Turned my back and grabbed my gat
And guess what I told him before I shot it:
‘If you don’t quit, yeah, if you don’t stop, yeah, I’m lettin’ my gat pop’
Cause it’s 1-8-7 on an undercover cop
That chilling threat came over my headphones, backed up by a sinister bassline, while I was waiting queueing for some trivial purchase in a shop. Jarred by the disconnect between the prosaic setting and the shocking sentiments I was hearing I wondered: why did I find the rap unsettling, while the fact I killed twenty men in Red Dead Redemption the night before cause not a flicker of emotion?
This happened a while back, well before Michael wrote his Rethinking Mass Murder column on violence and gaming. But we’ve all reflected on these issues from time to time. Personally I disagree wholeheartedly with his assertion that there’s any link between media violence and social nihilism. These moral panics have accompanied every incremental media change since popular novels 200 years ago and never amount to anything. The gulf that separates thought and deed is too wide to step over without conscious choice. The evidence, such as it is, supports me.
No well constructed, wide ranging social science research has ever demonstrated a connection. Violent crime in US and Europe has been dropping for two decades. Respect and tolerance for other points of view and ways of life, as measure by polls, has been rising over the same period. The perception of an increasingly uncaring society has been fostered largely by a sensationalist media. But it’s a myth: we may be more scared of violence than ever, but we’re safer on the streets than we’ve been for years.
But that’s not what this column is supposed to be about. I just felt strongly enough about the issue to want to rebut that claim, and this seemed a good place to do it. Rather I wanted to look at why violent gaming feels qualitatively different from much of that presented elsewhere in the media, films and music in particular.
To cut to the quick the answer is presentation. Anyone who plans to portray a piece of violence has to make conscious decisions about the context in which it will be shown. Build up sympathy for the victim, linger on the suffering and the act will condemn itself. Glamourise the protagonist, anonymise the antagonist and focus on the fireworks and the violence will be thrilling. Lessons so obvious they were learned in early theatre, centuries before the first violent film.
The relationship between modern video game design and cinema is easily close enough for these points to be applicable to both. Gamers could easily be encouraged to reflect on the consequences of their violence rather than glory in it. So the question becomes a why question: why do game designers choose almost exclusively to present their violence in a glamorous way rather than a condemnatory one? Why do game players nearly always choose to eschew more thoughtful pieces in favour of the thrill?
There is of course a close connection between what gamers want and what designers deliver. But in the instance of violence, I’m beginning to think that it’s a rare case of a gap between the two, a disconnect between the perception of what’s wanted and the truth. Add a grain of laziness on the part of studios, or perhaps more charitably the valid concern over multi-million dollar titles experimenting and flopping in the marketplace and you’ve got a recipe for trouble.
Consider. One of the very few mainstream titles to actually present the player with a harrowing version of violence, Spec Ops: The Line, garnered a lot of interest and critical praise and seemed to sell reasonably even if it was below the publishers’ expectation. Another rare exception, the infamous “No Russian” level of CoD: Modern Warfare 2, again got a lot of coverage and was certainly no impediment to sales.
Meanwhile non-violent games have been one of the great success stories of this hardware generation. Family games, casual games, puzzle games, dance games, sports games have risen and risen, fueled at first by the early success of the Wii, then later by mobile devices. There may only be a small overlap between this market and that which consumes more violent fare, but plenty of action gamers have found pause for thought in peaceful, reflective indie titles.
It seems to me there’s actually quite a considerable market for anti-violence action games like Spec Ops. All that’s required is for the package to be delivered correctly. Firstly, it must be remembered that while it’s a sizable segment, it’s still a minority. That should come as no surprise: pandering to the lowest common denominator has long been a recipe for sales success across all media. Games are no different.
So it was perhaps unwise to have commissioned Spec Ops: The Line with an AAA budget and the accompanying weight of sales expectation. But pitch it right and there’s a market there, providing you can design a game to suit. That’s where the accusation of laziness holds a little water. Designing an action game around violence is relatively straightforward, with so much history to draw on. Building one that either draws a player into violence and then has them dwell upon its repercussions, or which tows the protagonist along in the wake of violence committed by others is much harder. But still entirely possible.
The lack of negative portrayals of violence, relatively common in almost other art forms, is unfortunate in video games. It plays into the hands of those who seek to censor or ban games by manipulating public perceptions of a link between gaming and antisocial behaviour in the face of all available evidence. But it’s not as inevitable as some might have you think. Not so long ago gaming was an immature format, practised largely by minors. But as the audience grows up, so will the subject matter. It’s about time we learned to expect, and to demand, better.