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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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In Search of Real and Relevant Enemies: China, Russia, and Korea

Homefront. Six Days in Fallujah.  Medal of Honor.  Operation Flashpoint: Red River. These four games have several things in common.  They are all shooters set in the present day, feature modern weapons, and require large budgets to produce and publish.  However more than that they also share the fact that they each present either a current American enemy or a nation considered in some way threatening to the United States or her interests.  The much talked about but never seen Six Days would have featured the Iraqi Army.  Medal of Honor of course pits the United States against the Taliban.  Homefront speculates what would happen if a united Korea invaded the Western United States.  Lastly, Red River has the US Marines in Tajikistan opposite the Peoples Liberation Army of China.

This notion of having players test their gaming skill against present day enemies is nothing new.  Shooters from the last console generation (Ghost Recon, Rainbow Six, and others) allowed players to kill Russians, Mexican rebels, and of course terrorists.  There is something thrilling about taking a current headline and weaving it into an action game. For some reason, the excitement intensifies when you replace a fictional conflict in an imaginary country (Full Spectrum Warrior) or a speculative battle (Close Combat: First to Fight).  The idea that this is either happening now or that it could happen sometime in the near future adds the sense of authenticity to the conflict.

Operation Flashpoint Red River. US Marines and the PLA go to war.

Take Red River for example. Like it’s predecessor, Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, Red River features the PLA as the enemy force.  Dragon Rising took place on the imaginary island of Skira after an elaborate tale that created a scenario where the US had to aid ally Russia against the Chinese.  In the trailer for Red River, the Chinese are again painted as aggressors who have their own agenda to fulfill by securing their border with Tajikistan.  The Chinese are to be feared because they field a large, modern army and the will to use it against the Americans. So like the latest Tom Clancy thriller, the player can now experience possible real-world events in foreign lands that allow the United States to combat a fierce and possibly real enemy.  In fact, the scenario in Red River does not seem all that plausible.  The same for Homefront, but given the condition of current US relations with both North Korea and China and the size of their respective armies, some clever writing can now produce a gaming thriller. Plus there is the added benefit of not telling the tale of a current US war and thus avoid the controversies that swirled around Six Days and Medal of Honor.

Old Communist foe North Korea invades South Korea and then the US.

The list of possible US enemies is short: North Korea, China, and Russia. Who else can field an army to match the United States? Recent titles Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Battlefield Bad Company covered the Russian angle, including an invasion of the United States in Modern Warfare 2. It is interesting to see how a former Cold War enemy still appears threatening years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Old fears of communism live on as these three nations continue to present a military threat (at least in the game world).  The communist nature of China and Korea allows game publishers to skirt the race angle by reminding us that these nations are always aggressive against their enemies. However they do that because they are enemies of democracy and freedom, not because they are people of color. In a world where the main US adversary is a shadow network of terrorists, game developers and writers need to create enemies who are dangerous while at the same time somewhat realistic.  The easiest way to do that is to draw upon old fears of communism and the modern version of Yellow Peril (even if the writers do not voice this fear).  It serves as a reminder to that the United States does not entirely trust these other nations.  We know that while things are fine now but they can deteriorate at a moment’s notice. And because these countries are so powerful, to lose their good will means to invite armed conflict.

In the case of Russia, often times some old party member seeks to reinstate the Communists, while both Korea and China seek to settle old hatreds by securing their borders and the surrounding territories and thus present a launching point for war. All these scenarios become possible since these nations continue to be demonized by American government and media: Russia and North Korea for their aggressive political and military might and China for its economic power. In turn they become natural choices for virtual conflict.

Commander Shepard Must Die – Again!

I read a blog by Greg Rucka the other week titled “On Reapers, Collectors, Being Called Shepard” and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.  As much as I love Mass Effect 2, I was having some issues with the rebirth of Commander Shepard.  Rucka’s article address many of those concerns, including the idea that there has to be some conversation involving Shepard and her rebirth (I usually play as FemShep and so I use the pronoun “she”).  I hope we get to experience that in ME3.

That is not my main issue, however.

Simply put, Commander Shepard needs to die.  Again.

Now I have played through ME2 four times, finished all the DLC, including “Lair of the Shadow Broker”, and I will argue to anyone who will listen that it is the best game ever.  And yet I can’t escape the notion that because of the way Shepard came back that she should not survive the end of the trilogy.

