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What's so bad about video games?!
Posted on Wednesday, January 12 2011 @ 11:42:31 PST

We hear it all the time: “Doom caused Columbine (!”, “Mass Effect is depraved!” and “Oh my god the swearing! My poor, delicate ears (!”. As gamers, dodging such attacks is pretty much a way of life; hell, take a look at my previous blog entries to see that I’ve defended games on more than one occasion.  But here’s a twist on the same old theme of ‘games ≠ bad’: what exactly is so bad about video games? I’m not here to argue for or against the wholesomeness of games. We all know that there are people who would gladly see the complete end of the games industry and we know that there are those at the other end of the scale who are fine with anyone killing a hooker on Grand Theft Auto. Then of course we have people who don’t really fit on that particular length of measurement because they still see games as the realm of losers and children. None of these views are particularly helpful and the origin for this is the same reason: lack of understanding. I’ve already frequently commented on the animosity towards video games so this time I won’t be looking at any of the aforementioned groups, instead I’ll be commenting on the lack of understanding itself.
Like I said before, this blog entry isn’t about defending games. I fancy doing the opposite this time; what’s the worst unwholesome element of video games? Is it the violence, the gore, the sex, the language, the drugs? Before I start I’d like to mention that I don’t have kids of my own so I can’t comment from experience when I talk about what kids of various ages are capable of dealing with. On the other hand many parents have no experience with video games so in that way we’re two sides of the same coin. If any parents wish to weigh in I’d be more than happy to listen and contribute and I think it’s this kind of collaboration that can seriously help games provide clearer warnings and help parents to become more familiar with game content.
Drugs have been around in video games for a long time. Depending on the level of hysteria we have the obvious drug references and drug use in Grand Theft Auto, the military style drug use in Metal Gear Solid (think diazepam), the implied drug use in any game with a health pack and the they’re-definitely-reading-too-much-into-it-now drug use in Mario and Pac-Man. Parents are right to want their children to be shielded from such adult references. After all, most parents wouldn’t be happy for their child to watch Blow (’s the film about drugs starring Johnny Depp even though it also sounds like it could be porn) so why should it be different if the references are in a video game? Drugs are easy, they don’t appear in games much and even when they do they rarely take an important role in the story. Rarer still do they reflect anything good, rather they are something that needs getting rid of and not a potential for a bonus or reward. At least drugs aren’t often glorified.
Another rarity in the video game world is sex. Don’t get me wrong, ‘sexy’ has been a staple of gaming since the colour ‘flesh’ was on the palette, but the carnal act of sex is under represented. There’s the 30 second sex scene in Mass Effect which made Fox News lose its ****, the GTA Hot Coffee controversy and, of course, the game that seems engineered from the ground up to cause revulsion: Rapelay ( It’s pretty obvious that Leisure Suit Larry going about his day to day business isn’t suitable for kids but what about the more relationship based aspects as found in the Mass Effect and Fable games? Regardless of how some religious fundamentalists see it, sex is a part of life and games, as art (yes they are), often reflect this. So drugs are almost exclusively an element suitable only for adults (think actual references rather than implied ones) but sex, at least in the context of loving relationships, is ok for slightly older children? It certainly seems that way if you look at the first Mass Effect being rated 12 by the BBFC and Max Payne being rated 15 by the BBFC. Of course there are plenty of other aspects to take into account for those ratings such as the other content in the games and the time they were released (after all, Citizen Kane was, once upon a time, controversial). Still though, out of all the elements of life a loving, sexual relationship is healthier than one peppered with illegal drug use.
Sex and drugs in games are pretty cut and dried. Neither are suitable for young children, older children might be able to play through games with those elements depending on their own disposition and their parents’ attitudes towards the content. Where it gets less clear is with bad language and, believe it or not, violence. Many parents don’t want their child to be exposed to bad language which is fair enough. No one wants to listen to slightly squeaky voices repeating processed phrases from Family Guy and South Park and if those phrases are vulgar then it makes it all the worse... just ask anyone who plays on Call of Duty. The real question is which is worse; violence or swearing? Would you be ok with a game which swears frequently but only uses violence occasionally? What about the other way around? Some people say that they don’t mind a bit of shooting so long as swearing isn’t involved and I can understand their point: it’s easy to explain violence is inappropriate and wrong but much harder to stop kids from swearing. There are even idioms to that effect (‘sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me!’). Still, when said all at once it sounds very odd that swearing is bad but shooting bullets into people is ok.
Even more confusing is the relationship between violence and gore. They go hand in hand but they’re not locked to each other’s wrists. Violence can be found in almost every game – even Mario could be argued to be violent – of course the real violence can be found in games like Call of Duty and Halo. But even these games, which feature the use of guns and the shooting of squishy living things aren’t all that gory. Aside from small spurts of blood from gunshots Halo doesn’t show much gore at all, as in there is no dismemberment and so on. War based shooters sometimes allow messy headshots but many of those games allow gore to be turned off in the options panel. Now, it strikes me that any game which features guns is also going to feature shooting those guns at living things but which is worse: shooting a human in the arm only to have them shake it off and continue attacking; or shooting them in the arm and seeing the natural repercussion, i.e. the arm being shredded and rendered useless? The latter reaction would be removed when the ‘remove gore’ checkbox is ticked but it seems to me that if someone insists on being exposed to violence then they should see the real consequences, to do otherwise seems... misrepresentative.
Again, I have no children of my own but I do work and live with games. I am a staunch believer in an age rating system for media, I have explained why in past blogs and my opinions have since matured but the core values have stayed basically the same. A solid, dependable rating system not only gives confused parents a guide to help them choose games for their child but also protects the games industry and gives adults the chance to play mature games which would come under much harsher criticism than they already do if there wasn’t a big M or red 18 in the bottom corner. I don’t think many people would disagree with the necessity of a ratings system but deciding which parts warrant harsher treatment is difficult and a much more personal decision. Swearing is the worst because it’s easy to mimic but sex is the worst because... well, just check out teen pregnancy rates. Oh but violence is the worst because who wants an aggressive, violent child? Then again gore is the worst because it’s the reason films like Saw and Hostel are so reviled. Then again, those things are the best of a bad bunch because they’re relatively inconsequential, part of the natural order of things, easy to dissuade a child from imitating and a reflection of the brutal reality of our aggressive actions respectively. It’s really that easy to flip the reasons around so maybe describing the rating for each major component of a game would be beneficial to the different opinions of parents everywhere.

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