Should Violent Games Be Censored?

The last of what I considered reasonably well-written from my Push-Start work, though not my favourite, personally. An opinion piece on censorship as it relates to games, but that could equally apply to all art and media.

With the latest in a series of moves many gamers consider rather heavy-handed, the Australian censor has banned Mortal Kombat’s upcoming reboot. With the equally controversial Duke Nukem Forever on the way and Bulletstorm recently released, it seems objectionable games are having something of a renaissance. This is sure to pique the interest of many outside the gaming community, in fact Fox Newshave already claimed that violent games lead to an increase in cases of rape. Rock, Paper, Shotgun quite effectively argued against this point, but is there an overall case to be made for censorship of games?

Censorship is an issue that immediately raises the ire of gamers. Eager to defend their chosen media platform from those who would wish to curtail its alleged negative influence, gamers point to the rising age of those who play games and the age restrictions which delineate the audience a game is created for. This argument is wholly understandable. Those who are old enough to consume adult-orientated media feel they should not be hampered by the poor judgement of parents, and that it is not the right of the state to interfere in their affairs.

This argument however, is flawed. It is a valid one, but all too easy to dispute by anyone wishing to curtail violence or sexuality in games. Firstly, age restrictions can often have the effect of making something taboo, and thus far more exciting. From Michel Foucault suggesting that regulation of sexuality led to it becoming a topic of discussion across society, to the huge sales of Mortal Kombat thanks to its gore, those who are denied access to something find it all the more appealing. The age of gamers may be rising, but that doesn’t mean that a huge audience of younger gamers doesn’t exist.

Publishers quite often market games to a younger audience than the age rating recommends. In the US, EA had an advertisement that focused purely on the violence and gore of Dead Space 2, which was clearly aimed at teenagers, despite the game earning an ‘M for Mature’ rating. The voiceover in the ad says: “It’s revolting, it’s violent, it’s everything you love in a game… And your Mom’s gonna hate it” If a gamer is above the recommended age for Dead Space 2, surely the opinion of their mother is irrelevant? On top of that the fact that gore is a key selling point of the sequel to a game which appealed mostly to young adults with its atmospheric style, suggests that EA wanted to appeal to the large teenage audience for action-oriented games.

This sort of appeal to adolescent rebelliousness is not limited to marketing either, it is also reflected in game content. Bulletstorm is juvenile in its humour and while older gamers will flock to its gameplay, some younger players will be intrigued by the brief media debate about sexually-themed combo names and absurd overuse of bad language. If gamers are growing up statistically, the games they play don’t appear to be, in the mainstream at least. This makes games easy fodder for the lazier elements of the media, who will attempt to vilify all games based on the violent nature of some. It’s little wonder that people are all too willing to jump on the bandwagon shouting that games are evil.

Gamers rarely ask the question ‘is there any truth to that?’ Games aren’t evil, by any means, but as a medium of entertainment they have one unique element which sets them apart from others – interactivity. While rap music, rock music, movies and such have been seen as corrupting the youth of society over the years by offering violent or sexual content, games actually allow players to engage in violence and very, very rarely, sex. This is far different from a lyric like ‘I shot a man in Reno’ – you, the player, actually shoot people.

Gamers can switch off to the violence of the world they inhabit. They have grown up with games, and shooting moving targets is a fun reflex test, whether they be people, aliens or ducks. As games have become more realistic, the depictions of violence have become more disturbing and disgusting. The majority of gamers accept this as a consequence of plot, and for the most part play the ‘good guys’. The people being dismembered generally deserve it, and when we play the ‘bad guy’ it’s with tongue firmly in cheek – such as in the gleefully ridiculous and satirical Grand Theft Auto series. The problem is though, that those unfamiliar with games see them, and understandably so, as violence simulators. They fail to understand the medium and its enthusiasts as many fail to comprehend modern art. It only makes sense in the context of its history.

In saying this, when playing games which portray extreme violence, taking a moment to realise the sheer scale of the violence on display can be affecting. It’s nothing that hasn’t been seen in movies or described in literature, but actually controlling a man who casually murders someone with a baseball bat is quite shocking without context. It’s obvious why parents worry about this kind of thing, and while it’s easy to suggest they control the content their child has access to, the reality is that many either don’t bother to, or can’t play the game effectively enough to find out. This shouldn’t affect the content that adults choose to access, but there are many who are all too ready to disagree, and when games are so violent and immature at times, it’s difficult to argue with the simplification made by many in the media.

So then, should we attempt to censor games with blood, gore and gratuitous violence? Often there is little justification for their inclusion other than the lust for violent content of modern society. The same could be said for the numerous ‘Saw’ sequels or the Hostel movies. Games can be thought of as equally pornographic as they allow the player to revel in the act of killing. Advanced game physics have allowed bodies to be callously torn apart or thrown around in some games, and it is somewhat odd to think that some players do genuinely enjoy gore, rather than see it as the horrific consequence of their brutal, but plot-necessitated, actions.

Games do have good reasons to avoid censorship however. Parents shouldn’t influence the entertainment available to adults, but that’s not the reason, because parents have a right to be concerned about what their child can do in a virtual environment. The parental controls should be (and by most accounts are) enforced, rather than content removed. In the same way, we shouldn’t censor games because some gain a certain eerie thrill from extreme violence, as that merely reflects deeper psychological issues on their part. Most adults consume violence on the news, in books, in movies and so on, and are not violent in their own lives. The few who commit violent acts and are tied by the media to video game use, are usually drawn to games due to their own violent tendencies, rather than pushed to violence by the game. Games make an easy scapegoat when the hate-filled rhetoric of certain media outlets creates a monster, and people look for easy answers rather than explore the deeper reasons for certain events which occur in modern society.

Games, as already stated, occupy a unique position, and this is a very strong reason why they should remain uncensored. While most games released are content to offer simple violent versions of ‘cops and robbers’ this does not negate the power interactivity has. Most movies and books, as with games, are fluff, designed to simply entertain. It’s cathartic at times to just watch the good guy punish the bad guy, it doesn’t mean we expect real life offers such simplistic answers to our problems. Occasionally though, some will offer more than that. Some question the world around us, and make us ask questions about ourselves. It is important that the creators of such intelligent and artistic entertainment not be hampered by the threat of censorship. If books were censored titles like ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and ‘American Psycho’ would have been unable to pose the questions about society which Burgess and Ellis did in their respective works.

In interactivity, games are uniquely poised to become a new art form. The very fact that the player is able to kill allows creators to ask the player why they do, and to look at violence from a very intimate perspective. Shadow of the Colossus, in some ways, managed this in making the act of killing the colossi feel wrong. Games can use interactivity to question the violence in society by asking us to play a part in that violence. Just as most films and books do not do this however, neither will games. To censor violence though, would remove the power of the medium to confront it. Just as ‘Hostel’ must be accepted so that movies like ‘Battle Royale’ or ‘Funny Games’ can exist, for games to become a respected medium, they must embody the negative, as well as the positive aspects of our culture.

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