If Blake is right and the path of excess leads to the tower of wisdom then video games ought to provide plenty of shortcuts along the way. Wading through gore, dismemberment and the occasional bout of torture, violent games have pushed the limits of depiction of violence. While even video nasties pad the ‘money shot’ scenes of extremity with exposition and story (however flimsy), video games concentrate more carnage per minute than any other media form – so why are so many of us increasingly drawn to them as a leisure activity?
Of course it is wrong to lump all video games together with violent games, as game critics are liable to do. US lawyer and anti-video game campaigner Jack Thompson describes games as ‘murder simulators’ that train players into violent responses through operant conditioning and rewards. He describes game playing as an antisocial, “”masturbatory activity”:http://www.netjak.com/review.php/1091”. Indeed it is mainly through the conduct of critics like Thompson and censors that games are visible in mainstream culture, which is ironic given the large audience that games have.
In Australia, video games have been at the vanguard of the steady censorship creep which has been occurring over the last few years, banning games outright or forcing local distributors censored versions. Unless they are regular visitors to the Office of Film and Literature Classification website, or one of the watchdog sites, such as Refused Classification, most Australians are unaware that they are watching censored films, playing censored games. Earlier in 2006 the graffiti game Marc Ecko’s Getting Up: Contents under Pressure was banned on a little-used regulation that it promoted crime (in this case the crime was graffiti and fare evasion; the OFLC did not have an issue with the violence in the game). Since then, these ‘crime promotion’ principles have been extended to ban Islamic books, a return to direct political censorship in Australia.
So what is it about games that have stirred regulators into action? Why are games convenient scapegoats to extend the net of censorship? It is certainly not because game playing is not a minority activity – a recent survey conducted by Bond University indicated that 76% of Australian households have game hardware, that the average age of gamers is 24 and that 38% of gamers were female. Perhaps it has to do with ambivalence toward the extreme content in games, even from those who play them.
With a brief excursion through a set of recent video games I can sneak up behind the unsuspecting and slit their throats (Splinter Cell), shake down prostitutes (Grand Theft Auto), torture enemies with power tools (The Punisher) and tear off someone’s arm and beat them with it (Stubbs the Zombie). These are just the interactive elements, if we figure in the horrors we observe rather than perform in games like the Resident Evil or Silent Hill series we have a catalogue of extremity that surpasses the video nasties of the 1980s.
The extremity does collect around violence and horror, sexual content is largely missing, at least from the games available through game retailers (the adult industry has their own interactive content). Recently the first Sex in Video Games conference was held in San Francisco, flagging emerging trends in this area. One of the more high profile games to be banned for sexual content in Australia, then released in an edited form was Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas because of the ‘hot coffee’ sexual content. What is striking about this content is that is was only accessible through a downloaded modification in the PC version and not accessible from the console versions – which did not stop the censors banning all versions of the game entirely.
These concerns about extreme violence and sexual content are made more complicated when we go beyond elements scripted by game designers and begin to consider interactively generated content, emergent gameplay, online interaction and the ability to modify games. It is clear that this is media that is very different to older media forms, yet too often we criticise and censor the gaming experience using film as a benchmark. Concepts of realism, impact and justification are borrowed directly from film analysis, primarily because we lack a critical language to understand and discuss video games. But 50 Cent: Bulletproof is different to Salo, on so many levels.
We do not understand the impact that video games have on us, and particularly the effect that they have on children. Media studies research does not help, being intractably locked between the those who see media as programming human behaviour and those who believe audiences are in control. As a result is all too easy to give into moral panics, on the basis of what games might do. Games are also a convenient scapegoat for other social problems, such as with the Columbine massacre. Regulators therefore take a conservative stance on video game dangers, using children as the benchmark for everyone.
In Australia there is no R rating available to games. If games fulfil the criteria for an R, they are Refused Classification, in the same category as child pornography and extreme violent pornography. The federal laws control commercial distributors but the classification decisions also feed into ancillary state laws which give police wide powers to detain, search and prosecute those who distribute informally. This is of concern for game players but more worrying now that the principles used to regulate games have been extended to political texts.
In Australia we also have the unusual principle that media which promote crime or instruct in the matter of crime can be refused classification and fall into the same regulatory net. This was the principle under which Getting Up was banned but has potential for growth to other games and media generally. There have only been a few decisions in this area but they make clear that censors have very broad discretion (most crime movies could fall foul of this provision), that the regulators have very little empirical evidence on what causes criminality and that they adopt a zero tolerance attitude to satire.
So what does this increasing surveillance mean for the future of video games? For mainstream gaming not much, the industry has always had peripheral controversy. From the blocky extremity of 1982’s Custer’s Revenge to modern games like Reservoir Dogs (banned in Australia in June 2006) some developers have pushed the boundaries, usually overtly courting controversy but the backlash seems to be gaining momentum.
The trend toward censorship of games in Australia would seem to bear the hallmarks of a moral panic, if not for the medium’s widespread penetration into our culture and the size of the audience. Most of the games which have been banned have passed unnoticed not being commercially successful or reviewed well overseas, but this censorship sets ugly precedents. Video games are yet to really develop an avant garde or art-house, but if they are, this process will be hampered by legal controls that do not understand the medium and are not committed to free expression as an ideal.
It is clear that, for various reasons, there is little serious public discourse around games beyond what is lead by pro-censorship critics and regulators. The statistics indicate that the majority of Australians play games or at least have contact with someone who does, yet games enjoy little of the public discussion and criticism that films or television do, where the audience is presumed to be broader. Many gamers are even embarrassed to discuss their hobby, putting it on par with consumption of pornography as embarrassing, juvenile or as Thompson would suggest masturbatory. But just as pornography has become subject of more serious critical attention despite the potential cringe, so to do games.
Part of the change will come as there is more critical academic engagement. This is not suggesting that games should ‘grow up’ or aspire to art. Part of their appeal lies in their engagement with the id, the potential for extremity. Rather than argue that games are valid despite their excesses, might we perhaps look to the excesses in order to understand the appeal? Don’t knock the pleasures of beating someone to death with their own arm until you’ve tried it.