And lo, Steerpike reappears on the front page of his own website. I’ve been super-busy! Thank heavens for Lewis and Mat and Gregg keeping stuff alive in my absence.
This month’s IGDA Culture Clash column was whipped up in a hurry. I had a whole other one done, but realized it wasn’t really going anywhere. And as it happened I’d just read an article I wanted to comment on. So while I had no intention of discussing the Dead Island trailer, I did. I do. Here.
Special Bonus Content! Just now a good friend of mine wrote a beautifully crafted email to me, reacting to the trailer. I’m including that at the bottom of this, because it’s worthy of discussion. Check it out!
Suffer the Little Children
By Matthew Sakey
March 20(ish), 2011
Originally published by the International Game Developers Association
Leftovers: last month’s morbid column dealt a lot with our reaction to death in games, and how some games are trying to expand their ability to affect us in this area. I got good feedback, so let’s discuss further.
For a while there all anyone could talk about was the Dead Island trailer. It’s cinematically skillful, ingeniously cryptic, and absolutely chilling. If the purpose of a game trailer is to get said game into the minds of potential buyers, then that one is probably the most successful in the history of game trailers. It took a game most people had never heard of and shoved it bodily up the rectum of gamer consciousness.
During the hubbub, CNN’s Omar Gallaga wrote an article. Among his remarks: “The Dead Island trailer wouldn’t bother me so much if it didn’t feel like part of a growing, disturbing trend in video games.” The trend? That developers seem to be getting awfully casual about endangering, harming, or even killing children in their games.
There is no arguing with Gallaga’s principal statement. Games that include violence against children have increased in recent years. Now, “increase” is kind of a tricky word here, since we’re talking an increase from zero to, like, five or six. Perhaps because of that it’s more noticeable. Still, it’s happening. Bioshock took a huge risk with the Little Sisters back in 2007, and prior to it, there were games about saving kids, and possibly games in which kids were hurt, but never by the protagonist and certainly never as a centerpiece of the game. Nowadays we have Dead Space 2, Heavy Rain, Dead Rising 2, and, I’m sure, others – not exactly a torrent, but more than none. As with all media taboos, the first step is the hardest and for better or worse Bioshock took it.
Gallaga’s issue was less that it’s happening and more how: in the case of the Dead Island trailer, in which a little girl dies pretty horribly, he argues that “[the preview] strikes me as exploitative and cynical, a successful marketing ploy meant to evoke shock and pity.”
I saw it as shocking and cynical but not exploitative. Then again, I’m not a parent. I also wasn’t as disturbed by the child’s fate as a good friend of mine [in this case our own Jason Dobry, not Mike, the friend who wrote the email that appears below -S], father of two daughters, one of whom is about the same age as the Dead Island girl. He described enduring her terrified final moments as evoking an emotional response so strong he felt it physically. Other parents have noted similar responses. He also reacted differently to Heavy Rain, as did many others, particularly fathers with young sons. I suppose my less emotional response marks me as an inhuman monster, but I already knew that. The key is that things strike different chords in different people.
Whether the actual intent of the trailer was merely a marketing ploy is hard to say. Did some advertising knucklehead say, hey, let’s kill a kid? I personally doubt it, and to be honest I think the trailer drew attention more for its cinematic craftiness than for the fact that a ten year old goes out the window.
Here’s a point we can’t overlook: that child’s mom dies, too. So does her dad. Some other guy burns to death. All the people who were chasing her down the hall were already dead and back up. Lots of people die in that trailer. And one of Gallaga’s arguments is that through sheer experience we’re not really bothered by grown-up deaths (or turtle cruelty in Super Mario Bros)… which may mean that if developers keep on with endangering children, we might become inured to seeing that in our games too.
This is where I have to diverge with him slightly. We’re not desensitized to the killing of adults in all games, just in games where we’re supposed to be. I still get emails from gamers lecturing me about how heartbroken they were when what’s-his-name killed Aeris in Final Fantasy VII. And I don’t think it would be particularly difficult to put together a game that made players quite sensitive to killing animals. Not every game is Black Ops, and gamers are not wholly desensitized to suffering or violence. In fact, it often seems that people get most worked up about the violence in games like Black Ops, without a thought to, say, Defcon or Fate of the World. In that latter example, one viable strategy is to allow global famine to control population. It’s nasty, but it cuts emissions. It’s far crueler – but far more detached – than the violence in Black Ops, and children certainly suffer most during periods of starvation.
Ask everyone what “the worst thing in the world” is, and I guarantee you that violence against children would be in the top three responses. We reflexively, instinctively react to children in danger like most other animals because we have millions of years of evolution telling us to protect our offspring. Thus when a creator comes along and puts a fictional child in danger, there’s no doubt that it’s done in part to take advantage of this instinct. This is where Gallaga sees the marketing ploy, and this is where he gets concerned about callous, careless, pointless, or gleeful use of it in games.
Big difference between using something shocking as part of a larger whole, within a context that makes sense, and using it gratuitously. You could argue that Bulletstorm is nothing but gratuitous, and I would agree. I’d also posit that it was fully in context. That was its whole point, and as such I cackled joyously through the entire game. Violence can be funny. Look at the Three Stooges. Look at Bulletstorm. But it always depends on how it’s used, and what the motivation is. While I’m a little troubled by the uptick of children placed at risk in today’s games, I see it less as a cause for serious worry and more as an opportunity to further underline the philosophy that doing things for a reason is okay; doing them because you can rarely is.
I send out a monthly spam announcing my column to industry people and others who have foolishly given me a business card. Mike, who we call “Scary” for reasons too complex to explain, is one my old friends, and naturally on the list. So he checked out the column and trailer for the first time and shared this with me a few minutes ago. I thought it was just too eloquent to limit to my own reading.
So I finally had a chance to sit down and read your article & watch the attached trailer. I was horrified and disgusted by it. The trailer, I mean, not your article (I actually liked that a lot, enough to do some thinkin’ and crack off a note on it). And I actually signed up for the site specifically to pan and vote down that trailer. I could go on for a bit about why but here’s the screed I posted:
Anyone who relies on harming and killing children to up the emotional impact of their game or trailer is (a) too lazy and/or stupid to come up with a genuinely clever concept to provide that impact and (b) monstrously indifferent to the real life suffering of some of the world’s most vulnerable and worthwhile human beings. Everyone involved with this game and trailer is on my perma-shit list, and not only will I never buy anything they make but I’ll actively advocate against anyone else from doing the same.
I feel the same way about this as I do about, say, rape scenes in movies. There are degrees of vileness and kid killing and raping are way up on that list. And they’re much more common in real life than knifing a terrorist in the throat or shooting a zombie in the head. I’ve always felt that using crimes of that magnitude for the sake of getting the audience’s attention is unforgivable. There’s enough ugliness in the world & subjecting people to that sort of thing as a dramatic device has always struck me as doubly ugly and deplorable as well as lazy. It’s the writing equivalent of throwing dog shit on your audience to get a rise out of them – sure it’s effective but it doesn’t take much work or imagination and it just makes everything around you stink. Very few forms of entertainment can claim to be using things like rape or harming children for the sake of some higher social end. Dead Island sure as hell can’t.
I would argue that the upward trend of violence against children in video games, minor as it might be, *is* troubling. I would hate to raise children in the kind of environment where seeing a little girl get chased out a window to have the life dashed from her on the ground several stories below becomes as common place as headshotting a dude in Counterstrike. That might be a bit overblown but I think you get my drift.
Aaaaanyway, I just felt compelled to sound off on this article in particular.
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