Whenever you see a report on video games in the mainstream press it's usually about one of two issues; violence or sex. While every form of entertainment will bemoan that he media picks out the worst of their industry to report on, I'm of the opinion that we as gamers really do this to ourselves. Those shock pieces that Fox news (news?) ran about ultra violence in games used to be a poor representation of the medium I enjoy. It seems that I have less and less of an argument these days when people tell me games are nothing but killing for the point of killing.
Call of Duty : Black Ops is the best selling game on the Xbox 360. The story is an attempt at a story, but mainly a vehicle to move you from one explosion or shocking moment to another. What do I remember about the storytelling, the directing, or the presentation? Jack shit, really. There was something about numbers and a guy who puts on his sunglasses at inappropriate times, and I think I killed Hitler or something but then it was ACTUALLY Hitler it was a body double or some bullshit. What exactly do I remember about Black Ops? I remember pulling a Vietcong out of a boat into the water, plunging a knife deep into his throat and nearly decapitating him. His head hung by a few sinews of muscle as blood poured into the river. It was fucking disgusting. I felt dirty for playing it.
That's just 30 seconds from just one of the top games out there. Gears of War? Guns with fucking chainsaws on the end of them. Apparently shooting a dude just doesn't get it done with enough style.
I'm guilty myself of putting literally hundreds of hours into the Battlefield series. I don't even bother to play the story mode, either. I just jump straight into the multiplayer, grab an mp5, and start shooting. I've been known to spend 8 hours straight trying to kill enough people to unlock a new gun, just show I can keep killing people quicker.
I'm not some sheltered soccer mom. I understand that we are the descendants of Vikings and Gladiators. The reason we are alive today is because our ancestors were ruthless, merciless killing machines. They wiped out every competing civilization and sent their seed down through the family tree. It's in our blood to kill. Our culture is saturated by blood from movies to music. You can't escape it and, in moderation, it's healthy. We need that release. Every day I put on an ugly polo shirt and stand in a small room pushing buttons. The animal instinct in my is suppressed in the name of civility. That's a good thing, but there's an animalistic side to all humans. It builds up in us and we seek out those forms of entertainment that turn our release valve from dancing to horror movies. Give me an hour on Battlefield 3 setting fire to the earth to reset my stress level. A new gun unlock and I'm ready for another day wearing an ugly polo.
But with movies I can watch a violent slasher film, sure, but I can also watch a comedy. There's a pretty even distribution I feel of genres so we can explore every side of escapism we need. Every movie released isn't a gorefest. I can go to the art gallery and see gruesome depictions of hell and suffering from a renaissance painting, or I can get lost in the psychedelics of at abstract piece to ponder god. WIth games, my options as a core gamer are mainly limited to violence.
I've already touched on the AAA titles that have little story to back up their bodycount, but even the games that have stories that elicit real and earned emotions are usually about putting a bullet in the bad guy. The Uncharted series has better storytelling and pacing that most summer movies, but I struggle to find the series protagonist, Drake, the relate-able every-man they are going for seeing as by the end of the game you've mowed down hundreds of rent-a-cops. I will freely admit that on more than one occasion the Mass Effect series succeeded in bringing tears to my eyes, but the main goal still was to blow up a race of invading space robots. Hell, even Mario is about smashing a giant turtle to save your girlfriend. No romantic comedies here my friend.
But would a Jennifer Anniston RomCom be fun to play?
The difference between art and movies and games is that a game has to be fun to interact with. To an outsider Medal of Honor and Call of Duty look identical, but to a gamer we know it's all about how that game feels in your hands. How smooth does the character control? How satisfying is the feeling you get from pulling the left trigger? When I push the B button is the resulting action on screen good enough to release the dopamine I so desperately crave? In the case of Battlefield, pulling the trigger and watching the enemies' jet go down in flames it is a yes......a definite yes. But would pressing the B button to serendipitously get into the same taxi as Kate Beckinsale be just as good?
We've seen limited but cult success in the games industry for games not featuring violent conflict as the main draw. The Sims series is probably the best example of this. Most everyone is familiar in one way or another with the Sims, the quirky 'life simulator' in which you create a family and simply live their lives for them. Everything from taking out the trash to getting up early enough for work is in your hands. It allows us to explore the 'what if's' in every day life. You can sleep with the man at the bookstore or tell scandalous lies about your boss to usurp the throne. You can even start a life of crime or become the next president of the free world. Everything is essentially what you make of it. So go ahead and create Kate Beckinsale and John Cusack, hijinks await!
I'm a huge fan of the Harvest Moon series. They all start pretty much the same - a distant relative has passed on leaving you the family farm in their will. So you, a city boy/girl, pack up and move to the country. The mayor of the town shows you your new farm (which is more of a dump than you could have imagined) and gives you a tour of the nearby town. From their the game is about managing the daylight. You try to fit in as much planting, milking, picking, sheering, and clearing as you can into one day without passing out from exhaustion. Maybe today you want to take it easy on the farm and go into town to balance your frienships you've been forming over the years. The townspeople usually reward you with interesting stories and gifts as you become more of a member of the community. Love and marriage can bloom eventually, giving your character a much needed morale boost as he comes home to his spouse at the end of the day.
Animal Crossing lets players experience the trails of home ownership and relationship juggling as the only human in a town full of eccentric anthropomorphic animals. You'll dig up fossils, wish on stars, and collect sets of matching furniture in your quest to pay off the slumlord Nook the Raccoon.
While these games tell stories of human drama and relationships, none of the match the level of a Benjamin Button or Shawshank.
We're working on it, though. Heavy Rain, while ultimately the video game version of Seven, had some very quiet and emotional moments. Controlling a dad as he played with his kids in the backyard gave the story so much more kick when said kids later meet horrible fates. I was the one that pushed my son on the swing set, and now that I have to crawl through a tunnel full of broken glass to save him, I'm that much more invested. Trying to not go too far into spoiler territory, Heavy Rain managed to balance story telling and action in a way games hadn't seen before. As Ethan, you don't kill countless no name baddies on your way to save your son, instead your put through awful trials by a serial killer to see how desperate you are to see your son again. At one point your asked to cut off your own finger in under two minutes or he'll kill your kid. You desperately scramble around the room looking for something, anything to cut your finger off. I spent all my time gathering up medical equipment such as gauze and realized I was quickly running out of time to find an actual implement of amputation. Less than 30 seconds left to start my stomach churning task, I ran to the kitchen, grabbed a bottle of whiskey and a pair of rusty poultry scissors. What followed was the most haunting piece of gaming I've ever played as I chugged the whiskey and balanced my button presses between hacking away at the bone and trying not to pass out from the pain. Sure, it was violence, but it was violence other than chainsawing a billion space aliens. It was human drama. A man going over the edge to save his son.
Games have a long way to go before games like Heavy Rain sell as much as Call of Duty, but I believe as the medium continues to evolve we could see a higher level of maturity being asked from our biggest game companies. Violence doesn't have to be sensless. Thankfully we're starting to see more and more examples where the point of the game isn't that killing is fun, but that violence is sometimes necessary to serve the story. One bullet can be more meaningful and impactful than the millions I've spent in battlefield as long as there is a well developed human pulling the trigger. We will get there eventually. I just hope all this violence doesn't kill the creativity in the process.
As far as sex in video games......well, we could always use more of that.