Wednesday, July 06, 2005

On Violence in Games

Video game violence.

It’s a flashpoint for hysteria. Politicians, “family” organizations, gaming publishers, the gaming press—they’re all hysterical. Like other high-profile issues in the U.S. (abortion, gun control), the “debate” consists entirely of shouting. No semblance of a logical discussion has taken place.

So let’s talk about it.

One of the reasons that a reasonable discussion can’t take place is that no one seems to accurately define the issue—almost everyone is sloganeering instead of defining what it is they’re trying to talk about. There are multiple issues involved, not one, and each issue must be discussed separately. Here are what I feel are the primary issues.

Do violent video games increase an individual’s disposition toward violence?
Maybe. It’s highly unlikely that there will ever be a definitive answer, because there are so many variables in setting up a study to measure something like that. But it’s certainly possible that for some age groups, or for people with pre-existing personality disorders, playing violent games could increase their tendency toward real-world violence.

It’s not just games. Film, television, music, books—they all contain violent content, and they could all potentially have the same effect. So the real question is not just with games, but with all forms of mass-market entertainment.

If violent games or other forms of entertainment did increase the level of real-world violence, should the Government censor them?
Just for the sake of argument, let’s say that a link between violent entertainment and real-world violence could be proven. Clearly, an exact measurement of how much violence could never be made, but let’s say that a link was established. So, based on the established link, should the government censor the content?

Well, that’s when one issue morphs into another. Government censorship of content is difficult to do without violating the First Amendment, and the First Amendment is there for a reason. In a free-speech democracy, it should be almost impossible for the government to stifle expression, because it then makes is possible to stifle dissent. That’s a slippery, slippery slope to start down. There is something sinister about Government censorship, be it print, film, literature, or games.

Let’s say that the government censored violent content in entertainment, and I don’t mean with voluntary ratings systems—I mean actual criminalization for selling the content. Five years from now, let’s say someone claims a link between sexual content and sexual activity between teenagers. Hey, we’re already censoring violent content, so why not censor sexual content? How far do they go?

And, more importantly, who is there to tell them when to stop? Because when a study comes out claiming that dissent itself causes increased violence, maybe we can just make dissent illegal. And then, my friends, welcome to a new year.


So if the government shouldn’t censor entertainment, no problem, right? People can make whatever they want to, with absolutely no constraints.

Not so fast, Sparky. With freedom comes responsibility. I know, it’s one of those damn grown-up concepts.

This is as plain as I can say it: The First Amendment is not a free pass to be a dickhead.

It’s one thing to say that the government shouldn’t be censoring entertainment content. That doesn’t mean that the individuals who produce this content have no social responsibility to act like human beings.

To discuss this, we have to look at the poster child for this issue: Grand Theft Auto. The gaming industry would have you believe that people who have a problem with the content in GTA don’t play games and don’t “understand” them.

Well, I’ve played games for twenty-five years. I understand them. And I have a problem with Grand Theft Auto. We all should.

Rockstar loves to portray themselves as victims, misunderstood by the square, non-gaming world, threatened by censorship, blah blah blah.

Please. What an unbelievable load of crap.

It seems like most of the objections surrounding GTA run in two categories: one, the ability to murder citizens at random, and two, the famous “have sex with a hooker, get health back, murder hooker, get your money back” element.

Let’s look at those gameplay elements, not from a First Amendment viewpoint, but from a game design viewpoint. Sure, being able to kill someone on the street is part of the “do anything you want to” open-endedness of the game, but what does it actually contribute to the game?

Here’s the problem: actions without consequences are bad game design. Period. Good game design requires the player to make difficult decisions, because every decision has a consequence. In GTA, those two gameplay elements have no real consequences.

[Before you start the e-mail machine: yes, I know that if a policeman sees you kill a citizen, he’ll try to apprehend you. However, if you just look around, that’s not an issue, plus a one-star alert is incredibly easy to avoid, so in terms of real consequences, there are almost none.]

Here’s good game design: if you kill a hooker, her pimp starts looking for you, and if he finds you, he’s going to teach you a lesson about messing with his girls, a lesson that you might not survive. If you kill random citizens, the police presence increases on the streets, and if you keep killing them, one murder (when witnessed by a policeman) is going to automatically trigger a 3* alert or higher. It makes sense—there’s a psychopath on the loose, right?

Plus, and this is even worse in a game design sense—there’s no real reward for killing those innocent people. You might get a weapon or a little money, but there’s no real reward. And if you kill the hooker after she “services” you, all you might get back is a little money.

So if those gameplay elements don’t really contribute to the game, why are they in there? There is zero reason to have them as part of the game—they’re totally unnecessary. They’re not part of a primary or secondary mission structure and they don’t provide any significant rewards or penalties that would justify their inclusion.

Here’s the answer: to generate controversy. Controversy generates publicity, and publicity generates sales. It’s not about “art” or “vision” or any higher purpose. It’s just a bullshit way to sell more games.

Pretty pathetic.

The “save the family” groups won’t mention this, because they’re homophobic to begin with, but the leering portrayal of homosexuals isn’t exactly art, either. Nor is the paper-thin, embarrassing portrayal of urban culture.

For all its brilliance, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is full of that kind of failure. It’s mass-market, lowest common denominator entertainment. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have artistic elements (it does), or that it’s not incredibly creative (it is), but this isn’t about artistic freedom: it’s about ringing the cash register.

So having a problem with violence in video games doesn’t necessarily mean that you want the Government to step in and censor games. I certainly don’t. There’s nothing wrong, though, with wanting game developers and publishers to act like grown-ups instead of glorified twelve-year-olds.

On their own, the way that grown-ups do.

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