone in the business that this was going to be a huge huge success. These types of games were going to dominate the video games, console video game industry and they have. So yes, you can see the progression from Wolfenstein which by the way involved shooting Nazis, which happens to be a constantly popular theme in video games as well, all the way through Doom, and then through Quake, and then through Call of Duty and so on, and Halo that is a now it is 20 years of actual background in these games, and they are very popular, but they are popular to a segment on a certain type of platform. If you go to the iPhone chart, other than the fact that the people who did that in NRA game were probably really happy about the PR. Almost all the games have nothing to do with shooting anything. They are just like fun games. Like Number 18, Llama or Duck or Temple Run or... Scramble with Friends is 28, or Bejeweled Blitz, they are just fun

Robin Miller: So you are saying other than the NRA game on the freebies for iPhone and iPad, they are all cute happy games you can play with Mom.

William Volk: Well, Underworld Empire is at number 6, but Underworld Empire is a common genre where you basically make friends and not enemies, but it is the same game that we have seen for years, mafia wars type of games that has been around forever. It has weapons and it is you know, it has got lots of weapons and stuff, but it is not the top game, it just happens to be a game, and it is actually rated 12 and up, like it says; on the outside the pictures are very attractive, women in the screen so they know their marketing. This is a game for boys, men.

Robin Miller: Tell me this, which nobody has successfully answered: Are video games causing the violence or is it just that some of the violent people are attracted to the violent video games?

William Volk: Yeah, the answer to that is yes. What I mean by that is, yeah, it is possible that some of these people are influenced by video games, but generally the reason why these people may have played video games is because they are interested in violence in general. You know, they are into what they are into, and video games are there. It may be found when they do the studies. I hope they look into this, when they do the studies that has been recommended, they may find that video games actually reduce violence because they allow people to blow off steam that they normally wouldn’t have a way of doing so.

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Senior Game Designer Talks About Game Violence, Real Violence, and Lead (Video)

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