Monthly Archives: November 2008

Keeping score

score

 

Ever since I can remember being conscious of videogame reviewing as something to think about rather than something that simply existed, there has always been a general unease about scores and scoring. And possibly rightly so: often, a review can live and die on a score in the minds of some readers (need I mention a GameSpot review whose fame has now far outstripped the title whose ire it was directed?). As the author of Metacritic’s equal third lowest Brawl review, I know how those little numbers at the end of a review can dictate your readers’ response. Recently, I was also particularly amused by the first reader comment on our Gears of War 2 review:

8.5? So it’s a flop?

The author of that comment later confessed to be joking, but the sheer believability that such a statement could be made seriously is telling enough.

We all know the problems with scores, and how they are treated by readers, by reviewers, by the industry. That’s not what I want to talk about. Instead, I want to talk about the response that journalists have taken to this.

More specifically, I want to talk about Edge Magazine. I’m going to go ahead and assume that most – if not all – who would stumble across this blog have picked up a copy of Edge in the past. If not, I don’t know what you are doing here; despite the fact that I’m free, I assure you, their writing really is much better.

Despite the fact that you’ll find many gamers willing to swear on a copy of Edge in court instead of a Bible, I think they are mistaken in their approach to scoring. In an Edge review, the score is a tiny little blip down the very end of a review, like an afterthought, a number pretending it isn’t really there.

This is what I’d like to call ‘provincialising’ the score, after Dipesh Chakrabarty. Chakrabarty, in his project of Provincialising Europe, says that he wants to undo the situation where Europe serves as a “silent referent in historical knowledge … Third-world historians feel a need to refer to works in European history; historians of Europe do not feel any need to reciprocate.” One of the problems that Chakrabarty runs into and engages with in his project is that to ignore Europe in writing histories of ‘Third World’ countries is to only turn them into highly visible other places. To completely erase Europe from theory is to ignore the 400 pound Gorrila in the room: the reader is constantly wondering when Europe will be brought into events, or wonders where it has gone.

It seems to me, then, that this idea can be interestingly applied to scoring videogames. Edge intentionally make their scores tiny in order to trump small minded, ‘typical’ readers who might be foolish enough to think that a score equals a review and leave it at that. In a sense, it forces the reader to look at the text first; or at least be very dedicated in their attempt to bypass the evil forces of sentence structure. I infer this; I have never read a rationale of the scoring system, so correct me if I’m mistaken here, but it does seem like a deliberate statement of sorts. In one way, at least, it’s effective. I know that in my weaker moments, I’ve searched an Edge review high and low before noticing the score, hidden away at the bottom.

But this is precisely the problem. In hiding the score away like this, Edge does just about the opposite of what it presumably intends to do. Placing the score as an afterthought makes it the 400 pound Gorilla in the room. It makes the score highly visible, as if the great critical videogame journalists of our period have felt obliged to descend to the masses and join in with the scoring, but are so repulsed by the distasteful nature of the number that they’ve hidden it away.

So what to do with the score? I don’t presume to tell Edge how to do journalism (as they’re obviously much more accomplished than me), and I don’t think there is any clear answer here at all. But it does seem to me that it’s about time that games journalists stopped being offended by the trappings of their jobs. If you are going to have a score in a review, embrace it. If you don’t like the way scores are treated, think of a better way to do it: maybe change the scale, maybe change the signifiers. But don’t ignore the reason you are giving a score in the first place.

A review score should be like an abstract, a quickfire way of gauging the reviewer’s opinion on the subject matter. We all know that it isn’t about consumer advice anymore, and that nine times out of ten, the reader has reached a decision long before the reviewer has even played the game. So if it’s still a review and not a piece of critical reflection, then the score should sum up the reviewer’s thoughts and frame the discussion. Scores in reviews of all types existed prior to the invention of the internet and metacritic. Maybe we should go back and look at their evolution and others uses before we do away with them altogether.

Advertisements

5 Comments

Filed under criticism, videogames

Living in Fable

fable_2_10_l
What follows is a slightly more personal and subjective account than I’d normally post on this blog. I hope you forgive me. It also contains heavy Fable II spoilers, so read at your own peril.


