Friday, February 18, 2011

Violence and video games - part one

Violence and videogames: just hearing the two within the same sentence is enough to aggrieve the medium’s defenders and rile up its critics in equal measure. From constructive commentary to ill-informed scaremongering, we’re never too far away from an opinion being aired, be it the harbingers of doom and gloom or the voice of reason.

Whether we’re nodding in agreement or are adamantly against these assessments on the subject, the evidence is plain to see - videogames do revel in violence. Since the first pixelated laser beam emerged from a solitary spaceship’s cannon, to Bulletstorm’s ‘Kill with Skill’ mantra, violence - both fantastical and graphic - has always been a pertinent theme in games.

As long term gamers, the vast majority of us can vouch for our own mental stability despite playing violent titles for many years. We haven’t been moulded into homicidal maniacs no matter how ardently Jack Thompson claims that we have, and contrary to popular opinion in the right wing media (yes, you Fox News/The Daily Mail etc…), videogames are not responsible for all of the world’s ills. However, with regards to the manner that Thompson, Carol Lieberman et al blindly rush to scapegoat games for society’s downfall, it’s important for us to avoid sweeping generalisations and adopting an equally stubborn stance on the subject.

It’s easy, and indeed is the natural response for us to leap to videogames’ defence at the slightest hint of criticism. However, there are important points to consider here, despite the irritating and sensationalised nature of much of the non-gaming media’s reporting of the matter.

First and foremost age-ratings are there for an obvious reason. BBFC and PEGI classifications don’t adorn game boxes for aesthetic effect. No matter how liberal we are, most of us will agree that young children shouldn’t play very violent videogames. This prevention, of course, lies with parental responsibility. A game like Dead Space 2 is clearly intended for mature audiences, and a parent that disregards the classification advice and allows a child to play it must fully accept responsibility for them having access to such (potentially damaging) content.

It is not the fault of the games industry if a child gets their hands on a title that is obviously not aimed at such a young age range, but rather, lax parenting. A responsible parent will monitor what games their child has access to, and what is and isn’t appropriate for them to play should be made perfectly clear by the guidelines in place.

Gratuitous violence
The degree of violence in a game is certainly not representative of its overall quality. Some of the most critically acclaimed videogames are incredibly violent (GTA IV/ God of War etc), yet they do not solely rely on its inclusion. Such games do not adhere to the mantra of “mindless violence”. They have other entirely more meaningful and praise worthy attributes beyond the shock and gore effect - or violence for violence’s sake. If buckets of blood and the size of the body-count somehow equated to commendation, then something like the Splatterhouse remake would be considered peerless. As it is however, it tries to deviate attention from its mediocre gameplay by going overboard with reams of claret and severed limbs.

You’d like to think that the majority of gamers are astute enough to not base their choice of titles entirely on how violent they are, but you certainly couldn’t discount the possibility that a number of us do so.

The point is, that when games are gratuitously violent and mediocre or worse , it simply plays into the hands of your Jack Thompson brand of anti-videogame crusader who constantly seek to devalue them. Games can be immersive, engaging, stimulating, enriching and diverse experiences, and yes, violent too. However, when they are shallow, repetitive, banal and violent, we can find very little to say in defence.

That said, you’d struggle to find an otherwise decent game that was overtly worsened by the inclusion of excessive violence. If a game is poor, it is invariably due to the fact that the core mechanics/gameplay elements are sub-par, not because the developers have decided to ramp up the blood levels. In other words, predominantly, a game is fundamentally bad regardless of violence and gore, but said violence comes across as gratuitous because there are no other redeeming features to reinforce its inclusion.

Can the same be said of quality titles though? Whilst arguably violent content in a game doesn’t necessarily make it worse, can it in fact make a good game even better? Surely if they watered down GTA IV or God of War 3 the overall experience would noticeably suffer as a result. Violence is an integral part of each game’s makeup (though not the be all and end all of it), as they are both centred around inevitably bloody scenarios.

Arguably the developers haven’t set out with the primary thought of making a violent game (unlike Splatterhouse for example). They’ve identified settings that will provide exciting and entertaining experiences (ascending criminal ladder of a modern day America and the mythic brutality of Ancient Greece), and violence happens to be a prevalent theme within them.

The counter argument would be that these settings have been highlighted because they are violent and therefore there is entertaining content to be built around that, rather then vica versa. As touched on however, there is still a point to it. There are vast cultural and historical backgrounds regarding such settings, which play host to the scenarios in each game, rather than simply being told to “go and massacre everyone for the sake of it“. For example, although Kratos’ main drive is bloodthirsty revenge, God Of War taps into Greek Mythology, an incredibly deep and rich source material which is still highly relevant to modern day storytelling.

As brutal as they can undoubtedly be, the quality of each game’s (GTA/GOW series’) overall experience speaks volumes that simplistic, mindless bloodshed couldn’t hope to duplicate. So, can an excellent game still be needlessly gratuitous in its violence? A debateable question, and maybe one that Bulletstorm will answer upon release later this month.

Why do violent games receive more criticism than films?
Or perhaps another way to put it would be, are games simply a substitute scapegoat for films? Of course cinema has had its fair share of condemnation over the years, and prior to that they were telling us that comic books would be the catalyst for society’s downfall. Is it that because videogames are a relatively young, emergent medium, and as such are not fully understood by areas of the conservative media, that they’re an easy target? In other words, a case of ‘fear what you don’t understand’?

Film has long been widely considered to be an artistic medium, along with literature, art and music, yet video games - although a prevalent force in popular culture - are yet to be regarded as such on a mass scale.

To many outsiders, games are still seen as a mind-numbing waste of time with little or no redeeming features to warrant their popularity. Cinema for example is an even more passive engagement than playing games; you’re essentially (although mentally engaged) just staring at a screen. Yet for many critics, games are by far the more demonised pass time despite being fully interactive.

When it comes to violence however, it’s this interactivity that videogames provide which the anti-game brigade uses against them. It’s as if a few button presses or a squeeze of the right trigger will train us to be ruthless, cold hearted killers. For the vast majority of us level headed people, the violent acts we carry out in games will never, ever cross over into our real lives. We are stable enough to understand the difference between fantasy videogame violence and real world atrocities, in the same way that we wouldn’t rush out and attempt to replicate a violent scene from a film, regardless if one is a more interactive form of entertainment.

Of course there are very occasional exceptions where already unstable individuals are especially susceptible if exposed to violent media, and could potentially act in response. This doesn’t mean that the sole blame for an act of violence should be directed at one particular factor (films/games etc..), but a wider context should be considered (upbringing, environment, mental illness etc..). Violent media may well contribute to an already volatile personality, but I’m confident that no-one has played a violent game and suddenly, without prior reason or influence, been inspired to re-enact or mimic its content.

Violence plays a huge role in what we choose to play, read or watch, but it seems that the unfamiliar and misunderstood medium will always take the brunt of the blame from those seeking to point the finger. As games make the slow transition from simply a popular form of entertainment towards the more artistic end of the spectrum (as cinema has over time), we may well see a shift in blame to something new and emergent. That said, the ignorant but impassioned likes of Jack Thompson don’t seem like ending their ‘crusade’ against games any time in the near future.

~ Part two to follow next week