Much has been made of how the Wii is a family console with a squeaky clean image. But does its interface method add yet another layer of gray on an already muggy moral stage?
Nintendo has always played the family card, their mascot resplendent in cheerful toyland shades presenting a clearly defined set of moral boundaries. For parents concerned about the vapid, zombie-like expressions fixed on their 10-year-old’s face as he plays with an alien-looking device, the physicality of the Wii’s inviting collection of interfaces and the apparent playfulness they inspire is convincing.
The Wii is one of the few genuine master strokes of hardware design in gaming’s short history. Even during the most exciting moments of a tense game of multiplayer Halo 2 or a particularly fraught police chase in Grand Theft Auto, the majority of gamers tend to sit with a glazed expression, inert and apparently oblivious to the world around them. The Wii provokes a different response: players are animated and acutely aware of their immediate surroundings. For the first time, a gaming console resembles a toy in the traditional sense.
There is, however, an interesting contradiction in the Wii’s design philosophy. The Wii is the under the TV gaming experience that has been built with attracting grey and girl gamers as a primary consideration. In light of such an obvious bid to entice new demographics, Nintendo’s decision to name the Wii’s primary interface, the Nunchuck, after a weapon seems slightly out of step. And yet, as the Wii hurtles headlong toward its six-month birthday, the Nunchuck’s nomenclature is beginning to seem less coincidental.
Nintendo’s new, inclusive gaming ethos has already succeeded in bringing quality casual games to new players. Similarly, Nintendo has sated the rabid appetites of more seasoned gamers. But to be a true everyman’s gaming experience and snare those moderate gamers who spent the last generation endlessly playing GTA on the PS2, the Wii is going to have to be the first Nintendo console to fully embrace gaming’s so called dark side.
And it seems as though this is exactly what Nintendo intends to do. Nintendo’s second wave of Wii titles include the likes of Scarface, No More Heroes and Manhunt 2, all games with violence and gore as central themes. Not only that, but Nintendo has been vocal about their desire to persuade Rockstar to bring the GTA series to the Wii in some form.
But given the added level of immersion the Wii’s controllers afford, does this imminent union of hardware and content present a new gaming conundrum?
A case in point is Red Steel, a Wii launch title and one of the first gamer’s games to put the Nunchuck and remote through their paces. There is typically an element of detachment in console first-person shooter games; the actions performed on a control pad are linked tenuously to the onscreen action. Playing a first person-shooter on the Wii removes this dissociation; you have an onscreen twin, and the tool you have in the game is figuratively in your hand. In spite of Red Steel‘s lack of gore, the removal of those psychological boundaries enforces a sense of realism even light gun games don’t provide.
There are other titles where this sense of mirrored action is even more acute. The butts, swings and shoves involved in roughing up enemies in the The Godfather: Blackhand Edition are a far cry from the actions required to control the boxing game in Wii Sports. The trailer for The Godfather clearly illustrates that the game’s control method requires the player to make specifically violent gesticulations.
Replace a gun with a hammer or a sword, and the actions the player must use to control the onscreen action are even more tangibly violent in nature. Suddenly, the Wii’s propensity to make players more animated takes on a much more sinister connotation.
Of course, it would be foolish to deem this emergent play dynamic universally bad. If a stable, well-rounded individual wants to step into the shoes of a gangster and pummel a virtual shop keeper by waving his fists around, surely he should be entitled to do so. The problem comes in rating this sort of content; will ratings boards such as PEGI, the ESRB and the BBFC soon have to factor the physical actions players perform into the classification process for Wii games?
At present, it seems as though this has not yet been considered by any of the game classification bodies. Submissions to the ESRB are voluntary, as they are for the BBFC, whereas the European PEGI system (excluding Germany, where the slightly more strict USK body controls game classification) is a self-regulated process. Developers have most often built relationships of mutual good will with classification bodies; misleading them by omitting content in submissions can have serious consequences, especially in light of gaming’s current media status as the source of all societies’ ills.
The ESRB, however, doesn’t involve any actual play time on the part of the raters, as games are submitted for classification in the form of taped sections that contain certain kinds of content. According to the ESRB, raters are from a wide range of backgrounds, races and ages, have no ties to the gaming industry and are comprised largely of retired school principals, parents and professionals. In other words, individuals who might not necessarily know about the Wii’s interface method.
Then there is the issue of how the players choose to play. For many of the games in Wii Sports, some of the wilder movements can be just as easily performed with understated wrist flicks; it is a matter of how immersed the player chooses to be. One of the reasons political figures damn and vilify violent games more so than they do violent films is because they argue the player is allowed to direct the violence themselves. With the Wii, not only can the player direct the violence, they can act it out, too.
The way in which a game is played may not always be a consideration in violent Wii titles. There are several Wii games that contain depictions of violence and yet do not require violent mimicking with the remote or Nunchuck in order to control them. The forthcoming Wii remake of Resident Evil 4 shares The Godfather‘s third-person shooting action, which is controlled in a similar way. There is, however, no evidence thus far that Resident Evil 4 will require the player to perform violent actions for melee moves. Similarly, Mortal Kombat Armageddon‘s control scheme makes full use of the Wii’s motion sensing capabilities, but only a few of the control actions mimic the onscreen violence directly.
Is this a lack of imagination, or a conscious decision to omit violent mimicry? More importantly, should graphically violent games with conventional control schemes be rated more leniently than games that are less graphically violent but offer a more tangible connection to the violence via the control method?
Games are the media’s favorite witch, and the game industry needs to be absolutely above reproach, if it is to have any hope of rebuffing the spurious claims of the fanatical and vocal few. The Wii has enjoyed positive press so far, owing in large part to the undeniable personality and playfulness embodied by its unique interface. But the mainstream media is a fickle animal, and it will only take one game to instigate a backlash with lasting repercussions throughout the industry. The ratings bodies will have to move quickly, otherwise pundits will soon be bleating about how teens are learning how to beat up and shoot their schoolmates with their Wii. And the last thing they need is more ammunition.
Fraser MacInnes is a freelance game journalist for pocketgamer.co.uk. He is a Scotsman but currently lives in Munich, Germany, where he loves the weather but hates the queuing etiquette. His website is frasermacinnesbitsandblogs.googlepages.com.