The Press’ Double Standard for Violence in Media

Last week, a now infamous video of controversial Modern Warfare 2 footage was leaked. It showed that it would be possible in a portion of the game to kill a number of unarmed civilians while you work undercover for an international terrorist. It has not been ascertained whether the video was ’officially’ leaked by Infinity Ward or not, and to be honest, that is largely irrelevant. What is entirely relevant is the furor in the media along with the ensuing debate as to whether they should be including this kind of content in the first place. And even more importantly, how far do developers and publishers need to go to justify themselves to the mainstream media?

After reading Sinan’s editorial, I wondered if the association between gaming and the press was reaching some state of tenuous equilibrium. Rockstar have not shared a friendly relationship with the media in the past so the lack of column inches over a game called ’”he Ballad of Gay Tony” would perhaps suggest a watershed moment. Of course once again, Infinity Ward have to spoil the party with a second video, the Friends Against Grenade Spam viral, unleashed onto the gaming populace for approximately 90 minutes over the weekend before being pulled. Surely the kind of people who found it funny are the exact people we are trying to dissuade from playing.

However, we must consider the other side of the same coin. In the UK at least, when a game gets a good review in the tabloids, it will be lucky to get half of a page toward the back of the paper. This changes when the press determine that a new title has the potential to make a generation morally bankrupt, ensuring it will receive a two-page spread near the front. Unfortunately, the latter is an infinitely stronger marketing ploy. Inadvertently or not, whenever we see a new press lead campaign against some reprehensible aspect of a new title, there is evidence to suggest this causes more copies to move from shop shelves to disc drives. I am sure the irony is not lost on publishers.

But this attitude of ’no such thing as bad PR’ has some nasty side effects. Gaming is continually being brought up as the cause of atrocities throughout the world. It was theorized by the media that some of the responsibilty for the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 should lay at the feet of the violent video games they played. The two students involved were heavily into games such as Doom and Wolfenstein, including creating mod levels for them both. This suggestion of desensitization to violence through playing video games was mirrored ten years later in a similar school shooting in Winnenden, Germany.

In this regard, video games are often singled out as a medium. Here in the UK, the press seem to have far more respect for filmmakers working toward a specific age certification and then being ingested by that age group. We don’t expect a director to make a movie with the aim of achieveing an 18 certificate to then have to take into account that someone under that age may see it. This responsibility lies with other bodies, mainly parents and the cinemas themselves. It is heartening to see that one UK Member of Parliament is standing up in defense of the game industry using this exact argument.

Manhunt, contrastingly, is an 18-certificate title which was granted by the BBFC. This was made and sold as an adult title and yet this wasn’t deemed acceptable by the UK press as there was the possibility that it could get into the hands of those under the legal age. It is frankly ridiculous to suggest that the publishers should be parenting children. If publishers legally abide by the classification boards within each region, the press need to be responsible enough to turn their attention elsewhere.

Rockstar are clever though, developing titles with the knowledge that violence sells. The industry would gain more respect from all quarters if violence was implemented more on the grounds of artistic content and relevancy. Konami attempted to do this with the development of the promising Six Days in Fallujah. Without knowing anything about the game content, a campaign was quickly raised by the Daily Mail, which condemned Konami for “glorifying the enormous loss of life in the Iraq War in a video game.”

I have two problems with that statement. Firstly, where is this basis for the idea that Konami would be glorifying anything? Secondly, I take particular umbrage with the phrase “in a video game.” Films like Black Hawk Down are rightly praised for showing the difficulties the men and women of the armed forces face in recent conflict. It should not be up to the press to decide that gaming isn’t a responsible or mature enough platform for us to consider anything more than blue hedgehogs and power-up mushrooms.

The press have a firm counter to this though — interactivity. They will have you believe that it is much easier to feel disgust or offense towards something happening on a screen when you are not in control of an avatar commiting the atrocities in question. Frankly, this argument holds water but if the BBFC feel that the the potential buyer is of an age and maturity to handle the content in question, the press should aim their vitriol either directly at the BBFC or lobby the Government.

My annoyance surrounding the press and their reaction to the Modern Warfare 2 video isn’t only that they know better than the BBFC, but they have no context. There is nothing to suggest that Infinity Ward haven’t found a way to handle the violence in a mature and meaningful way to elicit an strong emotional response from the player. However, the modern media are well aware of how easy it is to throw blood and gore around pornographically in an attempt to satisfy the lowest common denominator.

This misled and uneducated knee-jerk reaction isn’t something we haven’t seen before. In the fifties and sixties, the target was rock and roll, which was enslaving the young and promoting promiscuity. Around the same time, as comics matured and started to tackle more than just capes n’ cowls, the newspapers maintained a constant attack. As gaming matures as a medium, along with those playing games, risque subject matter will be handled more skillfully and gracefully and the press-led opposition will grow less relevant. However, like comics and rock and roll, they may only ever achieve true acceptance in the decades to come when there is no one left who hasn’t been brought up with video gaming as an intrinsic part of pop culture.

Ultimately, gaming and the mainstream press will continue to have a simultaneously fractious and symbiotic relationship. As long as the media look at gaming as a children’s hobby, despite the actual gaming demograph being otherwise, questions will always be asked. However, if the developers and publishers continue to use the tabloid press as their moral barometer, we must await mainstream acceptance for some time yet.

Author: Dave Taylor