Violence

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An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind

In the UK today it is fairly uncontroversial to suggest that the newspaper The Daily Mail is …. I don’t know … say: a poisonous, xenophobic hive of closet racists, bigots and snobs who pervert the idea of morality into self-deluded moral indignation and spread fear, hate and suspicion for money. Well, at least I’m pretty sure that’s an accurate thing to say. Please don’t correct me if I’m wrong. (I’m not.)

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Paul Dacre. Editor of the Mail. No photoshop required

In preparing this post I had to disable my beloved Daily Mail blocking plugin. I was surprised at what I found. By the way, you might want to install that right now if you plan on visiting links in this article. Some of them in the following paragraph go somewhere very dark indeed.

I had heard that a favourite tactic of the Mail was to repeatedly claim that, for example, eggs give you cancer, and then mere weeks away to claim that eggs in fact cure cancer. However, I had not expected to find the confused flurry of articles on video games. At least one is actually positive. Presumably this just shows what truly open-minded and fair people they are, and doesn’t imply that the assumption of said readership is that, in fact, games give you cancer.

The unthinking hysteria of the media over games is unfounded. Steven Pinker, in his 2011 book “The Better Angels of our Nature” points out that we are actually a society with far less violence and crime than at almost any point in the past. If games are making people violent, then where’s the violence? I am aware that others have written on this subject better than I can and have probably put in more effort. However, I don’t want to pass over this point without making it very clear that there is a perception in the media in general that violence in games is prevalent and problematic. And the Mail aren’t the only guilty party here by any means. I could just fill this page with links to back myself up, but, really, I don’t think it’s controversial to say that there is a generalised fear over violence in games in the media, is it? madworld

 Mad World. Mad.

There is an assumption here that somehow exposure to violence makes one, in turn violent. But I don’t think that’s a necessary causal relationship at all. But, honestly, a very large number of games do feature a lot of killing, maiming, blood, guts and guns. Certainly more than in most peoples’ everyday lives, unless you live in Stalingrad in 1944, or in Surbiton.

I don’t see why this is inevitable. In my last post I mentioned what I and others have described as the “whack-a-mole” mechanic of moving the mouse around the screen and clicking to fire a gun. This does seem to suit playing with a mouse surprisingly well and, when consoles started to want complex First-Person Shooters, a lot of work went into finding a way to make playing with an analogue stick viable. Nevertheless, even if we put aside FPSs, there is still a lot of violence in other genres. A game like Torchlight, for example, still revolves around killing, albeit killing adorable goblins and monsters. We don’t have to accept the ubiquity of this idea, but it is certainly common.

I think it would be more interesting to discuss how and why the mechanics of games (including games like chess or go) reflect combat or war so readily.

To draw analogies with other media and art is always helpful I feel. In 1960 a British court overturned the then-existing ban on publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover on the grounds of obscenity. (I think there are better reasons to dislike Lawrence myself.) In the 60s, 70s and 80s Mary Whitehouse was a prominent figure in the British media, campaigning against, amongst other things, permissive attitudes to, depictions of, and references to sex, homosexuality, obscene language and violent or gory films and videos.

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Mary Whitehouse. The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

It’s easy to forget just how influential these campaigns were. Interestingly, there were already games in the eighties that would have made a better target, but the market was small and, at that time, few thought of games as entertainment primarily for children.

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Leisure Suit Larry. Boobs.

Of course there are numerous studies claiming that games negatively influence young people, and many that claim the opposite (or at least a lack of deleterious effects). I’m not particularly fascinated when public debates descend into citing contradictory research findings. I strongly believe in the scientific method, but not necessarily in the people employing it.

However, in my day job as a secondary school teacher I confess that I have seen and heard things that I find potentially disturbing. I occasionally have cause to talk with children (11-18) about games. They like to hear that I play games, and are interested to find out what I play (though they tend to be uninterested in the answers). However in almost all cases I find that what they are playing is, indeed, the big, headline-grabbing games like Call of Duty and GTA that the papers so decry.