Perhaps if she had come back to life through more divine means I might have been able to accept this second chance at life.  If God or gods or aliens with fantastic powers (ala Q in Star Trek) were responsible, then perhaps I could suspend my disbelief and play in peace.  This sort of thing happens in graphic novels all the time.  (Jean Grey and Betsy Braddock in X-Men come to mind.) Perhaps I might even have been okay if Shepard had been revived by technology a few moments after her death (a crutch in Star Trek The Next Generation and Voyager).  However in ME2 two years pass between her death and rebirth. Even with the advanced technology available to Miranda Lawson and the Illusive Man, I wonder if I got the same Shepard, my Shepard, back just the way she was before.

In my latest play through, I looked even more closely at the nano-tech that Lawson used to repair Shepard’s body(shown in the above youtube video).  Impressive for sure. That is all well and good, but how can even the most advanced technology restore memory and personality? Moreover, her new lease on life speaks to the issue that the spark that makes her special and unique is somehow anchored to her physical body, or at the very least returns when all the organs and systems begin to work again.

So how can BioWare make this right with me? The first option is to kill Shepard again.  She can go out in a blaze of glory saving all humankind from the Reapers or her body can simply shut down by rejecting the nanotech, but either way I need to see that in the end, nobody cheats death. The second option is to reveal that she really is different, ala the Rucka article. Instead of a simple acknowledgment that “I got better,” there should be some trauma associated with this return to life. Perhaps a darker Shepard could emerge over time. It would great to see her really transform into something more evil or twisted.

BioWare has a rare opportunity to explore the other side of death in Commander Shepard. They have created a character with the potential to be one of the most memorable in any medium. I would love to see her remembered not only for saving humankind, but for being the most human of us all by living, dying, living, and (hopefully) dying.

American or Taliban? In Multiplayer It Doesn’t Matter

Reading Michael Thomsen’s “Games With The Power to Offend” brought me right back to the whole Medal of Honor controversy I wrote about last week.  Now I have no plans to buy MoH but not because of the controversy.  As I wrote before, the idea of playing a Taliban fighter doesn’t really mean anything to me but I’ve been thinking about it for the last week so I thought I would add to my last post.

In BFBC2 Rush mode it's the US vs. the Russians in attack and defend.

Let me use MoH developer EA’s current game as an example.  In Battlefield Bad Company 2 you can either play as an American or a Russian soldier in the multi-player suite.  Of course the relationship between Russia and the United States is better now than it was during the Cold War, but the fact is as a Russian soldier, I have plenty of opportunities to kill Americans with knives, bullets, tank rounds, and mortar fire. However when I play as a Russian, I don’t see Americans in front of me.  Nor do I see Russian soldiers when I am on the American side.  Why is that?  Because both sides are exactly the same.  The only differences are the uniforms and the weapons you enter the match with.  I know that on some MP maps US forces have access to Apache attach helicopters while on others the Russians can fly the Hind attack chopper.  Americans use this type of assault rifle while the Russians use that type.  I remember that the two sides have tanks with slightly different capabilities. However the soldiers on both sides are interchangeable.

I’m betting that when MoH releases in October, gamers will find the same MP concepts as in Battlefield and other games in the genre.  As far as the game play and objectives of the match go, there is no difference between the two sides.  Yes, the weapons are different but that will not give one side an advantage over the other.  Balance is important in MP.

This notion of identifying with the different MP factions borders on the absurd.  If the tactics of one side differed from the other than perhaps it would make more sense to vilify EA for including the Taliban. Maybe if part of the game were to hurry up and construct an improvised explosive device (IED) and bury it in the road all the while reminding each other why we hate Americans, then perhaps gamers could experience why that role is abhorrent.  But gamers don’t have time for such things in MP. Everyone is in a rush to get to the killing.  In the real world, we know there are differences in ideology, tactics, and objectives when comparing US forces to Taliban fighters, but those differences don’t make it into MP. In MP gamers are not forced to listen to Taliban propaganda, ideology or religious doctrine. There is no talk of American oppression or the righteousness of their cause.  We don’t see what happens to American prisoners nor do we witness how IEDs are constructed and planted.  Images of Taliban fighters celebrating the deaths of Americans never becomes game content.  And so we don’t see those differences highlighted in the game.  How can we attach any type of meaning, and therefore hatred to those “Taliban” in the game? As a gamer striving to kill all the enemy players or grab territory, I have a hard time doing anything else.

The Taliban in MoH - are they just virtual fighters or hated enemies?

