Home > Game Controversy, Video Game Industry > A Response to “Why I Can’t Get Behind ‘Dead Island'”

A Response to “Why I Can’t Get Behind ‘Dead Island'”

In case you missed it, an enormous buzz practically set the gaming community on fire recently.  Deep Silver released a trailer for the game Dead Island and gamers across the planet sang praises and wrote about how they couldn’t wait to get their hands on the game.  If you’ve seen this trailer, then you might agree the production value is high and the story engaging.  However National Public Radio contributor Omar Gallaga wrote about his issues with the trailer on CNN.com last week. Gallaga writes, in part: “But, increasingly, I’m getting uncomfortable with how comfortable game developers have become with putting children in peril and, often, allowing them to be gruesomely killed.” I have no problem with that statement. After all we should be uncomfortable when children are killed, even if they are virtual children.  More on that later. Let’s wrap up Gallaga’s line of reasoning first.

He concludes that point when he writes: “I wonder if our tolerance for virtual gore and bloodshed in games has numbed us to the mutilation and torture of children because they’re virtual characters…or, more disturbingly, maybe we’ve become so used to hearing about violence directed at kids that its depiction in video games is just another reflection of our culture.” Here he misses the point.  I believe the premise of this conversation should not be that the game narrative reflects culture.  It doesn’t. Games never have.  The point should be that in order for game content to mirror society then game characters must respond to and be held accountable for their actions.  In our society, there are consequences for abusing and killing children.  If real people killed hundreds of zombie children on this island, you can bet they will not emerged unscathed from the event.  Why is it that we accept that game protagonists have no emotions and can wade through untold numbers of zombies/terrorists/alien bad guys and not feel anything? The only game recent game character I can remember having any recriminations is Alan Wake, and then only briefly.

However the scariest part of the article is not Gallaga’s concerns about children, but rather the comments readers posted about his article.  I read through most of them and the reactions of gamers must also be taken into account because they change the nature of the conversation.  There were numerous deriding his views because Dead Island is “just a game” and that means the virtual characters are not real.  Well of course they are not “real” but our reactions to them are very real.  I like to test the “not real” theory by asking if those same players would enjoy a rape game.  I wonder if they would feel the same way if asked to play a Nazi guard in a concentration camp or perhaps the captain on ship full of slaves crossing the middle passage.  After all, you can’t really rape, burn, or enslave anyone, can you?  It’s just a game so the argument goes.

I suspect most of them would answer that they would never play something so distasteful and offensive.  But they are “just games” right?  If that is the case, then why do we draw a line between is acceptable and what is too much? If these characters are not real then why should we make a distinction between “killing” them and “raping” them? Neither scenario is real.  Yet we do and in doing so find justification for tossing zombie children out a window but not raping young virtual women.  How convenient.

We will have to wait and see what Dead Island has to offer.  It may turn out that Mr. Gallaga’s concerns about children find a larger platform with this release.  I find it more likely that the same attitude we find in the comments will mute the conversation or at least relegate it to “it’s just a game.”  That would be sad, though not unexpected.

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  1. March 3, 2011 at 17:25

    I think you are missing several important points. The most important is your tragically flawed understanding of zombies. Zombies cease to have any individualism that they may have had in life. They no longer have gender, or race or age. Zombies are only zombies and nothing else. Zombies are monsters, at least in most games. They are meant to be the ultimate evil, for many reasons I won’t go into here. Destruction of a zombie is generally thought of as a heroic action, I think most people would be hard pressed to say otherwise. The basic premise of most games is to allow people to be heroic. Dead Island puts you in the role of the hero destroying zombies. Fairly straight forward, very simple. That’s the biggest flaw in your ‘not real’ theory. Perhaps the argument behind “Its just a game” isn’t articulated well, or perhaps you don’t understand what makes a (successful) game. Games blur the lines in the “heroic” area, all the time (GTA) but generally the main mechanics of games focus on heroic actions, over coming great foes against terrible odds. I don’t think you can spin rape as being heroic, even some bizarro game incarnation of Inglorious Bastards where in you could rape Hitler. Sorry, still not heroic.

    The trailer plays things out in a fairly masterfully in a storytelling way. Its triggered an emotional response. It was supposed to. The reason zombies are such perfect adversaries is that despite all the relational ties the person had in life they are no longer that person, they are an undying mockery of them. They very rightly should conjure up a physical, emotional and spiritual revulsion as we see what has become of those we care for, and what could so easily happen to ourselves.

    In the trailer, a zombie attacks a child, that is true, but a zombie is thrown through the window, its no longer a little girl, that is what you need to come to terms with.

  2. May 29, 2012 at 18:14

    It’s really interesting to see how people separate the reality of the game from the reality of life. In a previous article, “Airport Massacre Revisited: How ’No Russian’ Might Have Influenced a Killer,” you show how realistic situations presented in games blur the boundaries between the two realities through the use of Modern Warfare 2 as a simulation to aid in predicting and reacting to real-life events. In this article, however, there is a direct boundary set in place about what is “just a game” and what is our reality. In our reality, there are indeed zombies, though they were created via chemical influences which impair certain mental functions. I believe Zora Neale Hurston’s travel diary about her visit to the Caribbean explains it. I also believe that Clay has a point about zombies not being individuals, but they are still uncannily human in the Freudian sense. However, what I am getting at is not about zombies or individualism or humanism, it is the fact that the lines between games and reality are being blurred and that applying questions about the general social morality in games further moves us toward a true simulation of reality–and that one day, we might not be able to tell the difference. I have to agree with JLJ that the phrase “it’s just a game” could snowball into something much more frightening, even if it does start with zombies. Boundaries are constantly being pushed, and this is but one of them.

  1. December 3, 2011 at 19:29

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