Video games are no stranger to controversy. Our beloved medium has been blamed for everything from violence to obesity, but the controversy I want to talk about today isn’t of that sort. Sure, we could go on about how even though Manhunt is visceral and gory, it doesn’t necessarily cause people to commit real acts of violence, or about how the Hot Coffee Mod for GTA San Andreas was hardly shocking in a game involving gang shootings and drug dealing, but that’s a well that has long run dry. Despite the fact that games have a deeper impact due to their interactive nature, certain studies show that they can have the opposite effect. Comparable acts of violence or sex in books and films have been a part of our culture for centuries, and video games don’t have any profound effect on a person more than any other medium would. What I want to talk about today relates to that, in a way: that is, the ability to relate our medium to others and the role that controversy plays in that relation.
Game controversy has been in the news recently, but not for the usual reason, as revered developer Hideo Kojima spoke out about his upcoming game Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes, claiming that it may be “too controversial to release,” since it deals with hard-hitting, but unspecified, “mature themes.” This is very interesting, as rarely is a developer concerned about their themes to the extent that they express worry over retailers stocking it, or even gamers buying it. Kojima shows this apprehension in relation to the game in its “current state,” but he does go on to say that he plans to do everything he can to ensure release, valuing “creativity over sales.” This last bit may make the whole statement seem like a bit of a publicity ruse, but the idea does raise some interesting questions.
Are games ready to tackle mature themes? I don’t mean violence or murder (they’ve got that down to a tee), I mean things like hard drug addiction, rape, sexual abuse or psychological disorders. We’ve started to see things like this come forward in gaming, with Spec Ops: The Line being an excellent example. If you haven’t played it, go and do so now, as reading any further will diminish, though not destroy, your experience of it.
Spec Ops: The Line gives us a harrowing insight into the effects of extreme post-traumatic stress disorder, under the guise of a run of the mill first person shooter. It tackles topics like civilian casualties, the morality of war and the validity of avenging one’s friends, all in a subtle and extremely powerful way. Walker’s descent into madness as he starts to question everything around him parallels the player’s feelings of doubt, both in their actions and in the validity of the world around them. The visuals are stellar, and the gameplay workable, though a tad mundane, but this serves to illustrate the game’s purpose further, as it critiques the player for becoming desensitized to war and violence and for committing atrocities because “that’s what you do in games.” This is an example of how games can not only stand up to media like books or films in delivering on mature content, but can exceed them through their interactive nature which can engage a player far more than a reader or viewer – this is the same interactive nature for which games are panned in the news for causing violence.
It is essential that more games like Spec Ops: The Line are made if gaming is to be taken seriously in the coming years. It has already come quite a way. Just take a look at the previous Metal Gear Solid game, to stick with a theme, and the way it was marketed on television. The trailer could easily be for a film, and games hadn’t broken into that realm of advertising before that. It’s a trailer for a relatively cheesy action film, sure, but a film nonetheless. Any people who played the MGS series will recall its commentary on the ethics of genetics, what makes a person who they are, and the bleak future of a war economy. People have even written essays about the games, which is a far cry from the old misconception that games are only for children. We’re starting to see darker and deeper themes in games than we did before, at least in the mainstream.
It is important to remember that not everything needs to be mature. We still need Katamari Damacy and the yearly Call of Duty to make the medium tick. Sure, there are films like Schindler’s List, but there’s also Dodgeball and Mission Impossible. Nobody can say that any one is more important than another, they are all integral parts of the spectrum of film, and that variety is key to the appeal of the medium: there’s something for everyone. The same is true for games, and the industry is beginning to break into that as of late, with casual gaming on Nintendo’s consoles, for example, or even simpler games on social networking platforms like Facebook. Though gaming has managed to tear itself away from the “for nerds” stereotype, it has yet to fully secede from the “for play” one.
This is where dramatic games and mature content are key, and I for one hope that Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes is released in all its uncomfortable and controversial glory, be it good or bad, because the medium of gaming needs games like this to break the mold to allow gaming to stand up on its own against the other storytelling giants. We have an advantage: we’re interactive. Games can pull you in harder and faster than any book or films simply due to the fact that you have an input, and once developers utilize this fully for storytelling purposes, gaming can and will be recognized as a legitimate medium. We may not have a gaming equivalent of Citizen Kane right now, but that may not always be the case.