Can Games Go Too Far?

A few years ago, I talked about a game called 8:46, which is a virtual reality “game” (although “experience” might be a better term) dealing with the subject of the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City. The game is told from the perspective of an individual who works in the North Tower of the World Trade Center, up on the 101st floor. For reference, the first plane hit the 93rd to 99th floors, so anyone above those floors died, either when the Towers came down, or after they jumped from the windows.

As you can imagine, there was some outrage from folks who had been directly affected by the attacks, either survivors, friends and family of survivors, or friends and family of those who did not survive that day. In the above article, I posed the argument that if a game is made and portrayed in a respectful way, it is worth existing and being defended.

flame-shield

What I meant by that is that, like movies Schindler’s List, books like Letters from Iwo Jima, and even games that never saw the light of day like Six Days in Fallujah, a game that deals with difficult topics not for sensationalism, but to explore them as other media do has as much right to exist and be experienced as any other story in any other medium.*

But is there a point that a game goes “too far”? Are any subjects truly off limits?

Some might point to games like Hatred, Postal, or Carmageddon as examples of games that are just bad, bad, bad for you. Others might point to a more recent game that was pulled off of Steam, called Active Shooter.

Drawing a Line

While I haven’t played Postal, Hatred, or Carmageddon, I have seen let’s plays of parts of them or, in the case of Hatred, an LP of the entire game. To be completely transparent, they are not really to my taste. However, the reason I don’t really have a strong opinion as to whether or not they “should” exist is because, to judge from what I saw, these games are build on excess and exaggeration, and events that can border on farcical at times.

Image result for over exaggerated acting

I will use the game Hatred as an example, as that is a more recent game that had people clutching their pearls. The game depicts a man with long, stringy black hair, wearing a trenchcoat, who wants to kill everyone because… hatred. He regains health by horrifically assassinating innocent people because… hatred. He decides to overload a local power plant in order to destroy his town and kill himself in the process because… hatred. Oh, and (spoilers?) the secret code to start the meltdown is “666” because… hatred.

I expected to leave the game feeling outraged, or nauseous, or even slightly miffed. I left the game feeling bored. The LPer had similar feelings, often commenting on how stupid he thought the game was. Its saving grace? The controls “are pretty cool.”

Image result for facepalm

Like cartoon violence, I of course think that exposure to this sort of exaggerated depiction of people hurting each other can be harmful, but for the most part I file this sort of game with the same nonsense that tries to be edgy by portraying “taboo” topics in a way that is so over-the-top one can’t help but feel “shocked” at the developer’s “daring.” Ooo so “edgy.”

Please note all the enormous air quotes I purposefully included.

Likewise, games like the recent Friday the 13th game, or the use of the Bullet Cam in Sniper Elite V2. It’s gratuitous, it certainly has an effect, but is also so over-the-top that it would really take a special sort of person to see these games as more than just the entertainment they are meant to be.

Image result for sniper elite v2

But what about games that depict actual events?

Purposeful Experiences

I go back to the example I used when talking about 8:46, in particular the game Six Days in Fallujah, which depicts the events of a United States military campaign that actually occurred in Fallujah.

It was never released because of the pubic outrage at these serious, tragic events being made into a game people would play.

Image result for six days in fallujah game

Let’s put a different filter on this for a moment.

The movie We Were Soldiers was based on a book with a similar name by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (Ret.), which covered the true events of the first major battle between the US and the North Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam war.

It’s a critically-acclaimed movie, even it’s comprised of serious, tragic events that have been made into a film that people will go to see for entertainment.

Image result for we were soldiers

I know I’m preaching to the choir but I think the principle behind making a game and making a movie of a difficult topic is the same: it must be done sensitively and with a purpose in mind. While I have the personal opinion that, many times, violent scenes are gratuitous, I also think that (for example), the best anti-war movies are the ones that show war the way it actually is, like We Were Soldiers. I think video games are in a unique position to give people who haven’t been soldiers a chance to see what it’s really like to be in a warzone, and not just be the powerful battlefield god that some other war games sometimes tout.

What I don’t like for games, or movies, or books, or any other media, is when a sensitive topic is taken and made into a spectacle. Death is not pure entertainment, especially if it’s an event that is based on things that have really happened in the world.

Enter Active Shooter, which isn’t even available for purchase on Steam anymore.

