This month’s Round Table challenges you to design a game that deals with a social issue that personally troubles you. The recent months have seen controversy sweep through the video game industry. Whether people are objecting to the use of imagery widely considered to evoke racial stereotypes, or to the gameplay based on violent sexual crimes, or to the fact that anyone would complain about either topic–the discussion has been fierce. This month, contributors to the Round Table are invited to design a game that focuses on racism, rape, domestic violence, cruelty to animals, genocide, or any other serious, and potentially hot-button, topic.
In some ways, videogames are unlike any other medium. My favorite aspect, among others, is the way in which they can create an experimental landscape for our fantasies. The result can be seen in most games, from the extensive worlds of Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls series which appeal to the explorer in us, to the power fantasies of most titles in the role-playing genre. I find this comes with both a blessing and a curse. As much as there are positive examples of the medium’s potential – in the form of collaborative story-telling, for example, and how one can play the roles of characters that were once exclusive to the domains of tabletop RPGs; or to develop friendship networks across social games – there are also games in which the goal, theme or mechanics are conducive to a certain kind of exploratory playground that I find, at best, questionable.
The violence depicted in games like Grand Theft Auto is mostly misinterpreted by the media and non-gamers; to be sure, there is blood and depictions of violence but these are, for the most part, caricatures of a culture of violence that seems ironically pervasive as it seems unnoticed by fervent politicians and concerned parents. How to turn that into a lesson?
When I noticed Corvus’ theme for the April roundtable, I had several ideas for what kind of game I would design but it wasn’t until I wrote my opinion column for this month’s Smash! magazine that I realized what I was actually going for. My column addressed the latest polemic darling – Rapelay (the name alone should give you a hint of the game’s theme; follow that link to read a review of it at your own peril). In it I briefly questioned what kind of ‘freedom of expression’ certain gamers defended in a game like that, and how viable it was to defend such a fantasy playground on the grounds that it was a fantasy worth pursuing to some.
While I’m not the type of person to defend that violent videogames are any more dangerous than other types of violent media or works, and that sociopathic time bombs will always explode regardless of what sets them off, I think there is a certain kind of vision nowadays that emphasizes violence, gore and some types of abuse in videogames. Most of the time I genuinely believe these to be accidental or unintended; when your avatar is blown away in Team Fortress 2, the pop-ups that cheerfully indicate what parts of your body are strewn about comes across to me as both humorous and ironic, a nod to the mindset that firstperson shooters must have some form of gratuitous violence (in this case, a comedic variant of Quake 3’s gibs) but also a jibe at how ridiculous it all is sometimes. It’s cathartic in a way – your spleen being flung into the air reminds you you’re still in a familiar game genre but it also makes you smile at how silly it has become over the years in its attempts to relay a sense of dominance over our online foes. The last time an FPS made me smile over such a reason was Unreal Tournament with its announcer gleefully warning us of our killing spree.
Yet, as you go through the motions of the ethical monster in Rapelay, there is no smile, no joy. It’s a sick game for sick people, a reminder that monsters walk around us and that they can be gamers, non-gamers, parents, politicians, our colleagues at work. That they have fantasies so alien as to put Lovecraft’s to shame. But even when you distance yourself from these fringe titles there’s no denying that you still encounter violence. Blood gushes all over God of War’s environs, the focus on the criminal getting killed during Max Payne’s bullet time, the camera peering over your avatar’s shoulder to facilitate headshots in Gears of War. Even if you’re not glorifying it you’re telling players this is what matters, this is the scene you’ll see repeatedly, this is the payoff for learning gaming techniques, for being a good player. Violence as a Pavlovian reward.
With this, I came up with a simple idea. In the end it may prove to be too vague or too naïve to ever achieve the goal Corvus laid out, as it’s not actually trying to provide some form of education or awareness – at least not immediately. So the idea was to come up with something that took on a similar approach to violence but betrayed the context. Something violent but not rewarding. Something that for once made you feel the victim.
