But now it’s the World of Warcrafts that are pushing to the fore of the public consciousness re: gaming. Parents, politicians and Daily Mail readers are more likely to rally around the rather more mundane ‘game addiction is turning our kids into malnourished couch potatoes’. Which we’ve all heard, right? It’s a simple, common observation. Tie it to the terrible stories of Korean kids dying while they play MMOs, and you’ve got a controversy.
And, so the year’s previous hot topic for people who actually play games is starting to shift: from ‘Why Aren’t Games Art?’ (they are, get over it, we’re here now) to ‘Can Games Be Immoral?’. Because, really, it’s quite obvious to anyone who’s touched one that a videogame couldn’t be an addictive substance, but who hasn’t experienced someone shutting off to everything but this one game. Look at Farmville and its host of cheap tricks, or download pretty much any ‘casual’ iPhone game. There are some pretty dirty tactics going on.
And, then, on the other hand:
“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all."That’s Oscar Wilde, there. (Yes, this is going to be one of those posts. Sorry.) He’s a guy who knew a little something about controversy and moral panic. And I’ve always tended to agree: when the ‘games are too violent’ arguments surfaced, I shrugged and held that quotation close.
(Unless you think that level was handled well/sensitively/entirely in keeping with the rest of Call of Duty, in which case, good on you. It’s all just opinions.)
But the thing with games is that it isn’t just about the content. It’s how about games play, what is built into their rules and mechanics. The addictive slow uptick of numbers that has helped along consumerist society for centuries, for example. Or a (potentially false) sense of reward and achievement.
The classic question is always: why is it okay for paintings/films/books to depict horrible atrocities/the Taliban/rape but not for games? And the answer that tends to be trotted out by the people who think that’s the case is because games are interactive. You’re directly involved in these horrors and, in their favourite examples, the one perpetrating them.
But it’s not about interactivity, as such. It’s about what interactivity means.
Because interactivity can take anything and lay an addictive method of play over it. Because that’s what you have to do, in a game. Where other artforms have carefully built a monument to beauty or elegance or the artist’s skill, ours is a towering Ozymandias-like colossus hailing the one true virtue: Fun.
Want to make a game about the Holocaust? Better add some Achievements. Maybe ‘YOU'RE ON FIRE (100G) – take the most efficient route to the ovens’. This is the power games have – to reduce anything to set of rules, and make them compelling – and their duty – to keep people playing. But to quote another great writer: with great power, comes etc etc.
So, are games immoral? Of course not. They are merely well designed, or badly designed. It's just that a large fraction of blockbuster game developers want to be Michael Bay rather than Alan Pakula, and that few people seemed to have realised what the stakes are. But, hey, that'll probably be the hot topic of 2011.