Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Changing Tactics in the Violence Debate

Robert Rath | 7 Mar 2013 16:00
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It's no use denying that games have an image problem. Since the heartbreaking bloodshed at Sandy Hook, games have been under the strongest sustained criticism for their violent content since the Senate hearings of the early 1990s. And, let's face it, though research has failed to find a link between virtual and real-world violence, a recent Harris poll found that 58% of Americans still believe videogames contribute to violent behavior in teenagers. Clearly we as gamers, industry, and press, have a long road ahead of us if we hope to turn those numbers around. But to do that, we can no longer sit in the lobby, silently spectating as others play CTF with our future. Putting up a strong defense and hoping it blows over isn't going to work anymore. If we want to protect our medium from censorship, we need to go on the offensive - we need to outsmart, out-lobby and out-argue our opponents until they either rage quit or switch teams. Here are some ideas for doing that - it's not a plan of action and it's not comprehensive, but it's a way to start the conversation.

Sell the Medium and Break Stereotypes

Back in 2011 I argued that cinematic trailers have evolved to the point where they now sell the game's story or mood rather than its gameplay. There are some negative aspects to this trend, but on the upside, it reinforces the industry's claim that videogames aren't toys but rather a form of storytelling, deserving of the same considerations and protections as movies, novels and plays. Cinematic trailers are also how most non-gamers experience videogames, and with game ads airing during prime time and sports broadcasts, marketers aren't just selling a game to consumers, they're selling the medium to non-gamers. While Gears of War's "Mad World" trailer or Halo's live action short films like "Believe" and "Deliver Hope" don't have much to do with the actual games they're selling, they evangelize the medium and spread the message that even violent games have more going on under the hood than mindless butchery. Though accidental up to this point, it might profit us to consider how trailers represent us in the public eye and whether we can craft that image going forward. Industry PR needs to think hard about running ads like the Dead Space 2 "Your Mom Will Hate It" campaign and consider whether the industry as a whole is well-represented by their ads.

Another tactic, already well underway, is to create characters in other media that break the traditional stereotypes about gamers and their lifestyle. Consider Frank Underwood of Netflix's House of Cards. Frank is a successful man, a Washington powerbroker who holds the reigns of government from behind the scenes, making and breaking other politicians at will. When he's had a stressful day at the office he does one of three things: either he eats Carolina BBQ, smokes cigarettes while staring out a window or plays FPSs on his PS3. (Aggressive product placement, along with impeccable writing and acting, is the holy trinity of House of Cards.) I'm not sure whose idea it was to put Sony devices in the show, but it was brilliant. Kevin Spacey gets an excuse to play against type and we get a show where the protagonist is a gamer without also being a stereotyped nerd or an underdeveloped man-child. Though sometimes it comes off a little awkward - time seems to slow down as Spacey's southern accent negotiates around the phrase Is thaht a Pee-Ess Vee-tah? - the way Underwood dips into a game for an hour after a day at the office is actually pretty close to the lifestyle of most gamers in their 20s and 30s.

I'd love to see more characters like this. The less we're stereotyped in media, the more people will realize that gaming is a perfectly normal activity that doesn't make you a malcontent, lazy or any of the other charges pundits heap on us.

Get Game Journalists On CNN

Part of the problem is we don't have the best advocates to defend against the talking heads. When someone appears on behalf of games on CNN or the morning shows, they're either industry people who come off as biased financially or someone who stammers through their explanation with a wide-eyed expression that says, "Holy shit I'm on live TV." Usually they blow their talking points because of the short time limit or pressure from the host or other commentators. And that's assuming the person "defending" games has actually played them at all - I've seen plenty of shows where no one was speaking on behalf of gamers and the industry. I've seen others where the "expert" seemed like someone they yanked out of the IT department two minutes beforehand.

The best commentaries on videogame violence have all been from game journalists, and these days it's easier than ever to get a writer on one of the point-counterpoint shows -Penny Arcade Report has a relationship with NBC, Kotaku reviews run in the New York Times and Ars Technica journalists are practically a lending library for NPR. These people are articulate and can communicate the nuances of the violence debate, both by laying out the evidence and also talking about the backlash against mindless violence within the game community. After all, if FOX News runs a segment on game violence, wouldn't you want someone representing you who tan talk about the more thoughtful treatments of game violence like Spec Ops: The Line and Far Cry 3? Or remind the host that games have protection under the First Amendment? How about pointing out StarCraft and Dynasty Warriors aren't exactly games that would inspire a mass shooting?

Hell, I would.

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