Oh Games Industry, Do Grow Up!

Young Lara - she's so sweet! Like my little sister was at 16. D'aww.

We’re bombarded with 18-rated games, bloodthirsty carnage and boundary-pushing storylines. Even Ron Rosenburg tried to suggest Lara would be sexually assaulted in the next Tomb Raider. Brew all this together with bad language, hard rock and hip-hop and what do you have? Mature Gaming? Don’t make me laugh.

 

Sometimes, you need to sit down and hold your head in your hands. Captain Picard perfected it – that demonstratory of stupidity-pointing devices, the double-facepalm.

E3 wasn’t a particularly gamer-centric show. But what we were shown was arguably all aimed at an adult audience – you had sex, violence, guns and gore. Horror, blood and thrills. Nakedness, swearing, insinuations of sexual actions and guns being held by women in provocative poses. You had heavy rock, hip-hop and metal blaring through to give a grungy, gritty soundtrack to the proceedings. Explosions, boobs and enough firepower to destroy the Earth a dozen times over, with enough left over for another small-ish war on the Moon.

Thing is, this is supposed to be the age of mature gaming. The audience for video games is no longer as young as it used to be; the average age of a gamer is now in the mid-30s, and a lot of those aren’t exactly newcomers to the world of gaming either. By token, we’re being bombarded with explicit gun porn and softcore porn as a means to an end, the sales device with which to hook us in. And quite frankly, as a 30-something gamer, I’d like to say right now – I’m frankly disgusted by it all.

I like sex and violence and pushing the boundaries as much as anyone. I’ve played some real eye-openers over the years, from Parasite Eve and its hugely controversial opening scene that scored it a ban in the UK to Clock Tower on the SNES, which no-one wanted to see over here because it was too scary. We’ve had recently Catherine – a game which explores and revels in exploring the issue of sex and adultery, of monogamy and the guilt of cheating, as well as the excitement and thrill and consequences of your choices. There is nothing wrong with using violence and sex to push an intelligent agenda – Parasite Eve is a sci-fi story about genetic manipulation and the consequences of pissing around with our genome, after all, and Parasite Eve 2 was not above a naked shower scene and some pretty nasty violent moments.

The thing is, these used to be highlights of a game – a shower scene, cor and phwoar! Aya Brea’s naked body – we saw barely anything naughty, but saw plenty enough to engage our brains and go completely gaga over her. Of course now, naked breasts straight-on are the introduction we got to Far Cry 3. Not even slightly blurred. Tattooed breasts, sure, but still, nipples on full display, the main character fondling and groping them with gusto. Stats on guns used to be either parts of loading screens or stuff you researched online – or in game, now you usually have an indexed spec sheet about every little thing you have. We used to enjoy things like the Cerebral Bore from Turok – it was gory, but so outlandishly comic book you couldn’t really take it seriously. Now, if it isn’t believable enough – you won’t see it.

We’re a world being desensitised to violence and sex. So when Ron Rosenburg came out to Kotaku this week and pointed out in conversation that there would be a “Rape” scene in the new Tomb Raider, he probably thought a lot of us would be pretty open minded about that too.

Oh, how wrong he was.

You see, for as open-minded as I am, there are limits. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, American poet and critic, said it better than anyone has ever been able to; “If you’re too open-minded; your brains will fall out.”

Despite the fact that Crystal Dynamics within hours were back-pedaling harder than you’ve ever seen anyone back-pedal before (they categorically stated there is NOT any attempted rape – I guess even if there was, the backlash has made sure there isn’t anymore!), let’s put this into some context. Ron Rosenburg, who is the Executive Producer for this game, was very happy to tell a bunch of games reviewers, news hounds and press people that Lara was going to get raped, so we would feel somehow more protective of her, that it would build character and develop her as a person, not just a games character.

