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Videogaming Distastefuls

As the industry matures, so does the subject matter...

Controversy has always hovered around games since the day that a journalist realised he could bang out some sensationalist copy on a subject that involved something close to everyone's hearts - children - and something the vast majority of people knew nothing about - games. From fears back in the eighties about games like Friday the 13th to press frenzies in the nineties over GTA, Doom and Carmageddon editors have been well aware of the potential to shift a heap more papers for a minuscule amount of journalistic effort. If they time it right and have suitably juicy material they can even turn it into a campaign which could span weeks and shift a healthy number of papers for practically no financial outlay. No need to pay for kiss and tell stories here. The games companies also do well out of this as the extra publicity tends to shove the game in question to the top of the public consciousness and the top of the sales chart as well.

Rockstar Games, ne DMA Design, have worked their side of the bargain with great skill and verve. After the furore over the original GTA they factored the reaction of the press into the design of their future games, culminating in the red-top baiting title that was Manhunt. This particularly nasty game blazed across the public's consciousness earlier this year when it was linked by the media to the murder of a young teenager in Leicester. Apparently the killer, also a teenager, was obsessed with Manhunt and spent all of his time locked in his room practicing ways to kill. U.S. lawyer Jack Thompson, who had built himself up a bit of a reputation with attempts to sue game makers for various incidents of supposedly linked violence, soon pledged to represent the victim's family in a lawsuit against Rockstar and Sony to the tune of $60 million.

Both a promised interview for Ferrago with Mr Thompson and the lawsuit itself disappeared pretty quickly once the police revealed that the 'killer' game was found in the bedroom of the victim rather than that of his murderer. Naturally, the media declined to report these less titillating revelations, preferring instead to leave the taint of the case hanging over the gaming world. Much like they had done in the past with all the other cases that had charged games with causing despicable violence which were also dropped when the evidence against the games and their industry turned out to be non-existent.

For all the bigotry and ignorance that has fed the media's occasional opportunistic crusade against the games industry a new group has emerged to voice their concerns. And rather than a collection of hacks preying on the fears of uncertain parents, this time it is gamers themselves who are voicing objections to certain releases. Yes, gamers are deleting the bits that free them, albeit in small numbers.

There are two infamous games that have come out in the last year or so that have raised the hackles of many gamers. Both of them are getting into trouble not because of poor multiplayer code or a crappy control system but because of the themes that these games have used to provide the basis for their content. America's Army was released as a free team-based shooter back in 2002. It has grown in popularity since then and now can boast over four million registered users. Now the game itself is nothing that incredible: yet another team-driven FPS with some nice graphics. It does deviate from the norm in the way it handles team interaction, with a far greater emphasis placed on emulating real military procedures than is usual for this kind of game. This is unsurprising as America's Army was developed by the real United States Army for use as a promotional and recruitment tool.

Now this is where the controversy begins. Gamers have never shown any problems with the idea of pretending to be soldiers and shooting merry hell out of anything, preferably with convincing visual and aural representations of actual weapons. In fact, the shooting everything to bits genre is arguably the longest running category of game, albeit dressed up in much swankier clothes now than it was back in 1961. No, gamers don't have a problem with the shooting and killing in America's Army. Instead they have been taking offence at what they see as a very distasteful attempt by the U.S. Army, and by association, the evil Bush administration, to co-opt innocent, fun loving gamers into their various international wars.

Released amid the growing international furore over the Bush administration's zealous march to war in Iraq, America's Army appeared at just the wrong time. People felt that their hobby and passion was being hijacked for nefarious ends, and gamers around the world took umbrage at the transparency of the Army's attempts to hook the younger generation with their sanitised and physically insignificant take on the true horrors of modern combat. The tide of global public opinion was turning against America's War on Terror and America's Army took a lot of flack for this change. Normally you would think gamers would be happy to play a free game which not only featured the first publicly playable use of the Unreal 2 engine but could boast the most authentic first person representation of armed conflict yet seen on the personal computer. This was not to be, and although the game has been viewed with a lot less scepticism in its land of birth, gamers from outside of the U.S. have shown an aversion to this game that would be shocking if not for the strength of feeling that the current geo-political situation stirs in many hearts and minds.

