One day after an horrific act of terror occurred in a LGBTI nightclub in Florida, the video game industry kicked off its most significant event of the year, E3 in Los Angeles.
For many, many years now E3 has been a mix of industry conference and a consumer event. Business leaders meet to nut out details on what game will appear on what console. Developers show publishers prototypes of their games in the hope of getting a pile of money dropped at their feet to complete it. Meanwhile, new games are announced to audiences of millions worldwide, and everyone comes out of the event knowing exactly what they’ll be playing in the year ahead.
It’s not the kind of event that can be simply moved, or even altered at the last minute. Presentations would have been completed and rehearsed weeks ago, the press releases written, video recorded, and the hundreds of thousands of dollars paid to the event’s organisers.
In that context about the best the games industry could have done to account for the emotional impact that the tragedy had on people around the world is what they did do: each presentation started with the spokesperson expressing sincere solidarity with everyone affected. Presenters wore rainbow coloured lapel pins as a mark of respect for the community hit hardest by the attack…
And then ten seconds later they were showing off footage of a game which involved splitting a person in two, or another game that had the protagonist complete an assassination with a swift knife to the throat – gore and all. The latter example was particularly striking to me, because this was a game that was designed to be able to be played without killing a single digital character. But because sneaking past people was just not exciting enough for a show of this magnitude, the demo footage instead was all about the murdering.
I’m not about to blame video games for the murder of people in real life. The science has found, via numerous studies over the years, that there’s no meaningful link between violent games and violent behaviour. I don’t believe in arguing against the validity of scientific studies when I’m not a scientist myself (also, climate change is real and people should get their kids vaccinated). I play and enjoy violent games myself – Mortal Kombat’s a favourite – and I know I have never felt the need to even hurt another person. So anecdotally I’m on board with the science as well.
In the games industry not only is it unacceptable to criticise violence, but it’s unacceptable not to celebrate it.
Western culture is a fundamentally violent one. We ritualise violence as entertainment in “sports” like professional wrestling, which are not sports at all, but pure-play entertainment products that exist purely around the concept of violence.
Almost every major video game release makes violence a core component of the experience. And films are no different; look at the actual death counts and destruction in a film like The Avengers. Violent films, games, and other enter entertainments are not causes of violence in society. They are symptoms. We find them entertaining because we exist in violent cultures.
This is never questioned. In fact, it’s aggressively defended the moment someone attempts to even highlight it. Case-in-point: alternative video game designer, Jonathan Blow, the creator of the much-lauded Braid and The Witness, raised much the same point on Twitter, in response to E3’s opening shows, just hours after the shooting:
He was swamped by criticism for the commentary. Some of the criticism was well intentioned, and this is a good thing, because western society’s treatment of violence in its media is a necessary debate. From that point of view it’s easy to say that Blow’s commentary, provocative as it was, was ultimately positive in bringing the topic to the surface.
But the majority of criticism that Blow received was reactionary and vitriolic. While there’s a bit more openness in other media about the role of violence in the media, in the games industry there is a sense that not only is it unacceptable to criticise violence, but it’s unacceptable not to celebrate it.
Any other response is to cast yourself well into the role as an other – as best, someone who has a pretentious holier-than-thou attitude and is condescending to people who do enjoy their games violent. At worst, you’re cast as a “SJW,” – social justice warrior – which is most certainly a pejorative term applied by the large, and vocal, conservative gaming community.
Humans, as a species, are fundamentally violent, and it’s no surprise in that context that our entertainment tends to fantasise about violence. There is nothing immoral about those that create these games, films, or other violent entertainment products, and anyone who suggests otherwise deeply misunderstands the topic.
But equally it’s critical that we understand that someone that points out a commonality between populist entertainment and tragedies such as the massacre is not wrong. Trying to silence this discussion is no better than burying our heads in the sand and then acting surprised when it happens again.