Arguably, I see what he means because I do have a little sister – and she was once a teenager, as is the Lara in this reboot of the series – a teenager, just about 16-17. Although in fairness I wouldn’t have protected my sister so much as asked who, and gone out and beaten the guy/s who carried out the attack with a baseball bat. I simply can’t stand the thought of it. I’d offer a similar service to every man and woman in the land if it were legal to do so.

Rape is not a light subject – it’s a serious offence, a criminal act of violence that leaves men and women scarred physically and emotionally for years, if not life. Rape is a taboo, one of the greatest taboos we still have left and one that may never escape the definition of taboo – for all the usage of the term in the MMO world, I personally find it offensive and pretty vulgar. The meaning of the word has somehow, for some reason, escaped some people and they need to be reminded what “rape” in that context means – it’s a sexual violation of your personal privacy. You don’t get to say no, or stop it, it happens – and it’s so often dismissed and cack-handedly handled by the media that there are real actual concerns that police officers coming into the profession now and recently simply don’t have the ability to take accusations of this heinous crime seriously. And it IS a heinous crime. We’ve started to cheapen the word – and I fear, as someone who studied English, that this will have serious consequences for the future.

But so quickly and flippantly said, during a showing of the demo of Tomb Raider, made it look instead as if he was wheeling it out as some kind of PR device – which is fantastic, I mean, hands up everyone who has wanted to see a virtual 16-year-old Lara get sexually assaulted! Anyone? No? Really? No, I didn’t think so either. It just doesn’t work. We’re not interested in it because not only is it wrong, it’s morally reprehensible. We in the UK have not long come out from a media lashing about a woman who was raped because no-one would lend her, or discount, the 20p she was short for a bus fare home, fearing she was being followed. I’d have paid her fare in full had I been there. Her fears were unfortunately realised – and at a time of national togetherness, the Diamond Jubilee, the story was a stark reminder how even the simplest act of generosity could have the most profound of impacts. Then to have a video game producer talking about having a rape scene in his game – on Lara Croft of all subjects, and a young teenage Lara Croft at that – off the back of that story just sank on most of us here in the UK. It wasn’t funny. It wasn’t appropriate. I don’t even think it was all that clever.

You see, there are limits to acceptance, and there will come a time when really, all this sex and violence will just become so cheap and tawdry that it’s hard to take seriously anymore.

I still get accused sometimes of playing kiddy games. I was in hospital playing Mario Kart 7 (free wifi WOOOOOOOOO!) and one of the other patients said, “Isn’t that a bit childish?”

Really? It’s Mario Kart. I didn’t realise it was meant for kids.
“Yeah, it’s a really childish game, not a good look.”
So, what games do you play.
“Call of Duty, Gears of War, that sort of thing.”

I swear, if I wasn’t in so much pain at the time, I’d have burst my stitches back open laughing. Sure, games focused on massive penis-shaped guns, heavy metal and hip hop, with big sweaty burly men wearing really heavy armour and fist-pumping and generally enjoying “bromance” aren’t at all immature, are they? And this is the thing – he was really not able to see the irony. He really couldn’t. And this is a big problem as well, because we’re sleepwalking into it – we’re basically tolerating this. I have no issues with the violence, or the guns, or the bromance or even the massive levels of homo-eroticism being pushed. What bothers me is there’s no other reason for it except that it is “edgy”. Edgy for the sake of it doesn’t tend to last very long. Actually, that’s unfair, because “edgy” has purpose whereas these games sadly don’t.

After all, I was watching a TV show called “God Save the Queens”, about the rise of gay men on television during the reign of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. And some of it was kind of light but then you had the real hard edged people – Frankie goes to Hollywood, pushing the concept of gay sex to the world, and Bronski Beat about the fallout of the AIDS epidemic, and how hard it was shortly thereafter to be a gay man. These showed the dirty reality of things, there was no airbrushing and most importantly, there was a point to it – acceptance, tolerance, demystification – and when these lessons had been learned, they sort of disappeared again. Their point had been made, and that was enough.