Cultural objects are often infused with our own individual meanings. Our lives intersect with media in uncontrollable and unpredictable ways. As a child, I was not allowed to see Mrs. Doubtfire because my mother was still feeling the after-effects of a custody battle. I still can’t watch it without being reminded of my family’s history. I also have difficulty listening to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11, as I had it on repeat for a month while studying for my final high school Russian History exam. Listening to that great opening movement brings back facts and ingrained topic sentences that I didn’t know I still had in me.

And so Fable II has also entered my life, infused with meaning that Lionhead Studios could not possibly have foreseen.

I currently sit at a crossroads. After years of schooling, I’ve finally reached a point where I have no clear path to follow. I have applied for further study, but I am increasingly uncertain if that was the right decision. I feel drawn to employment and financial security it offers after years of the student lifestyle. I also want to take time off and travel with my girlfriend. I’ve been contemplating my choices with increasing confusion over the last few weeks, and it looks like I might be trying for a compromise between all three. Essentially, these are questions of grand designs; the mythically overblown questions that are faced by all newly minted adults on their rites of passage. Where to from here?

I decided after months of study and little else that I would pick a game and spend time going through it lovingly and slowly, like I used to be able to do as a child. After much deliberation, the game I chose was Fable II. I don’t know if it is coincidence, or if I subconsciously picked a game that so mirrored my own circumstances, but whatever the case, Fable II has become part of my crossroads.

Early in my experiences with Fable II, I wrote about how the game illustrates your own personality, and how it had revealed mine. At that stage, I didn’t yet know the full truth of my argument. Fable II has revealed more about my own dilemmas and choices to be made than I could have ever expected from a videogame.

My marriage dilemma aside, I first noticed the connection between reality and my actions in Fable II in the latter stages of the game. By this stage, I was ignoring the main storyline and side-quests in an endeavor to become Albion’s greatest property tycoon. As far as I know, there isn’t a building available in the game that I now do not own (except Castle Fairfax, and I’m planning on buying that next time I play).

My actions interested me. Why was I bent on monopoly? Money isn’t a huge asset in Fable – once you get a steady stream of income from a few houses and a business or two, you are rarely in want for more. Thinking about it now, I’m not sure why I wanted to have such an unfathomably large income to the point of disregarding my other priorities. It certainly doesn’t make sense in terms of the world of Fable II. But it does make sense in terms of my reality. I’ve always been a bit of a money hoarder. I never drop below a certain amount in my bank if I can help it because I want know that if anything goes wrong, I can deal with it. With my present situation, more than ever, I’m interested in earning and saving money. It feels like I’m approaching the real world and I’m not yet well enough equipped to deal with it, so money is a way to help.

Maybe that was me in Fable II. Despite the fact that nothing would ever go drastically wrong, I wanted to know that if it did, I could deal with it. I wanted to be safe. Just like in reality.

However, it was Fable II‘s ending that really threw me. As previously mentioned, I consider myself a ‘morality player‘. I make in-game decisions almost exclusively with regard to my own ethical judgement, and I find it very difficult to play ‘evil’. Earlier in Fable, I had forced myself to marry a woman I otherwise would not have because I felt sorry for her. I also didn’t even have to think twice about sacrificing my age and looks for a nameless stranger later in the game. I did it without hesitation – it was clearly the right thing to do.

Yet at the final decision, the final choice for Fable II, I changed. I chose love. I chose to revive my own family and dog over the lives of thousands. This was not a black and white decision, but fairly clearly, I chose the path that benefited myself over countless others. I chose the needs of the few over the needs of the many, despite my claim to morality in playing. Hammer’s devastation at my choice – “they had families too” – was mirrored by my own. “It’s just not the choice I thought you would make”, she said. I agreed with her, slightly disbelieving at my own actions.

Why did I do it? It felt so right. Family and loss are the primary concerns of Fable II. As Sparrow, my family had been taken away from me. I was a street urchin without parents, and my only guide, my sister, was murdered before my eyes. Family is taken from many characters in the game; from Hammer, from the antagonist Lucien, even from my wife once before in her life, as her husband-to-be committed suicide after she jilted him. It just seemed right that one character in Fable II would have his family live, survive and love him.

