Gaming Steve

February 12, 2008

What Constitutes A True "Murder Simulator"?


As Grand Theft Auto IV approaches release everyone’s favorite lawyer, Jack Thompson, has made his usual unspecified legal threats against the release of the game. In these threats he once again refers to any Grand Theft Auto game as a “murder simulator."

I’ve been working with simulator programs for the US Army for about six years now, which I believe makes me an expert on exactly what a simulator is, what a simulation does, and the goals of these simulators. Comparing these simulators to GTA it cannot in truth be called either a “murder simulator" or a “murder simulation" in any sense.

"Simulators" are devices used to mimic the actions and functions of a real thing, a real situation, or both. A flight simulator will typically have a mock-up of the interior of the aircraft being trained, and usually involves some sort of realistic motion. This is because they need the skills in the simulator to map to the actual skills being trained, including certain motor skills when finding and adjusting instruments.

With this in mind, what kind of simulator would be a "murder simulator"? Something which actually put you within the role both physically and mentally to become a murder? First and foremost to learn the role of the murderer, you would have to have a life-sized, anthropomorphic dummy that would react like the human being murdered. Another way is to simulate the weapon with realism, but use a trained human to portray the victim. A third way is to simulate the murdered person using an accurate "human analog" – you need look no further than some of the more elaborate humanoid representations on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation or Mythbusters where they often use dead pigs to simulate the size, weight, and reaction of human body.

Looking at these basic requirements to create an accurate simulator, the games GTA, Crackdown, or Saint’s Row are definitely not simulators, let alone murder simulators.

"Simulations", on the other hand, only attempt to demonstrate how devices and/or situations are realistically. Simulations are best thought of computer programs and software. Our sandbox gang-related games are definitely software, very complex software. Simulations also tend to be very specific.

Gran Turismo is a driving simulation, with its primary focus being realistic handling of licensed car models on realistic terrain. In this respect, Gran Turismo games are simulations with a ton of game elements added on so that doesn't become too boring.

How well does GTA simulate murder? Just even a cursory look can see how GTA fails this test:

  1. Everything is presented via a 3rd person view, meaning you are “outside" of your avatar.
  2. The weapons auto-load and auto-aim.
  3. The computer people mostly walk and drive around aimlessly and helplessly in the shadiest parts of town.
  4. The computer people don’t fall down until they are killed or act in a realistic manner when attacked.
  5. The bodies disappear and respawn — hardly like murder if they keep coming back to life.

Our "gang games" mentioned above do not even represent murder, but rather a cartoony environment where you have all the time in the world to take on the tasks built into the game to entertain the player.

It’s not just unfair to call Grand Theft Auto a “murder simulator," it is laughably incorrect. It is best described as a fantasy world and can't even be classified under the more forgiving "murder simulation". Aside from all of the inaccurate ways it handles violence, the physics are only barely related to the real world, the psychology of the computer people is totally wrong, and apparently gang members are infinitely patient with no concept of time at all – the sun always shines in video games. Even the "realistic" graphics in GTA are cartoony at best, and if translated into the real world, we’d all be plastic and look like the Burger King.

However, all of the games that have kill-or-be-killed type plots or actions are rated "M" for Mature by the ESRB and intended for ages 17+. These are games which aren’t made for children or marketed for children. Though not murder simulators in any understanding of the phrase, the animated violence is generally considered inappropriate for young children, just like cinematic violence is rated "R" for ages 17+ in the movies. Young children simply cannot separate fantasy from reality very well, and may overreact or misunderstand any medium, not just video games.

In the end, games cannot be labeled "murder simulators," but fantasy violence or any other mature theme depicted in games can be difficult or confusing to children. Depending on the individual child, even seemingly simple topics can be scary, like deers escaping from a fire in Bambi, virtual pets getting sick in Neopets, or believing that little Pikmin are infesting the nooks and crannies of their house.

Ultimately, it is the job of parents to watch, monitor, and participate in what their kids see and play and be there for the child when a they have questions, and understand that kids don’t always comprehend situations in the same way as adults.

Posted by Robert Gauss at 11:15 AM | Comments (8) | Posted to Culture | Feature |  Add this story to  Stumble It!  Submit this story to Digg!

I agree, but then again, you're preaching to the choir man.

Posted by Sub at February 12, 2008 3:18 PM

I agree here totally. What is it that makes Jack Thompson attack M rated games, but not R rated movies? They contain the same concepts and imagery.

