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The Social Responsibilities of Videogames / 13th of November 2014


We’ve all heard the saying that “with great power comes great responsibility” which was coined by Spiderman’s Uncle Ben, yet Stan Lee did not spin us a web full of fallacies when he wrote it, there is undoubtedly a nugget of truth held within this simple statement, and for the many developers and publishers that make the videogame industry what it is, this is not merely a mildly relevant guideline, but a wholly pertinent blueprint that gives each release a fighting chance at finding commercial success. Whilst many videogames have found themselves hoisted up to go on show as the modern day equivalent of a 1980’s video nasty, this-to a certain extent-is not entirely without merit. How many times have we seen such blatant disregard for modern social considerations, or simply found ourselves perpetuating grotesque acts of violence for which there is no context or explanation provided? Well, no more.

Contrary to the popular conception, there is such a thing as bad publicity, especially if leads to limited market penetration or even an all-out ban, the following are some of the factors that companies take into consideration when developing and distributing titles, most will aim to fall within the boundaries of each, whilst some deliberately fly in the face of common decency to convey messages of hatred for others-though these are, of course, few and far between. Yet, they are most certainly out there. Videogames have now amassed such an enormous following that they compete with the music and film industries to be the most popular form of entertainment of Earth, generating untold influence over the masses who enjoy them, and as expected, with this power, there has indeed come great responsibility.



Understanding the Target Audience:




People play games for a wide variety of reasons, even whilst we may continue to persevere in our attempts to pigeon hole ourselves through such trifles as genres, which leaves the developers creating the works of interactive entertainment that we play and love forced into making attempts to understand the audience that their games are intended for, and what it is specifically that will attract them to their project, as it is such a vital step in realising the commercial potential of a product. From the outset, the core design factors will be dictated as much by the narrative, art design or primary inspirations, as much as by the audience that it is directed towards. For example, in recent years, we have seen a major shift in the values of Ubisoft that is reflected in the design of all of their major AAA releases, each seemingly having to incorporate some element of co-operative play, this would appear to be a concept that their fans have latched onto, and it shows that this is not only a shrewd business stratagem, but highlights an understanding from the company perspective of their core consumer base.

Of course, not everyone enjoys this social aspect of gaming, some play to escape the monotony of their lives, or the world in general, preferring a more exclusionary, single player experience. With the advent of network gaming, this seems to have become something of a rarity these days, with most games incorporating an element of social interaction, even video games’ most deep and engrossing single player campaign experience of recent years, Mass Effect, brought in a multiplayer component itself-though thankfully, this was kept relatively distant from the core experience that the established fan base were drawn to. Whilst it is all well and good to propose social play, it should not come at the expense of a wholly engrossing, narrative driven experience which can only really be delivered through solo campaigns, and perhaps most importantly, it should not come at the expense of excluding the gamers who utilise videogames in such a way.   

On a personal level, I feel that the basis of all gaming stems from the arcade, and the core foundation for all gaming is based on the staple goal of attaining a high score, this harks back to a time when videogames were, in a sense, more simplistic, but were frighteningly addictive as a result. Too many games nowadays are based around poorly conceived characters and narratives, and simple score based gaming has been all but lost in the process. Of course, some companies have ensured that classic arcade experiences still remain, from the likes of Treasure, one of the greatest and most original developers the world has ever known, and Cave, currently the finest proponent of the “bullet hell shooter”. These companies, of course, have a dedicated following, and whilst Cave have made some attempts at cracking the mainstream market, it has come at a great cost to them, leaving the company with a rather uncertain future due to a lack of funding. This follows on from Microsoft’s rather hefty investment in the brilliant, Mistwalker, securing from them two top quality, exclusive RPGs before the Redmont based giant severed their agreement due to the limited market penetration of the two releases, particularly in Japan, where the Xbox brand has consistently floundered. If they had recognised the limited market appeal of the genre before investing so heavily in them, the two releases might very well have been considered successes, which is why it is especially important for both developers and publishers alike to understand their audiences.



Social & Cultural Implications:





The videogame industry is no longer espoused within a small clique, it is a booming global business that now competes with both music and film as one of the top three forms of entertainment on the planet today. But, with such success comes additional pressures and obligations that developers must be wary of. The human race is a fractured species, driven apart by so many varying factors that stem from our country of origin, social status, spirituality and skin colour, and though it would be crude of me to compare such conditions with the divisive, yet far more straightforward, nature of gaming’s target audiences, they are similar in the sense that what is right for one, may not be alright with another. And these lessons have been learned by some the hard way.

