An Analytical Discussion of the Industry, Culture, Progress and Nature of Video Games.

October 12th, 2006

In Defense of Video Game Violence

Part II: Problems

If you are wondering what I'm talking about, go here.


One of the difficulties of making an argument (especially a personal one) is that even if you lay this argument out with exacting precision, troubles in that argument will still accrue. I, of course, was neither exacting nor precise, so what I said is probably quite problematic. I'll take a swipe at addressing those problems.

First and foremost, those who are critical of video games would be likely to say that they have nothing against the violence of video games, they simply are uncomfortable with that queasy combination of violence, children, and interaction. They say that children should be protected from the rubbish that we as adults are happy to be subjected to. Well, duh. Again, this argument is not about video game violence itself, but of who takes responsibility for it. I am not a parent, but I would like to think that both the dads who make Penny Arcade and the loony bete noir of the industry would agree that children shouldn't play violent video games, just as they shouldn't watch porn or take the long tour of the United States Holocaust Museum. Of course, the similarities likely end there.

To address the concerns of the beast first, I can only say that putting ratings or control into government hands is difficult, even outside of obvious First Amendment issues, simply because there's no guarantee that those who will make these laws will be gamers. One could argue that this would remove bias, but it would also make regulators uselessly ignorant. A cursory glance at the proposed legislation of Senator Sam Brownback, which requires that games be played in their entireties before being rated, would be amble evidence to any gamers that such demands are almost silly. I think Brownback should follow his own advice on Oblivion, and see how long it takes him. It's like a writer asking his publisher to check every single letter in the print of his book to see if the serifs are correctly aligned. The generational gap between the typical person who knows video games well enough to decide what is right and wrong about them and the typical legislator, while shrinking, is still too great to avoid foolishness like Mr. Brownback's proposal.

I personally would lay the responsibility of children and what they consume at the feet of parents, along with a polite request to do their jobs. I would hope that parent would do the same as my own father did upon seeing that Die Hard was somehow even more violent than its title implied; by reaching over and covering my eyes. Realize, and this is (I believe) an important point, that my dad wasn't protecting me from violence that was too extreme, but violence that I wasn't wise or experienced enough to understand. It is, to me, a matter of simple maturation, or the lack thereof. I would not take a child to see the cartoonish violence of Die Hard, nor would I take a child to see the honest and mature violence of Saving Private Ryan. Until they grow up enough to make distinctions of context and meaning, I get to decide what they see and do. Why? Because I'm older, that's why. One of the privileges of being an adult is that I get to be treated as such. I make my own choices about what I consume. I cannot speak for the taste or quality of other people's choices, but I am not responsible for their choices just as I am not responsible for crimes they may have committed, or at least I shouldn't be.

Another criticism that could be justifiably leveled upon video games is the, well, grotesque nature of the violence in them. This is something that doesn't seem to be discussed very often. While violence is sometimes useful as a storytelling device or in service to plot and character, in games it seems to have this strange gleeful quality, and not just in C.J.'s cruel taunts in GTA as he guns people down, though those are bad. It's when every person shot dies screaming, or the blood is excessive to the point of (and for the sake of) spectacle. Shoot Marcus Fenix, and it's like a jelly jar exploded. And here we run into the real problem of verisimilitude. As realistic as the new graphics of the 3D era may allow us to get, the violence has remained in the 2D era, where people disappear when they are shot, where their blood doesn't get in your eyes, and they don't shit themselves as they die horrible deaths. This doesn't happen in other media very often either, as we tend to blunt the real and traumatic effects of violence, but with games, it seems purposefully ignored in favor of the enthusiastically brutal.

I basically agree with this point, as it is one of the few that actually addresses the violence in gaming as such, but I would add a few nuances. First, we must separate the form itself (and the unfair criticism of that form) from the content of that form. I don't like the fact that there are games with excessive amounts of violence or sexuality, and I don't like the fact that they sell well. I don't buy these games, but I also don't throw out my game console or defenestrate my PC because Manhunt, Postal, or The Guy Game exist. And this applies universally to any manner in which human beings express themselves.