I haven’t played GTA (to my shame. I own it but never installed it). However, I did play (and very much enjoyed) Saint’s Row 3. I had tears in my eyes as my ludicrously murderous character jumped off a skyscraper and Kanye West’s “Power” played over the top. And I was genuinely moved when my character and her friend started singing “What I Got” along with the radio in one of the many silly in-game cars. In general my tastes don’t cover shooters, but the sheer exuberance and OTT cartoonishness of the violence in SR3 completely won me over.

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18-year-olds are pretty immature too you know.

However, when three of my year 7 boys (11-12 years old) told me they liked the game I was genuinely surprised. What did they like about it, I asked. “The dildo bat! Ha!” and “the helicopter missions”. Let me be clear here: I completely understand the attraction of the forbidden to the young. I was 12 once too (during the aforementioned video nasties era), and spent a huge amount of time and effort in an attempt to witness the worst, most depraved images and films I could.

However, I honestly can’t imagine what these children are getting from this game. The entire thing is a parody of something else: eighties cop shows, summer blockbuster movies, Japanese game shows. The thing is, it isn’t supposed to be taken seriously. Even having not played GTA I understand that the same is broadly true of that franchise. I can testify that children have a stunted sense of irony at the best of times, but besides the feeling of doing something a bit naughty (but only a bit; they all play them), I don’t know what they actually like in it.

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Actually quite funny.

Please trust me when I say that there are very few eleven-year-old boys I’ve met who haven’t played Call of Duty. Some are more into the football games, but CoD is, by far, the game cited the most in all the schools I’ve worked in. The thing is (and I’ve questioned them on this) these games are rated 18, mostly by PEGI and sometimes by the BBFC. So how and why are they getting hold of them? Again, I really don’t want to sound like a prude here, and in fact I don’t think that these games are a particularly negative influence on young people, but I do wonder how the attitude of ignoring age ratings by parents who surely know better became so prevalent.

As it happens I’m against censorship in all its forms, but surely, if the public at large are so concerned about violence in games, the big red 18 logo on the front of the box might give some clue as to the content? It might surprise some readers to know that children are, overall, pretty familiar with pornography. I would expect that to have a far worse impact on their happiness and well-being through life than pretending to play soldiers on the Xbox would.

In my view there are far worse, more cynical reasons to be suspicious of these games. Everybody involved is perfectly aware that many (but by no means all) of these games are really intended for children.

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Hmmmmm…

Of course in reality I understand that the answer is, as always: “peer-pressure”, and of course I agree that to socially isolate your child is also harmful. I remember the horrific tedium of having to collect Garbage Pail Kids bubblegum cards in the eighties because they were popular in my school and to not do so would have left me out of an important part of the social fabric of my peer-group.

In any case, even in isolation, I don’t believe that there is a fundamental difference between me watching The Fly, or Scanners, or Hellraiser aged 11 and kids today playing realistic war sims. By year 11 (15-16 years old), most have grown out of the fascination with shooting other people in favour of pursuing their peers sexually anyway.

Yes, I personally find the fetishisation of militaristic hardware distasteful, but I haven’t seen any real evidence that the children I teach are actually harmed by knowing the names of machine-gun models, and if you talk to them soberly about it, they seem to understand fully the distinction between fantasy and reality. Of course some are mad, but no more in proportion than adults.

In summary then, I believe that video games are simply the latest in a long line of art that some people (who like shouting about things a lot) don’t understand, and subsequently erect as a straw man, on whom to blame whatever ills they think are important that day.

I don’t think children are fundamentally different now than they ever were. Of course access to more and broader media has an effect on them, but the positives of having the world’s knowledge accessible to them from a device in their pocket have far more weight than the possibility that they might be exposed to some blood and gore in a video game.

Let me know what you think…

The Citizen Kane of Videogames

 

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 Boing!

Ok, so most people think about videogames as a relatively young artistic medium. It therefore apparently makes sense to compare them to the early days of cinema. Partly this is because the early days of cinema are well documented (where figurative art, for example, goes back to cave paintings and is hard to summarise), and partly this is an attempt by people to shrug off the accusation that games are infantile and hollow distractions for children, and that they have nothing artistically interesting to offer.