The results were wonderful. I was overjoyed, absolutely overjoyed to see my dog and my family alive again. When I returned home, I couldn’t find my kids and spent a few moments searching Bowerstone Market for them. My son had only just been born before I left, and was in a cradle before the climax of the game. To see him and his sister run up to me and ask me if I remembered him was therefore absolutely heart-breakingly brilliant. For at least a moment, I truly believed what I had done was right. But the others that I had chosen to sacrifice, as Hammer had reminded me, had families too.

My decision was not the choice of a morality player. This was not the choice I would normally make. Why should I chose to save a family that I never really cared for – that I was forced to marry into, in fact – over the lives of countless innocents? I could have simply re-married, found another wife, one that I had actually pursued and lived happily ever after. I would have been without my dog, certainly, but the lives of the many are surely worth that small price.

I can only conclude that I did it not because of my Fable self, but because of my real self. A part of me has been reflected in Fable II‘s finale that I might not have seen otherwise. Is this what I want? Am I desperately seeking family, love, a job, a house, a life? Are my hopes and fears about the future so ingrained that I will decide against what I thought I was? Maybe I am simply not as ethical as I thought.

I’m not sure what this post says more about. There is a quality to Fable II that I find amazing, and it also says a lot about the unique power of videogames to impact on our lives. I am no closer to a decision, but now, I think I know what it is that I want. Or at least what I want to try for.

Only one thing is certain: never let me chose between your lives and those of my family. You may never live to regret it.

2 Comments

Filed under the way we play, videogames

Great Game Spaces: Majora’s Mask’s Clock Town

 

Majora’s Mask is the forgotten step-child of the Zelda series. Smaller, shorter than Ocarina of Time, with a depressing story about a suicidal moon and a deranged child kidnapping horses and fairies, it nevertheless received good reviews at the time. Since then, though, I’d argue that the game has become an also-ran, a second best behind the blazing sun of Ocarina of Time, and if it’s odd and diverse you want, you’re generally a fan of Wind Waker instead.

But Majora’s Mask is well worth your time. In fact, I’d suggest it is among the best Zelda games ever made – if not the best. This is in no small part due to the terrific use of space in the game. Though the world is smaller than Ocarina of Time, I would argue that in many ways, it is more successful.

The central hub of the game, Clock Town, is a beautifully constructed piece of clockwork. It’s an elaboration on a cuckoo clock, a wind-up toy, an automaton. Each character in the game operates according to their own rules and functions, giving life to the city beyond Ocarina‘s characters, who were cemented to the spot to serve the player. Some characters follow specific arcs that you can engage, or not engage with throughout the three days. Some only take brief instants, like being in the right place at the right time to foil the robbery of the Old Lady who runs the Bomb Shop. Others take almost all three days, like the heartbreaking story of Kafei and Anju, who only wish to get married and await the destruction of Termina together. Even the postman follows a distinct story and path.

If you spend enough time in the wonderful world of Majora’s Mask, you begin to instinctively know exactly where each character is at any given moment, and what they are doing. Each character becomes more than the humorous blank slates found in other Zelda games. They are individuals who have plans and emotions. And they have a schedule to follow.

In many ways, I feel like the town is Nintendo’s illustration of Isaac Newton’s clockwork universe theory, of a world wound up by a God and left to run smoothly on its own predetermined route for ever. It is only the intervention of the player that causes this Groundhog Day to ebb and flow. The whole of Clock Town feels on rails of sorts, like one of those old clocks that on the hour would give the viewer an excellent display of rotating gentlemen pursuing rotating ladies.

It’s no surprise then, that the major thematic preoccupation of Majora’s Mask is time, like Ocarina. Except in Majora, time is built into the game space in a different way. In Ocarina, we saw the effects of time as two snapshots: of the ravages that time can cause over seven years through two bookends. In Majora’s Mask, instead we see time as a force that flows through the game space, having impact in real time. It moves characters, it furthers plots (whether the player has anything to do with them or not), and it inflicts death upon all characters and the world if allowed too much freedom. And all this is conveyed through Majora’s space. The player can slow time, and even reset the three days, but can never escape its power. Time and space are always interlinked concepts, but never have they been made more so than in Majora’s Mask.

