Industry Apologetics: It's Not Just A Game

Illustration for article titled Industry Apologetics: It's Not Just A Game

In my last column, I defended Grand Theft Auto IV from allegations of sexism, based on my opinion that it treats everyone distastefully. It provides a sandbox experience, I said, that allows players the opportunity to explore the underbelly of humanity and themselves, reflecting their own worst impulses back at them.

I was pleased that the article provoked thoughtful, in-depth discussion about the treatment of race, gender and other social issues in games, but in debunking a single individual's attack on Grand Theft Auto, my intention was not to provide a blanket pass to games that permit (and arguably, in this case, promote) antisocial behavior. So I was more pleased at the commenters who criticized the virulence of my GTA IV defense than I was at those who agreed with me (though, hey, who doesn't like to be agreed with?).

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One of the ways I rationalized what I'd written is by noting that games are scapegoated and crucified at every turn by people who've never even played them, and that this unfair public flogging threatens the medium's potential for mainstream legitimacy.

Why those who make games don't defend their own craft vigorously is a question for another time, but my position has been that the least we can do is to return these volleys when they're aimed our way. If we want to see games truly thrive and grow away from stigma, it's our responsibility, really.

And that's why the most irresponsible thing we can ever do as gamers is to speak the phrase, "It's only a game."

We Live At A Flashpoint

It can be said that it's fair for gamers to be defensive. After all, we've got heaps of prejudice to confront. Social, ethical and political warriors seem to feel they can tear down the things we love after only second-hand experience, our generational peers have called us strange for decades, and the myriad brilliant little revelations we've discovered through play over the years go completely overlooked in the broader world we belong to.

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We've also developed a heavily internet-based culture. Many of us have plenty of "real world" gaming pals, and online game services make it easier for us to play with friends we can actually speak to. But a strong central vein of the gaming audience does its group socializing on the boards, blogs and forums that comprise the backbone of our world, and that format means that we've got the ability to react immediately - with all the force and venom that anonymity enables. That reactionary, passionate society becomes self-perpetuating.

Those are the largest reasons why our community arguments around games are so passionate. And when someone, rationally or otherwise, criticizes a game's themes for being too violent, too sexual, racially offensive or gender-biased, we can almost predict the number of comments the discussion will spiral madly into, with a sigh, and a here we go.

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Illustration for article titled Industry Apologetics: It's Not Just A Game

We can understand clearly how we came to be so defensive, and to an extent we recognize the necessity of standing up for ourselves. But if we engage in what one Kotaku commenter referred to as "screeching industry apologetics," we must beg the question: are we really serving games?

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Looking in the Mirror

I sometimes enjoy being violent when I play Grand Theft Auto. And sometimes I just enjoy the mission-based gameplay, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't find the ragdoll physics of a body crumpling over the hood of my car to be cool, and I suspect many of you would be at least slightly untruthful in that assertion, too.

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I used the wrench a lot of the time in BioShock just because I loved the satisfying thud of metal on Splicer flesh, the meticulously crafted clink and thud, the way my victim dropped like deadweight. Someone programmed that in, deliberately, as if just for me.

Sometimes when I'm playing a first-person shooter, I wish the skull splattering would be just a little more grisly. Satisfying.

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I was a Little Sister killer, and feel the game experience was more meaningful because I went there.

We can do these things and many more in our games; we can shove, shatter, abuse and denigrate. We can ogle Soulcalibur breast physics, we can get "environmental kills," pantyshots, a meat hook.

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Suppose you didn't play video games at all, and merely were a person who fantasized for two to three hours each day, or however much time you spend gaming on a daily basis, about wrenching people in the head, about chainsawing half-dressed women, or about mowing people down during a war. Or about that quintessential chestnut: hiring a prostitute only to beat her up and take your money back.

Would you be healthy?

Illustration for article titled Industry Apologetics: It's Not Just A Game
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Our Own Little World

Now, be calm. Of course, it's a great big leap between playing a game and having a really unhealthy conscience. A game is, well, a game, and games are neither reality nor reality-simulators. But as realism becomes a priority in development, as we demand more immersion, more emotional impact, more game worlds we can really believe in, "it's only a game" will become more and more a flimsy excuse for why we love to do what we do.

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We so desperately want "more choice" in games, more freedom, and more insight into how our choices impact the game world – and this is because we want to experiment. Human beings no longer live in an era where they must fight each other for social dominance, survive harsh elements or kill their food, but some lingering relic of that instinct probably persists, and it's probably that itch that we scratch when we're playing a violent game.

