If there’s one word guaranteed to rile up a self-confessed ‘serious’ gamer – from the blind Japanese teenager completing Tetris in 13 seconds using only his knees, to the blissfully unemployed 22 year old American nailing quadruple headshots in between sips of Mountain Dew – it’s that games are “mindless”. Games are intelligent, games are challenging, games are art, we whine to the uninitiated naysayers as we pensively introduce our chainsaw to the nearest alien’s balls.
A quick scroll through the forums of Gamespot and IGN reveals a confusing portrait of the serious gamer: we’re a breed who long for games to be taken seriously but bristle with defensive scorn at those who dare criticise the guilty pleasures of the medium we love. Games have “come a long way” since Space Invaders and Pac Man: when Gary Oldman is doing the voiceovers for Call of Duty, people should sit up and listen (or they should #SHUTTHEFUCKUP), or so the argument goes. But few make the distinction between improvement and innovation. Yes, graphical fidelity has reached previously undreamt-of heights, the size and variety of game worlds seems to grow every year, and budgets now eclipse Hollywood blockbusters – but when was the last time you played a mainstream title that did something new? When did you last play a chart-topping title in which ‘gameplay’ wasn’t synonymous with ‘shooting’? To say that games are ‘better’ because they’ve got better graphics or more weapons or bigger maps is like saying the phone directory is ‘better’ than The Old Man and the Sea because it’s got more pages: it assumes that an excess of content equates to an advance in form.
The brain is fundamentally a habit-forming organism, and many gamers, like audiences paying to see the bi-weekly reboots of Spiderman movies, have developed bad habits, the worst of which is our unquestioning acceptance of violence as gaming’s de facto form. You buy a game, you load it up, you start shooting. I should state here that I am not saying violence in games is morally wrong. Research constantly throws up new results and rarely do people equip themselves with the full picture – I wonder how many lobbyists and parents carefully sidestep the 2008 study of Tanya Byron, one of the UK’s top child psychologists, which found scant evidence of increased aggression among young gamers. In truth, artistic depictions of violence have existed as long as violence itself, but you won’t find any parents wailing that their child has become distant and aggressive after sleepless nights obsessively staring at the Bayeux Tapestry. The simple fact is that games are undergoing the same moralistic teething period that romantic novels went through in the sixteenth century: art that depicts supposed immorality has always historically been painted as immoral in its own right. It’s not games making people commit violent crime – it’s unstable mental health, social disaffection, and distant parenting. CoD don’t kill people, rappers do, or something like that.
So no, I don’t have a moral problem with game violence, but I do have an artistic one: it can be incredibly creatively limiting. If you went into your local game store you would see that every chart title’s cover depicted a humourless beefy bloke with a weapon of some sort, and it’s largely down to money and habit. Ken Levine admitted Bioshock Infinite’s cover was designed to appeal to “frat boys”; critics despaired when Ubisoft added a gun to the cover of Watch Dogs for fear of alienating their fanbase; the publishers of The Last of Us considered relegating Ellie to the artwork’s background because female heroes don’t sell games. Clearly, the orthodoxy of ‘the big white man shooting all the baddies’ isn’t going away any time soon, and although debates over racial and sexual equality absolutely should factor in games criticism, there is also a more straightforward issue at hand: this orthodoxy holds gaming back as a medium.
Think of a game you would describe as “story-driven”, or one offering “moral choices”. You’re probably thinking of the Bioshock or Deus Ex series, or maybe Dishonored. These games undoubtedly explore humanity’s darkest corners with slickly immersive aesthetics, but their morality systems are almost entirely binary, relying on a simple button push to choose between what usually boils down to ‘kill or don’t kill’. It doesn’t have to be this way. In the opening hour of Metro: Last Light you have to escape an underground prison camp, and as you pass by the cages of starving prisoners one asks you to find the key to his cell. Because I was too absorbed in my own escape attempt, I never found out if that key even existed – but I sure as hell thought about it a lot more than I thought about whether to ‘harvest’ or ‘save’ the little girls in Bioshock, or which of the four buttons Deus Ex: Human Revolution forced me to press to determine the entire outcome of a 20 hour plot. By investing the player with a moral quandary outside the immediate mechanics of gameplay, based on overheard dialogue rather than garish flashing button prompts, the developers of Last Light made it a real part of the atmospheric world they were trying to create. If every element of a game was crudely labelled with flashing yellow text (‘TREE!’ ‘ENEMY!’) it would totally distract from any sense of immersion or reality, but that’s exactly the mechanic so often applied to player choice in even the most acclaimed games.
I fear the reason developers do this is because they know we’d all rather just get on with shooting people in the face. I adore games and have done since I first got a GameBoy at age 6, so I don’t say this lightly: the gaming community’s problem, simply put, is that we have incredibly low standards. Like the toddler clinging to its mother’s skirt, we fear straying from the familiar, so we defensively fire off words like “choice”, “plot”, and “character” as the get-out-of-jail-free card to be deployed against any criticism of virtual violence. If we continue to pretend that a few hand-holding moments of ‘moral choice’ or lacklustre dialogue can artistically legitimise the dopamine-inducing ritualistic killing that forms the backbone of practically every major franchise, we’re lying to gaming’s detractors, and we’re lying to ourselves.
There is no better example of this disingenuous critical laziness than the reception of Spec Ops: The Line. This was supposedly a shooter to challenge shooters and the desensitization of gamers to mass slaughter, and the self-conscious thinking gamer lapped it up. It’s a game that has received much attention from several excellent critics and you could argue that it goes where most games never will in at least provoking debate. “It satirises mindless violence by engaging so wholeheartedly in that very behaviour!” Sorry, I don’t buy it. The school bully who kicks you in the crotch is not satirising testicular cancer just as a thousand-man body count and slow-motion headshots do not satirise violent games – it’s pure indulgence. You don’t litter online forums with self-aggrandizing, faux-emotional comments about post-traumatic stress disorder after four hours on Battlefield, so don’t insult those who live with it every day by pretending that Spec Ops is any different. The infamous white phosphorous scene does not invoke disgust and melancholy in me for the same reason the (almost identical) burning alive of Marco in Max Payne 3 or the ‘No Russian’ level in CoD: Modern Warfare 2 does not: because it is preceded and followed by the limitless, addictive, consequence-free slaughter that we all secretly love. Spec Ops is a game that justifies the unjustifiable by peddling emotional impact to a public that desperately wants to believe in it: it is guilt porn, and we have to stop this Emperor’s New Clothes charade of pretending to be moved by it.
I’ll leave you with a resounding memory from my first playthrough of The Last of Us. Ellie and I were crouched behind a car, avoiding three passing thugs. I tried to let off an ill-advised pot shot as they passed, only to be betrayed by the click of an empty chamber. The men charged and in the flurry of movement that followed blood was spilled, screams were uttered, and we all wasted our precious supplies trying pointlessly to remove each other from existence. That moment stayed with me because for the first time in several years a violent choice in a game had made me feel real guilt. Nothing about the game’s design had encouraged me to attack those men – I was outnumbered, I risked wasting supplies, and I had already got to a safe position from which to sneak past them and complete the level. And yet I made the fully independent choice to do it, and no amount of severed limbs or caved-in skulls could weigh upon me quite like Ellie’s two softly whispered words of bitter, fearful judgement, two words that Bioshock and Spec Ops and all the rest could learn a lot from: “Shit, Joel.”