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Gaming's public image problem

GDC 2013: Violent games are in the cultural crosshairs; Mike Capps, Ian Bogost, and Daniel Greenberg debate how to change that

In a Game Developers Conference panel today, former Epic Games president Mike Capps, Georgia Tech professor Ian Bogost, and freelance scriptwriter Daniel Greenberg discussed 10 widely held perceptions of the game industry, one at a time. And while the trio disagreed from time to time on how accurate those perceptions are or what should be done to change them, one thing they all agreed on was that gaming has an image problem.

It's not just people within the industry that see it, either. Capps said that earlier this year, when he was among a delegation of industry representatives who met with Joe Biden to discuss measures to curb gun violence, the Vice President hammered home the issue. Having met with representatives for educators, the gun industry, law enforcement, and mental health experts, Biden said every group had pointed the finger at violent games as one of the problems.

Starting with the perception that violent games cause violence in the US, Greenberg said developers need to familiarize themselves with the scientific research on the topic. If they can educate themselves on the facts, Greenberg said they will be better prepared to spread the information to the world beyond the industry. He also advocated media training for developers, providing them with preparation on how to answer loaded and leading questions from journalists. One tactic he said he uses is to make sure he says "imaginary violence" when referring to games, underscoring a separation between what happens on the screen and in real-life.

"It's hypocritical to fight for free speech and then have nothing to say. You can't have it both ways."

Ian Bogost

Bogost called that a "doomed battle," saying the problem with confronting that perception head on is that it assumes a rational evidentiary approach will be sufficient to change minds. But at this point, he said violence is assumed when people talk about video games. The phrase "violent video games" is redundant to many people in the same way as "sweet candy." The answer, he argued, is to reframe the problem, to present and promote video games through other contexts (such as educational or serious games) so that people don't singularly associate video games with violence.

Developers using the medium to say something would also help, Bogost said. There are perceptions that games don't have anything insightful to say because so many of the biggest games are particularly violent, Bogost said, so much so that it's reasonable for people to think ill of the medium. Even if they don't believe that gore in games causes real-world violence, they're still going to think that the gore is gross rather than enlightening. He called for a more diverse stable of games to remedy this, and specified that it needs to be more than niche indie titles that carry messages. Bogost said we need big budget efforts that get mainstream press and start to change the way people think about games. He pointed to the movie industry as an example, where studios have tentpole blockbusters that bring in most of the money, but also fill out the marketplace with a wide variety of other notable options.

"It's hypocritical to fight for free speech and then have nothing to say. You can't have it both ways," Bogost said to applause.

Greenberg said the industry should first recognize the games with tremendous social value that already exist. He pointed to BioShock, Dishonored, and The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim as examples of these. He also called for the gaming world to be better at pushing back against these perceptions. He noted that other industries--tobacco, for one--are more aggressive at pushing back against negative reports even when the facts aren't on their side. Since the game industry does have those facts on its side, he suggested that it could be similarly strong in responding to outside criticism.

Capps put some of the onus for change on the community, saying the tribal identification of people as gamers can be very stigmatizing, and causes people to distance themselves from the term. For instance, many older adults might play social or mobile games regularly, but they won't consider themselves gamers if they think of gamers as basement dwelling antisocial types who practice poor personal hygiene. On a similar note, the industry can be a little too insular from time to time, and a little too quick to lash out, he said. "We have a perception problem, and we all have to solve it together, not rage against each other on forums and Twitter," Capps said.

The AAA publishers get a particularly bad rap from gamers, he said, especially given how they're the ones who have been fighting the good fight for games in the courts and defending it from outside attacks.

"We've had some remarkable successes as an industry given what a small proportion of the industry has been doing the fighting," Capps said.

As for expanding that group doing the fighting, getting all of the AAA publishers involved in the fight would be a nice start, he said. Even though he said there are more gamers than gun owners, the gun lobby is much more powerful than gaming. By comparison, he said the gaming lobby is really weak and simply not well organized.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined GamesIndustry.biz in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.