Responding to the White House’s violent games reel with similarly out-of-context scenes makes for a weak and reductive argument in more ways than one.
When the Trump administration dragged video games in front of members of Congress and the games industry, we didn’t expect anything more than what it was: a transparent attempt at scapegoating and skirting the real issues this country faces. It’s nothing new for games, which have been dealing with the anti-video game crowd for decades. But maybe this could be the industry’s chance at self-reflection anyway.
Almost a week after the White House released an 88-second montage of violent video game scenes, Games for Change — a non-profit focused on empowering creators to make positive change with games and technology — released its own short reel to showcase what it described as “a different view of games.”
Unlike the violent games montage — that lingered on brutal executions and massacres from shooter series like Call of Duty, Fallout, and Wolfenstein — Games for Change’s edit featured more pleasant moments: Link riding a horse through a windswept plain. Ellie from The Last of Us petting a giraffe. Aloy from Horizon Zero Dawn watching a herd of machines from a snowy clifftop. The point of the video is, presumably, to show that not all games are as violent as the White House presents them, or that there’s more to violent video games than a collection of out-of-context clips.
Violence does have a place in video games. The way to defend that isn’t to shy away from it.
It’s a noble effort, but one that doesn’t change much at all, and in fact may actively harm the larger discussion around video games’ artistic merits.
The montage’s most obvious issue is that a substantial number of the games it showcases are incredibly violent. A shot of Aloy admiring a herd of mechanized creatures barely has room to breathe before, a moment later, she’s tearing them limb from limb. The Last of Us is known for its savage depiction of violence. Shadow of the Colossus is a gorgeous game with a single goal: find every one of the majestic beasts in its world and kill them. Violence doesn’t inherently make these games bad, but it does weaken the video’s ability to counter the White House’s reel.
Anyone can pick and choose moments from a game to fit their agenda.
Fox News did it with Mass Effect back in 2008 and, now, the White House employs the same tactic in 2018. If the goal was to contradict the White House’s cherry-picked depiction of games, there are plenty of choices of exclusively non-violent games: Portal, Stardew Valley, Katamari Damacy, Night in the Woods, Opus Magnum, The Sims, Gorogoa, Even the Ocean, The Witness. Highlighting these games makes the point that video games are a diverse medium with a rich selection of experiences — not that there’s some pretty scenery in otherwise violent action games.
But there’s more harm in fighting out-of-context clips with out-of-context clips than just legitimizing the anti-video game crowd’s reductive tactics — it also lends credence to the idea that depictions of fictional violence are inherently bad and that the gaming community should minimize them to retain a good public image.
Video game violence shouldn’t be censored, but we shouldn’t hide from hard conversations about it either.
Violence exists in every art form on the planet — from movies to books to ancient pottery — because it can be an interesting and valuable subject to explore. Violence does have a place in video games. The way to defend that isn’t to shy away from it. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl didn’t survive its obscenity trial in the ‘50s off the existence of its less lewd images, but off the merit of its vulgarity. But if our gut reaction is to keep on insisting that games are more than the x-ray killcams, headshots, and stylish executions the White House reel depicts, maybe it’s because we’re afraid to admit that video games’ “exploration” of violence kind of sucks.
(And that we’re all just as guilty of glorifying it…)
Few video games actually explore violence as much as they mechanize and systemize it. There are exceptions like Spec Ops: The Line, which forces us to engage with difficult questions about violence while using violence to subvert common tropes. The Metal Gear Solid series, perhaps one of the few truly anti-war games out there, does an incredible job of confronting violent subject matter like the military-industrial complex and nuclear proliferation while also giving players non-lethal approaches to its scenarios. But most games are generally uncritical with their violence. Their primary modes of interaction are through combat and domination, and that can cheapen their ability to engage with violence in any meaningful way.
There’s room for games with surface-level violence, but there’s a whole lot of room for games that offer more. If there’s any positive takeaway we can possibly squeeze out of video game violence being back in the spotlight, it’s that. Why has violence become so prevalent and normalized in even the most pleasant-looking games, and what, if anything, can be done to encourage more compelling ways of playing and interacting with game worlds. Video game violence shouldn’t be censored, but we shouldn’t hide from hard conversations challenging it either. Being critical and asking tough questions about the things we love is the only way to make those things better.
There is truth and even beauty in ugliness, horror, and despair, and countless games speak to this in deep, surprising ways.
The last question Games for Change’s montage raises is how we measure beauty in games to begin with, and how we tend to disproportionately value the safe, traditional, and even — ironically — the conservative. Seeing the same scenic vistas and cute characters paraded around as triumphs of gaming’s “good side” is boring — even IGN is guilty of this ourselves, as you can see in the video below. Video games may be more than the brutality of their combat systems, but they are also way more than the cautiously unobjectionable “sunshine and rainbows” on display in their montage. Someone once sat Roger Ebert down in front of thatgamecompany’s Flower in an effort to prove to him that games could be art. He accused its visuals of being about as interesting as a greeting card. While Ebert’s thoughts about games were notoriously closed-minded, he may have been on to something.
We shouldn’t measure the aesthetic value of games by how beautifully they can render pretty landscapes. There is truth and even beauty in ugliness, horror, and despair and there are countless games that speak to that in deep and surprising ways: Silent Hill, Rain World, Inside, Cart Life, Yume Nikki, Pathologic, Papers, Please. We shouldn’t need to prove that games are all hyper-realistic forests and quaint coming-of-age dramas to earn them respect.
It’s unfair to say Games for Change should have been responsible for trying to convey any of this in a simple two-minute montage. What they put out in response to the White House’s cringe-worthy violence in games reel was well-intentioned, and it’s good to have people in the community willing to carry the conversation away from the anti-video game crowd’s harmful rhetoric. But gamers, critics, and creators involved in this discussion should rethink how useful it is to pick apart games into sets of out-of-context elements and assign different levels of morality to them. Doing so is only countering a reductive argument with another one, giving ammo to the other side, and setting oddly conservative artistic standards for games that may eventually come back to bite us.
Chloi Rad is an Associate Editor for IGN. Follow her on Twitter at @_chloi.