Friday, 25 June 2010

X-Rated Fierce Creatures: Adults Only

Does a title like that get more clicks?

Moving on.

The Well-Rendered high horse has been getting a little podgy of late.

This is mainly because I only really used it for travelling the safe and unimaginative path between Well-Rendered towers and the burning effigy of Cooper Lawrence, and never dared wander off the beaten track and into the forest because I am scared of wolves.

I'm still scared. This is why Well-Rendered is so abominably late. I'm having a crisis of confidence and not even a Elven Cuirass of Bravery +50 is going to help.

I thought I would be really clever and write about violence, but then I realised that violence is the single most written-about video game topic of all time and that I can't add anything sensible (or even anything silly) to the debate that hasn't been said more eloquently elsewhere. That, and I don't even know what the bejeezus I make of the whole messy affair.

Firstly, I think that violence in video games tends to be taken completely out of context by people who either dislike or are suspicious of video games for various reasons (some more legitimate than others). Violence in video games comes under much harsher scrutiny than violence in other media, and a lot of the criticism levelled at game violence is unfair.

However, I also think that a few of the people who do criticise video game violence have a point. Video game violence is inescapably different from violence in other media because the player is the perpetrator. Add to this the fact that the majority of games with an element of violence tend to reward the player for the violence, and you have a rather sticky ideological situation at hand.

Firstly, I'm going to take a gun and shoot some fish in the Daily Mail barrel of incoherent reasoning.

Here is respected Daily Mail journalist Anne Diamond, who has written an article about the damaging effects of violent video games:

For those of you outside the UK, the Daily Mail is a British newspaper for people who don't really like news. It is written for people with two minute attention spans who will not stay alert long enough to notice the contradictions inherent in placing a prurient editorial about the sexual deviance of any given celebrity next to an article expressing outrage at the limply erotic dancing in a Britney Spears video.

Consequently, there's really no point getting annoyed about what it has to say, and I'm not suggesting that anyone does. But it does help to illustrate a fairly key point in the video game violence debate, and that is that a large proportion of the criticism levelled at video game violence comes not from impassioned people who have experienced the horror of damaged youth first hand, but from people who simply have nothing better to do.

It's really difficult to determine quite what the point of the Anne Diamond article is. She talks about how dangerous various violent video games are for children, displaying her unique brand of incredulous prose next to pictures of the games' front covers. Her outrage at the games' unsuitability for children is slightly undermined by the enormous age restriction logos on every single one of the games' covers.

Diamond says (of Scarface: The World is Yours) "it's disturbing that so many teenagers presumably have access to this mindless garbage again and again". Well possibly Anne, but that's hardly the game's fault, is it? I mean, teenagers "presumably" have access to alcohol as well, and does that fact render your weekly Bombay Sapphire (Oh heavens, I don't know Daily Mail journalists drink) "sickening"?

I could go on. If you're feeling masochistic you could read through the whole thing.To be fair to Diamond, she is less outraged by the boob-tastic silliness of Dead or Alive than she is by Resident Evil (which she suggests "shouldn't be allowed to be sold, even to adults").

Also, let's not forget that Diamond is providing an important service for all the people who spend approximately £125 every year on the Daily Mail precisely because they like to be outraged. She makes her living by cobbling together silly arguments about things neither she nor her readership know nothing about, and none of it really troubles anyone.

In actual fact, it generally does the games in question a favour. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, which Diamond grudgingly says might be acceptable but "only in small doses" was the third best-selling video game of 2007 and spawned the controversial sequel Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

Both games are violent, but the latter game contains an infamous chapter of such blood chilling unpleasantry that players are asked before they even start the training mission whether they want to skip it altogether. Controversy predictably translated into sales, making Modern Warfare 2 the best-selling game of 2009.

The mohawked meathead in the picture above is the main protagonist of the Modern Warfare series, John "Soap" McTavish.

Actually, he's not really a meathead (I just liked the alliteration), he's a ruthless member of the SAS and is portrayed as a morally ambiguous killer. It is Soap's (and, well, everyone else's) moral ambiguity that lies at the centre of Modern Warfare, and is the sole reason the game's violence is effective and exhilarating as opposed to simply numbing.

The aforementioned chapter takes place in the (fictional, I assume) Zakhaev International Airport in Moscow. The player assumes the role of Joseph Allen, a CIA agent who is working undercover as a member of Vladimir Makharov's terrorist gang. The level begins with the player armed to the teeth in an elevator with four other thugs and told only to "follow Makharov's lead". What follows is horrific - the gang emerge from the lift and slowly make their way through the airport mowing down hundreds of innocent civilians with their machine guns. Security guards with handguns are brushed aside in a hail of bullets.

