Let me start by saying I have yet to pick up a copy of The Walking Dead comic, though I hear it is good. However I have watched the television show since the first episode. So I was anxious to download the first episode of The Walking Dead game. Perhaps thirty minutes or so after I started I began to notice that this particular game examines social hegemony and identity in different ways than most video games. I thought that was worth exploring. So I thought I would briefly write about a new hegemony (perhaps) that I see emerging within this game world. Warning: spoilers follow.
This is a character-driven game, and as such, it is the player who has agency to help shape the protagonist Lee. We learn through our choices that he cares for people and is sad when he cannot help them. In addition we know he has a tragic past. Finally we realize he will lie not because he is trying to get away with something, but just because he thinks telling the truth will make things worse.
Now one might think because he is black that race might play some factor in how we view him or how the other characters react to him. Not so. This is good and bad.
Good because it seems that the outbreak of the virus and the resulting zombie infestation has rewritten the social hierarchy so now the remaining social groups are simplified. You have the living and the dead. As a result, ethnicity is not so important. Most of the survivors Lee and Clementine encounter assume they are father and daughter. After a while Lee stops telling them otherwise. Even when people, including Clementine, discover Lee’s crime, they simply accept it. The struggle for survival has cast aside the previous social hegemony.
However the series Walking Dead did not shy away from race. Viewers got a strong taste of racial hatred from characters early on in the series. Perhaps the game will too, which would be refreshing. Too many times gamers do not get to see how the world changes when the character is a woman or a minority. Hordes of zombies will not change that, so why should the game avoid it?
Perhaps it is the case that you cannot have both. There must either be a real-world racial reaction or a new social order based on humans vs. walkers. Of course, and as I wrote earlier, I am still playing through the first chapter. My opinion may change. It may not. It will be interesting to see if my view holds through all the remaining chapters.
When I first read John Sutter’s CNN article detailing how Anders Behring Breivik used Modern Warfare 2 to train himself to kill 77 people in Norway last year I thought “here we go again.” We could now lump this with countless other reports and studies linking video games to violence. As a game scholar, I know that the results of previous studies on game violence and its effects on players have been very mixed. As a former soldier, I know that shooting a weapon in a game in no way prepares you for firing the real thing. By the time I finished the article and read some of the comments, I had already filed it into the nonsense folder.
But then I realized the article missed something.
This is not about how to fire a weapon. That involves aiming, breathing, and trigger squeeze. Neither a mouse nor a controller can teach you to do any of those. Nor can a game in any way provide the feel of actually killing another person. But what it can do in a superficial way is simulate a sense of control when killing many people. In this case, only Modern Warfare 2 could do that. Had the news report mentioned any other game, I would not have given it a second thought. But MW2 is unique among modern shooters for one reason: “No Russian.”
Modern Warfare 2 is one of the games I used in my dissertation. Specifically I used the now infamous “No Russian” scene where your character is deep undercover and forced to participate in the massacre at a Russian airport and I used it because it caused so much controversy. I spent a lot of time analyzing that scene and what I found is that if nothing else, those few minutes allow the player to listen to the panic of “people” fleeing for their lives. In “No Russian” you can gun down dozens of people in a few short minutes. You can even watch the wounded crawl away. Some cower in fear in various corners while others lie dead in pools of blood. MW2 is the only game I know of where your character enters a closed environment with scores of people and systematically guns them down as they try to run, help wounded bystanders, and try to hide behind shelves and columns.
So I ask you: if you planned to commit a massacre, what better game and scene to use? Not Grand Theft Auto. The NPCs in that game can get away as they have open streets to run through. However the airport is a closed space. The people can only run so far. And they never, ever get away. Worse still, another CNN article states that Breivik planned to film the killings on his iPhone. Had he done that, it would have been from a first person perspective, just like MW2.
Of course I don’t know the motivation behind his thinking, but I can imagine him playing that one scene time and again and listening to the screams of people trying to live. Now most of the people in my study dismissed the terror of the “massacre” as simply graphic fiction, something that had no bearing at all on their feelings about violence or their sense of identity. However there were some gamers who would not play that scene because it felt real. And this is the catch: if games are not real and the people we “kill” are not real, then why are some of us bothered by what we do in the game world?