8 Comments

Filed under Great game spaces, videogames

Adaptation

adaptation-6

There are many predictable aspects to the gaming industry. I am no analyst, but even I can make some pretty safe predictions for the next five years. Nostradamus says that EA will continue to release yearly sports videogames; first-person shooters will remain the genre with the most ‘hardcore’ credibility; and the industry as a whole will continue to rely by-and-large on sequels and ‘viable IP’, whatever the hell that means.

The most mind-numbingly predictable aspect of the videogame industry, however, is the persistence of the bad film-to-game adaptation. The film-to-game is notorious, and many of their number rank among the worst games of all time. Superman 64. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. These games are routinely critically demolished, and it is rare that a film adaptation gets a buzz amongst even the most enthusiastic enthusiast press. GoldenEye 64 remains one of the only film adaptations that makes it to top-ten lists, or even top-hundred lists. Indeed, it is telling that the just-released Quantum of Solace was compared to that 1997 game in almost every review I read of the game, despite their obvious differences. Not surprisingly, Quantum of Solace seems to be coming out very much the loser of this particular comparison (I wonder if the comparison, as inevitable as it is, is even meaningful at all these days), and by all accounts is a very bland shooter.

To cut to the chase, it’s probably fair to assume that most bad videogame adaptations aren’t the fault of the developer. I don’t know the circumstances of development, but from what I can tell, these games are treated more like merchandising than a meaningful exercise, and are designed largely to release simultaneously with the film and pick up consumers who haven’t followed the game and are more interested in reliving a good film than a playing a good game.

But adaptation could be the most interesting genre of videogame. In fact, it should be the most interesting genre. There’s reams of theory of adaptation in other media, and it applies equally to games as anything else. The videogame has unique strengths that can really enhance ideas from other media, yet are routinely ignored in favour of a quick-and-dirty transliteration. In contrast to many other genres of videogame, it seems that those lucky enough to develop the-game-of-the-film simply don’t think about what they can do with the property.

Orson Welles once said that the only point to adaptation is to bring a new aspect of the original into focus. He might have been talking about films, but his comment is equally applicable to videogames. What film were the producers of Pirates of the Caribbean watching when they decided that the adventures of Jack Sparrow would be best conveyed via a series of platforms interspaced to frequently utilise the jump button? Indeed, the Pirates films provide us with a great example of adaptation, as of course they are the brilliant realisation of a theme-park ride gone to the cinema: charismatic actors, slapstick humour, expensive CGI and sprawling, baroque storylines. Converted to a game, Pirates somehow ends up being a D-grade platformer.

However, other recent adaptations haven’t been so careless. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is, suprisingly, a good example of how to think about videogame adaptation. Though in the end, many aspects of the game were poorly implemented, it still made an attempt to say something about the original work. If J.K. Rowling’s paper-and-ink fifth novel is about Harry’s journey through loss and maturity, and director David Yates’ celluloid version is about rebelling against corrupt and overly officious regimes, then the game firmly focuses on Harry’s relationship to his magical environment. Though in-game, it ends up being more Harry Potter, boy janitor than boy wizard, this is still an important point. The Potter games have always naturally leant towards focusing on atmosphere and location, but Phoenix is the first to fully embrace it. Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry is lovingly and painstakingly recreated, with almost every nook and cranny present and explorable. As with the prior games, it is a slightly-awkward blend of novel and film worlds, with many locations faithful to the visual look of the set designs alongside other, book-only areas. However, Hogwarts is once again rendered a place of mystery, and provides much of the game’s interest in itself. The player, as Harry, is encouraged to explore as much as possible, collecting and discovering to progress in the game.

This approach mirrors many of the themes running through Rowling’s work. Hogwarts is as imposing a presence in her novels as ‘the mansion’ of the Gothic romance: it is an ever-present site of mystery and secrecy, providing a safe-haven to orphan Harry that is gradually eroded as the books wear on. Hogwarts even provides a useful tool for Harry and co. at various points – most notably at this stage by offering up The Room of Requirements, an area where the students can train to defend themselves against the forces that threaten them. As Harry notes in the film, “It’s as though Hogwarts wants us to fight back.”

