Wednesday, January 28, 2009

columbine, 9/11, war and death: games vs. weighty issues

Quick, think of the most controversial game you can, the one that you’ve heard the most grousing about in the media for the last few years. I’m willing to bet that most of you went right to Grand Theft Auto, but maybe those of you a little better-versed in games thought of Manhunt 2 or some other such thing. Why are these games considered controversial? Violence is the one-word answer, or maybe murder – games like this let you or even require you to kill people, to steal cars and have sex with ladies of questionable background. They also disassociate cause from effect – breaking the law in these games often goes unpunished unless you happen to steal something that is sitting right in front of a police officer. Parents and disbarred attorneys alike worry that these games are desensitizing our youth, despite lack of solid evidence to back it up. This is controversial in the world of video games.

Yet, violence is a staple in other media. Consider this past summer’s The Dark Knight – gritty, murderous, brooding and sometimes genuinely disturbing, it didn’t stir up much if any controversy, and made a million billion dollars to boot. To be truly controversial, a movie or book needs to go much further. Take Bill Mahr’s Religulous, which ends by telling the viewer that all organized religion is dangerous and wrong and will be the end of us all – this point is delivered by Mahr in the last minutes of his movie, set to inordinately dramatic music. Pretty controversial, but the movie still got a fairly wide release and plenty of talk show hosts had Mahr in to promote the film on national television. Imagine a game that did something like this. I can’t. My question for you, the reader: why can’t games ask the hard questions? Why can’t games tackle some issues with some real weight behind them?

Let’s take the Iraq war as an example. In the last five years there have been books, movies, songs, television shows, paintings and poems have been made using the war as their subject, whether they are critical of it or otherwise. Where are the games that tackle this issue head-on? There are plenty of games about war and fighting - turns out that most of them are still back in a sterile, Holocaust-less version of World War II, dealing with a thoroughly dehumanized enemy painted in broad black and white strokes with little room for grey in between. Just as many war games take place in an unfamiliar future, or perhaps on another world similar to but distinct from our own. Controversy: avoided.

Part of the reason games can’t be about the Iraq war is because it’s current and it’s deeply divisive – the game would unavoidably have to take a stance on the issue. The problem with giving your game an opinion is that you will invariably alienate most people on the opposite side, and this would directly effect your bottom line. Seeing Religulous out of curiosity costs ten bucks and takes less than two hours, and seeing a movie is naturally a more passive activity than playing a game. Who is going to spend $60 and ten to twelve hours of their time on something they simply don’t agree with, even if the gameplay is excellent? And what are the chances if the gameplay isn’t excellent? And what if someone who hates your viewpoint gives your game a 6.0 instead of an 8.5? You can see why no one wants to take this bet.

That’s not to say that no one has ever made a controversial statement using games as his or her medium. There are two games in particular I have in mind, the first being Super Columbine Massacre RPG! It is, as its name implies, a role playing game which casts you as the gunmen in the 1999 Columbine school shooting. I found the controversy everyone – it is over here. Danny Ledone, the game’s creator, was at the time of the shootings disturbed to see qualities of the assailants in himself. His intention was not to marginalize the events, but to explore via game the motivations behind them, and to disassociate violent games from the shootings. Though many recognized his intent, the press was widely critical of the game. It was pulled from an indie gaming competition, prompting others to withdraw in protest. It was a game that took on an uncomfortable subject, and it made people uneasy.

More recently, artist Douglas Stanely put up for exhibit a piece called Invaders!, pictured at the top of the post. A takeoff of Space Invaders, this piece depicts the familiar aliens slowly descending upon the World Trade Center towers, firing all the while. As in Space Invaders, there is no chance of victory – no matter how good you are, one of the endless waves of aliens will eventually defeat you, and in this particular version will destroy the twin towers as well. It was intended by Stanely as a commentary on US foreign policy, highlighting the futility of war against endless waves of insurgents and extremists. Press coverage was, again, unkind to the piece, and it was also pulled from its exhibit.

Are people who make games like Super Columbine Massacre RPG and Invaders! simply making a grab for attention, trying to stir up controversy for controversy’s sake? Perhaps – after all, any press is good press. At least in these two projects, though, the artists have stepped up and defended their creations as artistically viable, trying to make a statement but not necessarily seeking the spotlight which was eventually turned on them. We already know why people don’t want to make games with viewpoints, but why are games that do deal in weighty issues scrutinized so heavily?

Part of the reason is because of preconceived notions people have about games, and about the people who play them. For a long time, games were marketed toward kids and teenage boys as distractions, as simple escapist fun. The fact is that this notion is by now years out-of-date. That many present-day gamers are in their 30s and have children themselves, that they are men and women of all ages and from all walks of life, that different people in different countries all over the world play different games for different reasons has done little to dispel this image, which becomes an immediate problem when you try to use the form as a vehicle for artistic expression. Games are supposed to be fun distractions for kids – when you drop something as serious and as awful and as society-changing as Columbine or 9/11 into a game, people naturally assume that you’re trying to make it entertaining, that you’re literally trying to make fun of it. This is not always the case, but with Super Columbine Massacre RPG’s cartoonish graphics and the pixilated retro stylings of Invaders! it’s easy to see why people think of these outings as lightweight fluff with little substance.

I realize that these “games” make people skittish – writing this post, writing a defense for games like this is making me feel a little uneasy too. They’re big issues, ones with a still-forming historical perspective, and we’re not detached enough from them to welcome art about them with open arms, especially commercial art. Still, there is 9/11 art. There is art about the Columbine shootings. These things, while sometimes controversial, are allowed to exist – this is freedom of speech in action. Why are reactions so much more horrified when events like these are brought up in games? Comment sections on posts about the Invaders! piece are filled with 200, 300, sometimes almost 400 comments between gamers debating the merits of the work. Clearly many gamers are willing and able to debate the subject matter intelligently (or unintelligently) – come on, guys. Make a World War II game that also deals with the horrors of the Holocaust. Make a colonial real-time strategy game that confronts the unfortunate reality of slavery. It would prove that games can be more than just shallow meaningless time wasters, it would inspire debate, and it might even educate or, better yet, have a lasting emotional effect on someone. It might make people uneasy, but if the medium is to grow up, it has to put on its big boy pants and tackle grown-up, complicated issues with more regularity.