Following President Obama's recent comments regarding the threat of videogames to children's education, Dealspwn's prodigal son Felix Kemp returns to ruminate on the nature of videogaming's less than sparkling treatment by the media.
Prior to its release in November of 2009, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 received mention in the House of Commons. It sparked a furious debate between two Labour MPs, Keith Vaz and Tom Watson. Vaz, an outspoken critic of violent videogames, highlighted a scene in Modern Warfare 2 where players can participate in the massacre of Russian civilians in an airport, prompting an “incensed” Watson to create a Facebook group, ‘Gamers Voice’, to promote fair debate in the media for videogame fans.
It was a rare display of a politician coming to the aid of a videogame, and the emerging group has since recruited over 5, 500 members. However, Gamers Voice is still too small to challenge the deafening roar of the media, which has chosen the videogame industry as its favourite scapegoat. Sex-scenes, violence, drugs; Elements present in almost all forms of film and television, receive unfair coverage from the media if included in a videogame. The media happily savage an industry incapable of defending itself.
But why is the content of videogames persecuted above the so-called torture-porn films like Saw or Hostel? Is it the issue of interactivity? Or the young minds vulnerable to corruption? Whatever the reason, the issue must be explored.
Unlike other media, videogames are an entirely interactive experience. The scene in Modern Warfare 2 Keith Vaz mentioned is no different to acts of terrorism or violence depicted in films such as Heat or Munich. The problem for individuals like Vaz seems to be the players ability to willingly interact with the scene.
‘No Russian’, the title for the sequence, doesn’t require you to participate in the slaughter, but the opportunity is available. You can rattle entire clips from your machine-gun into the churning crowds, or even lob a grenade. The scene is vividly realised, from the glistening blood to the lifelike animation of wounded civilians desperately crawling across the floor.
Free-will has been and always will be an issue for people in power. You don’t pursue a position in politics unless you wish to control the public, whether it is for good or nefarious reasons. How can a government possibly control its citizens if a medium exists where they can act free of consequence?
Coupled with free-will, the misconception of videogames’ primary market is another problem fanning the media flames. A videogame is still considered a toy, a product for children and teenagers, whose minds are supple and malleable to the influence of what they see and experience. People like Keith Vaz believe videogames are nurturing an entire generation of senseless, violent offenders.
The problem with this reasoning is the simple fact that young adults comprise the videogame majority. Men and women from the 80s and 90s who enjoyed the S.N.E.S. and Sega Mega Drive now enjoy the Xbox and Playstation. A new generation exists, obviously, but the primary market is between the age of 18 and 30.
Should we worry about their minds, too? Are they liable to play Grand Theft Auto and suddenly steal a car and plough into unsuspecting pedestrians? And what of less violent videogames? Do we expect fans of Mario to suddenly leap over our heads, attempt to slide down sewage pipes or begin slaughtering turtles?
Certainly, children must be protected from games with violent or disturbing content. New rules allow censors to explicitly describe aspects of an adult videogame, from how much blood is spilled and in what fashion, to what language is employed. Now, if a parent is worried about allowing their child to purchase a certain game, they can investigate its content thoroughly.
As the media condemns videogames as godless aberrations of art, corrupting the minds of the young generation, it is prudent to consider the depiction of violence in videogames. Once, a smattering of red pixels represented blood, accompanied by a cheap soundbite and robotic death-animation. Now, blood can be realised in three-dimensions, the cry of pain recorded by an actual actor in a booth, and the tragical fall animated by skilled industry professionals.
But while the depiction approaches photorealism, is the act itself actually violence? Violence is described as the use of physical force, usually to cause harm. Videogame violence is an approximation of this, an aesthetic intended to depict a certain gameplay element without necessitating a lengthy description.
It is true, however, that imagery is an important issue to consider. Whilst it is wrong to think violence in a videogame can be considered in the same light as actual, real-world violence, developers are responsible for the images they conjure onto the screen. But imagery is inherently subjective, and what may affect one person may not affect another.
It is impossible not to broach hypocrisy when debating the moral credentials of certain images. But being the youngest of the new art-forms, videogames are merely following in the footsteps of their older siblings. Do certain films, television or art contain any less horrific imagery?
In America, certain states are pushing radical legislation to prosecute retailers who incorrectly sell adult games to minors. New Zealand's chief government censor suggests parents who allow their children to purchase these games, knowingly or not, should be prosecuted, too. And Thailand has called for the developers of Grand Theft Auto to stand responsible for copycat killers inspired by their game.
All of this is unsurprising. It is beyond any doubt that crimes have been committed by weak-minded individuals influenced by videogames. Certainly, new legislation must be brought forward to prevent such things from happening. But this speaks more of knee-jerk reactions from the government rather than carefully considered political manoeuvrings to stem the flow of violent crime.
Surprisingly, whereas some countries turn on their videogame industry, despite the huge financial growth in the market, others nations, such as Canada, for instance, continue to support their developers, offering tax-incentives and bursaries, among other financial rewards. Canada produces a steady stream of consistently excellent games, from esteemed production houses like Ubisoft Montreal and Bioware. Evidence of government support, or mere coincidence?
What can we expect in the future, regarding the perception of videogames in mainstream media? It is inevitable that another dozen or so crises will emerge. A crime will be committed resembling a similar act in a mature-rated game. A developer will attempt to tackle a sensitive issue and be mobbed by angry headlines and tabloid-driven campaigns.
But this is a natural stage of progression. Developers are attempting to co-operate with their media foes. Violent games such as Gears of War, where you can eviscerate enemies with a chainsaw-mounted rifle, allow players to deactivate the spewing blood and profane language, essentially neutering the experience, but at the very least attempting to find some middle-ground.
It will be interesting to see how the media’s perception of videogames changes in ten or so years, when the children weaned on Xbox and Playstation grow old and wise enough to grab the reins of The Sun or The Daily Mail and impose their own opinion on the masses. Whatever the future holds, videogames will continue to grow as a medium, hopefully realising their potential and inspiring a new generation to succeed in life.