There’s a huge subject I’d like to tackle, but it’s a bit difficult for me to pin down. It’s something I feel very strongly about, and because I feel so strongly it tends to bleed into a lot of apparently disparate areas of my life. I’d like to begin by talking a little bit about video game violence– but that isn’t where I want to end up. This is simply the most ready point of contact between this subject and the games discussion that generally drives my writing on Problem Machine. This is going to be the first part of a series, and I don’t know how long this series will go on for and I don’t know what it will encompass. I’m exploring my own ideas on these subjects even as I try to construct arguments, which is… really exciting now that I think about it.
We’ve all gotten used to periodic furors over violence in video game content. Even though Jack Thompson, once an endless fountain of specious criticism and controversy, has been spectacularly discredited, there are plenty willing to blame video games for rises in violent crime– curiously, these complaints seemed to peak in frequency when violent crime was at an all time low and, now that it’s back on the rise due to economic factors (as always), they have been less prevalent. Go figure. They’ll be back though, and not without some justification, though this can be hard to see from the position we sit in. In fact, the same perspective that makes it difficult for those who play games frequently to engage with these criticisms may actually grant them some validity.
As I have discussed before, those of us who play a great deal of games, and those who design them or otherwise think about them critically, tend to see past the top contextual layer of the game to understand the underlying systems. Most games actually incentivize this to varying degrees– well, that’s really fundamentally what a game is, a system which can be exploited to achieve a goal. However, and I’ve discussed this as well, how we contextualize that system and that goal can result in, uh, some kind of strange and sometimes off-putting results. So, people who primarily see the contextual layer on top see what we’re doing playing these games and, bereft of the deeper context, see us indulging in what appear to be some pretty dark desires.
Ian Bogost has proposed that, by building systems which purport to depict the world or one like it as it operates, games contain implicit rhetorical arguments. For instance, the ways in which the game The Poltical Machine 2012 tends to reward shamelessly smearing your opponent, telling whatever state you’re in whatever they want to hear even if it’s essentially meaningless, and generally, well, being a politician, overtly proposes a deeply cynical argument about the electoral process (albeit one that seems to be borne out by all available data). Every game, by way of the interaction between the ruleset and the context built up by the fiction proposes some sort of argument. It is virtually impossible to describe anything without letting some of our own personal judgments seep in, a problem that many social scientists are all too familiar with (and, perhaps, game designers should be more familiar with).
So. What is a game saying when the optimal path in the game is murdering everything in sight? Or, perhaps worse, what is a game saying when all choices result in approximately the same outcome? The fact is, if one took most of the behaviors which are optimal within the game worlds we play in and tried to apply them to the real world the results would be, at best, catastrophic. Which is, yes, obvious, and yes, a silly thing to say because it’s so obvious, except when you then stop to consider the fact that many developers are driving games to become more realistic, and to model the world more closely– while, at the same time, it is inevitable that in most cases developers will hew very closely to the industry-accepted wisdom that games must be fun and must be goal driven (unless they’re Will Wright games, of course).
What is the end result of a game that presents you a realistic world and then tells you to game the system it presents, including the simulated human beings in that world, in order to achieve goals, if not a sociopathy simulator?
Well. That’s what any goal which supersedes the individual lives of those involved is, though, isn’t it? Is a general commanding his troops a sociopath? Is a religious leader decreeing moral maxims a sociopath? No, not necessarily, nor are they even necessarily insensitive to the consequences of their actions, they are merely focused on achieving something to the exception of the individual welfare of those who may be overrun by their efforts. This is why drier sim-type games seem to rarely be criticized on the basis of violence, because it’s a generally accepted tenet of civilization that there are sometimes justifications for war, for upheaval and societal change, and within that context there need to be people willing to make those hard decisions, regardless of the lives lost, for the greater good.
Still, we’d like them to at least be aware of the individual impact.
Of course, even if one makes a case that the game is making a statement that is poorly considered and possibly even offensive, forwarding a detestable argument is obviously not the same thing as influencing people to behave detestably. And, since most everyone knows the semi-misanthropic argument that the game is seemingly making is probably not the opinion of the developer its impact is greatly reduced. Maybe that’s the extent of and solution to the problem, simply to acknowledge on a surface level that the arguments put forth by a work are not to be taken at face value. Certainly there are many instances of great entertainment, great art, which do this. And, universally, any masterpiece which has a character, particularly a narrator character, who believes and behaves detestably, any transgressive fiction, will garner a fan-base who simply doesn’t get it.
This is not a sufficient argument against transgressive fiction existing, or being freely available. It is not our right nor our obligation to control the flow of information to our fellow human beings in order to try to prevent their ‘corruption’. I don’t know what it is, why it is that we are so eager to deny, as human beings, our own sentience, our own capacity for reasoned thought and decision making. We think, over and over again, that we must be allowed to be free, to make our own decisions for ourselves and that no one else can take away our freedom but we cannot, can not trust anyone else with the same freedom, the same capacity to decide what’s true and what isn’t.
Because they might decide wrong.
So we protect them from the things that might make them think the wrong thoughts, for the good of society. As though only we have the righteous perspective to not be swayed by poor arguments and falsehoods– as though only we are really human and everyone else mere mechanical dolls that accept any and all input and execute it mindlessly.
Designers, think about what it is you are saying. Consumers, think about what it means to be able to form one’s opinion, and how fortunate you are to be able to believe in what you do. Be thoughtful, be honest, be trusting, and for fuck’s sake try to maintain a little perspective.