Kobe Bryant and Black Ops: Perceptions About Video Games
I’ve been playing and studying video games long enough to know that a major release like Call of Duty Black Ops will cause controversy. However sometimes I am surprised as to the path it takes. The hot issue this time is the advertisement where Kobe Bryant and Jimmie Kimmel are among dozens of people participating in a live action multiplayer match. I admit I really didn’t think it was that big of a deal until I saw my old professor, Dr. Robert Thompson of Syracuse University, on ESPN’s Outside the Lines (OTL). Well technically I saw it over Xbox Live’s ESPN channel (ironic, I know).
So Prof. Thompson and four other gentlemen whose names escape me were having a rather vigorous debate about Byrant and the messages his participation sends. While Bryant’s team, the Los Angeles Lakers, and the NBA have been silent on the issue, there must be parties or groups who feel that Bryant should represent more wholesome entertainment. Thompson correctly pointed out there is, though there shouldn’t be, distinction between actors in a game and those in film. If Bryant is to be condemned for his involvement in Black Ops, then why not condemn actors for participating in violent films? However I will take it further: if Bryant were to play the part of a villain in a summer action movie would there be controversy? Would there be such a discussion if Bryant were to take on Bruce Willis in the next Die Hard movie? The implication here is that video games, especially the more violent ones, are not as acceptable as other media such as television and film.
In fact, video games reside at the lower end of popular culture. Yes, we know that in the United States, the gaming industry out-grosses the domestic box office. But if anything, that speaks to how popular gaming is and that sometimes leads to the argument that because games have broad appeal, they have little cultural value. When compared to books, film, radio, and television video games cannot match the cultural appeal mainly because this newer medium is still viewed as “games.” As such, games sit on the lowest rung of the cultural ladder, somewhere between monster truck racing, Jerry Springer, and pro wrestling. The message here is: “it’s okay to sit and watch violence in the movies, but it’s wrong to pick up a controller and kill someone.”
Now unless I am missing something, nobody actually dies in a movie. It’s fiction. We say characters die, but the actors who portray these people are very much alive. Likewise, nobody dies in games. It’s fiction, however interactive it may be. Yet one type of violence is more acceptable than the other.
So while the gamer in me may be offended that such a debate even takes place, the researcher in me continues to be fascinated by the struggle of this medium to reach a higher level of acceptability in mass culture. Over the past three years, I have watched debates swirl around Mass Effect, Grand Theft Auto IV, Six Days in Fallujah, Medal of Honor, and now Black Ops. In this last case, the message from the commercial was supposed to be that Kobe Bryant is just like you and me: he loves hopping into a MP just like the next gamer. However the lasting message might end up being that Bryant risked tarnishing his image by signaling that he approves of violent games and that would be a sad commentary indeed.