Shooting from the Hip

For those of you who haven’t been keeping track of the slow descent into madness that the United States is experiencing, we’ve had, on average, one school shooting per week this year. The number of students killed this year is more than the number of military service members killed during in combat operations (and you can fact check that statement).

So you can imagine the response when a first-person shooter popped up on Steam that gave players the option to either be the “active shooter” (who hunts and murders innocent children attending school) or the SWAT team members who are called in to neutralize the shooter.

Image result for what?

Now, this isn’t going to be a value judgment on whether or not a game like this should exist, or shouldn’t exist. And there’s a lot of stuff to unpack, from the general unrest the country is feeling, to the fact that the game was published by a Russian company, to the fact that, well, our children are dying and someone decided to make a spectacle of it.

But Athena, you admonish. You said you weren’t going to pass judgment on this game.

I did say that, didn’t I?

And so I won’t. Having seen brief clips of footage (used by news stations), it seems like this game is… to be honest, it seems boring. Wandering around with a gun shooting people like they’re fish in a barrel doesn’t seem like a particularly fun time.

While the game had a nice little disclaimer saying that it was “only for simulation” and advised seeking psychiatric help if the potential player truly wanted to arm someone, that doesn’t take away that the game provides what is essential a training simulation for school shooting.

“War games” are probably the next thing that come to people’s minds. While I personally do believe that desensitization to violence is not a good thing, let’s face it: playing Call of Duty does not train you to be infantry. But it certainly glamorizes the “tough soldier” persona, and makes war seem a lot more acceptable.

But it’s just a game. It’s just entertainment. Games don’t make killers.

But killers play games. So I ask:

Is there any topic that should be off-limits for games? Can covering certain topics create situations that are so dangerous that it’s better that the game doesn’t exist at all? Do you think there is any harm in having a realistic simulation game that centers around the playable character murdering people? Let me know in the comments!

Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!
~Athena

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31 comments

  1. I think that there is room in the world of video games to explore these topics, but as you stated, it has to be done respectfully. I think perhaps the best way around it is to take advantage of fictional space to talk about difficult subjects in a way that is emotionally a bit more distant. Games like Life is Strange, for example, deal with very real and pertinent struggles that teens go through, but there’s cushion there because you also have time travel and fantastical stuff.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Definitely. I think one of the biggest components is that the developers always need to remember that the player is *actively* engaged in whatever is happening, not passively watching it, and so while being respectful is important, also making sure that the point of view (and its possible ramifications) is accounted for.

      You make a good point about having “other things” to do, and giving the player an emotional break, as it were. I think there are a lot of topics that could be covered or have a discussion started by a game if it’s presented within that fantasy space, like you said.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Active Shooter definitely went too far in my opinion. But you raise a really good point in that video games have this stigma when it concerns tragic real-life events, way more than films. United 93 and World Trade Centre were generally received pretty well (the former maybe slightly more), but a game made about 9/11 would be universally panned. I think it all goes back to that much-debated question: are video games art? Films certainly are, so they get all the license they want to depict tragedy. But non-gamers just don’t feel the same about games I guess.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think you’re right that the “video games as art” thing is important. Also, like I mentioned to another commeter above, the point of view is also important. The player “is” the active shooter, and that’s a much more profound impact that being a passive observer.

      There actually was a game (or “VR experience”) made about 9/11 and it was panned. I saw a let’s play of it; it was tough to watch, but I didn’t think it was particularly disrespectful in any way. The outrage mostly came from a place of “how dare you” or even “why make a game about a person trapped in the towers,” which to me is a mix of both of our points.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s a tough one this in terms of movies and games, as it raises questions between being an observer vs being an active participant. I’m of the opinion that there should be limits. You see games like Rapelay that has you being actively involved in sexual assault. I don’t see why that would need to exist.

    The 9/11 one is a different story I think, as it’s told from the victim’s perspective.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’d agree with this; and I also think that there are some things that just should be off-limits. I wonder if games are in that awkward stage of figuring out what they want to be/can be when they grow up. Films went through a similar stage, and I think public opinion has gradually shaped what we deem acceptable, so I’m sure the same will apply to games.

      You’re right about the perspective. It’s a hard watch, but never seemed particularly… gratuitous or anything. Whatever point they were trying to make was sort of lost, but that can happen on a amateur film, too, can’t it?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s an interesting thought. Are we currently in the “video nasty” era of gaming in which people try to be as shocking as possible just for the sake of it.