As is probably wearing quite thin on this blog by now, space is something that games do very well. Space, and feelings located in spaces are probably better emphasised through videogames than any other cultural form. When I think of what a Potter game could offer me, I think of exploring Rowling’s universe, not grappling with some over-complicated spell battle or potion mixing scheme. When making the Pirates game, someone should have realised that platforming actually has nothing to do with the films or the ride whatsoever. This cannot be overemphasised. Sure, platforming is fun (when done well, as is clearly not the case here), but the Pirates films capture our imagination for excitement, humour, adventure, and that good old anachronistic feeling that the high seas are depositories of exotic tales and lawlessness. I got more of all of these feelings from the 10-minute Fable II pirate sub-quest than I did the entire Pirates game.

If nothing else, adaptation is the great missed opportunity of the industry. With few exceptions, we’ve so far completely missed the mark. For instance, the concepts of ‘real’ and ‘fake’ are surely best explored in the videogame universe, where the borders between these two terms are often blended beyond recognition (as in Juul’s now-famous suggestion that videogames are both real and fake). Adapting a Phillip K. Dick novel in this sense seems obvious. Most of his corpus focused on the borders of reality and fantasy. Imagine a Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? game.* Replicants or not, they’d all still be Artificial Intelligence except for you as the only human-controlled character in the game. The borders of such a reality could be very interestingly toyed with in ways you simply couldn’t do in the novel or film. Or, let’s return to the Gothic fiction I mentioned earlier. It would take a brave studio to do it, but videogame adaptations of Jane Eyre or Rebecca could be fantastic. As long as they weren’t reduced to jumping the new Mrs. de Winter from platform to platform, of course.

My point is that most film-to-game adaptations are trying to fit the original into a context it should never be in. I agree with the questions raised at Noble Carrots that some thematic concerns might not be at all compatible with videogames, and perhaps in these circumstances it’s unfair to judge the developer as missing the point of the original work. But in many – if not most – cases, it seems like such an easy pratfall to avoid. The first question that should be asked when given the rights to a film is not, “How do we fit this film into an established genre?” but, “What aspect of the film is best emphasised by a videogame?”

I do wonder if we’ll ever get to that point. I’m not optimistic. If it’s any consolation, cinema, that century-old medium, still can’t get it right when going the other way around: a little Tomb Raider with Angelina, anyone? Or perhaps you might prefer DOA, or Super Mario Bros. with Bob Hoskins to whet your adaptation appetite. No?

 

* Yes, I know there have been a couple of Blade Runner games, but I think these become more of a response to the sheer architectural power of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece rather than the thematic concerns in the book.

7 Comments

Filed under videogames

The Sphere of Influence: Journey to the Centre of the Earth

cakelie_2

 There, upon a granite slab, appeared two mysterious graven letters, half eaten away by time. They were the initials of the bold and daring traveller:
      “A. S.,” shouted my uncle. “Arne Saknussemm! Arne Saknussemm everywhere!”

– From the Malleson translation of Journey to the Centre of the Earth


This is the first in a second series of posts that, along with my Great Game Space series, I want to continue for some time. Ever since I’ve been interested in videogames as a topic of intelligent discussion, I’ve been interested in their relationships with other media. If you’ve ever listened to the PALGN podcast, you’d know that I almost can’t go an episode without bringing up a film reference; my general cinema studies background surely has something to do with this. However, as a Cultural Studies major, I can’t help but see cultural influence as more of a sphere than any hierarchical relationship. Films influence games, games influence films, media creators influence audiences, and media creators are audiences.

To that end, I thought it would be interesting to explore a number of media texts that have influenced videogames. I might in the end turn it around and look at the way videogames have influenced other media, but at the moment I want to look at the culture that has created videogames as we know them. It’s a popular fallacy to imagine that videogames were birthed in some sort of cultural vacuum. In part, then, this series is an attempt to draw some form of vague sketch as to the cultural DNA of gaming as a response to that notion.

Today, I start with Jules Verne’s 1854 novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth. This might seem like an odd choice: few games have used similar subject material (save for the videogame adaptation of the woeful 2008 film of the same name), and certainly there are more obvious works of Verne’s that are more immediately influential. However, there is a lot more here than might initially seem evident.

Eight years ago, Don Carson used the term ‘following Saknussemm’ to describe a process of storytelling through “cause and effect”. For those who haven’t read Journey to the Centre of the Earth, the protagonists at many points find themselves following clues and notes left by Professor Arne Saknussemm, who preceded their journey.

