Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Oh We Know Not What We Do, Do We?

Religious groups may have plenty of irrational, reactionary ideas about games, but does that mean they’re always wrong?

Okay, a little word-association to begin with: “videogames” and “religion.” Seriously, go ahead and open up Notepad or Pages or whatever—use an actual piece of paper if you can find one. You have five seconds…

So, what did you get? If the cultural sphere you inhabit is anything like the one I’m familiar with, you’ll have written “controversy,” “outrage,” “censorship” and, just maybe, “public burnings.” (Also acceptable: “degeneracy,” “moral decline” and “evil.”) When the worlds of religion and gaming collide, the result tends to be a brouhaha of some description; witness the outcry over violence and satanic imagery in Doom, the outcry over depictions of holy sites in Hitman 2 and Resistance: Fall of Man, and the (ongoing) outcry over more or less everything in the GTA series. Faith groups just don’t like games, right? But why can’t they leave those of us who do to enjoy our damnation in peace?

Of course, the media flurry surrounding these and similar incidents obscures the fact that plenty of religious people are keen gamers themselves, and not necessarily averse to a spot of simulated violence. Moreover, it seems (if the various articles and forum posts I’ve come across in the course of writing this piece are representative) to have engendered a siege mentality in some parts of the gaming community. Consider this excerpt from "Why God and Games Don’t Mix" by Stuart Clarke:

…it’s unlikely that religion will ever play a major role in interactive entertainment – it is perhaps the first art form where god just doesn’t fit.

And, from "Religion and Video Games: A Balanced Perspective" by Alfredo, this response to accusations that the prostitute-killing aspect of GTA IV is inappropriate:

[GTA IV] does not even encourage you to kill prostitutes, it is merely an option because the game simulates real world behavior.

These articles, and many like them, are predicated on the idea that religion is a stern, dogmatic force; a monolithic authority that seeks to eradicate everything that deviates from its schema. That’s certainly not an unprecedented definition, but neither is it exhaustive; religion can also be a great source of empowerment and artistic inspiration—think of Milton, Bach and Dostoevsky. More importantly, many of those who rally against the censorious interventions of pressure groups fail to acknowledge the fact that some of these self-righteous fundamentalists might have, you know…a point.

Just why is it so important to be able to patronise and kill prostitutes in GTA? Alfredo seems to be saying that it’s a matter of establishing a detailed, flexible environment in which the player is free to behave in whatever manner he wants; if that’s the case, why can’t I go into a store and buy a ukulele, or take night classes in conversational Spanish…aren’t those activities equally valid examples of “real-world behaviour?” Or is game-world freedom only worthwhile as long as it provides the opportunity to do things that are usually verboten?

Before I go on, I’d like to pre-empt any accusations of sanctimoniousness by emphasising that I’m a keen gamer myself, and I’ve played my share of violent titles over the years. I gibbed the grey-brown walking cadavers of Quake, I threw the drunken guard down the well in Thief, and I tried out the head-in-a-vice fatality in Condemned 2 at the first opportunity. I’ve also played GTA IV, of course, and I may have killed the occasional prostitute; it’s just so hard to keep track. Therein lies the problem.

Contrary to the impression generated by mainstream media, not all games are violent; but those that are violent are relentlessly so, to the point that it all gets a bit…well, monotonous. That’s what people mean when they talk about recent generations being desensitised: it’s not that long-term exposure transforms ordinary folk into raving psychotics (although studies suggest that, far from being cathartic, violent games actually do increase aggression levels), but that it trains them to take violence for granted—to be unmoved by it. Hence the escalating brutality in games: to keep the player interested, the designer must provide him with new spectacles of depravity and gore. In the words of the journalist Bill Moyers:

Once you decide to titillate instead of illuminate . . . you create a climate of expectation that requires a higher and higher level of intensity.

It’s not just physical violence that this applies to. The aforementioned prostitutes of GTA are a perfect example of game content that serves no nobler purpose than to titillate, and perhaps also to provoke the sort of alarmist media response that generates a lot of free publicity (mission accomplished). Would anyone miss them if they’d never been introduced? Would fans of the series be lobbying Rockstar Games right now, fighting for the right to watch a computer-generated hooker bouncing on the lap of a computer-generated hood in an ill-lit, computer-generated alley?

Condemned 2 is another prime offender; besides the abundant viscera, characters who go around uttering lines like “I’m ready to give this shithole an enema” can only be intended to make the game seem “gritty,” an industry term that roughly translates as “appealing to 15-year-old sociopaths.”

So, is it right that people stand up against the immorality of modern games? Is the anti-game-activist Jack Thompson providing an important public service? The problem with this idea is that the hard-liners who routinely challenge the depiction of violence in games do so not because it’s often gratuitous, but rather because they don’t think it should be there at all. Thompson, a devout Christian, is perhaps best known for his attacks on GTA, but he was equally dismissive of the Christian-themed Left Behind: Eternal Forces, in which the player kills un-cooperative heathens. For him and his ilk, game violence can never be challenging or instructive.

This is a view that serious gamers resist, and rightly so; filmmakers, playwrights and novelists have weathered equivalent attacks in the past. However, the resulting culture of bipartisan rhetoric discourages deeper examination of the issue, and this only serves to reinforce dogmatism on both sides. What the gaming community really needs is a greater level of self-awareness. Rather than responding to every challenge by pulling out Freedom Of Expression and waving it around with the safety off, or else leaving the marketplace to make moral decisions in our stead (on the assumption that a profitable game is a “good” one), we ought to be more critical of our own attitudes. It’s disingenuous to invoke a spirit of absolute laissez faire because we all know that there are certain lines we don’t want crossed (paedophilia simulator, anyone?); it’s also disingenuous to pretend that games are non-ideological, and that religious influences necessarily subordinate medium to message.

As players, we should be the first to challenge the culture of violence and depravity that exerts such an influence on the “mature” (can you remember a time when that wasn’t a euphemism?) end of the games market; not just because we want to be social crusaders, but because it might actually induce publishers and developers to challenge us back. Think of it: more games that aren’t just half-hearted attempts to spruce up the same old walk-and-shoot mechanism with a new colour scheme and a fresh set of cannon fodder; more games that make us actually stop and think before we pull the trigger or wrap fibre wire around the neck of an innocent NPC; more games that attempt to find ways to entertain and engage without recourse to deadly weapons at all.

When Thomas Jefferson said that “the price of democracy is eternal vigilance” he may not have had Manhunt in mind, but that doesn’t mean the sentiment isn’t still applicable. And if that seems like a grandiose note on which to sign off, I urge you to reconsider the importance of the issue.

1 comment:

Roland said...

conclusion here is fucking great, but the whole things slows down in the middle. That paragraph where you point out you play games feels a bit stilted. But it is funny.