        With the “everything is allowed” thing on Steam right now, I think we’ll see a sudden deluge of shocking content, before people tire of making it as the shock value just isn’t there anymore and it’ll drop off.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I think it really does depend on how it’s done. A school shooter video, to me, goes WAY too far, especially giving the gamer the ability to play as the shooter. But, played as a victim, has the potential to be a good way to teach, maybe even stir up some sympathetic feelings that finally make some changes in the US.

    I think that there are topics that should be off limits from certain perspectives. Giving people the capability of committing crimes against others doesn’t train them to perform those acts, but it does desensitize the gamer toward those acts. But giving people a chance to play a victim could change the way you feel about the topic.

    While I, personally, don’t believe that games depicting gratuitous violence or criminal activity is ever good for a gamer, I can’t deny the fact that these kinds of games could be tastefully done in an effort to teach and heal. I think it’s up to the devs to make sure that’s how they’re made. I just won’t buy them, myself.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. True. The idea of perspective is an important one, for sure. It seemed like they tried to do that with the inclusion of SWAT, but… yeah I think the intention of the game was to take a tragedy and make it into a game, not comment on it or offer perspective or anything like that. For me, that’s pretty important. And I agree; if a game doesn’t check those boxes, I just won’t buy.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah. I think the execution just failed completely. I know my therapist wants to try VR for his therapy sessions so we know gaming can certainly help! I think discretion should always be used when buying yourself (or your children) games. The best way to stop people from making a game? No one buys it. The genre is dead after that

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m not sure where I stand on this. I personally have limits but what my limits are may not be the same for other people. Where do we draw a line? Who gets to draw that line? And at what point does it become censorship?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s another important consideration! What I might think is awful and should never see the light of day might be someone else’s relaxing entertainment. I’m not sure if this is something that needs to be preemptively regulated, either. The game was made, people made it very clear that they didn’t want games like that made, and so it was taken down. I think this is potentially an issue that will correct itself without corporate or government meddling.

      Like

  6. I definitely think there is a place for games like these that handle sensitive topics, as long as it’s done tastefully and respectfully. As for games giving you the reigns to be a glorified killer? As much as I hate things like call of duty glorifying war, it may not be my cup of tea but others can see value in it. This may be a narrow minded view or whatever but someone could be playing it for simply being a gun enthusiast. Doesn’t make that person a killer so to speak. I just would choose to separate myself from that media for my own personal tastes and reasons.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You make a good point about picking what one wants to play. While I do think that being desensitized to violence is not really a good thing, I also think that the “too distasteful” representations will be shunned enough by society to not be a particularly permanent problem. In the meantime, I too will just keep avoiding the games that falls outside of my personal tastes!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This reminds me of a conversation I had with my tutor a few years back when we were discussing literature and whether or not a piece of fiction can be considered racist. We were studying Heart of Darkness, which was highlighted by a nigerian (I think,) author, Chinua Achebe, as a racist work due to its portrayal of Africa and citizens of the Congo. (I am coming to a point). I argued that the book was written from the point of view of a character of the time who probably was racist, but was written to highlight the inhumanity of it (and that is leaving aside I think Achebe was actually a hypocrite). I think sensitive subjects do have a place in our literarture, and I will argue with anyone that games are now part of our literature. You wouldn’t say it is wrong to make a documentary about a tragedy. Nor would you say it was wrong to make a drama about it, so long as it is tastefully done. If a game can help make a person feel the revulsion at becoming a killer that soldiers may feel when forced to take life, or the fear knowing that the building beneath you is unsafe then it serves an educational purpose. I think there should be clear warning or guidance so that folks who want no part in it are never exposed.
    As for active shooter…I made no such promise so I will make a judgement. It shouldn’t exist. Children, minors, are protected in the eyes of the law more than adults because they are minors and not deemed fully responsible. They are not suitable learning material for the same reason there is an age of consent. Lets leave them to have as much innocence as possible before being subjected to a harsh world. This must have been a hard post to write. Thanks for sharing

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d agree with this if I were to speak honestly; hurting children should always be off-limits in media, unless it’s being portrayed as the horrible thing that it is. But then, I think, that would fall under the more “educational” end of things…

      Art is always portrayed through the lens of its present, and then analyzed through the changing lens of society. It doesn’t mean that its merits change, but that they need to be taken in context and have had an original *point.*

      Like

  8. Yet another thoughtful piece on gaming – great work. For me, it’s the personal active involvement of it that makes games different to movies and the like. In a movie we could observe someone killing innocent people and be disgusted by it. But in a game, you are doing it yourself. That player agency is both a huge part of why games should be considered art, and also why some subjects should be off the table in my opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! And thanks for commenting!

