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