The parallel uses for this type of technique in videogames are obvious. As Carson points out, “In this way, the game player is pulled through the story by following “bread crumbs” left behind by a fictitious proceeding game character. Whether you create notes scattered throughout your environments, or have the game player follow the destructive path of some dangerous creature, “cause and effect” elements will only heighten the drama of the story you are trying to tell!”

Many games have used this technique since Carson highlighted its usefulness, but there is no clearer example than Portal. After GLaDOS has proven herself unstable, and the player escapes to the bowels of the facility, Saknussemm again emerges. Valve had originally planned to include a Rat-Man character who was responsible for these spots of graffiti, but decided in the end to let the spaces do the talking. In the final copy of the game, the Rat-Man graffiti serves to replace GLaDOS’ previous function as a narrator and guide while still working within the boundaries of the game’s fiction. I think that we as players are aware of the slightly contrived nature of the directions we receive from Rat-Man, yet follow them anyway. They must have been successful in at least one sense: if I ever hear someone make a ‘cake is a lie’ joke again, I may well abandon my pacifist principles that I professed to have in a recent post. Rat-Man’s graffiti somehow clicked with fans.

Interestingly, this type of guidance isn’t unusual to another form of mediated experience: the theme park. Notes, signs and scrawled messages from ‘previous’ passers through in self-guided attractions are common, featuring notably in the Pirate’s Lair on Tom Sawyer Island at Disneyland. In fact, it’s unsurprising to learn that Carson himself used to be Senior Show Designer for Walt Disney Imagineering, the theme park design arm of Disney, and helped to design Splash Mountain in Florida, and Mickey’s Toontown for Disneyland California.

While only a small selection of games would have been directly influenced by Saknussemm, the idea that exploration can be greatly enhanced through this method is a pervasive one. Indeed, many videogames from a broad spectrum of genres seem to use this method. Even that great big dumb cliche of a game, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, managed to throw it in on several occasions. It’s a question of following history more than anything else: as players, we are at once uncovering plotlines as well as exploring physical space. When I follow the grooves created by a chest that has been moved in Uncharted, I am being cued into both gameplay actions and narrative function. As I follow the path to the cave opening, I gain a strong sense that I am disturbing history. Someone has been here before me, and I am following in their footsteps. The same goes for Portal, as Rat-Man’s graffiti creates just as much atmosphere as it does gameplay behaviour, which is almost certainly why we are willing to buy its contrived nature so easily.

So, IMAX and Brendan Fraser aside, Journey to the Centre of the Earth might have had a stronger influence on videogames than many might think. It’s entirely possible that someone hit upon the notion as a storytelling device before Verne, and that I, and Carson are giving him too much credit. However, it seems unlikely that the theme park designers of the mid-20th Century were ignorant of Verne’s work. It’s also worth noting that Verne continues to exert influence through other avenues even today, as the style of Steampunk obviously draws on his and H.G. Wells’ work (can you imagine BioShock in a world without Verne?).

So, even if Journey to the Centre of the Earth is not an overt influence, many games still endeavor to encourage players to ‘follow Saknussemm’. It appears that 150 years on, we are still following Verne.

1 Comment

Filed under The sphere of influence, videogames

Blog pause

Just a quick note: I’ll be out and about for the next three days covering eGames, so blogging will be put on hold temporarily. I hope to resume with new energy and ideas come Monday.

2 Comments

Filed under videogames

The pacifism of violence

1967-pentagon-flower

 

I’ve been meaning to write on this for some time now, and with Owen Good posting a remarkably clear-minded commentary on the latest and truly horrendous Call of Duty: World at War trailer over at Kotaku, there doesn’t seem to be a better time.

I often stop and wonder at my own ethical contradictions. I have very strong opinions on a variety of political issues, but now will rarely attend protests simply because I’ve been turned off by several bad experiences at them. I’ve been a vegetarian since birth, and have never eaten meat, yet I sometimes turn a blind eye to animal products like rennet in cheeses and sweets.

