Sunday, April 16, 2006

How videogames connect to us.

There have recently been disputes all over the net concerning violence in videogames. Do these videogames affect children negatively? The answer from independant studies and people with more psychology than me say no. They say that children who are more predisposed to violence choose to play more violent games but there is no evidence of a game actually raising the inherent aggression of any person.

This argument has bled over into many smaller contests of opinion regarding not just violence but blood, gore, swearing, nudity/innuendo and rewarding the player character for breaking the law or being amoral. I guess the blanket response here would be "look at the ESRB rating and buy or avoid games based on individual content". More specific analysis follows.

The world of video games is very similar to the world of movies in terms of how a person connects to the media format. The feedback is similar, ie. audio/visual, and the suspension of disbelief is at similar levels for both. A marked difference is the amount of time spent immersed in the media. Two hours versus perhaps twenty hours or more. Games and movies both try and provide storylines to immerse an individual and create a more rewarding experience. Movies learned long ago the shock value of swearing, nudity and gore. These things used to be in movies as a sort of mental gimmick. Shock a customer and they will advertise your movie for you. The world of videogames is a bit behind in exploring some of these areas of visceral feedback. Even though you know you are sitting on your couch, deep in the back of your mind you want to run for your life when you see or hear something scary. An adrenaline rush is a cheap and easy way to bring a person closer to your media, but visceral scares are quickly fading and require at least a hint of danger. Hence playing Doom 3 in the dark is scary until you turn the infinite health cheat on and you don't really care what is lurking beyond the feeble reach of your flashlight.

I recently had a conversation with a good friend about swearing in videogames. I think, in a lot of ways, people don't expect swearing to be in videogames. Therefore, when swearing is present is has a shock value attached to it. In many ways it is the same cheap gimmick of any other visceral feedback. You see or hear something that you weren't expecting and it elicits a response. Even people who swear do not always expect swearing in videogames. The excuse of the developer is that "people swear in real life. I am trying to mimic real life". This is of course completely false. The truth is that they are basing their game on real life, not that it is mimicing real life any more than a movie mimics real life. They want to make videogames more realistic but to do that they need photorealistic graphics and flawless AI routines. Instead of providing these things they go for the cheap trick of 'people swear in real life', instead of 'trees sway in the wind in real life', something that would actually require some programming.

Nudity is not really much different either. Instead of tapping into a natural fight or flight response it has shock value designed to play to other base needs. It sells the beauty and decency of the human body for this shock value and has quickly fading responses until a subject is desensitized. No different from any of the subjects we have been discussing.

The one major difference here is violence. A term so much broader than any of these other cheap parlor tricks. Violence can be anything from Mario jumping and squishing a mushroom guy to a realistic interpretation of shooting and killing human beings or aliens in a great many games. I said there was a big difference and it is this: violence is crucial to the telling of a story whereas gore, nudity, swearing and the like are most definately not. Most every story in movies, games, or books revolves around conflict. The underdog struggling to wrest power from an evil empire. The story has been told a million times in human history. Another popular theme is romance, but a romance story can easily be told without nudity where usurping the evil empire could never be told without violence. Not to mention that romantic stories do not translate well into videogames as it is difficult to give the player character enough options of interaction with other characters. You can't say what you want to say, go where you want to go, or do what you want to do. In an action story the things you do are very simple, you dont need to talk to the bad guy, just blow his kneecaps off. You dont need any other level of interaction other than aiming. And levels can be (and usually are) straightforward and closed-ended. Go from point A to point B, don't let your character die, and take out the enemy.

In short, I fully support violence in videogames, and any other type of media. I do not, however, support the use of gore, nudity or swearing as I do not believe them to be critical to story telling, but rather the cheap tricks that storytellers use to connect to a person when they are too lazy to find a better way. In other words look at the ESRB rating and buy or avoid games based on individual content.


Anonymous Tim said...

reading the esrb makes perfect sense....but the games I want to play fall right into the games that have the so called cheap parlor trick and that really frustrats me because I too believe that they are not needed!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

April 17, 2006 5:30 PM  
Blogger Benjdude said...

The games YOU want to play Tim are WWII games which are notorious for excessive blood, swearing and violence. The fact is that you need to make a decision whether you want to play the game bad enough to put up with the aforementioned stuff. Otherwise you need to be more judicious in picking your forms of recreation.

April 17, 2006 7:41 PM  
Blogger Chaos Incarnate said...

You know, if people wanted to make a realistic game, it would be so boring and tedious, no one would play it, and there would be no point, since there's nothing you would do in the game that you don't already do in real life.

That said, realism is not required for immersion. The only video game that made me cry was the scene in Final Fantasy VI that talks about Locke and Rachel. I mean, we're talking 16-bit stuff here. Swearing is not required for immersion. Armored Core has no dialogue, and very little monologue, yet when I'm being hunted down by an enemy AC, I feel real adrenalin, real fear, and real relief when I win. Violence is not needed for immersion. Ace Combat doesn't even HAVE people in it, and the only violent acts are explosions, and yet when you play that game you can practically feel the G forces on you as you bank and turn. I therefore submit for review this: I have found from personal playing experience that the original Grand Theft Auto remains to this day the most enjoyable one. Not for what it had, but for what it doesn't have.

April 20, 2006 2:05 PM  
Blogger Benjdude said...

You are right Chaos in that violence is not needed for immersion. It is however critical to most engaging storylines and even in Ace Combat the story is that you have to destroy tragets or protect other targets (by destroying enemies). This is violence. Even though you may enjoy the game as flight simulator the fact remains that flight simulator games dont sell very well and the ones that are marginally popular are the ones where you have the option of combat scenarios. Only a few puzzle games like Tetris are devoid of violence of any sort but they still revolve around competition, in this case against the computer or a human opponent.

April 22, 2006 11:00 AM  
Anonymous Chiquitita said...

For the record I agree that games don't need swearing. Hollywood has already proven that sex, drugs, violence and swearing don't sell.

To Chaos: I don't think a realistic game would necessarily be boring.Granted super powers and Matrix-like abilities that you mimick in games are fun, but I doubt anyone who was at Pearl Harbor being blown up thought that reality was boring. Anything but actually...Games on violent subjects don't have to be gory OR boring. Maybe just your reality is boring. ;) Kidding...

April 23, 2006 3:52 PM  

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