Friday, February 25, 2011

Violence and video games - part two

Too close to home?

Sports games’ primary premise is to represent their real-world counterpart with meticulous authenticity. The closer it is to recreating the actual experience, technically at least, it’s regarded as a positive result. That’s fine, because sports titles are essentially simulations and no one could possibly get offended by a videogame of the beautiful game (bar perhaps the odd disgruntled feminist if Andy Gray is recalled for commentary duties in FIFA 2012).

War is different. War is harrowing and horrific. A fantasy conflict where we can massacre hundreds of “Russian dog” terrorists is fine - no problem. As soon as the battle ventures a little closer to home however, the knives come out and the fires of controversy have well and truly been stoked.

Atomic Games’ recently cancelled Six Days in Fallujah and EA’s Medal Of Honor (concerned with the Iraq and Afghan conflicts respectively) reboot have been the latest games to be based on real-world scenarios, and consequentially, to feel the media wrath.

The general consensus from opposing parties is that as the events depicted in each game are either very recent (in Six Days’ case the US/Iraqi/British offensive of Fallujah in late 2004) or currently in progress, and as such are inappropriate material for videogames to depict. Countless films have been made chronicling the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, none of which to my knowledge have sparked the degree of controversy as the two games in question. Again, this raises questions about the perception of videogames having not reached a status of acceptability (or perceived maturity) on par with other forms of media. Whilst films on the subject are generally viewed as portraying a raw depiction of the conflict, videogames on the other hand, are accused of glorifying it.

In both games cases it essentially boiled down to a war (no pun intended) of words between the developers and the game’s critics. Statements that lauded the games as gritty, harrowing experiences representing the horrors and psychological traumas of warfare, were countered with claims of bad taste, poor judgement and accusations of trivialization.

Despite the controversy, ill-informed claims, and even the British Defence Secretary Liam Fox calling for a ban on Medal Of Honor, the game did see the light of day (albeit to a rather lukewarm reception). However, After publisher Konami pulled out of the Six Days in Fallujah project - presumably due to the negative furore surrounding the game- it seems to be pretty much dead in the water.

Whether Six Days really did portray “what it’s really like to be in a war” remains to be seen (not to mention highly unlikely; the horrors of war obviously cannot be experienced from the comfort of our own living rooms), but budding armchair soldiers are no closer to transporting themselves to Fallujah 2004. EA had the power and financial clout to at least fend off Medal Of Honor’s critics, but without a big name publisher who’s willing to contend with the controversy behind Six Days, it’s doubtful that it will ever make it out of boot camp. Of course, whether the game would have actually been any good or not we may never know, and now is rather a redundant question to ask anyhow..

Perhaps in five years time we’ll see a slew of Afghanistan or Iraq war based games without such a level of opposition, when ( meant in the most respectful way possible) water has passed under the bridge. For now at least it remains a highly sensitive area that videogames are deemed as an unfit medium to portray. THQ’s upcoming shooter Homefront, based on a future war with North Korea, is fine. World War 2 conflicts aren't problematic due to historical context. Even Call Of Duty 4’s thinly disguised take on middle-eastern warfare managed to escape relatively unscathed.

However, openly basing your game on recent or on-going real world conflicts remains highly contentious, as well as potentially dangerous for publishers and developers who don’t have the power and stability to counter a media/public backlash.

Violence and motion control: a step too far?

With the occasional exception, motion controls are associated with casual gaming. Shiny, happy party sessions, family get-togethers (apparently) and general light-hearted entertainment. As of yet, motion controls have predominantly opted out of attempting to appeal to the hardcore (and cynical) audience, and thus, the more violent content associated with that gaming demographic.

However, there will inevitably become a time when motion control gaming attempts to bridge that gap effectively. But can they implement such controls in a gritty, dark and violent game without trivialising the content itself, and if so, what are the boundaries?

Manhunt 2 on the Wii was a recent and rare example of the merger between the very violent and the casual, that personally speaking, did feel a little unsettling to play. Replicating knife stabs with the Wiimote just seemed too far detracted from what games should essentially be - entertaining - and instead felt all too lurid. The fact that Manhunt 2 was generally a poor game anyway is perhaps beside the point, but it cemented the notion that violence and motion controls were a crass combination.

That was two and a half years ago. Since then we’ve seen Move and Kinect make an impact, and bar a sub-standard fighting title here and there, their respective game libraries have heavily leant towards the casual end of the spectrum. That is not to say that motion control gaming has to accommodate for violent titles. But, unless the gaming giants want the casual and hardcore audiences to largely remain mutually exclusive then there has to be meeting point.

However, it’s understandable as to why developers may be a little tentative. Although Manhunt 2 didn’t exactly do itself any favours with its mediocrity, it did do it’s best at mirroring the protagonist's in-game actions with your real life movements. The question is, was it too real? Did it cross a line between fantasy and realism, and subsequently went beyond the realms of acceptability?

If motion control gaming is about your own physical movements being effectively mirrored on screen, then in that respect surely Manhunt 2 could be deemed a success. It certainly wasn’t subtle - mimicking a frenzied stabbing - but at least it was effective in conveying the action.

The point is though, surely motion controls simply aren’t a subtle way of playing, and subsequently an instance of in-game violence is going to have to be semi-re-enacted via your gestures. It’s that blur of the aforementioned line between fantasy and realism that maybe takes videogames out of their comfort zone and further away from simply being ‘harmless fun'. I’m in no way suggesting that (citing Manhunt 2 again) mimicking a stabbing with a Wiimote will make you want to attack people in such a way, but it’s an uncomfortable step from simple button presses to a physical representation of an undeniably horrific act.

Another problem - especially with Kinect - is that the hardcore, and thus the more violent games, have such a vast array of actions that it would be incredibly difficult for motion controls to fully cover their spectrum of movement (check out Bojeeva’s article on the FPS genre in that respect). Violent actions or not, could a GTA game be fully integrated into a motion control scheme? It’s doubtful.

There’s no doubt that there’s a problem for developers in that regard. Can hardcore content be tastefully and efficiently implemented into a motion control game, and can it offer an experience that a standard version could not?

Maybe the answer lies in a title which is solely developed for motion control and therefore isn’t a clumsy port from the original console version. Manhunt 2 was ugly, granted, but you’d like to think that the potential for hardcore motion control gaming has a lot more to offer than that.

~ If you missed part one, find it here


Nice posts here. Keep it up!