The modus operandi of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals complaining about video games is by now completely transparent. They’ve had problems with everything from Pokémon to Mario’s Tanooki suit, and little of it has anything to do with the harmful depiction of animals in a video game, or the corrosive attitudes that may spread.
It’s a cynical publicity grab, because video games are a subject that carry a lot of Google juice, and objecting to them is a cheap way to make their advocacy seem more involved and forceful than it really is.
When the curtain lifted on Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, a series with plenty of mainstream recognition, PETA moaned about the inclusion of whaling in a nautical-themed game set in the 1700s. It’s a silly complaint. Yes, whaling is violent, bloody and inhumane, and whales suffer an agonising death from it. The same can be said of murder, which one does throughout the Assassin’s Creed series. Whether either are being glamorised is in the eye of the beholder. To me, the idea whaling is given some special status or modern-day advocacy by its appearance in a piece of historical fiction, even if it’s a video game, is absurd.
Sure, we can talk about films like The Godfather, with its infamous horse-head-in-the-bed scene, or even something like True Grit, which shows a horse being ridden to its death, literally, and wonder why PETA doesn’t raise a stink about that. What underlines PETA’s moral opportunism is their selective targeting within games. You kill and skin the hell out of a lot of animals in Red Dead Redemption and Far Cry 3, and in Assassin’s Creed III, quite casually, I might add. But it’s the big W-word, whaling, in a title with this kind of mainstream awareness, that gets PETA in high enough dudgeon that when it butts in, that’s newsworthy, and so is a publisher’s response. Please.
Where, I wonder, is PETA on the subject of Tomb Raider — a name at least as big as Assassin’s Creed, with a series of films to back it up too. Watch the video above. It’s as visceral and intimate a depiction of killing an animal as I’ve ever seen in a game, and not just because Lara Croft expresses her regret. I can smell the gamy melange of fear and blood and deer musk and wonder how I’d summon the willpower to end that poor animal’s life, even if I was starving.
There’s a lot to think about there, including the idea that a depiction of cruelty to animals, like whaling, may actually raise such horrible and uncomfortable feelings as to change attitudes, about hunting, or eating meat, or what it really means to consume another living thing.
But I don’t think PETA’s really interested in that. It just wants its name out there.