In 2008, Sony released their Media Molecule developed platformer, Little Big Planet, which was a cutesy game fronted by the now popular Sackboy, a game that surely could not cause any offence if had even tried, yet invariably, it did. In one of the licensed music tracks on the game’s soundtrack, there were heard to be passages being recited from the Qur’an. Now, there are no rules in Islam to prohibit such a song, yet just prior to the game’s release, a young Muslim complained to Sony via the forums on the Little Big Planet website, asking that they remove the track from the game, to which they agreed. What was decreed to be impertinent was the combination of music, which is seen as Haram (sinful), with the words overlaid on top as their meaning can become lost in the translation, thankfully, Sony reacted quickly and recalled the title before it had gone on sale, though this was a social issue that they should have been aware of before it had gotten so far. Likewise, in 1998, it is believed that Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time also featured Muslim chanting which was pulled from the game at the last minute so as to prevent the inference of aspersion towards the Muslim community. Yet, of course, many other games have fallen foul for reasons beyond a lack of religious sensitivity.

Violent content is a major issue in video game design, it has led to many games becoming censored or even banned in markets across the globe, and is the primary source of attacks against the medium from the popular press and the ill-informed politicians looking to make names for themselves, such as Connecticut’s Senator Chris Murphy who used the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting as his excuse to feebly link videogames to the tragic deaths of twenty children and six teachers. Though it must be said, in some instances, videogames have seemingly brought attention upon themselves for the wrong reasons, a prime example being Rockstar’s vapid, violent extravaganza Manhunt, and its subsequent sequel, the latter was deemed to be so unnecessarily violent that it was initially denied classification in the UK and was given an Adults Only (AO) rating in the US, the only game to receive the rating other than The Punisher. The game subsequently had to be re-cut after both Microsoft and Sony announced that they would not allow AO titles on their console platforms, which meant that the game would have been banned in both the UK and the US. In reaction, a great deal of the violence was toned down, and the opportunities for callous, random acts of violence against innocent bystanders was taken out of the game, and rightfully so. Manhunt 2 would eventually go on sale in both markets, though it continued to court controversy, the same could not be said of Resistance Records’ Ethnic Cleansing, a shoddy piece of racist propaganda designed to encourage the hatred, and perpetuation of violence against non-white Americans. Its Neo-Nazi subject matter was proudly shown off in the game’s climax, which sees players arrive at the “Yiddish Control Centre” where Ariel Sharon, then still the Israeli Prime Minister, is plotting to take over the world. Sadly, despite the great deal of offence that the game caused, it was never banned, and was even followed up with a sequel in 2003, though obviously-and rather thankfully-the impact of both games was minimal at best.

It must be said that there is a certain degree of cynicism in the treatment of videogames (or any media for that matter), for it is only when the product has the potential to achieve a strong level of market penetration that the subject matter becomes the target of a vigorous assault, allowing deliberately hurtful nonsense such as Ethnic Cleansing to exist, whilst banning the likes of Manhunt 2, though developers must be well aware of these troubling conditions when creating an experience as bleak and relatively lacking in context as the work of Rockstar London.



Historical & National Interests/Influences:




Taking a historical setting for a game may also result in at least as many problems for a developer should they handle the subject matter too ham-handedly or in a manner deemed to be inappropriate or insensitive to others. Wolfenstein 3D, the grandfather of all first person shooters, from id Software is undoubtedly the most famous example of such a game, it pitted the player into the shoes of its now famous protagonist, William “BJ” Bazkowicz, an American spy with Polish heritage, which was-and still is-a rarity in videogames. BJ is on a mission to destroy the Nazi war machine, as such, the game is literally filled with Nazi imagery, and a final confrontation with Hitler himself. In Germany, Nazi imagery is banned, and as such, the game was withdrawn from sale there, it would later be ported onto the Atari Jaguar and the Nintendo SNES, though for the latter, the game was edited to remove all Nazi images, Hitler’s iconic moustache, blood (for the German version) and even attack dogs-which were replaced with some kind of mutant rat instead. Of course, despite this, the Wolfenstein series is still going strong, proving itself to be a very popular IP outside of Germany.

Naturally, this id classic is not alone in this regard, with the Scottish made JFK: Reloaded being another prime example, and whilst it was created with the sole intention of proving Lee Harvey Oswald’s guilt of the popular president’s assassination, it was not well received, and was even branded as “disgusting” by Ted Kennedy through one of his spokesmen. Of course, the situation was certainly not helped by the fact that the developer, Traffic, released the game on the 41st anniversary of the president’s death, and rates player’s performances by how accurately they can replicate the bullet trajectories of Oswald’s three shots.