I understand this comparison. I think it makes (superficial) sense to compare the two, and it would seem to be a good way to take games more seriously as an art form. Unfortunately, this has led to something of a meme (in Dawkins’ sense of the term) where gamers ask the question: “Where is The Citizen Kane of videogames?” The unspoken implication here is that games lack a properly interesting example with mass appeal that will make people think that they are a worthy medium in which to express important or interesting ideas about the human condition.

Spoilers: I don’t think this comparison holds up to scrutiny. Nevertheless, I am about to scrutinise it.

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 Just silly

Early cinema and early games actually compare very well in that both were modest demonstrations of a new technology. Both were attempting to demonstrate a concept, not attempting to explore that concept and see what could be done with it. For example, the Lumiere brothers’ famous “L’arrivee d’un train a La Ciotat” was not attempting to say anything other than: Look! This is cool! Similarly, Pong was a demonstration that information could be displayed graphically in an interactive way on a television screen. You can play Pong on an oscilloscope too, and that says exactly the same thing. It’s cool because someone worked out how to do it, and it hadn’t been done before. Like pop-tarts, or dubstep.

One clear implication of “The Citizen Kane Argument” is that somehow Citizen Kane was the moment when cinema stopped playing around with slapstick and women tied to railway tracks, and became a way to express truths about what it is to be human. Somehow it got serious, and deserved to be taken seriously.

I think any cinephile would argue with this. Citizen Kane was released in 1941. Before that there were (among many, many examples) such hits as Battleship Potemkin” (1925), “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930) and “Gone With the Wind” (1939). Even examples of what might be thought of as epitomising the sort of silliness of early films were becoming more exploratory and expressive. Charlie Chaplin released “The Great Dictator” in 1940. To parody the rise of Hitler in his own time in such a way is certainly brave, and I think easily arguably “Art”.

Of course I’m missing the point with these comparisons, and I haven’t even mentioned “Metropolis” (1927).  The point isn’t whether Citizen Kane was the first classic of cinema, or even whether it’s actually any good. The point is that games haven’t produced anything comparable. However, do not ignore the seemingly obvious fact that the reason people inside the games industry sigh when they hear the phrase “Citizen Kane of videogames” is exactly the same reason.

Putting aside whether or not Citizen Kane was actually a milestone in the history of cinema, another way to interpret the phrase is “Videogames don’t have a timeless classic with popular appeal.”

But of course games have produced classics which are still played today. Videogames have produced a Citizen Kane. Many, many times.

Myst and Doom were both released in 1993. Citizen Kane and Jungle Girl were both released in 1941. Both Myst and Doom were doing something arguably new with the technology. (Yes, I know that Wolfenstein and others did 3D first-person first.) Myst was attempting to tell a reasonably serious story in a straight-faced way, and demonstrate the graphical marvels that could be created using 3D computer modelling and lighting. Doom was attempting to tell a ridiculous story about demons on Mars but used the “whack-a-mole” mechanic of clicking things on a screen using a mouse as an analogue for firing a gun. (This mechanic happens to work very well, and is popular because it works, not because it’s mindless. Even though it is). Doom also had very big guns and lots of blood.

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Ug!

You could argue that Myst was the Citizen Kane of videogames. If you like. Actually Myst’s popularity probably had more to do with the fact that it was packaged with CD-ROM drives (all the rage at the time) than with any real appetite from the public for its po-faced tone and mad “logic”.

You could argue that Doom was the Jungle Girl of videogames. If you like. At least people actually bought Doom though. They did want to shoot demons on Mars. As much as they wanted to watch fifteen episodes of Jungle Girl, and happily paid to go to the cinema to do so.

The obvious truth here is that neither comparison makes any real sense. The rise of popular first-person shooting games like Call of Duty is no more surprising or childish than the rise of overblown nonsense like Michael Bay’s Transformer films.

If you’ve read Don Quixote (1605-1615) then you’ll know that it is a parody of the kind of populist books of knights and their adventures that were popular in the sixteenth century (and before). Are novels simply a way to distract the masses with bread and circuses? Is literature pointless and mindless?

