PG Nation

The thing that bothers me about the Jack Thompson crowd is, perhaps ironically, their negativity. You would think that there was no entertainment available that didn’t involve disembowelment and full-frontal nudity. Or if we allowed one video game to have disembowelment and full-frontal nudity… than all games video would necessarily turn into ultra violent gore orgies.

But that’s not true. The continued success of companies like Nintendo is evidence that there is a big audience for games that don’t hinge on graphic violence. Last week, I ran down a handful of great games that are so thoroughly non-violent that not even an extremist like Jack Thompson could honestly quibble with them.

But there is a much wider spectrum. The choice is not between Mario and James Earl Cash, or between Sesame Street and snuff films. There’s a great gulf of entertainment that falls in the middle. With this post, I’d like to call out some of those great games. Maybe they have you kill some bad guys, maybe that Valkyrie’s metal breastplate is a bit low cut, but no reasonable observer could call them murder simulators or pornography.

In these games, the bad guys are clearly bad, and the protagonist is clearly good. Lovers of the anti-hero will have to wait for a future post.

Zelda. Ok, there’s a lot of killing in these games. But it’s hard to feel pity for an octorok. I’ve played several of these, but the experience for me really peaked with the third game: A Link to the Past. One of the hallmarks of the Zelda series is that the enemy creatures are abstract and cartoonish. The emphasis is on exploration and solving minor puzzles of the “find a key” sort.

Okami. I’ve sung its praises before, but I can’t resist a repeat performance. Okami is an incredible game, set in a mythological version of Japan (or if you prefer, Nippon). The main character is the Shinto sun-goddess Amaterasu in the form of a white wolf. The entire game is rendered in a style reminiscent of Japanese watercolor, and hinges on a clever system of magical “gestures” that require the player to draw sumi-e-esque symbols on the screen. There is some fighting of demons, but the tone of the narrative is light-hearted and whimsical. Okami’s game play is descended from Zelda on several levels, in a good way. As previously reported, it’s being re-released on the Wii pretty soon, causing The MCP’s eyes to glaze over with envy.

Ratchet and Clank. I’m including these assholes because the kids like them, and I’d like an opportunity to rip on a crowd favorite. Ratchet and Clank are the video game answer to Doritos eXtreme: lots of flavor, mildly addictive, but not a lot of substance. Game play is repetitive and mindless. It’s impossible to loose as long as you have enough patience to keep moving forward, fighting aliens and robots, collecting powerups, etc. I challenge anyone without multiple-sclerosis not to complete these games. Addictiveness is the series’ only selling point (that and the five minutes you spend as the Giant Robot version of Clank). To my eternal shame I’ve played through two installments. Fans of the series point to it’s alleged humorosity as a selling point, but most of the dialogue consists of stale jokes warmed up with a side of obnoxious eXtreme ‘tude. During every cutscene, there’s an overwhelming sense that someone is poking you in the ribs with their elbow, murmering “Get it? Get it? That was a joke!” I’m done, Ratchet and Clank. I don’t care how good your graphics look, you will get no more of my life.

LEGO Star Wars. Hot damn I like me some LEGO Star Wars. You have to try really hard to be offended by a game that, however much fighting it involves, only results in bad guys being blasted into their component LEGO parts. I don’t even care that it was blatant Gen-X cross-marketing, the games are fun! LEGO Batman is on the way, apparently.

Splinter Cell. Metal Gear. These games involve violence, but I think they belong in the PG-ish area. The bad guys are depicted as obviously evil (terrorists or some such), and you are actually rewarded for finding ways to complete each level without killing anybody. Sneak up behind them and knock them out, then hide them in a closet. The point isn’t “kill every bad guy.” It’s usually something like “rescue the hostage” or “steal the secret documents.” I take a perverse pride in observing the movements of guards and timing my actions so that nobody notices me flitting from shadow to shadow. When you do get out your gun or knife, the killing is quick and silent… no Manhunt-style disemboweling.

Tomb Raider. Saying you like Tomb Raider for the gameplay is a bit like saying you read Playboy for the articles. But it’s true! I swear it’s true! I’m as annoyed by the game industry’s reductionist take on sexy female protagonists as anybody. But these really are great games even without the t’n’a. Angel of Darkness aside, they are well-crafted platformers at heart, with a bit of minor puzzle-solving thrown in. They are intensely playable, the controls give you an effortless feeling as you put Lara through all sorts of acrobatics.

Grand Theft Auto. Whaaaaaaa? I kid, I kid. But it’s time we got over our GTA issues. There is nothing, nothing in this game that you can’t see on popular television dramas any night of the week. Car theft? Check. Violence against cops? Check. Prostitution? Check. Drugs? Check. Random homicide? Check. Mass murder? Check. Deadly (awesome) explosions? Check. Is it more offensive to play a video game where you are encouraged to commit violent crimes? Or is it more offensive to sit on a couch and get your rocks off watching other people commit violent crimes?

GTA has yet to depict an actual rape, something network TV doesn’t shy away from. GTA has never depicted acts of violence against kids or animals. In fact, they appear to have been purposefully left out of the game.

We have been eating a steady diet of violence for as long as we’ve had media and any changes that have occurred due to technology are evolutionary, not revolutionary. As a culture we simply enjoy a certain amount of stylized violence in our entertainment. It’s time for us to face that fact honestly.

Is it troubling? I think it is. Should we think about how the interactivity of games might change things? Certainly. But some cold water needs to be thrown on the issue. You can admit that you are troubled by something without calling for a ban.

To me, the more interesting proposition is not how media changes our character, but what it reveals about our nature.

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5 Responses to “PG Nation”

  1. Admit you’re troubled by something without calling for a ban? What are you, some kind of crazy liberal?

  2. Gotta love reactionary Jack.

    For me, it’s a cliche-but-accurate argument that goes like this: our entertainment (as a species, throughout history) has been ridiculously violent. Jack Thompson seems to remember a time when TV was nothing but “Little House on the Prairie” and games were nothing but stickball, but that time never existed. Young folks before GTA played with toy guns, watched “Psycho,” watched public hangings, went to the Grand Guignol, saw “Titus Andronicus,” read the Marquis de Sade, read the frickin’ violent-ass Bible, etc. Violence in entertainment is a pervasive theme that goes to the chronological roots of entertainment. As soon as we, as a species, resolved our basic survival needs and had any amount of leisure time, we started depicting and enjoying depictions of violence on stage, screen, and in the written word. It’s not new.

    And the facts is that the vast majority of people exposed to violent entertainment don’t go out and kill people.

    I agree with you that it’s much more interesting and meaningful to look at what our entertainment says about us than what it’s doing to us. Jack Thompson is probably afraid to look that in the face, though.

  3. Have you played Super Columbine Massacre yet, Dale?

  4. OK, Super Columbine Massacre kind of sucks.

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