Historical accuracy is something that should not be taken lightly, with Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed games now having researchers attached to them to ensure that the game has an air of authenticity, they may not be entirely historically accurate, but they contain enough factual content about them to ensure that they feel as though they are accurate representations of the time periods and regions that they are set in. Gun, developed by Activision’s Neversoft, was another game to fall under heavy scrutiny, the Association for American Indian Development called for changes to be made to the game, and demanded an immediate recall of the product should the game not be altered to present the native American people in a different light-though there is a progression through the story that sees this occur anyway. The game is set in the violent, turbulent and undoubtedly racist world of the old west, what was created in Gun was a valid reflection of its time period, and whilst it was obviously not in keeping with modern opinion, it was never meant to. Historical accuracy, therefore, is not necessarily a positive thing either, but it can at least be justified.



Gender:





These days, there are more and more women playing videogames, in fact, if one were to count mobile and tablet devices among the console platforms, female gamers would, I believe, outnumber the male count, though only just. Regardless, the rising number of female gamers has occurred in spite of an industry still heavily male dominated and orientated, not because of it, it is an industry that has had to face up to accusations of misogyny on many occasions, and whilst these have been typically unfounded, this has not always been the case, from the vile release that was Custer’s Revenge, the crude humour of Duke Nukem (though in the character’s defence, he is a parody of a typical eighties action film hero) to the graphic sexualisation of women in Tecmo’s Dead or Alive series. Yet the worst examples are presumably those that don’t actually realise that they are in fact sexist, Hideo Kojima’s overblown disaster, Metal Gear Solid, is a wonderful example of how female characters should not be handled, his latest effort Metal Gear Solid V, has introduced a female companion to Snake. Being a sniper, gamers would perhaps be fooled into thinking that the team had created a strong female companion for the series’ long standing hero, but they would surely be wrong. Known only as “Quiet”-presumably as she is unable to voice an opinion of her own-she was created following Kojima’s own instructions that the female characters in the game be made more “erotic” in their design, which doubtless explains why this specific character wears little more than a bikini in battle.

Nintendo’s Samus Aran is one of the industry’s true success stories, a tough as nails bounty hunter believed by all to have been a male character, until she removed her helmet at the end of Super Metroid and showed the world that it was in fact possible for a woman to, in the parlance of our times, “kick ass”. However, even she has fallen upon hard times as a character to whom women can look to as a role model, weakened as she was in the Team Ninja produced Other M, which saw the proud warrior reduced to the stereotypical role of a feeble woman who must rely on the strength of the male characters around her to prevail. Similarly, the character of Lara Croft has often been misinterpreted as a sign of the industry’s move towards stronger, more dominant female characters, and whilst this is not entirely without merit, there can be no escaping the fact that she is also one the most overtly sexualised characters in the history of the medium, though this is something that current developer Crystal Dynamics are in the process of attempting to put right through their own efforts that deal with the forming of a young Lara’s steely determination and adventurous spirit.

There is no doubt that the industry is making moves in the right direction, and whilst Ubisoft recently landed themselves in hot water for refusing to include any female characters among the four playable assassins in its upcoming release, Unity, many games now offer character creation options which have begun to level the playing field somewhat. Even Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto, another series that has come under attack for misogyny, has to a certain extent begun to incorporate character creation elements, at least as far as its GTA Online mode goes, allowing players to partake in the action within the shoes of a female character, allowing the developer to offset at least some of the claims made against them in the past. Of course, despite the many iterations that have thus far fallen under the GTA brand, not one has yet incorporate a female protagonist within its single player narrative. And thus, whilst we cannot deny the strides that have been made towards making videogames a more inclusive environment for both male and female gamers, there is evidently, still so much more work to be done.

Ultimately then, for a video game developer, there are many considerations that must be met when designing and creating a videogame, concerns that go beyond the internal design decisions that govern UI, character design, art style, level design and so on, there being the social responsibilities that must be reflected in their work. For, whilst the French might say, “succès de scandale”, in the world of videogames such feats are not guaranteed, especially when market penetration can effectively drop to zero as a consequence of irresponsibility or blatant hateful action. And besides, in five years from now, will anyone remember the scandal of Manhunt 2 over the artistic triumphs of Rez? I think not.

 
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