Clearly there are thousands of games that are attempting to do something more than simply cash in on the public’s appetite for spectacle. Clearly there are thousands that aren’t. You can choose your own Citizen Kane of videogames. If you like. Thief, Deus Ex, Dwarf Fortress, Minecraft, The Last of Us. Whatever. It’ll make no more sense than calling Shigeru Miyamoto “The Shakespeare of videogames”. (Even though he kind of is.)

Shakespeare was incredibly popular in his time, and deliberately sought out the widest market possible. The fact that he was, and is, successful shouldn’t make us hate him any more than the fact that Justin Bieber is successful should make us hate him.

Is Call of Duty the Elvis Presley of videogames (rubbish and derivative, but incredibly popular)?

Yes, games are often childish, repetitive and vacuous. Yes, they can be mindless and stupid, and popular at the same time. But I hope I’ve made my point by now that it is not the fault of the medium, it is the fault of the market; of the people.

Basically, it’s your fault. Although, given that you’ve read this far, it probably isn’t actually. Sorry. Bet you liked Doom though. I know I did.

How Long is a Game?

How long is too long? I have wasted so many hours of my life playing videogames that I’m astonished I’ve ever accomplished anything else. Were those hours really wasted though? Well yes. I’m a reasonably competent person. I care about things that aren’t games, sometimes quite a bit. I suppose I could’ve built a house, or learned to play concert piano, or staged a military coup, or cured cancer or something. Probably.

Why did I play games instead? And why so much? Obviously, games are fun. They are a distraction, like art, literature, music, sport and farming.

Here I’m going to be making a brief tangent through history.

Early Homo Sapiens were hunter-gatherers. They didn’t need to stay in one place too much, and didn’t need to specialise in much beyond hunting and gathering. It turns out that this sort of lifestyle is very efficient, and rewards adopters of it with much free time. In this free time these complicated primates discovered the joys of sculpture, painting, jewellery-making and so on. In other words, they started to specialise in roles.

Some of these roles turned out to be pretty handy. Roles like animal-herder or person-who-gathers-seeds-and-plants-them. Oh look, we’ve just domesticated animals and crops and become stuck in one place – let’s build a city! There you go: The dawn of civilisation in 104 words. Other roles were basically just killing time. In a nice way, but ultimately unproductive. Things like carving the Venus of Willendorf, or painting the Chauvet caves, or making shoes.

Sometimes people made things to pass the time, or show how clever they were, or to confuse or amuse their friends. Things like Senet, Go, Mancala and others.  Human beings have always found ways to distract themselves or divert their attention to something apparently pointless.

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Just rage-quit and slap them all off the table

Early computers were bulky and a tad cumbersome. They didn’t even have dedicated graphics cards. However, almost as soon as it was possible to do so, terribly clever people managed to make computer games.

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Not actually particularly smelly

Early computer games were essentially curios, but it wasn’t long before the technology allowed for more popular outlets. The first successful arcade game was Pong in 1972. This was followed by various better-known games, and the industry began to be taken seriously.

Because people didn’t have PCs or games consoles back then, most of the time, if they played games at all (which they did) it was standing at huge boxes in dedicated arcades. Arcade games were machines for making money; people had to continue putting coins in them to allow the model to work. The technology though, was primitive (compared to today) and the software that ran the games was necessarily limited. Most early arcade games, therefore, were repeating loops, often speeding up as time passed, to increase the difficulty. All famous games from the seventies followed this pattern: Pac-man, Donkey-Kong, Asteroids, Space Invaders etc.

Early home PCs had plenty of games available, but they were expensive, and most of the population wouldn’t have one in their home.

When home games consoles became available in the early eighties games continued this formula. Super Mario Brothers, Sonic the Hedgehog, and other early games had lives and “Continue” options when you died, only now you just had to press a button rather than put in another coin. The first game to change this was the original Legend of Zelda for the NES in 1987. The game’s cartridge contained a battery which powered a small RAM chip, and allowed players to save their game. As a result, the game could be much bigger and more complex, and it was.