Posted by Arachoid at February 12, 2008 3:35 PM

CSI is the worst offender when it comes to desensitising kids to murder, but I've never heard the media or any fanatical lawyers complain about it.

Posted by DarkAngel at February 12, 2008 7:57 PM

I also worked for many years in modeling and simulation, and it's very apparent that Jack has no idea what these terms mean! I hope he reads your simple, to the point explanations here. My favorite part of the article, however, was the reminder that the ultimate responsiblity lies with parents for what their children play. Too many people automatically equate games with child's play, forgetting that there are many forms of entertainment that were never intended for children. That's why we have rating systems in the first place. Most seem to accept the concept of mature movies vs. kid movies but not the same applied to gaming. I suppose we shouldn't be surprised at that--look at all the eye-rolling we encounter when it's discovered we're gamers. Or worse, the condescending "It's just so cute that you like all those kids' games" comments.

Posted by Karen at February 13, 2008 1:08 AM

can you give me a job?

Posted by Justin at February 13, 2008 3:11 PM

@Arachoid: "What is it that makes Jack Thompson attack M rated games, but not R rated movies?"

It's more like he just has a vendetta against Take Two, with the occasional game from other publishers so he can claim "nunh uh, see!" if anyone ever calls him on it. Notice he didn't freak about Mass Effect? And he never claims that video games encourage reckless driving, when those games are actually marketed to teens. To me it's obvious that he's only concerned with Take Two, and all his attempts at products from other companies, are simply maneuvers to cover his ass.

Posted by HollywoodBob at February 17, 2008 10:36 AM

So I came to read this from and definitely found this to be a very interesting article. As for Arachoid's question:

Everything at some point or another has been linked to kids doing wrong. Look at if you don't believe me. Movies had their time and bringing it up now would be beating a dead horse that no one cares about anymore. People have grown up with movies for a couple generations now, but games are still "new territory". That's the first reason that anyone (Thompson, Politicians, etc) goes after Games. Then there's the more "pressing matter" - Games are interactive. In a movie, you "feel good WATCHing the violence", but in a game, you "feel good DOing the violence". This idea frightens people. Even if you aren't learning how do do it properly, people think that if you get your highs off of killing people in a game, then it'll be even better if you can do it in real life. After all, it's very easy (as we keep seeing) to get a gun if you REALLY want to. And it isn't very hard to learn how to use one. There is plenty of info that you can get online, through friends who know about guns, from magazines - it isn't hard. So the issue is that if for any reason you feel that it would be a good idea use a gun, all the other steps fall into place. Now I know that a normal, educated, stable person can differentiate game violence from RL violence. I know that most people here can too. But others (like Thompson) know that because there are studies that show links between media violence and real violence, it's easy to make arguments that sound "right" to the common person who is ignorant to gaming. Think about it for a second. If you didn't grow up around gaming at all, and someone said that violent games are worse than violent movies because they are interactive, that would sound reasonable. If they said that there are increases in testosterone and/or adrenaline while playing violent games, and that younger people are capable of getting highs of the hormone rushes, that sounds reasonable too. And then they clinch it with a statement that now addicted to these rushes, gamers will look for a new way to get a fix, but like with most things tolerance requires a bigger rush, they will try real violence to get a better rush. Suddenly this all makes sense. But the problem is that the people who know better aren't organizing and advertising nearly as well as the ones who are experts at making their anti-game points. I recall watching a hearing about rock music being bad for kids on youtube. And the advocates of the music industry made very good points parallel to classical music being attacked back in its day. This is an endless cycle. And eventually someone will lead the industry and go beyond 1st Amendment arguments and start disproving the misconceptions. Only then with the arguments lay to rest.

Sorry for the long comment. I really do like the fact that we now can quote a definition of simulators and simulations for future arguments.

Posted by Ragnatz at February 17, 2008 11:52 PM


JT attacks games because they are relatively mysterious to parents, as in "not the same as when I was a kid." It's really easy to fool people into thinking he's an expert. Whereas movies rated "R" are generally understood as marketed to adults 17+ years old.

Despite his self proclaimed "crusader" status, JT's attack of video games seems to be only for money paid in public appearances. Fox has him as a go-to guy whenever some random mass-shooting happens, and he gets paid for it. He sells his book on these appearances whenever possible. He gets paid to do debates and speeches. Trust me, the best thing that can happen is for him to be disbarred, because he can then act like a martyr. He may be despised by the game business and community, but he is a brilliant at PR and speaking.

Posted by Robert Gauss at February 18, 2008 2:42 PM
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