I also consider myself to be a died-in-the-wool pacifist. I have never been in a fist-fight in my life, and I do not believe that war is ever a desirable solution, even in extreme cases. When I was sixteen, I read Gandhi’s The Story of My Experiences with Truth and fell in love with the man and his idea of Satyagraha. I truly, utterly believe that if ever conscription was introduced in this country I would rather go to prison than serve. I have also often imagined what I would do if I were threatened with violence, or if my family or loved ones were. Would I fight to protect them? Ultimately, I imagine I would, but I don’t believe I would know until faced by such a situation.

The contradiction that has been worrying me lately is therefore clear. As well as claiming to be a pacifist, I regularly play and gain pleasure from violent – even extremely violent – videogames. I’ve often wondered about that trial I might face for claiming exemption from military service on conscientious grounds, where the government lawyer brings up my dark and seedy past as a videogame writer. “How do you reconcile such recreational violence with your so-called ‘beliefs’?” He asks.

When I was younger I did have some sort of position on this; when my friends played Battlefield Vietnam at LAN parties I refused to play along. When I was finally persuaded to sit in, I simply would not play as the US forces as I did not believe in the conflict being portrayed.

So how can playing violent, war-based videogames sit with pacifist beliefs? The obvious answer is that they simply don’t, but it isn’t quite that simple. As adults, I believe that the media we consume does not necessarily reflect on our beliefs or us as individuals. Just as I can adore Close Encounters of the Third Kind and not share an inner urge to meet extraterrestrials, I can love a jingoistic, racist, sexist and neo-colonialist series like James Bond and remain opposed to all those concepts.

But is it the same with videogames? Although it’s been improving over the last few years, war and violence in games isn’t usually treated particularly intelligently, as reinforced by the Call of Duty trailer. How does this look to the ‘outside’ world? Take a look at this video on one Australian politician’s objections to an R18+ classification for videogames:

If you are anything like me, it was difficult not to cringe at the examples of violence shown in this context. Why would you want to blow someone up like that? In fact, why on earth would you want to shoot someone full stop? Really, why would anyone want to slice someone in half with a chainsaw, Gears style, or drill out their brain with the Cerebral Bore? I live close to the CBD of Melbourne and occasionally there are muggings and worse around my area. Late in the evening, I heard what I thought was a gunshot. It wasn’t, but I had imaginings of what I would do if I looked out my window and saw someone brandishing a firearm. I shrugged it off and went back to the video I was watching on my computer of GTA IV. The player pulled out a gun and started firing into the crowd. I couldn’t keep watching.

The answer I usually come up with here is that games, like everything else, are filtered through our own prisms of experience. I can play GTA and not want to actually pull a real firearm on a real crowd, right? Of course. The events within my gaming console aren’t real events. They are mediated experiences, just like film, literature and music.

Does it even go further? I once wrote that war waged through videogames is “experience so we don’t have to.” I still believe that. Videogames can provide a different kind of deterrent that we don’t get through All Quiet on the Western Front or the writings of Gandhi. Just because I enjoy being in Chernobyl in Call of Duty 4 doesn’t mean that I actually ever want to go there. Just because I enjoy being part of a Normandy Beach landing in any other Second World War videogame doesn’t mean that I ever, ever in my darkest dreams want to have actually experienced it.

Part of me, though, says that this is just a soft excuse, a way of explaining my bloodthirsty habit to my ethical alter-ego. This side of me says that regardless of how I might interpret singleplayer, fictional-historic experiences, I still enjoy the consequence-free violence of multiplayer deathmatch.

Maybe multiplayer is just like paintball, or similar war-games. It could be argued to be consequenceless in more ways than one: no-one is really hurt, and us males get to let out our uncontrollable genetic desire for violence and competition. It’s the ludic element that we enjoy here; of being able to pit our skill against others in a ruled environment. The violence is mediated through the rules of the game.

I find this answer promising, but flawed. The fiction is still tied to our enjoyment. If it wasn’t, then why do we bother putting in blood and not paint? Why go to extreme lengths to emulate real conflict instead of just bringing paintball into our homes? The only answer is that we must enjoy, on some level, the gratuitous killing of our enemies.

There may be some answers here. There may not be. This topic remains deeply, deeply disquieting for me on a number of levels, and I suspect I still have more questions than I can answer.

5 Comments

Filed under videogames