So then along comes America's 10 Most Wanted to cool down the fires of righteous indignation. Only if you used liquid oxygen as your coolant of choice, that is. This title had none of the pedigree or polish that America's Army possessed, being as it was a rather slapdash attempt to make a buck. Known in the US by the even more inflammatory title, Fugitive Hunter: War on Terror, this game put you in the shoes of an international bounty hunter, trusted with the job of tracking down the titular criminals and bringing them to justice, Walker: Texas Ranger style. Among the law-breakers on the FBI list that provides the basis for the game are such luminaries as Saddam and Bin Laden. While America's 10 Most Wanted is by all reports a sorry excuse for a game it has generated a lot of notoriety due to its controversial subject material. Again, the furore has been a lot stronger over here in Europe than it has been in the US. It seems as if there is a genuine and reasonably large market for these kinds of hunting games over there, although the swapping of deer for dictators and terrorists is an interesting development.

Games are very much about creating worlds where players can act out their fantasies, and for a significant section of the gaming public the opportunity to gun down Osama and get revenge for his insane crusade against the West is a very tempting one. And while the game was successfully released here in the UK its true home is back in the U.S.A. As the publishers managed to enlist the help of respected news organisations CNN and CBS to provide video footage and the narration of top anchorman Dan Rather it cannot be dismissed as a blip in the otherwise relatively politics-free world of gaming.

Both of these games have gained their reputations from their associations with the current direction of the United States' foreign policy. Hence they have been the centre of a lot more controversy outside of that country's borders. The subject material is found to be repugnant by many. The hunting and killing of international criminals - while offering an understandable fantasy to a section of the population that otherwise feels powerless to face down the fear that they feel - is creating a bridge between the real world and the gaming world that many feel decidedly uncomfortable with. America's Army suffers from a similar distrust of this erosion between real world and game world fantasies. The sinister undertones that emanate from its use as a recruitment tool to turn people into real killers opens up a new field of contention over the involvement of governments in games.

Yesterday there was a press release for a new game in the works that should unite gamers in disgust regardless of their political leanings or opinions on foreign affairs. Survivor is apparently still in the early stages of development but its subject material is already getting it a fair amount of coverage. The idea is to play as a survivor in a variety of various real disasters that have occurred during recent history. Now the idea of trying to escape from the perils of the Titanic sinking and hurricane Andrew are bad enough, but the game doesn't stop there for fear of offending. No, its levels will also include the atomic destruction of Hiroshima, the devastation of the very recent shopping mall fire in Paraguay which killed over 400 people and the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, which was the cause of tens of thousands of human lives being lost. But in the scenario which is guaranteed to cause the most controversy gamers will also be given the chance to re-enact the events of 9/11 as they try to escape from the stricken World Trade Centre.

This last inclusion will undoubtedly raise the hackles of many Americans in a similar fashion to the ire felt by many Europeans over the two previous titles. And while I personably think that Survivor, if it is ever released, will be regarded as one of the stupidest titles in the history of gaming, maybe it will lead to a change in attitude. One that is similar to the reaction against AA & AMW that saw some gamers begin to question the validity of the siege mentality which had let so many other tasteless games prosper over the years. Now it is the gamers themselves rather than the media which is finding some game ideas beyond the pale things could be changing in the future. For while a game that finds itself under the media spotlight will invariably sell a lot more copies due to the exposure, if the game is being heckled by its supposed customer base the very opposite could well happen.

Maybe it is a sign of the gaming scene reaching a new level of maturity where it begins to police itself. Or maybe, in the case of America's Most Wanted and America's Army, it is just a sign of the frustration that many feel about the Bush administration and its foreign policy, coupled with a minor dose of racism. Or maybe it is just a storm in a tea-cup that never has much of an impact beyond the readers of websites and forums the world over. Either way, there is a feeling that some changes are afoot. Real games, not the cheesy flash titles which amuse mom'n'pop as they cruise the net looking for a political candidate to vote for, are becoming more politically charged. I would like to see this develop into games that touch on or even get their main inspiration from a mature view of the forces that shape both our daily lives and the world around us. I certainly hope it veers away from the sensationalist kind of drivel that is Survivor before the industry hands the mainstream media another stick with which to beat all us gamers over the head with.