The concept, then, illustrated with a scene.
The next scene is perhaps a bit shocking, so I would advise caution in reading this, even if I will do my best to maintain a high level of language.
Darkness starts to blur away from your eyes as you adjust to the light, and you notice you’re experiencing things from a firstperson perspective. The camera pans, suggesting the avatar is trying to get its bearings. There is no indication of the avatar’s gender; a quick glance at the hands and all you see are hematomas. Without a warning you begin running. There is nothing you can do; the avatar is frantically trying to run away from something and you can barely make out the surroundings. You have control of the camera but it’s locked onto the avatar’s “eyes”; what you can see is conditioned by its need to escape from the cramped location. Most any location would be suitable: a rainy night through the back alley’s of a city, a house with narrow hallways and very dim light sources, even the traditional “person wakes up from hospital bed without realizing where they are or how they got there”.
The key difference is that you are not in control. You can only watch.
At some point your escape is foiled, whether through a common slip and falling into the ground, entering a dead end or some other narrative convenience. Darkness sets in again from a momentary loss of conscience, but as you come back to your senses, you slowly realize that you are being taken away by a figure.
Once again, you are in control of the camera but unable to actually move the avatar. You are only the eyes, not the body. As you fully regain conscience you realize you are strapped to a bed. Naked. Unable to move, only watch. The figure in front of you stands silently for a few moments. It’s not until it begins removing clothes and forcing himself onto your avatar that you realize what is happening: you are witnessing your own rape at the hands of a man. You realize the intention, conveyed by the man’s mutterings and audio cues – screams for help, sobs, crying, and pleas for help. All unanswered. This goes on for excruciating minutes and you are powerless before the situation. At best you can only *look* but never react in any way that makes him stop. You are helpless, only to hear a female voice recount the ways she would debase herself if he lets her go.
When he finishes, he places his hands behind your head. As this is happening, the perspective displays as if it was removing your eyes but this is not the case at all, as it is revealed he is removing a device from your head. You hear the rapist congratulate himself and with the sound of a click, the image fades behind short static waves.
The rapist was you. And the avatar that you thought was you was the victim all this time.
The more astute readers may remember a similar plot – and technological device – from the science-fiction movie Strange Days by Kathryn Bigelow. In it, and to quote from the Wikipedia entry, “’SQUID’ recordings (were) experiences recorded directly from the cerebral cortex which when played back through a MiniDisc-like device allow a user to experience all recorded sensory inputs as if actually doing it themselves”.
In the game, any other McGuffin can be thought of but it’s not the plot device that’s important. The ultimate goal of the game, and I use both terms a bit loosely, is to present a counterpoint of sorts to the current trend of violence in videogames. Unlike the “hero” or protagonist, who is always aware, is always ready to spring into action, is always empowered through narrative choices and gaming mechanisms –
You see through the eyes of the victim and are a mere spectator to the violence. It is possible to create other scenarios to explore the core idea – rape and torture come to mind because they are some of the most powerful forms of violence in any medium – or other plot devices – a camera surveillance system, a room of mirrors, adding a third person to the situation to explore both the concept of envisioning the rape (the fantasy of exerting power over someone) and someone being raped (nullifying the fantasy) – but, much like the above examples, I fear this may be taken as a voyeuristic experiment. While not entirely false, the intention isn’t to create a voyeuristic situation, or series of events, in line with the definition of the word in clinical psychology; it’s not meant to appeal to those who want to spy people engaged in intimate behavior. The idea is to force the player to be exposed, and subjected, to the violence himself – violence he would enact upon others if this were a more traditional videogame, and to deal with the consequence as videogames often do – by not considering the victim.
It’s easy to defend “freedom of expression” when it’s our expression of violence at stake, but would we defend the freedom to be violated?
Please visit the Blog of the Round Table’s main hall for links to the rest of this month’s entries.