The debate around Infinity Ward's decision to include a mission in Modern Warfare 2 where players assume the role of a terrorist group is a discussion we need to have. By pushing video game boundaries in such a deliberate, provocative way, it highlights how immature our medium remains.
On one side we have scaremongering tabloids allowing fearful lobby groups to voice their ignorance of the medium; on the other we have gamers ill-equipped with the necessary vocabulary to defend a brave developer.
Jane Roberts, president of the Australian Council on Children and the Media, told the Sydney Morning Herald that the images seen in the leaked footage of an MA15+ game would not be out of place on the evening news where, I might add, they could be viewed by people of all ages.
Roberts claims that Modern Warfare 2 is guilty of "promoting" terrorism, saying, "If that material was on the internet about how to become a terrorist, how to join a group and how to wipe out people - that would be removed because it would not be acceptable."
She falls for the fallacy that to depict something is to endorse it.
Gamers claim that Modern Warfare 2 is just a game. It's fantasy; it's not real; you shouldn't take it so seriously, they cry. Gamers, it seems, agree with Roberts' view that it is "a product that's meant to be passed off as a leisure time activity."
Both perspectives are mindless. Both perspectives only trivialise the medium.
The debate demonstrates how immature the medium is when the argument is focused solely on the very inclusion of this content. Surely what's worth discussing in Modern Warfare 2 isn't the fact you play the role of a terrorist in a particular mission, but rather how Infinity Ward handles that scenario. Shouldn't we be more interested in who the player is controlling? How is this scenario structured in terms of mission objectives? How complicit are we? What happens if we refuse to carry out those objectives? What are the fail states?
Let's not forget that neither Roberts and the general public, nor indeed anyone outside of Infinity Ward, Activision and an exclusive coterie of games media have actually played the game in its entirety. Without knowledge of vital context, we can't answer these questions. We can, however, address the broader issue of what such confronting, provocative scenes mean for the medium.
Activision says the mission "is designed to evoke the atrocities of terrorism." Cinema has a rich history of taking viewers inside the minds of people who commit atrocities. As a more mature medium, film can portray serial killers, murderers, terrorists or just base thugs. As an audience we accept that such films aren't automatically promoting these activities, but may in fact have something important to say about the human condition.
David Cage, president of Quantic Dream and currently working on the defiantly adult Heavy Rain, recently said: "As a game creator I have one very simple rule: Everything is allowed, no limits, as long as it makes sense in the story and is not gratuitous."
Video games shouldn't shy away from something just because it is unpleasant. Choose almost any game and one could describe a scenario that, at least on the surface, seems horrifying. In Cage's own Fahrenheit, for example, one of the player-controlled characters is a serial killer who, in the opening scene, brutally murders another man in the bathroom of a restaurant.
The idea that the player is assuming another identity, stepping into the shoes of a virtual character is a challenging notion. The language we use to relate our in-game experience reinforces how blurry the distinction is between player and in-game avatar; we talk in phrases such as "I did this" and "I did that". In Far Cry 2, for example, I shot a man in the legs then watched as he staggered away to collapse behind a tree. I pursued him, drew my knife and stabbed him through the chest.
Did I do this? Was I guilty of murder? No. But the brutality of the scene combined with the necessity of my actions - if I hadn't killed him, he may well have killed me - heightened my emotional connection to the world, to the character and the themes the developers had intended. I understood the desperation of this place.
The emotional climax of BioShock arrives when you finally encounter Andrew Ryan. You realise you have no free will and have been blindly obeying whatever instructions you've received. Atlas asks you to kindly kill Ryan and, since you have no choice, you bludgeon him to death with his own golf club.
It's a shocking, repulsive sequence. The player is forced to watch "himself" commit bloody, gruesome murder. But it serves a purpose. In context, the whole scene - especially the way direct control is taken away from the player - is crucial to understanding your character's relationship to Ryan and the tragedy of his downfall.
Shawn Elliott asks, "Must we commit mass murder to appreciate the extent of its evil?" Perhaps not. But Infinity Ward, recent marketing cock-ups notwithstanding, has previously displayed a deft touch in presenting us with an intelligent and mature commentary on how war can affect us. Let's play the game and hear what they have to say before we condemn them. Isn't that what a mature medium would do?
Monday Musings is a regular column designed to get you thinking and talking about game design or an industry topic. I’ll be tackling a specific subject each Monday, so email me if you have any suggestions.