In order for me to have that type of hatred, I need to see that these characters are real Taliban.  I need to be able to demonize them for their heinous acts and their anti-American fervor.  On the other side, I need to be reminded that the Americans fight to protect their homes and families from terrorists and those who harbor them. Without that I feel nothing when I gun down an “American” or a “Taliban” except that, for a moment, I was better than the other guy.  I need that connection so that when I kill the Taliban I know that now there is one less person who can attack America.  Without that I feel no shame when the match starts and I see that for the next five minutes I will play as Taliban. This is part of what’s missing from all the news coverage of the Medal of Honor controversy, but it certainly need to be part of the conversation.

When Virtual Wars Become Too Real

Atomic Games' military horror shooter died a quick but painful death.

I’ve been a fan of military shooters for a long time.  It might have something to do with my six years of service in the U.S. Army.  Any decent shooter in that genre will catch my eye.  Ghost Recon, Rainbow Six, Call of Duty, and Battlefield Bad Company quickly come to mind but there are others as well.  There was a time I looked forward to playing Atomic Games’ Six Days in Fallujah. For those who are not familiar with this game, it died soon after reports of its controversial content surfaced on the Web. It seems that a game about the Iraq War was not possible while the war still raged. Outrage against the game quickly muffled all news about the potentially positive aspects of the game and that was that. (I really like the way Daniel Floyd covers this controversy as part of his youtube series on games.)

It seems that games about current wars are a no-no.

A year later I began reading about EA’s revival of its franchise Medal of Honor.  EA put the series on a path to the modern era. They would leave World War II behind and join Call of Duty and Battlefield Bad Company in the modern age.  However Medal of Honor‘s setting is the current US war in Afghanistan.

Here we go again, I thought.

Imagine my surprise when I read nothing about an uproar over EA’s shooter. Spring turned to summer and still nothing.  I thought MoH might actually make it to release with little controversy.  Guess I should have known better.  It seems the controversy is finally here.

However if you study the history of video games, you will see that writers and developers often look to outside media for influence and ideas.  Current events are a rich source of game content.  That’s why there are so many military shooters on the market.  While it is true that the enemies in those games are generic terrorists or dictators in fictional countries, the inspiration is today’s war on terror.  And that is the problem.  While World War II and Vietnam make for great war games, using a current conflict is out-of-bounds.  The pain is too fresh and the scars too raw. In ten years, perhaps, Afghanistan will be fertile ground for gaming, but in 2010 any attempt to use this setting must create controversy.

I believe the root of this issue goes back to what Floyd says in his video: games are judged by the name of the medium. When you say “game” you might as well say “enjoyment” and “fun” too.  To many non-gamers, the very act of picking up a controller means you will be having fun and picking up your virtual rifle and heading off to “Afghanistan” should not be fun.  They might not understand that there are times a gaming session is not all that much fun.  When I play NCAA Football 11 I enjoy it unless I lose by a lot of points.  I might say it was no fun at all. But I still played a game.  Last night while playing Dragon Age Origins I had to decide whether or not I should kill a person (I did finally).  That really wasn’t fun either.  However there are times I have so much fun I can’t help but shout and laugh and proclaim to the world how I am the greatest player who ever lived.

So I have to agree with Floyd when he says that video games, like comic books before them, suffer from the stigma attached to the name.  He reminds us how comics evolved into graphic novels and he muses that games might also find respect with a name change.  I don’t know about that, but what I do know is this: when I game I look for experiences and not just fun. The first time I saw Platoon I left the theater in awe.  What a profound experience.  Would I call it fun? No. If I use those same measurements, the single player campaign of Medal of Honor could very well be about sharing the horror and intensity of simulated combat.  Probably not too much fun.

Playing as the Taliban means killing American soldiers

On the other hand, the multiplayer portion should be fun and that brings us right back to the problem.  If you have played multi-player matches in EA’s Battlefield Bad Company 2 then you know how intense and overwhelming the experience can be.  It is fun?  Sometimes.  Most times it was a challenge and took all my concentration simply to achieve the goals of the match.  I didn’t see the enemies as Russian or American, they were simply targets to remove or merely players on the other side of the Internet to compete against. In that simulated world, thousands of “Americans” died. Where was the outcry?  In Modern Warfare 2 thousands of “US Rangers” fall everyday.  They are just as “real” as the American Tier One soldiers in Medal of Honor. But because the enemy is the Taliban, the game becomes more “real” than those other titles.  Is MoH bad because you can take the role of a real US enemy?  Or is it bad because you can “kill” American soldiers?

This is certainly a topic worth exploring, but in order to have a meaningful dialogue, we have to move past the narrow point-of-view of FOX News and others and investigate the full range of views on this topic.  We must address what it means to explore war this way as opposed to methods other media such as film, television, and books use.  Games bring their own perspective to the experience and that experience should be acknowledged for what it is: a different way to share the human condition.