Monday, November 21, 2011

The trouble with video games

What's the trouble with video games? According to Charlie Brooker at The Guardian, it's not the violence. It's that most of the characters are dicks.

Yeah, it's pretty funny - like his observation that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is "the most homoerotic tale ever told in any medium" - but he makes some valid points.

Still, you have to love the humor, too:
I don't particularly mind the level of violence in computer games, partly because it's absurd, and partly because I'm hopelessly desensitised. What I do object to is the dick-swinging machismo that infests games like this. If I had a penny for every time I've spent the opening moments of a game sitting in the back of a transport vehicle listening to a soldier called Vasquez repeatedly use the word "motherfucker", I'd have enough money to buy the Sesame Street game instead. And even that probably starts with Sergeant Grover warning Private Elmo that "Shit is about to get real".

Every soldier in every game I've ever played is a dick. A dick that sounds like a 14-year-old boy reading dialogue discarded from an old-school Schwarzenegger action movie for displaying too much swagger. They seem like a bunch of try-hard bell-ends, desperate to highlight their gruff masculinity. What, exactly, are they overcompensating for?

Well, for one thing, games are inherently wussy. The stereotype of the bespectacled dweeby gamer is an inaccurate cliche, but there's no denying games are far from a beefy pursuit. Which is why shooty-fighty games go out of their way to disguise that. Every pixel of Modern Warfare 3 oozes machismo. It's all chunky gunmetal, booming explosions and stubbly men blasting each other's legs off. Yet consider what genteel skills the game itself requires. To succeed, you need to be adept at aiming a notional cursor and timing a series of button-pushes. It's about precision and nimble fingers. Just like darning a sock in a hurry. Or creating tapestry against the clock.

In other words, Modern Warfare 3 would be nothing but a gigantic needlework simulation were it not for the storyline, which is the most homoerotic tale ever created in any medium, including Frankie Goes to Hollywood videos. Behind the military manoeuvrings, the human story revolves around people backstabbing, bitching, making catty asides, breaking off friendships and betraying one another. Ignore the gunfire and it's like a soap opera set in a ballet school.

Heh, heh. Maybe I think it's particularly funny because I don't play games like that. Of course, that's mainly because I lack the precision and the nimble fingers. I'd probably be terrible at darning a sock in a hurry, too!

So I have no first-hand experience with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. But I've seen videos of the gameplay, and I don't think Brooker is too far off. And some of the modern games I do play really seem to reward dickishness.

I've been playing Fallout 3 lately, mostly because it was on sale for only $4.99 from Impulse (now GameStop). I loved the first two games in the series, but... well, that's a post for another time.

At any rate, Fallout 3 is all about killing, too (most of these games are). But frequently, the game will switch to this slow-motion closeup, so you can watch the head of your enemy explode in glorious detail. The violence seems designed to be positively orgasmic. Very macho, no doubt.

You can also get perks which will give you extra experience for murdering people in their sleep. And both good and evil characters can cut off the ears or fingers of their enemies to get extra cash.

I haven't played The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim yet, but that game also switches to slow-motion video capture to show you every loving, bloody detail of your victims.

I posted this video clip  the other day, because I thought it was funny. You can put a bucket on the barman's head and then murder his sister right in front of him, and he won't react - not even when you remove the bucket - because he didn't see it happen.

And yeah, that is funny. But note the murder itself. (Note that the detail is far higher in the game than it is in that clip.) It's not that you can kill everything and everyone in the game that bothers me. That's pretty typical for computer games. But these days, killing is made to seem almost sensual.

One of my favorite bloggers has been playing the old (1988) game Wasteland, which was the precursor to the Fallout games and one of my all-time favorites. This comes from his final post on the game, and maybe it will help me indicate the contrast between then and now:

In Highpool, one of the small villages in the radioactive wastes, you do have the choice to attack and kill children who mock you. But if you do that, this is the message you get:
A child lies dead at your feet near his Red Ryder hat. A puppy crawls up whining and lays its head on the boy's chest.

Yeah, you can act like a dick, but the game shows you the results of that. Furthermore, Highpool turns into a ghost town, so there's nothing left there to benefit you later.

Earlier in the game, a child attacks your party - with his Red Ryder BB gun - after you're forced to kill his rabid dog. In most games, you'd probably kill him without even thinking about it. But in Wasteland, if you do think about it, you can just run away. You don't have to kill this upset child. You don't have to act like a dick.

