Once again violence and the corrupting influence of video games has formed a mild moral panic. But in the odd relationship between game and player, who’s really in charge? Isometrics investigates…
Welcome to Isometrics, a canted canter through the crisp crunch of that literary side of gaming. This time, it’s time to put on that special Milgram shirt with the fancy buttons and eat your Frankfurter School because it’s time to talk psychoanalysis. Specifically, we are going to explore the history of gaming controversy and attempt to see if, once and for all, there’s anything to that rumour I heard about Night Trap making me want to wear bin bags and unconvincingly make bad actresses scream.
Also before we begin there may well be massive spoilers and references to somewhat troubling events in video games. I will attempt to be careful when discussing them but you have been warned.
Grand Theft Auto V, that great Scottish Michael Mann simulator has made a lot of headlines in the last three months. Hardly surprising either, given that it was not only the most successful video game ever made but the fastest selling and most successful major media product of all time in terms of gross income, beating every single Hollywood film ever. It won more awards than I even knew existed, including the PSExtreme Gold X award, a game award made up 18 years ago for one of the worst games ever made. It is a game that’s practically inescapable.
Oh, and if there was an award for controversy it would win that too.
Actually that’s not really necessarily true. There was controversy over an exceedingly brutal torture mission, with satire as subtle as a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick. This wasn’t entirely a shock but interested me because it didn’t get the same inflammatory response as something like Hot Coffee, or No Russian, probably because it didn’t involve sex or terrorism, the two dog whistles puritans leap to the most these days.
So instead of a new series of controversies the next best thing was a re-run of that old favourite: treatment of women in the sex trade. The player can choose to hire prostitutes and then kill them to get the money back they spent. Given the morally grey world GTA operates, this has been defended (including by the creators) as part of the universe in which the games operate, and on the other side attacked and used to justify calls for censorship in video games. The argument is slightly more nuanced than Glenn Beck’s “GTA is teaching your kids to be killers” spiel, generally being the nadir of GTA’s rather difficult to defend gender politics. One particular article for the Guardian included the rather balanced sub-header of “[GTA V] teaches [Teenagers] to kill prostitutes and demean women in the game – and beyond.”
The article as a whole is full of logical problems and appeals to the real life tragic conditions of women in the sex industry in the place of argumentation to justify the very serious accusation, once that is applied on a literal level it is simply incorrect. At no point in the game does the game teach, tell, instruct or otherwise inform the player that killing prostitutes has a positive effect in the game, so the game doesn’t “teach” that at all. The primary thrust of the argument is similarly hyperbolic, going so far to imply that in the mind of the player “Game and real women merge.” without any form of expansion or depth to the thought. I have serious, deep problems with this level of discourse. But what about the sentiment? Is there something in the suggestion that games with violent themes and violent attitudes towards certain members of society are a corrupting influence and thus the decades of campaigns against them justified? Let’s see if looking back on 38 years of game controversy could shed some light on this negative influence we hear about…
The entire idea of controversial video games began in 1976 if you can believe that, with the Exidy game Death Race. Originally called “Pedestrian” which really didn’t help, it was all about driving around the screen running over gremlins which left tombstones and screamed. Most of the furore was really over the Deadhead-esque cover art, the game itself being too primitive to really depict anything, and too rare (only 500 machines were ever made) to really be some kind of national threat (Though it did have a legacy as Carmageddon, a game clearly inspired by Death Race, did get banned in the UK in the wake of the stupid road rage moral panic). In the eighties there were a few violent and otherwise controversial games, but most sold so very poorly that they didn’t cause a blip, primarily because they weren’t sold on Nintendo’s grey toaster.
Indeed, it took until 1992 for the most major controversies to start rolling around, with both the gory Nazi killing spree Wolfenstein 3D and the digitised violence of Mortal Kombat both hitting the shelves at around the same time, along with a curious B-movie parody by the name of Night Trap. All three games were accused of being brutal gorefests where the intent was to kill everyone, the other player or women in ways you can’t even think about, let alone render! It’s easy to laugh now at the Senate Trials and the amount of hyperbole on display, but given that all they had to go on were images and contextless video. Night Trap in particular suffered from this; instead of going on a rampage to kill Dana Plato and her friends, your job is to save them, and you in face need to save them in order to get the best ending, with an array of traps to stop bin bag vampires from getting them.
These three games, as well as Doom lead to the British Board of Film Classification rating video games as well, an agreement that remained in place until 2012. These ratings tended to be more rigorous than those meted out for television and film, the justification being the interactive nature of the games makes the depiction of violence or sexual content more imitable and thus more potentially dangerous. However, there is the obvious counter-argument that games, being an artistic medium that requires action from the reader in order to progress actually demands to a degree the player to be an active reader and not only control the player-character but also to what extent to believe in the ideas and ethics of the games. This isn’t entirely a universal belief of course, with cultivation theory being used to both defend and condemn games as encouraging certain behaviours through repetition and reward.
So do games teach you to kill, maim and murder? Probably not, outside of particularly pedantic simulators and America’s Army. Do games leave some kind of influence, for better or worse? Almost certainly, given the nature of art. All works of art exert an influence, one that can lead to madness and horrible acts of violence on people already with a propensity towards the negative behaviours depicted in said art. But this isn’t something limited to video games, but something that is a part of art itself, and trying to take that away based on the nebulous fear of someone taking an art work way too far is setting forth down a dangerously slippery slope.
In the end, it is we, the receivers, who are in control.
What is your take on the controversies surrounding gaming today? Are they justified, or is it a case of misinformation ruling the roost again? Do you think games have an influence on you greater than you on the game? Comment your opinions below, on the Geek Pride facebook group or to my Twitter @HuggyDave. Thanks for reading and see you next Wednesday!