These positions are irreconcilable. To spend the bulk of your time and money on a hobby that can be dismissed with a wave of the hand would require an act of cognitive dissonance. Some games do have the potential to be transformative experiences. Talk to Final Fantasy VII fans about the grief they felt when Sephiroth killed Aeris. Ask a few BioShock players whether they saved or harvested the Little Sisters, and why. Such indelible moments may be rare, but they give game developers something to strive for. And they give gamers hope that the next game we play will also engage us intellectually, emotionally, and morally. I can think of no more belittling way to discuss this medium than to ever call something “just” a game. So let’s scrap that argument.
No, Thompson isn’t right when he claims that playing Grand Theft Auto IV is going to teach kids to go outside and shoot cops. Capcom isn’t trying to cash in on Western racism to sell a video game about zombies. The government shouldn’t impose limits on what software parents can buy for their kids. But just because they’re wrong doesn’t mean that anything we do in response is right.
Violence is overblown in some games. Non-whites are underrepresented among video-game heroes. Ironically, Grand Theft Auto is on surer footing than most games in both these regards. It’s true that GTA empowers players to commit violent crimes, but doing so attracts the attention of the police, which in turn makes the game world more perilous for the player. It’s an elegant risk-versus-reward mechanic that makes it much more than a brainless crime simulator. And GTA protagonists since the Vice City installment have been, serially, an Italian-American, an African-American, and now an immigrant from an unspecified Eastern European country. Far from trying to gloss over the diversity issue, Rockstar has embraced it. More developers should be taking this approach.
And more gamers should be pointing this stuff out, too. We do a good job of telling the developers what we want in our games, by voting with our wallets. (Manhunt 2 tanked; GTA IV is expected to be one of the biggest-selling titles of 2008.) But we do a terrible job of communicating to non-gamers what they’re looking at. If we allow our critics to define us, then we will deserve whatever they give us.
Mitch Krpata can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He blogs about video games at Insult Swordfighting.
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