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videogame violence
gaming violence: content vs context

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Isn’t it time that games were taken seriously?

Just as the Gamecity festival was getting underway in Nottingham back at the end of October, Sims creator Will Wright said to The Guardian, "I think there's always been a generational divide between people who play games and people who don't. I think the cultural acceptance of games is inevitable, just because people are going to have grown up having this technology." Which of course sounds logical, sensible and level-headed, but then so much of the debate around this scary "new" cultural media isn't any of those things. He continued, "If there's a school shooting, it's always a case of 'did they play games or not?'. You don't really hear much about what movies they watch or what books they read."

Such sentiments have been expressed many times, but often get drowned out in the furore over "violence in games". Attending Gamecity, these issues got some intelligent airing, and it seems that the overall debate isn't and shouldn't be about "violence in games" but about "content and context".

super columbine rpg

In Danny Ledonne's fascinating documentary, Playing Columbine: A True Story of Videogame Controversy, Jason Della Rocca, president of the International Game Developers Association, expressed similar thoughts to Wright, talking about "the older generation not understanding and fearing the younger generation's pop culture". Ledonne's film looks closely at these issues, at game content, and at what games must do to become a mature creative medium.

Ledonne was inspired to make the film after he'd found himself at the heart of a storm of games content-related controversy. In 2005, he'd used the tool RPG Maker 2000 to create Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, a game that dared to try and handle a difficult, sensitive subject in the medium. Although Gus Van Sant and Michael Moore had made films about Columbine, many felt it was wrong to try and do so in a game. Why? Why are games not allowed to deal with difficult subjects? In part because the medium is still immature. Ledonne says, "While the commercial games industry has shown itself to be quite comfortable courting controversy over violent content, it has only the beginnings of a truly socially conscious ambition."

"Someday this whole controversy over SCMRPG will seem as ridiculous as the Hayes Code's objection to [1932 movie] Scarface. However, that day may be decades away," says Ledonne, very much an advocate of totally free expression. "I would raise some hell if Manhunt 2 were banned in the USA..."

Collective also chatted with James Cliff of the BBFC at Gamecity. He couldn't talk about Manhunt 2 as it's under appeal, following its banning in the UK. But he did say that the reason for its ban is in part because of its unrelenting nature, compared to even the most violent film where, "most of the running time isn't violence". Plus, in violent films, you're less likely to be in the position of perpetrator as you are in games. It's a difficult area, of course. Cliff says that they “keep tone and context in mind fairly strongly" when looking at a game.

super columbine rpg

Cliff says, "Research done on media effects is very two-sided, but the area where it's very robust is sexual violence." So we're unlikely to see sexual violence in games, thankfully. But the irony is that any normal sexual content also garners kneejerk controversy – just think of the comic, consenting sex Hot Coffee scenes, and compare them to the regularly tolerated levels of sexuality seen, for example, in Bond movies.

Arguably, this comes down to convention – we're tolerant of certain things in films but tolerance of game content is at a different level, in part because of that antiquated notion of games being for kids. As we wait for games to embrace more diverse content, and for attitudes towards games to mature, games will of course continue to include a lot of violence. Keita Takahashi, whose cult hit Katamari Damacy took an oblique approach to violence, understands the need but reckons that “something has to be done on the creative side".

This creative side is something Ledonne's film looks at, with the inclusion of people like Kellee Santiago and Jenova Chen of That Game Company. "They created Cloud and also Flow,” says Ledonne. ”Two games that have mainstream appeal but push the medium of interactive entertainment into new directions. They have enjoyed commercial success while still challenging the boundaries of the medium."

Daniel Etherington 06 December 07
Playing Columbine: A True Story of Videogame Controversy will be released in 2008.
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