Responses to my Salon piece on the video game violence debate.

I wrote an article this week seeking to re-open the video game violence debate with a different set of terms and, as I perhaps should have expected, it got some rather heated responses.

The original article can be found on Salon here:

My response to the comments (also at the bottom of the article) is below. I’m eager to keep the debate up though, so feel free to respond:

I consider the hornet’s nest well and truly kicked on this one.

I’ve read the comments left here and would like to address some of the points raised:

Nope, I’ve not played the torture scene, but I have watched it played through a couple of times – including the dialogue from Trevor afterwards – and I’m not convinced that it was as successful satire as many claim for it. Yes he subverts torture’s place in society in conversation but I think that the games industry has still not figured out what being in control means for this sort of violence. The problem is that developers can’t determine how gamers react to being in control of the torture, and I’ve seen equal numbers of “the torture scene was awesome and cool” comments on youtube as “the torture scene was gruesome social commentary” ones. If satire was the complete point of this scene then the writers could have easily allowed Trevor’s character to subvert it earlier in the scene rather than tacking a message on at the end. By not giving the player choice as to whether to torture or not, I would argue that they open themselves up to criticism by *allowing* some gamers to be either blasé about torture or even enjoy it. That’s the gamer’s prerogative, but we should find it sad at least.

Call me a heavy-handed moralist if you like, but I want the *choice* not to torture in the game. In the article I don’t make a claim as to whether it is right or wrong, but rather that I, and that widening demographic of gamers, are likely to be turned off by this. Even if the satire of torture were successful, I would find it hard to play through. And that is frustrating, as I want to play the rest of the game. (And before someone points out the inconsistencies in the argument when the rest of the game involves mowing down people by the thousand – well the GTA universe is usually full of cartoonish characters and OTT violence. Humanising a single person’s suffering in sharp relief does not fit with that tone, and if Rockstar were trying to do something clever and Brechtian at this point they failed).

My central point is not the one that defensive gamers are used to: I don’t think these things should be banned and I don’t make claims as to some universal morality of these things. My point is simply that I think that as games reach higher levels of fidelity, reach a wider audience, and find their rightful place as equals to other media, I think we should be as demanding of games writing as we are of those other media. I find misogyny, glorified violence, unsuccessful satire (too easily subverted and adopted by the bro-crowd) and over-simplifications of real-world events troubling in films too. It’s a political point. I just happen to also believe that games writing is still in its infancy, and we should be more demanding of it. Just as Zero Dark Thirty was debated by film-lovers for (according to some) depicting torture as a successful tool, we as gamers should internally debate the depiction of suffering in our own media.

This last point is raises what I mean about placing games in our wider critique of violent media in society and is, admittedly, from my own lefty POV. I believe we should be asking what narratives we feed and what impact they have on how people perceive the world. Let’s not pretend we don’t have a ‘good guy vs bad guy’ perception problem, and that media don’t play into that. Games *could* help subvert those narratives though, but real-world set pacifist or non-violent games don’t sell. Where is gaming’s 12 Angry Men? Or Schindler’s list?  Aside from sports games and ‘children’s games’, all our blockbusters are violent. There is hope in the indy scene, but it’s a shame that big developers don’t provide and we as gamers don’t demand these things.


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