Recently there has been much less furious media outcry about the content and possible harmful effects of computer games and violent media; this in itself is probably a good thing. Kneejerk Mary Whitehouse-esque decency witch-hunts muddy real debates about what sexual and violent content is appropriate in popular media, and lead to reductive situations where real discussion is avoided simply because the prevailing attitude is a simplistic censorship is bad. Closing down debate in this way prevents any possibility for improvement of the status quo.
Since video games because popular and mainstream, there have been controversies about their content. Initially, it was simple concern that a medium popular with younger audiences was frequently explicitly violent, contained a great deal of swearing and in the case of Duke Nukem 3D had nudity as well. Such moralistic complaints were perhaps understandable and certainly had historical precedent; concerns about the content of popular media in some way being corrupting have led to the banning of Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Thomas Hardy’s switching from writing novels to poetry as Jude the Obscure was attacked for its frank depictions of brutal scenes and doomed relationships and even films like The Life of Brian for their irreverent spin on religion.
While the reporting of these concerns and the way in which they were framed was extreme and ultimately counterproductive – for simple cries for things to be banned are rarely an effective method of controlling access – the motivation behind them was one which is never likely to go away. In an ongoing attempt to find the “right” compromise between being permissive and controlling access, arguments about whether or not there are objective boundaries are inevitable. Indeed, with the increased freedom of access to media provided by the internet, it becomes not simply a matter of restricting sale but also moderating distribution and promotion of age-restricted media. Linked to these decency arguments are broader moral issues than simply “are depictions of killing or sex appropriate for audiences” – video games do more than simply depict such content but make the player complicit in the depiction. In a game like Carmageddon the player is encouraged to perform violent acts via a feedback loop using the language of games. It is natural that this would require a reframing of the debate and indeed for some time it was thought that desire to perform simulations of such acts might lead to the desire to perform them in reality. This theory has been largely disproven but nevertheless this has in turn led to another reframing of the debate. It might be assumed or even proven that games do not provoke violent behaviour, but at the same time the question then becomes a sociological one of what a society who draw their popular entertainment in this fashion has become.
Yet, for the most part, these debates do not lead to any solid conclusions; even nowadays, despite evidence to the contrary, some experts claim that games do contribute to violent behaviour, but such viewpoints are duly criticised and evidence provided to the contrary. The moral debates that rage more strongly are about the nature of the content, not the presence of it; whether violent games are more or less acceptable if the player-character is human, the enemies are human, the conflict is real or imagined and so on. It is generally held by the mass media to be unacceptable for a game to frame you as the “enemy” in a conflict (by putting the antagonists as soldiers from countries like the UK and US), or for a game to encourage the killing of civilians in war. Even now, though, the terms are changing; the most reactionary voices tend to be from the right wing of the political spectrum and as a result it is interesting to consider the most recent controversies in this way. Earlier this year, there were significant complaints from various American news networks about homosexual characters in the Mass Effect games; this derived from a prior religious/moral outcry about the opportunity for sexual scenes, but framed it quite specifically in homophobic language. The issue was not a general decency point about your character can have sex, but your character can be gay. In the UK, there were complaints about different games from sociological experts and politicians; the Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty games were cited as promoting violent behaviour and contributing to riots in 2011, especially the former in glorifying criminality and civil unrest.
Yet there has been little criticism in these so-called reactionary, pro-decency media outlets about the prevalence of torture in modern war narratives, less arguments about how they promote an “ends justify the means” approach to warfare. The games are no less violent, no less about killing in inventive ways, but the themes are different. Modern military games clearly frame heroes and villains, the heroes being European and American troops and the villains being Eastern Europeans and the nations of the Middle East. I would argue it is not entirely impossible for this to be more than coincidental; were the outcry about games purely moralistic and about decency, then every single popular military shooter would get condemned. Every game with sex of any stripe in would be. In the past, even niche games like Manhunt got media attention – even obscure films like Urotsukidoji were talked up in the tabloids as if everyone could watch them straight after Newsround. Yet for the most part, the reactionary press remains silent about decency issues in games and I would argue this is because the media outcry is no longer a moral one but a political one. Republican-leaning news outlets would criticise homosexuality in the popular media because it supports the politics of Republicans like Mitt Romney. Governments facing increasing resistance to their foreign policies, and nationalistic tabloids, would happily let games promoting anything goes wars and dirty undercover work to millions of young people go through unquestioned because it improves the image of the army.
Indeed, the latest Call of Duty game was promoted with its framing of anti-capitalists and socialists as bogeymen as a selling point. It will be games like Grand Theft Auto that will likely continue to be criticised because they present their heroes as criminals and enemies of the state. This will likely be framed by right-leaning media as a decency argument but I think it will instead be a politically-motivated one.