Close
Are you sure? Are you sure you want to report this comment? I understand, report it. Cancel

Fatal Distraction: Don't Blame Violence For Gaming's Woes

Fatal Distraction: Don't Blame Violence For Gaming's Woes

Tue 19 Jun 2012 7:18am GMT / 3:18am EDT / 12:18am PDT
PoliticsDevelopment

Has mature content in games gone too far? No, but responsibility for it doesn't go far enough, writes Johnny Minkley

I was fascinated to read Warren Spector's comments to this website last week about E3. "The ultraviolence has to stop," he insisted, remarking - as many others have - on the brutally graphic nature of some of the highest profile titles shown on stage in LA earlier this month.

Other things he had to say on the subject: "We have to stop loving it"; "We've gone too far"; "I think we're just appealing to an adolescent mindset and calling it mature. It's time to stop"; "I just think it's in bad taste"; "I'm just glad I work for a company like Disney, where not only is that not something that's encouraged, you can't even do it, and I'm fine with it."

"That matters of tone, taste and sexual politics in video games have become part of intelligent mainstream discourse strikes me as a very healthy development"

From the murdered 'sexy nuns' of the Hitman: Absolution trailer, to the furore over an 'attempted rape' in the latest Tomb Raider, with gallons of blood spilled at E3 in-between, it's been a rum old time for video games of late.

I've never seen so many column inches in the specialist and national press devoted to lengthy, thoughtful discussions on the nature of gaming and what it may or may not say about the industry and its audience.

That matters of tone, taste and sexual politics in video games have become part of intelligent mainstream discourse, alongside the traditional tabloid hit-and-run screamers, strikes me as a very healthy development, wherever you sit along the spectrum of opinions expressed within.

What troubles me, amidst this paroxysm of despair en masse at what we have allowed our beloved pastime to become, is the risk of losing perspective in our haste to self-immolate at the altar of entertainment, damning a medium for the perceived crimes of a genre and an out-of-touch trade show.

Spector's views are intriguing both because he's the biggest name developer to speak out on the subject lately in such stark terms, and in the way he chose to frame them, which says a lot about the debate itself.

"We have to stop". "We've gone too far". "I just think it's in bad taste". (My emphasis, obviously). Spector makes his own feelings clear, for which a lot of people will feel sympathy. But there's also an implied presumption - present in much of the attendant commentary I've read - that the industry damned well ought be united by a clear sense of rectitude over this. I mean, it's just wrong, isn't it?

The violence debate has also flared up again, coincidentally, at a critical moment for the UK games industry as PEGI finally assumes statutory responsibility for age ratings next month, after years in limbo.

A vital public-awareness campaign, spearheaded by UKIE, is now being prepared in order to communicate a clear message of common-sense and responsibility to parents. And that really does matter. Because ratings, whether BBFC or PEGI, have always been applied rigorously and observed carefully. But we all know, though no publishing exec would dare talk about it publicly, that most kids play Call of Duty.

"Companies who, with one breath, gleefully broadcast these orgies of violence to the world can, with the next, solemnly remind parents of their duty to shield children from the exact same material"

Educating the public is therefore the big responsibility shared by us all: press, retail, developers and publishers. In which case, should the responsibility not extend equally to how mature-content games are presented to the public in advance of their release?

That's the real charge to lay at the doors of E3: that the companies who, with one breath, gleefully broadcast these orgies of violence unfiltered to the world can, with the next, solemnly remind parents of their duty to shield children from the exact same material.

It's not really, as Spector suggests, a content problem. It's an attitude problem. Which only exacerbates the long-standing perception problem. Consider the following data: in 2011, the BBFC (the UK's current statutory ratings body) handed out 48 '18' ratings for games, compared with 81 in 2010 and 43 in 2009.

Meanwhile, of the 2,214 games assessed by PEGI last year, 218 received an '18' rating, with 52.8 percent requiring the "violence" content descriptor. Interestingly, only 18.5 per cent of all PEGI games carrying the "violence" tag were '18'-rated, compared with 23.7 percent in '16', 33.6 percent in '12', and 24.2 percent in '7'. (Needless to say, the nature of violent material at '7' is clearly not the same as at '18). As an aside, 2.7 percent of PEGI-rated games in 2011 carried the "sex" descriptor.

Spector's absolutely right to pick up on the extraordinary, Commando-like bodycount of Sony, Microsoft, Ubisoft et al's E3 conferences. Where I disagree with him profoundly is in his suggestion that violent content has gone "too far" and needs to be "stopped".