Although the player does not have to fire a single bullet in the course of this mission - it's even possible to sit back and allow the "real" terrorists to slaughter the armed police who arrive - as long as you don't turn your gun on the terrorists, you are are complicit in the massacre. The alternative to compliance, warns Allen's commanding officer, is all-out nuclear war. It is imperative to maintain your cover at any cost.

The fact that the player engages in this sequence in the first person means that they implicated in a way that someone watching a film is not. It is a narrative device that is unique to video gaming, and one reason why violence in video games comes under a scrutiny far beyond that of any other medium.

There have been almost as many sensible studies about the effects of video game violence as there are no-shit-sherlock-kneejerk-responses to various games, and their results still prove frustratingly inconclusive. There are wobbly correlations between violent behaviour and video game consumption, but no-one is sure if people become violent as a result of playing games or if people with violent tendencies are more likely to play games. One thing that everyone seems to agree on is that adults should take responsibility by heeding the "M for Mature" warnings on game packaging just as they might take care to ensure that "Safe Search is On" on the family computer.

Interestingly, research using heart rate monitors amongst other things have uncovered a desensitisation of gamers to violent imagery. However, such evidence is often brought to light by those with an agenda, and frequently "represent[s] a massive oversimplification, a confusion of short-term physiological and cognitive effects with long-term psychological impact" (thanks for that, Kieth Stuart).

In the absense of any conclusive evidence, I would be inclined to suggest that video games come under a disproportionate level of fire on this issue, compared to (yes, patient readers, here we go again) books and films. Bret Easton Ellis' famous novel American Psycho is sold shrink-wrapped in Australia to prevent minors sneaking a look at the book store. It's a brilliant book, and it's truly horrific, but people's objections to it are on "aestheitc" (Simon & Schuster books) or "ideological" (Gloria Steinem) grounds. Never do there seem to be objections that the book might cause violent behaviour. Moreover, criticism of violent books tends to come from people who have read them, as both Steinem and Simon & Schuster did with American Psycho.

Criticism of violent video games tends to suggest that the violent images in question are damaging because they take place in video games, rather than suggesting that the images themselves are damaging. It is player culpability, it would seem, that raises the hackles of those who are appalled by the likes of Grand Theft Auto.

This might go some way to explaining why a search of the Daily Mail website for the phrase "Call of Duty Modern Warfare" (quotes and all!) returns 114 results whereas a search of the Daily Mail website for "The Human Centipede" reveals no results.

The Human Centipede is a 2010 film with a premise so utterly vile that I cannot bring myself to explain it on these tender pages. I would suggest you look it up on Wikipedia but when I did that I almost brought up my lunch (just reading the Wikipedia page! I know!) and I don't want to be responsible for that. I'm not in any way opposed to the creation and distribution of The Human Centipede, and if my stomach was a little less delicate, perhaps it would make for entertaining post-pub viewing. It's just that I'm a child of the internet and as such have had got used to having access to all sorts of ghastly and horrible things from a fairly young age (at a FRIEND'S house Mum, don't worry), so I honestly didn't think that anything had the power to shock me any more. Amazed, yes, mildly disgusted possibly, but not shocked.

When someone mentioned The Human Centipede to me, I was floored. I honestly could not believe that anyone was capable of imagining anything that revolting and then making a film about it. It is utterly foul and really quite exploitative (mainly of its lead actresses), and yet the Daily Mail has nothing to say on the matter. Conversely, an idealogically sound and dramatically sophisticated video game such as Call of Duty arouses ire from all quarters.

Admittedly, Call of Duty was a huge release that generated a vast amount of publicity and The Human Centipede is difficult to advertise given the fact that polite company restricts the use of the various nouns one would need in order to describe it. However, the profile of The Human Centipede is comparable to that of Mad World which generated a delirious bout of hand-wringing from the Daily Mail HQ. The DM's horror in this case seems to stem from the fact that Mad World (clearly labelled with an "18" certificate) is released on the Wii, the same console the supports such child-friendly classics as The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.

Which is like saying that Apocalypse Now should not be viewed on a TELEVISION because CHILDREN use TELEVISIONS to watch BLUE PETER.

Either way, the lack of comment in both broadsheet and tabloid newspapers on The Human Centipede compared to the acres of press devoted to far milder offerings in video games would suggest that games' inscrutability to the untrained eye generates more negative headlines than their actual content. Fear of the unknown, especially fear of new technology is a thing from which the human race will never be free. People were scared of the printing press when it came out.

I also suspect that the people who might be tempted to fight games' corner are too busy actually playing them and getting up to other things to bother stating the bleedin' obvious.