That’s why Julian Clary is still a much loved comic in the UK today – a man who made the demystification of gay sex a massive part of his act in the 80s and 90s and still today is the master of the double entendre. He wasn’t just edgy and funny – he was actually saying, “This is how it works and how it happens.” And we laughed – but we were learning, and by learning we were becoming accepting. We started to realise as a society that it wasn’t alien and you didn’t need fifty trained dolphins and a Navy SEAL. It was sex. Dirty, filthy, simple sex. Just like anyone else would have been having – just the holes were a little different, that was all. He is a massively toned down performer now, but even by his admission it is because there is no need for his old style any more – we’re accepting, tolerant and the internet means anyone remotely curious has access to porn that can demystify the rest. His original and excessive style of dress and wit isn’t dulled – it’s just no longer relevant. His act has moved on. He has moved on, and become one of the most wickedly funny people you could hope to hear on Just a Minute – his wordplay today, just on the right side of acceptable but rude, is just perfect. His tongue doesn’t need to be so explicit anymore – it had had its day, had its higher purpose and meaning, and now all it serves is as mere shock value. And when all you have is shock value, you aren’t worth very much at all.

These games – Far Cry 3, Gears of War etc, aren’t informative, they aren’t demystifying anything and they can’t hold some kind of superior moral ground. They are written to shock, and be shocking, and provoke reactions and effectively create a buzz, a reactionary wave that will see the press and media do all the promotional stuff for them. It’s true. It’s cheap. It’s a bit tacky. But for some reason, it works, and we’re all being exposed to more and more of it, the furthest excesses, because it is taking more and more to shock us – and therefore, the reliance on controversy and column inches is becoming harder and harder to rely on. And then what? Shock horror, some of them might need to have an ADVERTISING BUDGET! Oh noes! How awful!

Truth is, I’m not always looking for a higher purpose or point to my games but you know what? It’s a very nice thing to have sometimes. I’ve been spoiled by BioShock, by Parasite Eve, Bayonetta and so many other games over the years who married their more controversial points with real substance, depth and design work. Gore and guns shouldn’t be the beginning and end of your design work – it should be the basis for something bigger, greater, more profound. Games don’t always need stories – but when your game has script writers, why not use them to write scripts rather than one-liners? Never know, they might come up with something amazing.

And things can be amazing. But this whole boobs and guns and gore thing isn’t grown up at all. It’s childish – more childish than Pokemon, more childish than any Mario game – I’d go as far as to say it’s on a par with the Tellytubbies in the maturity stakes and you know what? I think Tinky Winky may be more butch than some of the Gears of War cast. I’m pretty sure Dipsy, La-La and Po are more intimidating.

I feel ashamed when this is the image we present as gamers to the world at our major annual conference. That all we want is more tits, more guns, more gore. We’ve spent the past thirty years trying so hard, so very, very hard to get our hobby out of the bedroom, to mature and say that no, not all gamers are thirty stone blobs who never leave the house and are virgins. And not all gamers are fat, sweaty, nerdy teenage boys who can’t interact and so live out their fantasies of revenge and sex in the comfort of a video game.

We have some amazing games coming. Quantum Conundrum, loads of Lego games, a new and very interesting Harvest Moon, as well as Mario and Pikmin 3. And yes, there are high-brow artsy concepts as well that include violence, but with merit – BioShock Infinite, for example. Dishonored, a sort of steampunk thriller in a Noir setting. Violence included, maybe even some nudity, but it’s part of a bigger whole. Even Tomb Raider looks like it may have some merit about the creation of a hero, a survivor.

We’ve spent so long shrugging off that stereotype – so when E3 seems to justify the very stereotype we’ve been trying to get rid of, I hold my head in my hands in despair.

Sure, violence and sex is everywhere. Just when we’re trying to promote our culture to those not wholly ingratiated, it’s sometimes best to also look at other things too. Just so they don’t get the wrong idea.

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