At least, that has something to do with it. Another part is, I think, we enjoy learning about ourselves based on the actions we take in simulated environments. Of all the things we do in games, very little of it can safely, legally or literally be replicated in reality – we'll never fly a spaceship, we'll never save a planet, we'll never sleep with a blue alien.

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Illustration for article titled Industry Apologetics: It's Not Just A Game

And obviously, not all the things we do in games, not nearly, could be construed as reprehensible. Gamers also love their peaceful Azeroth sunsets, their epics of aging mercenaries, their interludes of salvation.

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But when we defend attacks on game content with "geez, it's only a game," then we're also relegating those moments of meaning to mere two-dimensional thrills.

The Hard Questions

"It's only a game" is a phrase that agrees with all of those who ever looked down their noses at the medium, who want to nutshell it as a child's plaything, who want to promote the kind of prejudice that will keep games from ever achieving widespread respect for everything they are.

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When gamers ask whether the imagery of a white man shooting through a vacant-eyed sea of African villagers feels all right to them, we do ourselves a massive disservice when we simply dismiss questions like that, when we attack each other.

Whether or not you like murdering whores in GTA IV, we do ourselves a massive disservice when we fail to use that as a springboard to consider our own, and our community's attitude toward women.

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So it may be our responsibility to defend games, to explain them when they're misjudged, to support our right to the full spectrum of emotion and experience they offer, both delightful and disturbing.

But questions like MTV Multiplayer's Steven Totilo's (our kind guest editor this week), asking, "Are Games Our Fantasies?" ought not to be brushed under the rug.

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Illustration for article titled Industry Apologetics: It's Not Just A Game

It must also be our responsibility to uphold a willingness to examine games, to discuss them civilly, to be willing to see what we're saying about ourselves through play. To have answers for the really hard questions: "Do these actions we take in games affect us as people? Does interactivity make it unfair to compare harsh content in games to the same content in movies?"

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We want to defend, we want to react, and we want to forgive, because we want to love games and everything about them. And sometimes, we just don't want to think at all, and we'd rather just play, thank-you-very-much, and that's fine.

But don't say "it's just a game." For gaming's most passionate fans, there should never be any "just" about it.

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DISCUSSION

As it has been said wonderful article, while I do agree that games as they are now warrant a more profound inspection, but for ourselves and games, I do not believe that the phrase "It's just a game" it's so vile and depreciating.

In essence games will always be "just games", be them videogames or playard games, as movies will allways be "just movies" to me the just moniker is about context, movies, games, role playing, fantasies, even books all gives us a release for our thoughts, dreams and wants in a different context.

Movies gives us a release by engaging our minds in the situtations of different people which we often times juxtapose to ourselves "If I were to lose my family, would I react like him?" "him" maybe Arnold Schawzeneger deciding to kill a fuckton of people, or Tom Hanks trying to win a tribunal case over the dangers of some drug.

Fantasies on the other hand gives us a different type of release, a whole world controlled by only our imagination in which we could be great heroes or great villains and all the world is dependant at our beck and call even the responses of others.

It's always about context, you asked what would happen if someone fantasized about wrenching people in the head all day?, well one way or another people do that, be that the teen boy hoplessly in love fantasizing about defeating an army of enemies to put his deeds at the feet of his princess to finally win her love; and then there is the disgruntled employee fantasizing about giving his boss one hell of a beating for beign an ass day in and day out.

Games give a whole different context for the release, even if they share a lot with movies and fantasies, like fantasies we get to live in a different world, but like movies that world is not our own. We live in games by the rules imposed to us by the designers, we strive to complete goals which they impose upon us, while at the same time giving us the liberty to do so in a way which pleases us or makes us curious.

GTAIII (haven't played IV yet) gives a different context to the experience, in the sense that one way or another you are imposed to try to live the life of a criminal, so the rules of the game one way or another has us live like one, what we decide is if we are a criminal with a heart of gold or even a ruthless criminal with world wrecking bloodlust.

In my opinion that is where the power of games shine, they makes us wonder and makes us live different types of lives but we can choose how to live it.

We somone says "it's just a game" to me it's always about that context, that imposed life where we can try to be someone different or maybe ourselves if we had been in different circumstances.

What are we saying about ourselves when we play a game it's wholly dependant on how we decide to play a particular game, it's like an actor playing a role in a movie, maybe there is a little about ourselves but the role is not ourselves, because ultimatly it's only a game, we may or may not come back with a greater understanding of the world and us, but we lived those moments always knowing that no matter the times we lost ourselves in the game, we are ourselves and those are the roles we chose to play for a brief moment in our lives.

It's only a game, but for a brief time we cried, we laughed, and we got pissed. Games give to us a different context in which to loose ourselves, and damn it, even if it's just a game I will defend the power of that context until the end.