Manhunt 2… Something for the kids, honey?

Okay, I have to warn you. This is not one of those “I like game/movie/book XYZ enough to bore you with the details” posts. It’s an opinion piece. And it’s about one of those boring topics that the media keep coming back to, usually in the most facile, over-the-top way possible. Especially in the German media, you often get the equation: video gamer = potential murderer and sadist.

Which ticks me off. But what ticks me off just as much are gamers who aren’t able to look at the issue with some critical distance. You can’t have a decent discussion with the likes of Jack Thompson, people who believe that games train you to kill and maim (the word “murder simulator” pops up in their rhetoric), but it’s just as impossible to have a decent discussion with people who don’t have any second thoughts about a game where you’re rewarded for stealthy behaviour with extra-gory executions, and that’s part of the fun. (Warning: the video, showing Manhunt, is quite explicit.)

The people who think that any depictions of violence in games are fair game usually bring up three arguments: 1) “Movies such as Saw or Hostel are just as violent, they’re more realistic than pixellated polygon carnage, and adults can watch them, so it’s hypocritical to want to censor games!” 2) “It’s just a game, and personally I can tell the difference between a game and reality. If you can’t, that says more about you…” 3) “Censorship is a restriction of free speech! And that’s un-American! Why don’t you go back to Russia, commie?”

1) “Many movies are just as violent, but you don’t see them being banned, do you?”

It’s definitely true that films such as Saw or Hostel are at least as violent. They’re also more realistic, because while games have advanced quite amazingly in terms of visual representation, you still wouldn’t mistake a game’s version of reality for the Real Thing(tm). (One point that’s often raised together with this one is that games aren’t kiddies stuff per se. I agree with that – just like not all animation is Disney fare but may be aimed at an adult audience, not every game is Super Mario World.) However, it’s silly to ignore the fact that games are interactive, whereas films aren’t. Quite often, game violence is inflicted by the player’s avatar, controlled by the player. It’s too simplistic to say that you, the gamer, are committing the violent acts, but there’s obviously a causal link between your actions and the on-screen violence.

I’m not saying that this automatically programs gamers to become murderers, or simply to become more violent and aggressive. Most of the studies I’ve seen that suggest such a correlation are questionable in terms of methodology – for instance, they measure an increase in aggressivity in ways that would apply to football or any other competitive sports as well. On the other hand, though, there aren’t that many good studies that show the violence in games to have no effect whatsoever. Until there’s more, and especially better, unbiased research, the argument simply doesn’t hold. And just because individual gamer X who’s been playing violent games since he was 12 hasn’t taken a knife to his parents yet (you gotta love anecdotal evidence!), that doesn’t mean that there might not be other, more subtle effects.

Does this mean we should prohibit all violence in video games? No – but it does suggest that we, critics as well as defenders,  should keep a more open mind.

2) “It’s just a game, man! Ever heard of fiction? It’s this thing that isn’t reality!”

When Goethe published his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther which ends with the protagonist’s suicide (yeah, I’ve just spoiled the novel’s ending for you! deal with it!), there was a rash of copycat suicides. People cheer when bad guys get killed in movies. They cry when their favourite characters in a series die. Yes, the emotional reaction is safe to some extent because it’s based on fiction – but it is nevertheless an emotional reaction.

And while the relationship between fictional representations and the reality they represent is highly complex, would anyone really, honestly deny that there is a relationship? Horror movies scare – why else would people watch them? Romantic comedies make you all warm and fuzzy. How many people sit in their seats thinking “Yeah, right, but it’s not real, is it? That’s just an actor, that’s ketchup, and those are digital effects.” Much of the time we watch fiction in order to get lost in it. Fiction can have a real effect on us, so saying that when you put a virtual knife in some poor virtual henchman’s virtual eyesocket it’s just fiction strikes me as naive at best, and disingenuous at worst.

Again, this doesn’t mean that violence in games should be made illegal outright. It just means that the argument is becoming increasingly facile.

3) “Freedom of speech, yadda yadda yadda…!”

Okay, I’m going to out myself here. I don’t necessarily believe that absolute freedom of speech is such a great thing. In the best of all possible worlds it is. In a world filled with responsible, mature people who can look at themselves and their own actions with a minimum of critical distance, free speech would be one of the greatest goods.

In a world where people think that just because you’re allowed to say something it’s right to say it, and where people don’t think that every now and then it’s better not to say something… well, in such a world, I must say that I can live with restrictions to free speech. There is no such thing as absolutely free speech anyway – there are always limits imposed by others. Sometimes these limits are institutionalised (for instance when the government issues laws against hate speech), sometimes they’re internalised. (“You don’t say XYZ because…”.)

I often find that you can’t really talk to people who act on pure principles – because principles, if applied as purely as they’re usually argued, ignore context. And that’s what is woefully missing from this entire debate: people fight over examples of videogame violence, but they don’t really look at the individual contexts. Do I think it’s right that the BBFC denied Manhunt 2 a certificate, in effect banning it in the UK? I don’t think it’s wrong, although I think this sort of thing should be applied only after a lot of consideration, and it should be open to appeal. I think it’s important to discuss whether “freedom of speech” means such games should be made and sold. I think it’s important that the in-game context of violence should be looked at critically. Who is the player character, what does the violence consist of? How is it integrated into a plot? Who is it committed against? Does the game reward violence, does it punish it, or does it simply show it? All of these are interesting, important questions that are so often ignored by both sides of the debate. The same act of violence may mean something vastly different depending on context.

If anything should go in games, because they’re fictional and because artistic freedom should be absolute (i.e. it should include such things as gamers being able to chainsaw their opponents in the throat and then dismember the corpses – it’s art, innit?), then there’s nothing wrong with rape games or concentration camp simulators. These games exist (they’re amateur productions), and they won’t stop existing if there’s legislation. But unless the defenders of videogame violence are willing to have an mature, differentiated debate about the issue, acknowledging its complexity, I can live with limits to what is acceptable in games.

Until a game is banned that I really like, and that’s when I’ll probably be shouting the loudest.

(Note: That last sentence is there to acknowledge the contradiction in me advertising GTA: San Andreas one day and ranting against violence in games the next. Hey, I’m a contrary bastard! Also, I’d rather continue the discussion in the Comments, if anyone’s interested. This issue should be debated, and not just in black/white terms.)

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