To give a counter example: I have always known the written word to be praised and lauded above almost all other forms of expression. It is superior to film and photography, paints and pigments, and especially games because, as goes the idea, books engage the whole imagination. They require the reader to make whole worlds with his mind, and to create every moment through pure invention, as the only things provided are the words. But what if you are reading solely about ugly and abusive subject matter? What if the prose you consume is about nothing but prurient sex and brutal violence? We place the work of canonized writers on pedestals for worship and give their names like mantras when asked what writers should be bought and read, but it must be remembered that the best selling book genres are Romance Novels and True Crime, which aren't exactly forms that lend themselves to timeless art. I contest that words, like any form of expression, have no inherent beneficent value, and may be used for bad as well as good. I feel the need to point out that both One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are books.

And don't think that I am singling books out, as I have a love for words that goes even deeper than my love of video games. However, the realization should be made that every media has been maligned, dismissed, and hated in its youth. And if you doubt, consider Plato's views on writing, and his belief that it would destroy the need for man to remember things, and so drain all the art in civilization.

Furthermore, one should realize that the violence in video games often just goes hand in hand with the subject matter of the game itself. I would expect Halo to have people shooting each other, just like I would expect 2001: A Space Odyssey to, you know, have some scenes in space. Horror movies and crime novels will often casually and gleefully kill off well-defined characters with the same emotional patience and care as cows at the slaughterhouse, but this is a convention of those forms, just as women in noir films are either saintly virgins or machinating femmes fatale. There are variations on this, but that is what's expected. So, one should naturally expect violence in a videogame about soldiers, and less so in a game about falling irregularly-shaped blocks. Also, it's worth noting that, over the history of video games so far, the popularity of the game about falling blocks is far greater than the ones about soldiers.

To be perfectly honest, I have a great deal of unease even calling the stuff in games violence. No one is truly hurt by playing even the most savage videogame, as it is simply moving pictures, some elements of which the player may control to change other parts. It depicts violence, and that isn't a good thing, and I'm wary of the effects it could have on those who play games to excess (inconclusive studies or not) but I feel that calling what happens in video games violence demeans what real violence is, and the real damage that it can do. Can we call a thing what it is?

It may seem as if I have drifted away from actually discussing video game violence, but, as I said before, no one ever really does discuss it. What we all discuss is the implications of it; political, social, economic, behavioral, whatever. The violence or sex itself is only ever at issue when one specific instance of it offends enough to set off the discussion of it within all those other contexts. This is all because video game violence doesn't really do anything in and of itself. We can directly talk about real world violence because it could effect us directly.  When it effects us directly, our lives are wrenched out of order. Too much of it and we must change our behaviors and how we see the world. When I suffer violence in a video game I do nothing but try to hit the restart button, or turn the game off because I have other things I should be getting to. If every video game on earth were to somehow become entirely about ugly violence and pornographic sex, I would not start locking my doors more often, nor would I insist upon getting into my house before dark. I would, however, probably stop playing games, and I'd feel bad for players who want something besides a rote and boring experience.

Video games are now singled out for politics, for money, for attention, mostly because they are unfamiliar, growing, fascinating, and because a group of people with power both don't know how to deal with them, and want to use them for their own selfish needs. And suddenly, simply because video games area a new media that engages its audience in a novel way, it must suffer from unfounded accusations and illogical requirements, based on faulty and foolish moral jockeying, mostly made by ignorant people who don't play games. Luckily, I am patient, and can, thirty or so years from now, point and say I saw the whole thing, and knew that, yes, this too shall pass.

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October 15th, 2006

Narbacular Drop is Easier Than You'd Think

If you didn’t visit last week for the homework assignment, you can catch up here. Like most assignments, if you didn’t do it, you might be a little lost. It’s okay. I’ll wait.