I don't want to exaggerate this. No one is going to mistake a game for reality, and no one is going to start murdering real people, just because of what they've been shown in a computer game. That is not the problem, not even for children.

But games - especially multiplayer games - often seem to encourage people to act like dicks. Certainly, there are plenty of dicks around! You really can't avoid them (which is the main reason I don't play multiplayer games).

And that kind of behavior is catching. If your community is composed of dicks, you'll tend to become a dick, too. It goes the other way as well, to some extent, but it only takes a small minority of dicks to set the tone in a game.

Complaining about video games has become the national pastime of old-farts everywhere, and I hate to add to it. But even games with a lot of adults playing - and games specifically marketed as "mature" - seem to be designed for particularly dickish 13-year-olds.

Is it too much to ask for games that really are mature? For games that show the honest consequences of dickish behavior? At least for games that don't reward or encourage dickish behavior?

Edit:  Note that there are currently 633 comments to that Guardian article! No, I didn't read them all, only the first page. But still, some of them are pretty funny. For example:

Scaryduck: "MW3, where you get to be called a "fag" by enraged teenagers every 30 seconds. It's like being spanged over the head with a frying pan while somebody shouts YouTube comments at you."

Ratb0y: "I'll be sticking to Skyrim for teh foreseeable future. At least if my character in that is a dick it's because I did it for the amusement factor and not because the game railroads you into doing so. One achievement today was stopping some kid getting bullied through reasoning with his tormentor. Turns out she just wanted to kiss him all along. Bless.

"I then went and hit a dragon in the face with an axe repeatedly. Thus doing my bit for wildlife conservation."

TheLuckyC: "Another Call of Duty game, exactly the same - daft, repetitive action, idiotic storylines rejected by 24 as 'too ridiculous', zero characterisation, and patronising inspirational quotes upon death.

"And yet I'll still play the bloody game. What does that make me? An idiot, apparently."


AJ said...

Can you elaborate, please? What constitutes dickish behavior?

Bill Garthright said...

You know, AJ, I was wondering about that as I wrote the post. I wasn't sure the examples I gave, things I didn't like in games, were actually dickish behavior. I went so far as to Google "dickish." Twice. (That didn't help, because it wasn't that I didn't understand the word.)

So no, I don't think I can elaborate. I used the word because that was what Charlie Brooker used. Note that he used it to describe the actions of game characters, of NPCs. I think I understand his point, but I've never actually played Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 myself.

I don't actually play any multiplayer games, not these days. But from what I've seen and heard, I tend to think that it's also widespread among the players themselves. There are a lot of jerks out there.

While you were commenting here, I was editing this post to mention some of the comments at The Guardian. The first one definitely describes what I think is dickish behavior.

(And it's why the claim that the game is homoerotic - which is, certainly, no problem if that is the case - strikes me as funny. It's the combination of over-the-top macho posturing with players running around calling everyone else "gay.")

As I say, I probably can't elaborate. If you're wondering about the game itself, or objecting because you play it, well, I don't, so I have no personal knowledge of it.

And if you mean in general, I guess I object to games encouraging players to behave like jerks, whether it's an actual character trait or not.

AJ said...

Well...thanks for the thoughtful response. I really was joking. As you know, I don't play multiplayer games, either. I'm not social enough for that...or fast enough. I'm stuck in Morrowind because I can't slay that skeleton on the first bridge!

Bill Garthright said...

Heh, heh. I kind of thought that was you, Ann, but I wasn't certain, so I didn't want to assume anything.

Re. Morrowind, I don't know what skeleton you're talking about. First bridge? But you can go pretty much anywhere you want in the world. And if it's a quest, just do a different one.

I'm very bad at those games, myself. But I just practice my sneaking and my archery skills, so I can take out enemies before they even know I'm there. Admittedly, that doesn't work quite as well with skeletons, unless you buy some special arrows or use potions.

Anonymous said...

I loved Charlie Brooker's article and actually had to write about it for a higher readin assessment. He uses comedy to help portray the homoerotic themes and unessessary need for all the violence. Also you are not supposed to think in this game just do as your told wether you agree or not.

Bill Garthright said...

Thanks, Anonymous. The issue of thinking in games - really making your own decisions, rather than just following as a game leads you by the hand - is something I need to address sometime.

Or maybe I already have. It's easy to lose track here.