      You might be on to something – the fact that the player is actively involved in the story, rather than just passively watching it, does put the events into a different perspective. Do you think that automatically means some topics are off-limits, or that they should be handled differently than, say, a movie would handle them?

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Jennifer and I have had this discussion around the time that Hatred was making headlines, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t see the problem with it. It was made in bad taste in order to capitalize on outrage marketing (similar to Hatred) and it looks like garbage. I won’t miss it being taken from Steam, but the only offense I take with it is that it’s just another crappy game.

    My personal feelings about it echo my wife’s. It’s not much different than games like Grand Theft Auto, or scenes like in Modern Warfare 2’s “No Russian” mission. There are plenty of games out on the market that put you in charge of the action when truly monstrous things are done. The only thing that sets games like Active Shooter apart is that they’re entirely focused on one activity.

    The real question in my opinion is, why is it frowned upon to have a game where a senseless rampage is the core mechanic when other games exist that allow that same activity? Is it only because you can do other things in them? Where do you draw the line? Why is it more palatable to murder hundreds of people in Los Santos or Liberty City, but not in a fictional school or a suburb?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think there is merit to what you said in regards to “where is the line, really?” But I also think that games don’t exist in a vacuum… There isn’t some thug running around Liberty City indiscriminately killing people, stealing cars, running over prostitutes, and generally being a one-person mafia. But real, flesh-and-blood children are being routinely murdered, and I think when the subject matter is based on “real” events (or echo so closely real events that have happened and are still “raw”)… well… I think those games need to tread a little more carefully, otherwise they might seem like they are trying to capitalize on a tragedy.

      I do believe that the public will sort all these things out; games that are considered “in poor taste” will not thrive, and eventually devs will learn what works, and what doesn’t.

      Like

  10. I don’t think there’s a topic that’s off limits, but just like other forms of media, there are sensitive topics that should be handled with respect. There’s a lot of people out there who will have the knee-jerk reaction that it’s impossible to treat such a subject with respect when you’re making a game out of it, that some things shouldn’t be fun, but the interactivity inherent with a video game can be utilized to open up possibilities for connecting with the material in ways other media can’t.

    Then, of course, it’s not hard to find the ‘super edgy’ examples of games crossing the line for no other point than to cross the line and offend people with no real substance behind it. Those ones are mostly deserving of the scorn they get.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. What would the reaction be if Active Shooter was a movie or a novel? Killers also watch movies. Killers also read books. Blame the person for being a killer, not the media they enjoyed viewing.

    I know I’m not interested in murder simulators like these because, like you said, they’re boring. You’ve asked some good questions! I’m just not sure if “shocking” games like this are a good thing. Video games are a good way to face problems such as this in a safe virtual environment where no one gets hurt. If we pretend this stuff doesn’t exist, it’s hard to stop it, you know? I guess it really depends on the game’s intention. Do the developer’s want to be edgy and cast a spotlight on themselves? Or are they really trying to change things for the better by bringing attention to the issue?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think if it were a movie, there would have been more to it, potentially being a docu-drama or an exploration/comment on the nature of school shooters. As others have mentioned, I think the fact that the player is actively being the shooter, with no context, is upsetting to some people. Actively doing something is different than passively watching, in many different ways.

      I think we’ll see some genres die out. People do talk with their money and their social clout, and Active Shooter was taken down from Steam due to the outrage. This is one game that I actually am glad that it was taken down, because it just seemed like it was trying to cash using outrage marketing. You raise some good questions, and I think the reason Active Shooter was taken down was because it wasn’t trying to change anything for the better.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. No, generally art like this isn’t done with the purpose of “being respectful,” but rather to make a point or illustrate an event. But you raise an interesting idea, that an artwork only exists in order to please the whims of the creator. Do you think that games (or other art) should only or/and always be created without a potential audience in mind?

      Like

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