So you downloaded it? And played it? Great. Let’s begin:

So you may be wondering why I asked you to play Narbacular Drop. Well, loyal reader, it’s because Narbacular Drop symbolizes the wet dream all aspiring game designers have as they toil away, juggling Photoshop, Direct X, and Visual Studio while eating massive amounts of Cheetos. See, the talented young men and women that designed this game as a class project (at Digipen. Yeah, the place that’s advertised in EGM and at IGN.com. The place that, when you saw the ad, you were like, “What sucker would go to game design school?! Is that even accredited?”), were approached by Valve – the makers of the indie-hit Half-Life – to plop Narbacular Drop in the Half-Life universe, beef up the graphics, ditch the little girl with the purple hair, and add some guns. Oh, and then get paid for it.

All this attention, and not one ninja, robot, zombie, pirate, or monkey anywhere to be seen! It’s amazing what some creativity will get you!

If you’re interested in seeing what they’re currently working on, click the movie below.

The trailer is clever – and incredibly mind-boggling. Now, neither you nor me knows what the eventual Portal will be like, but I thought we might get a look at the mechanics of the original before the big-budget version comes out. Is it as confusing as it seems? Is the human mind wired to think in such ways as Narbacular Drop and Portal require? Where did I put my Advil?

What did you think? Yeah, I thought it was pretty easy, too. I don’t know about you, but I found myself thinking in very simple terms: Where do I want to go? And then I’d put a portal there. Second, I’d think: Where can I walk to? And I’d put a portal there. Meeting every room like that short-circuited any sort of potential mind-bending. It actually boiled the game down to some very simple parts. How’d you get through it? <pause> You pwned it, I see.

Well, I’m with you in the first room. That was a cinch: Get out of a cage and move a box. Getting out of the cage was explained in the beginning tutorial – and moving a box was pretty clear as well. In fact, the most confusing thing was figuring out if that running imp (named, “Impy”. I guess all the creativity was used up thinking up the portal mechanic…) would make you die.

The second room had a Mario-ish quality. Perhaps it was the grate on which you had to portal. Or perhaps it was the turtle you were asked to ride. Either way, it was still relatively simple. Where do I want to go? On that grate. <shoot blue portal> Where can I walk to? Over there. <shoot orange portal> I see from the glassy look in your eyes, that you, too, found this level easy.

Now, in the third room – the one with the boulders – did your boulders show up the first time you entered? Mine didn’t, and it was weird. I had to commit hara-kiri to get the level to reboot, and then my boulders showed up. Other than that bug, it was a clever level, and the metal littered around the hallways were sadistically planned. How many times did you get squished by a boulder? Me, around five times. Honestly, I was stuck on this level for longer than I should have been. But I think the time I used in this level locked into place the mentality this game needs. When did that kick in for you? Earlier than that, eh? Well, good for you, Dr. Brill E. Ant.

As long as we’re being honest, how many people were stuck in Very Vertical? How many suckers tried time and again to plop themselves onto the little columns in the lava, only to fall to a G-rated lava-death? I did – for a good 10 minutes. Until I realized the key: Portaling THROUGH portals! <pause> You knew that already, huh? Well, I thought I was hot shit when I was able to navigate all the way to the lava-turtle (name: “turtley”?) without moving past the entrance. I was so proud of myself, I took a screenshot - just to prove it. This pride was strong, until I realized that this strategy (loophole? cheat?) simplified the game to the point of boredom.

Want proof? Use this strategy in the last room. You know, the one with the boulders raining upon you. Find a safe spot and portal through the portal all the way to the top. Those boulders will never even know you were there. <pause> What? You knew that, too? Fine.

Then here’s a stumper of question for you, Dr. Bee G. Brayne: Did playing Narbacular Drop make you more – or less – excited for Portal?

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