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Trail-blazing

I played the Legend of Zelda when it first came out, for what feels in my memory like months. It was challenging, beautiful, imaginative and, compared to everything that came before it (in my young mind at least) absolutely epic in scale. Even the cartridge was gold!

Although not every game after that came with the option to save progress, it wasn’t long before a new generation of consoles came out, (SNES and Mega-Drive) and with them the idea became standard.

Console games back in the eighties were as expensive as they are now (perhaps even more so), and people wanted value for their money. While early arcade-style games took a long time to master and complete, the actual playtime required to finish them was never more than an hour or two, once you had learned the tricks and the skills. Now that they had the requisite processing and storage power, games became something bigger, and longer.

Fast-forward to today. My Steam account tells me that I played Fallout New Vegas for 126 hours. I played Skyrim for 265 hours. That’s more than 16 days, if you sleep 8 hours a night and do absolutely nothing else. People have fought wars that lasted less time.

In 2007 Portal was released as part of Valve’s “Orange Box”. Despite being recognised as one of the gaming highlights of the year, reviewers and fans all described it as “short”. In truth, Portal takes a few hours to complete. If you rush, you can complete it in less time than it would take you to watch the third Lord of the Rings film. But that’s a really long film! Why do gamers demand that their games be so long?

I loved Portal. Part of why I loved it was its brevity. At no point was I “grinding”, or repeating anything. Everything I saw was new, and surprising, and nothing overstayed its welcome. This year The Stanley Parable was released, to much critical acclaim. I think I’ve seen at least most of it, and I played it for 114 glorious minutes. It’s exactly the right length for itself, and (when it’s on sale) it costs the same as renting a film. I bought Fallout New Vegas for the same price (in a sale), and I got 126 hours out of it. Does that make it better? I don’t think it does.

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Unfinished

One of the best novels I ever read was “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”. It is 142 pages long. You can easily read it in a day, and that day will forever be the day you read that book. I once tried to read War & Peace. I got further in than 142 pages, but I have to say that “One Day…” is the better book. IMHO. Nevertheless, publishers don’t like short novels because they know that their primary target market perceives them as poor value.

But if we continue down the road of free-to-play or subscription models the last thing we’ll get is value for money. EA makes more money out of “The Simpsons: Tapped Out” for iPad and iPhone than it does from most AAA games.

Leading on from this, while so-called “gamers” like me tend to think of videogames as big, flashy adventures, in truth most games that are played today are in fact much closer to the old arcade format than one might expect.

Think of the success of Tetris in 1989. Now think of all the people in the developed world with a smartphone. How many of them have downloaded Peggle, or Bejeweled, or Angry Birds? Despite the popular image of gamers as sad, male loners it is actually businessmen on commuter trains and bored office workers who are propping up the games industry as a whole. Farmville made $575 million dollars in 2010. I wonder how many of us “gamers” played it?

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I am the future

So-called “casual” games such as these are, in general, much shorter than a AAA or an indie game. Many are designed around taking 60 seconds per session. They also rely on microtransactions to make money. How far are we really from the days of the video arcade?

So how long is too long? I don’t think one can compare Skyrim to War & Peace, any more than you could compare the nutritional information on a box of cornflakes with Angry Birds (however much I might want to), but I think it’s clear that gamers have decided that their games have to be long, while the vast majority of people blanche at the idea of spending more than a few minutes playing games.

Of course I understand that a lot of the work that goes into a game is not, in fact, the playable content, but I think if gaming is to be considered more seriously, and truly enter the mainstream in the way that I think most gamers want, then it may have to abandon the idea of hundreds of hours, and engage with the casual market who are currently starved of the delights of Portal and have to settle with Flappy Bird.

We have always played games, and presumably we always will. The fact that people now play chess or solitaire on their phones and PCs doesn’t change the enduring appeal of those games. Whether or not gamers realise it, they are being played in their turn by games publishers, who know the value of the old penny arcade and the Space Invaders cabinet, and are continuing to use it to this day.

Games haven’t got longer, they’ve just bifurcated into “Hardcore” and “Casual”. I think we should be looking at Cascore instead.