Take Charlie Brooker, for example.

Brooker is the accomplished writer and presenter of the BBC's Newswipe series, and he also does a nice line in video game journalism. During the recent General Election in the UK, a song entitled "Charlie Brooker is Right about Everything" did the rounds, suggesting we look beyond Question Time for our next leader. He's held in high regard, basically.

His approach when it comes to tackling the barrage of criticism that video game violence attracts is one of unconcerned irreverence. Fighting fire with apathy, if you will.

In his rather entertaining video game documentary Gameswipe, Brooker is filmed playing the rather grisly Wolfenstein, a game where the player must fend off hoards of undead Nazis (yes, really). After a sequence where he shoots a soldier full in the face with a shotgun, he shrugs and says "it's alright, he's a Nazi".

And I can't help but agree with Brooker on this point. I don't mean that it's ok to go around shooting Nazis in the face (I mean, Ralph in The Sound of Music was just a little misguided really), and that's not what Brooker means either. The character whose face he rearranged wasn't real, he was a target in a game. However far video games come, they're still (largely) limited to win or lose, live or die, kill or be killed. Just like in chess.

In chess, you don't really kill bishops, you just take wooden figures off the board. In Risk, you don't really colonise and exploit countries, you just place coloured markers on a map. In Wolfenstein you don't really kill anyone, you just utilise reflexes and manual dexterity to rearrange the pixels on a screen. I know that the occasionally visceral simulation of killing is what separates video games from board games, but the fact remains that shooting games such as Wolfenstein affect the brain's pleasure centres in much the same way as games like pool or darts.

It's only in the rare cases where a game wants players to empathise with the person on the receiving end of the gun that they are endowed with any being other than that as a target. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is a good example of this. In many cases, enemies in video games are merely obstacles to be dispatched before proceeding. I know one could argue that these are not the kind of people skills we want to be teaching our children, but the kind of characters that you can treat in this thoughtless manner in video games are not characters, they are the black ball you need to get in the corner pocket in order to win. Moreover, in about 80% of violent video games, the entities you kill are trying to kill you first, so video game violence is usually in self-defence. Sticky, hot, bloody, hilarious self defence.

Alright alright. Seriously though, when the entities you dispatch in a video game are proper characters, the act of killing either has a wider significance in either the game's narrative (such as in Call of Duty) or the character you conrol (such as in the Fallout) games. Games where you can senselessly dispatch with innocent characters who have nothing to do with either the character or the plot are generally making some kind of satirical or nihilist point (Grand Theft Auto). You can slaughter innocent civilians in Oblivion, but you'll have to do some hefty jail time (and lose some skill points) as a consequence.

So what have we learned?

Firstly that I have a hard time keeping to deadlines when my fragile ego is at stake.

Secondly, that there are some accusations for which there is no easy defence. But we owe it to both sides of the debate to take a sensible and open-minded look at the issue from all angles. We might just learn something.


  1. Well done Mary! A thorough examination from many angles, a good read. I tire of the unfounded criticism of video games by today's believers that all risks should be eliminated to protect all the innocence. The games they tend to give negative comment to are for adults not children. Also, if children have caring and attentive parents then their exposure to adult games (and other such media) should be minimized. Game On Y'all!

  2. Great title, certainly made me click. I'll have to read this through again, but your points are exceedingly well taken.

    Video games are just this generation's whipping personage. All the problems of the world are caused by teens playing video games.

    Television, Rock n' Roll and fill-in-the-blank were the bane of other eras of time. Can't wait to see what is the next phase of the ruination of the world by teens.

  3. Aw, thanks for that guys, it means a lot to read those things.

    Another thought I had (well, actually something that someone said to me) was that although the Call of Duty games are fun, their accuracy and realism never quite let you forget that people have actually been in these situations.

    If the games were less violent and less realistic (although you do have the option of turning off the blood in the graphics options), then they would no longer remind you that whilst you're enjoying a shoot-em-up from the comfort of your armchair, people honestly do - for better or worse - put their lives on the line in these horrific ways.

    This again, is a point that you can't get across in films or books. There are many war satires in both those media (Apocalypse Now or Catch 22, for example), and each offers something that the same story in a different medium could not. The first-person genre and ensuing player culpability does manage to convey things that other media simply cannot.

    This doesn't make games a better narrative medium overall, but they most certainly do things other media cannot and can make interesting use of their (still young) ability to shock.

    * * *

    Battlerich - quite. It is always easier to find someone or something to blame than it is to solve a problem.

    Salaryn - Well, yes. Some thoughts on this point have spawned, am going to put them in the petri dish of inspiration and see what happens.

    Haha "whipping personage".