Perhaps to Breivik the idea of cornering helpless people in an enclosed space and killing all of them was the ideal preparation for the real thing as he methodically killed 77 people. I can’t say, but it troubles me to think about him comparing the deaths of game characters to real people. What I do know is that it is a mistake to dismiss violent games because they are games. Obviously most gamers can play shooters and function perfectly in the real world. Other realize that games do affect them and stay away from the violent ones. However there is the third group, small in number, who we should pay attention to when they demonstrate that violent games influence them.
Not that any of this is the fault of Infinity Ward or Activision, the makers of MW2. Ultimately how we use and react to our media is up to us. There is a reason Infinity Ward gave players the option to skip “No Russian.” However I doubt MW2 was the only reason Anders Behring Breivik committed mass murder. I do think, however, that the airport scene allowed him visualize how his real-life victims might react.
This is certainly not the end of the video game violence debate. Our medium has the unique distinction of allowing consumers to interact with the virtual environment and because of that many think the influence is greater than the passive media of television and film. What the research has revealed is that still more research is needed. Yet this case and this particular game show us that we should pay closer attention to the most graphic examples of violence that while extreme, should not define our medium to those who do not play video games.
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.
It’s hard to remember now, but I believe my very first achievement came in November 2005 while playing Madden 06. Or perhaps it was Need For Speed Most Wanted. 2005 was a long time ago. I do remember the joy of hearing the pop that meant an increase in gamer score. Even though I have spent more than five years improving that score, I still get a thrill from hearing that sound.
For those who don’t know, achievements are in-game challenges that can be unlocked by reaching certain milestones. Each one is worth so many points and they are directly tied to your Xbox gamer score. Some of these achievements are quite easy while others require gamers to torture themselves as they tried repeatedly to unlock them.
There was time when I would look for games with easy achievements so that I could get a quick fix. Even now I will work long and hard to earn one just to know that I conquered a challenge. However five years of looking at my gamer score have reminded me that games are supposed to be about having fun. Last night a friend of mine saw my status as playing Mass Effect 1 and asked if I had all the achievements. (I do. In fact I have unlocked everything for Mass Effect 1 & 2.) I really didn’t want to take the time to tell him that sometimes I play just for fun. Yes, I worked for all those points in ME1 and 2, and yes I play NCAA Football 11 every day, but that is because I love those games.
And yet somewhere in the back of my mind, I still want to hear that pop. So I will try out new modes and play games on the hardest difficulty settings to just increase my score. I will spend weeks or even months trying to pop every achievement on the list. I will even go so far as to help others unlock them, even if it means spending all night in a game session.
Something is wrong with me.
There was a time when playing a game meant satisfying that need to have fun. “Fun” could be beating the game or besting another player online. However when Microsoft (and later Sony) added achievements (trophies) to the game space something changed: the objectives. No longer did I set the difficulty based on how challenging I wanted the game to be. Now I had to make sure playing on normal or hard or insane or legendary unlocked “chievos” or it was all for nothing. There was now a reason to explore nooks and crannies during single player games because finding all or even half the collectables would bring achievement glory. So I would scour each level to increase my gamer score by ten or fifteen points. I would find online guides to help secure every piece of intelligence sitting on table or under a tree in Modern Warfare 2. And once that achievement popped, I could brag to my friends who didn’t have it that I was a master at exploration.
Blast you, Microsoft!
I’m at the point where I have to look at the achievement list before I start to play a game. Worse, I check it often to make sure I am not missing out on any. And if I do miss some, I will go back and replay a chapter or even an entire game just to get 50 more points. I’m not strong enough to ignore achievements. They call to me from the other side of the television screen.
In doing this Microsoft and Sony not only fill a need in my gaming soul, but they actually create the need that they now seek to fill. Evil. Pure evil. My gaming habits are now forever and irrevocably altered to play the game as they see fit. For the “honor” of bragging to friends and comparing gamer scores, I have molded my game play to make sure I max all the classes in Bad Company 2 (achievement unlocked!), complete Halo Reach on legendary (achievement unlocked!), and find every single novel page in Alan Wake (2 achievements unlocked!).
Brilliant idea Microsoft. Evil, but brilliant.