Talking Point: The Rules for Violence in Video Games

Are there rules?

Just yesterday we reported that Outdoors Unleashed: Africa 3D arrives in the North American eShop this week, an arcade shooter where the targets are assorted wildlife from the plains of the African continent. We also wrote the following:

While your opinions on the merits of game hunting in Africa undoubtedly vary, we're slightly surprised that a title that allows indiscriminate gunning down of endangered species got through the Nintendo approval process.

This game has gone on to provoke an interesting debate about violence in video games, what's acceptable and what is a step too far. It's a topic where there doesn't appear to be any definitive winning argument, but rather multiple grey lines intersecting each other. Let's look at a few examples, why some may deem the violence to be a step too far, and why others may argue that, actually, it's all a fuss about nothing.

Both entries of No More Heroes and MadWorld represent, we think most would readily agree, over the top and cartoonish violence. In both cases blood gratuitously fills the screen, while brutal methods of killing enemies is also par for the course, even rewarding the player with extra points in the latter. These are mature games in every sense of the word, with No More Heroes featuring plenty of sexual innuendo and young women in skimpy outfits, and MadWorld having a running commentary with enough profanity to make Chris Rock blush. These are games for grown-ups, put simply, so have few inhibitions.

But what about the use of violence? In the case of more than one member of the Nintendo Life team, the brutal kills, splattering blood and severed limbs didn't cause any moral repugnance or squeamish reactions. Perhaps it's due to the presentation, both cel-shaded and one in black and white — apart from streams of red for blood — or it may be due to the outrageous nature of these games. These aren't titles that strive for any sort of realism, but are pure unadulterated fantasy with no grounding in reality. We find it questionable that either would inspire violence from an impressionable gamer, because the action and its portrayal on screen is so far from reality that moral considerations, for some, go out of the window. Yet, like any examples we give, this won't apply for everybody, and some undoubtedly find games like these offensive to play.

So what about the FPS genre, does the way that the violence is portrayed shift the dynamic? The two examples we've given in the heading perhaps show why this can be, like this whole topic, a grey area. To start with Call of Duty, it's a franchise that has developed from a relatively gritty World War 2 game to Hollywood-style warfare. If we take Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, it provides war fighting at an exceptionally intense level, with the campaign primarily cramming the disc with one intense battle scene after another. It's very violent, and despite the SD limitations of Wii also attempts to portray visuals of a fairly realistic nature — it's possibly representative of how some naive individuals perceive war. There are plenty of real-life guns, lots of killing and an online component that's one of the most competitive in gaming. It's a series that's pushed limitations and critic's buttons, of course, with the infamous 'airport massacre' level in Modern Warfare 2. That title never arrived on Wii, why not? Was it developer resources, or did Nintendo resist? If you don't know about the controversy to which we refer, saying that one level involved observing — and participating in — a killing spree of civilians should give you an idea.

If, for arguments sake, the Call of Duty series can be criticised or considered offensive, do the same rules apply to a title like GoldenEye 007 on Wii? It bears plenty of similarities to Call of Duty and other modern FPS titles — to the dismay of some retro fans of the N64 classic, no doubt — but is set in a fictional world. Of course, Call of Duty is fiction as well, but does it make any difference that GoldenEye is set in the James Bond universe? After all, it's an action-intensive, violent game, with plenty of killing and quick-time controlled fights thrown in for good measure. If Call of Duty tests boundaries with war-themed violence, does GoldenEye do the same thing, or does the setting and backstory change the impact of the play?

If we're talking about violent FPS titles, we can also loosely include the Metroid Prime Trilogy, even if it's more of a first-person adventure. Ultimately, Samus sets about brutally killing hundreds of Space Pirates and, let's not forget, aggressive creatures native to the various locales. The crux with all of these shooting titles, perhaps, is that the enemies are trying to kill your character, but does the setting and context of the title influence our perception, even if the concept is actually very similar?

This article started with Outdoors Unleashed: Africa 3D, so it seems appropriate to return to that same title once again. The first game highlighted above, Crazy Chicken Pirates 3D, was recently published be Teyon, the same company that brought Outdoors Unleashed to the North American eShop today. In terms of gameplay, these titles are broadly the same thing, with a simple task of aiming and shooting at whatever's on screen, though Outdoors Unleashed appears to have moving environments and more content. Crazy Chicken Pirates 3D, and its DSiWare counterpart, was greeted on its merits as an arcade shooting game, whereas today's release prompted an entirely mixed reaction.

The distinction between the two is all about style, rather than concept. Crazy Chicken Pirates features cartoon-like birds dressed in stereotypical pirate gear, and the visual aesthetic means that in all likelihood most gamers wouldn't think twice of merrily shooting lots of these characters. Outdoors Unleashed: Africa 3D, on the other hand, takes a real-life past-time, applies visuals of a more realistic style and throws in combo rewards for lots of kills.

A reaction for some in the Nintendo Life community was that this was inappropriate and distasteful, with the trailer showing lions attacking the player, for example, but also stages where the task is to kill a number of elephants running across the screen. Perhaps the distaste was due to the fact that these are representations of real-life animals — some of which are endangered — and encourages the player to kill them in seemingly great numbers. Maybe the reaction against this is simply down to the fact that the animals can't fight back in a meaningful way, nor are they enemies that chose to get involved in a fictional war or conflict on an opposite side. Many of the animals being shot in the game are clearly defenceless, while those that do attack are hopelessly outgunned: more like a protester throwing a rock at a tank, than a genuine threat.

An argument against the idea that this title is distasteful is that gamers show hypocrisy. Happy to gun down humans in a war game, or cartoon animals, but suddenly repulsed if the action targets realistic animals. Some cite the Grand Theft Auto series, which has never featured on a Nintendo home console but has appeared on handhelds with Grand Theft Auto Advance for GBA and Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars for DS. This is a game franchise where players can either target and kill enemies alone, or simply go on a mindless rampage and run-over, shoot and kill innocent bystanders. Of course, the charge of hypocrisy may be inaccurate in some cases, as some of those that criticise Outdoors Unleashed may also be just as critical of GTA.

As these examples hopefully demonstrate, this is a complex part of gaming with no easy answers. What is undeniably important, and perhaps vital as video games become more mainstream and varied, is that gamers respect each other's views and accept that harmless fun to one person is abhorrent violence to another. Beyond that, there's plenty of debate to be had in terms of why some games are deemed more unsuitable than others, and where lines should be drawn in terms of content, if at all.

What do you think about these issues? Let us know in the comments below.

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