Microsoft's Phil Harrison, speaking to Edge, had it right, I think, when he admitted he "was surprised" by the level of violence on show at E3, but called it "an inevitable progression of visual reality and visceral immersion that games can get quite ultra-realistic.

"Thankfully, everybody adheres to a very good ratings system, and makes sure that consumers are well-informed before they buy their games. I think it's more coincidental than anything - I don't think it's a strategy that everybody has adopted simultaneously. So long as it's part of a balanced portfolio, it's okay."

The problem is not with 'video games' in general. It's the way publishers choose to promote their games, and in the way E3 is seen still to represent 'video games' in general - even though its primary target is an increasingly focused segment of a much broader market.

The Last of Us and Splinter Cell (two E3 games singled-out for the barbarity of their demos) are no more or less representative of video games than Michael Bay's moronic Transformers movies are of the film industry. I, like millions of others, love a well-made, violent action game. But they're a tiny fraction of what I play.

"The Last of Us and Splinter Cell are no more or less representative of video games than Michael Bay's moronic Transformers movies are of the film industry"

This year alone we've had the record-breaking success of Journey on PSN and Minecraft on Xbox Live, while Angry Birds Space was downloaded 100m times in 76 days and Draw Something is getting its own US TV show. New Star Soccer, meanwhile, is ruining my life. None of these is a game anyone would associate with E3, but each is as totemically significant in its own way as anything you would find at the Los Angeles Convention Centre.

Back to Spector, he did hit the nail on the head when he commented: "I feel like we really are in a golden age, in a weird sort of way. Nobody knows what the future of games is. Nobody." I wrote here a few months ago about how nobody really knows anything about where gaming is going.

My sense right now is that while we don't know what the games industry will look like, we all have strong views on what we don't want it to look like - and that's what's at the root of much of the anger and dismay at the alleged state of gaming as portrayed in LA this month. Is it not, after all, barely a year since so many hailed the slaughter of a family as an artistic watershed moment in gaming? What reception would greet the Dead Island teaser today?

Spector's right about an "adolescent mindset" in gaming, but wrong about violence in general. You could better argue that, in the triple-A space, the true failure is that no-one, in over a decade, has come up with a better idea than "man running around with gun". But I can't accept there's too much violence, when now there's more of everything.

What we really need more of is responsibility - the self-awareness to stop and think that mixing sexual imagery and violence against women perhaps isn't the smartest idea. Or to realise that the words you choose to describe potentially controversial content are as important as how you show it. Or that just maybe, as one of the world's most gifted studios, you don't need to climax with a shotgun blast to the face to impress us.

The pre- and post-E3 outcry has been important in bringing all of this into sharp focus. But if we're asking what's gone wrong, well: violence alone is never the answer.

10 Comments

Alfonso Sexto
Lead Tester

786 595 0.8
"The Last of Us and Splinter Cell are no more or less representative of video games than Michael Bay's moronic Transformers movies are of the film industry"

I think that is a bit poor; comparing videogames to movies (altough hard sometimes) can be done, but comparing "The Last of Us"; a game that so far we know very little about it to that mindless firework of a movie (when it comes to representation)feels a bit our of context to me.

Posted:2 years ago

#1
"You could better argue that, in the triple-A space, the true failure is that no-one, in over a decade, has come up with a better idea than 'man running around with gun'. But I can't accept there's too much violence, when now there's more of everything."

I think this is a very significant point. I feel that the majority of opinion, including my own, on the volume of violent content in the E3 press conferences is not moral outrage, exactly, but exasperation at the paucity of alternative types of gameplay in the AAA console space, even from our most talented studios.

In that regard, I fully agree with the comment above: Naughty Dog is held in the sort of esteem reserved for directors like Paul Thomas Anderson, not Michael Bay, though I think The Last of Us was taking a very different approach to the representation of violence.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Matthew Handrahan on 19th June 2012 8:45am

Posted:2 years ago

#2

Rick Lopez
Illustrator, Graphic Designer

1,269 941 0.7
Violence in games isnt the issue... but when its all that you see in games now a days, thats the problem. Its almost like developers cant make a good game if it isnt violent or has some shock element or WTF moments in them.

I think games share alot with films and I honestly compare them alot to films. I feel video games to movies are what movies are to photography. But not all games. Other games are comparable to board games, rather then a hollywood movie. Not all games try to tell a story, some games are rooted in simple game play mechanics much like a chess game or puzzle game.

