Like most dedicated gamers, I’m currently playing Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3. What’s interesting is the lack of negative press regarding the violent nature of the game. Where are usual calls from modern-day lynch-mobs for the game to be banned? Are we finally seeing an acceptance from the general populous that games can be exclusively made for, and played by, a mature audence…or is it the fact that the penny hasn’t dropped yet?
A couple of years ago, after the release of Modern Warfare 2, elements of the New Zealand press launched a mis-guided assault on video game violence which really pressed my buttons.
Below is what I had to say at the time, a version of which was published on techday.com. As always, enjoy some retro B’Stard!
The recent release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 has blown open the rather tedious and dusty old violence and video games debate. Game Console’s Darren Price, has something to say about this.
Each time a new adult orientated video game comes out the popular press wheel out some bearded academic to tell us just how bad these nasty games are and how they are to blame for all our social ills. In the 1950s it was Elvis’ gyrating pelvis, in the 1980s it was video nasties and since the mid-nineties it’s been video games turn to be blamed for the corruption of innocent young minds.
This week New Zealand Herald has fallen hook, line and sinker for game publisher Activation’s marketing hype. NZ Herald reported on the “controversial” killing of innocent pixellated people in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. To add credibility to their story, they have enlisted the wisdom of Auckland University psychologist, Dr Ian Lambie. Dr Lambie, according to NZ Herald, believes that some video games serve as catalyst for people with a history of violent tendencies. In other words violent games could make psychotic madmen madder in the same way a movie, a gangsta rap, the lady in Foodtown or the voices in his head would. Madmen are unpredictable, that is why they are mad. Despite NZ Herald’s angle, Dr Lambie stops short of saying that games will turn the rest us reasonably well-adjusted people into foaming-mouthed crazies.
Dr Lambie goes on to say, again as report by NZ Herald, “The threshold for what is acceptable seems to have risen if you look at what was acceptable say 20 years ago.” How many people followed the reality TV show-style news reporting from the front lines of Operation Desert Storm? They were real soldiers firing real guns and killing real people. I’d say that was pretty desensitising. Why is it OK to show the public real war and killing on TV, but not in a pretend video game.
The NZ Herald article continues, quoting Dr Lambie, “I think banning or having censorship around these extremely violent games absolutely needs to take place because what is the purpose of actually having them?” I’m not sure what he means by “…what is the point of actually having them” as the article isn’t very clear, but I’ll try to help him out anyway. The primary point “having” video games is entertainment. Like most narrative media, they can also inform and educate. If Dr Lambie is referring to what is the point of having censorship laws, video games are vetted and censored as necessary by the Office of Film & Literature Classification, as alluded to in NZ Herald’s article,. Modern Warfare 2 got an R18 rating and is thus unsuitable for minors. Just as porn and beer are not pursuits that should be available to kids, neither are R18 video games. Interestingly the Aussies, whose lawmakers still can’t grasp the fact that video games can and are played by adults and thus have no R18 rating, have classified MW2 as suitable for 15 year children. Go figure that one out.
This time the debate has been started up again due to what I believe is a bit of clever marketing designed to give MW2 a bit of publicity. In one level you play an American Special Forces agent that has infiltrated a terrorist cell. In order to maintain your cover, you become an active participant in the massacre of hundreds of people in a Russian airport terminal. Don’t get me wrong, it is a very graphic with injured civilians pulling their bullet-ridden bodies along the ground, leaving a trail of blood. The game warns the player of the potentially disturbing nature of the level and gives the player to opportunity to skip it. When I played the game, I noticed that the quality of the textures in the airport level was not to the same high standard as the rest of the game. I suspect that the multiplayer airport map was simply adapted at the last-minute to manufacture this “controversy”.
The term “innocent civilians’ has been bandied about in the mainstream and gaming press. This suggests that the people who you kill in the airport level do not deserve their fate. This is ridiculous and worrying at the same time. You see, these “innocent civilians” are not real, they are 3D models. If you play the game and look closely at the bodies, they don’t even look real; they wouldn’t even pass for shop dummies. They have no families, no jobs and they don’t breath, eat, sleep or poop. You, the player are not killing anyone. I’m pretty sure that 99% of New Zealand understands that it is just a game. According to the NZ Herald, the OFLC have not had any complaints regarding MW2 which the Herald qualifies with an overly ominous and dramatic sounding, “Yet.”
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 maybe a just a game, but war and human conflict is not. It is a senseless waste of human life and everybody needs to be made aware of this. Thankfully most of us will not be exposed to the horrors of war, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Far from desensitising people, adult gamers with the right to vote may, having experienced a computer simulation portraying the horrors of war, think twice about voting in war-mongering politicians. Anything that alerts our overly comfortable society that war is an awful bloody business can only be a positive thing.
Taken in a real life context, the “controversial” airport level is a sad analogy for the things that occur to innocent people in a conflict. In the past our world leaders have endorsed heinous acts in the pursuit of peace. Churchill let Coventry burn rather than alert the German that the allies were decrypting their communications. Some say Roosevelt knew that the Japanese were going to attack Pearl Harbour, letting it happen to gain support for the US to officially enter WW2. Truman nuked Japan, twice. Loss of innocent life is so common in conflict there is a term for it, collateral damage. Innocents die so that more innocents may live. It is a sad fact in any war.
Before I start coming across as some sort of idealist flower-waving hippy, spare a thought for those in the armed forces that live out the conflict portrayed in these sorts of video games on a daily basis. At the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland British SAS operatives infiltrated the IRA, to preserve their cover they no doubt found themselves involved in questionable activities. Why shouldn’t stories of life in the Special Forces not be told, warts and all? It is the bravery and willingness of these men and women to carrying out acts that we, the general public, may deem to be unsavoury that allows academics like Dr Lambie the freedom to get quoted by newspapers.
Censoring games like MW2 to portray war as some clean sanitised mockery of reality would downplay the risk and sacrifice that members of the armed forces face every day in the field. Watering it down for the folks at home does them no justice and could even serve to promote to the populous that war is a positive course of action. I doubt that anyone that plays the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 campaign from beginning to end will come away thinking that war is glamorous. This, in my book, can only be a good thing.
As soon as video games are acknowledged as an adult pursuit the argument for prohibition evaporates. The violence in an R18 video game is no more vivid than that of an R18 movie, less so in fact as a video game is displaying pixels and not real actors. The argument against video games becomes even more absurd then viewed next to contact sport. Does the NZ Herald with Dr Lambie en tow balk at the savagery and effect on our children when they see two grown men bludgeon each other senseless in the boxing ring? Do they cry for league and union to be banned? Would they have us all watching nothing but touch rugby? Of course not. They think that they are picking on the little guy in video games. The little guy that can’t defend himself, but they are so wrong.
Despite the faux shock of the popular press and the publicity-seeking sound bites of academia, the great video game debate is really over and has been for some time. From a commercial point of view, reports are coming in that the release Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 may to the biggest entertainment opening day in history. Video games make more money than Hollywood movies. They are now a legitimate, big business entertainment industry earning lots of money to pay for lots of political lobbyists. Anyone that thinks that their opinion matters enough to castrate a cash cow like the video game industry is sadly mistaken, that ship sailed years ago. Just like Elvis’ pelvis, the violence and video game debate should be laid to rest, once and for all.
The rotting corpse of the violence and video game debate will no doubt be dug up again next year with the release of Grand Theft Auto V. I’ll be waiting right here with my shovel ready to bury it again.
This article was first published, in edited form on the Game Console pages of Techday.com.