But for those games rooted in heavy characterization and storytelling, like Tomb raider, last of Us, Sleeping Dogs, Mass effect, to me, they represent an evolution of creating film.

Regarding Last of Us, Tomb Raider... There approach to violence is very mature, sophisticated and well done. Its not just mindless guns blazing, killing and huge explosions at every corner.

However the problem I find now a days is that most developers are attempting to make a great game using violence, when sometimes we need games like, mario, pokemon, viva pinata and the variouse types of party games like we have out there.

So NO... violence isnt to blame, however i think developers should make an effort to create triple AAA games that are simply fun for everyone. I know they exist, Im very much looking foward to Little big Planet Kart racing... but the enfasis in this type of game was very little at this years E3 and with Nintendo being the only one showing games the whole family can enjoy.

And Im ok with games like Nintendo Universe and pokemon existing side by side with call of duty, halo, gears of war, last of us and god of war. Because no matter how great those games are, sometimes as a gamer you need a change of pace.

However I must praise naughty dogs vision of a post-cataclysmic future. It seems very real and better done then in most movies. And the fact that as a game your interacting with it, if done well, can be more immersive than any film, when your the one calling the shots and not just being a spectator.

Posted:2 years ago

#3

Darren Adams
Managing Director

231 413 1.8
I believe the games industry is just going through the 'video nasty' period that films went through. I love a good violent game as much as the next person, but this is balanced with all the other non-violent games I play. Spice of life and all that...



We in the games industry just have to do the best job we can and be responsible where needed, but also be profitable without giving in to shock tactics.

Nobody said it would be easy.

Posted:2 years ago

#4

Bruce Everiss
Marketing Consultant

1,692 594 0.4
I blame the Americans. Their popular culture going back over 100 years has been incredibly repressed about sex whilst welcoming gratuitous violence by the bucketful. It goes all the way back to cowboy and indians novels then superhero comics.
In Europe we are far more into sex. It is vastly more interesting. From Shakespeare through the great novels of English literature. With a bit of repression when Victoria was on the phone.

Unfortunately video games are mostly made for Americans.

:-)

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Bruce Everiss on 19th June 2012 2:17pm

Posted:2 years ago

#5

Colin McBride
Studying MA in 3D Design for Virtual Worlds

35 6 0.2
Good article that hits the nail on the head. No one sensible is saying that games can't portray violence (or attempted rape even) but that developers have to realise that doing so brings attendant responsibilities. Film learned this the hard way (Darren's 'video nasty' analogy is spot on). It looks like gaming is going to have to through a similar process.

Personally I think games have the potential to supercede cinema as the premier visual narrative medium (as cinema itself superceded theatre) But the challenge in doing so is not merely technological -- it also requires the maturity to take responsibility for our narratives. I think the industry may just be waking up to that now. Games either have to start offering more sophisticated narratives or they run the risk of remaining stunted -- stuck forever at the 'man runs around with gun' concept.

(I suppose the only slightly depressing thing is that they seem to be being forced to do so by negative headlines rather facing the challenge of their own volition.)

Posted:2 years ago

#6
This year alone we've had the record-breaking success of Journey on PSN and Minecraft on Xbox Live, while Angry Birds Space was downloaded 100m times in 76 days and Draw Something is getting its own US TV show. New Star Soccer, meanwhile, is ruining my life. None of these is a game anyone would associate with E3...

And that's the real tragedy of all this. That the trade show which supposedly represents an entire industry is so myopically focused on one gaudy corner of it.

Posted:2 years ago

#7

Preet D Bass
student

92 13 0.1
I think before anybody criticises video games violence, they need a history lesson or even better look at Syria & the middle east

Posted:2 years ago

#8
Violence in video games is about maturity: It tells our field of entertainment, art even, is immature. Arms race of having more and more violence is a result of developers not coming up with any other meaningful way to convey emotions. It's also result of the endless stream of cloned war games. The next "realistic" shooter has nothing new to it so more graphic violence is a way to differentiate itself from other games. But everyone else is doing it too.

Posted:2 years ago

#9

Darryl Linington
Owner/Editor

4 0 0.0
I wrote a short piece on "Is the violence depicted in video games the norm". Would be great to hear thoughts on it as well: http://www.itfgaming.com/opinions/is-the-violence-depicted-in-video-games-the-norm. I think the trend of violence is becoming more predominant, which is kinda sad to be honest.

Posted:2 years ago

#10

Login or register to post

Take part in the GamesIndustry community

Register now