Nathan Grayson put up an interesting post on RPS last week while attending E3. If you’re not familiar with E3, it’s an often-lampooned convention where game-industry professionals get together to decide the fate of each other’s bank accounts, in cavernous spaces far too loud to facilitate intelligible conversation. But it’s not all fun and games. Not only are unintelligible deals routinely struck at E3 that determine the games you will and won’t see in the coming year, but E3 quite literally saves lives.
The impetus for Nathan’s post was a game demo he attended, during which the interactive industry expressed enthusiasm for hyper-realistic gore effects:
I sat in a jam-packed arena-sized auditorium and watched a game demo unfold on a screen bigger than my hometown. OK, that wasn’t the surprising part. I’d been doing that all day. This one, though, came to a rather abrupt halt when – mere inches away from the camera – a man’s head erupted into a volcano of hyper-detailed gore after a point-blank shotgun blast. And then: deafening applause from hundreds of people.
This was the blaring exclamation point on the end of a day of gleefully grotesque neck-shanking, leg-severing, and – of course – man-shooting. I can honestly think of maybe five games – in four multiple-hour press conferences – that didn’t feature some sort of lovingly rendered death-dealing mechanic. And oh how show-goers cheered.
Now, as shocking as this may be, it’s worth noting that this sort of thing is really the norm when you stand at the corner of Tech Street and Cash Avenue. Put a few techies in a room with some suits and sooner or later somebody’s going to come up with something truly disgusting, at which point the suits will run the numbers and see if it’s profitable. Only when the project gets to the marketing phase will anyone conduct a focus group to determine if there are moral, ethical or cultural impediments to launching that product or service.
For example, back in the day, when people were genuinely and appropriately worried about global nuclear war, the techies and suits realized that one of the biggest problems with nuclear war was that it destroyed everything. So they set about solving that problem by inventing what came to be known as the neutron bomb — a magical device capable of delivering lethal doses of radiation while doing far less damage to infrastructure. If you’re on the winning side you no longer have to shoulder the irritating economic burden of rebuilding infrastructure for the descendants of the people you irradiated to death. If you’re on the losing side, you’ll know with your last few bloody coughs that all of your stuff will be handed down to your heirs after the radiation falls below acceptable limits. It’s a win-win by any definition, and on that basis alone I’d bet that when the neutron bomb was first demoed it got a standing ovation as well.
The same pattern holds true in every industry. Anything that can be done better will be done better, regardless of the moral, ethical or criminal implications. So I can’t fault a bunch of interactive industry insiders for leaping to their feet and cheering at the sight of some poor in-game character’s head being atomized by a shotgun blast. If roomfuls of people can leap to their feet and celebrate the latest Apple gizmo or the newest shades of nail polish for the fall line then it’s all good at the research and development level.
Which of course raises the question of whether the marketplace is actually interested in such things, and whether the interactive market in particular is genuinely interested in increasing levels of in-game violence. As Nathan pointed out this is hardly a new question in the games biz, let alone every other entertainment medium.
I do not, however, believe there’s necessarily a moral quandary in having fun with ultraviolence. These things are fictional. We’re all (read: mostly, I hope) responsible adults here, and we know where to draw the line. I mean, goodness, the entire “Games don’t cause violence, so calm down everyone jeez” line of thought is almost entirely predicated on that assumption. That, however, is precisely the problem: yesterday’s press conferences suggested anything but.
Responsibility is the key, and there’s been a tremendous lapse in that on all sides of this issue.
Now, if there’s anything that keeps research and development cranking out all kinds of atrocities in all kinds of industries, it’s plausible deniability. Anyone who manufactures and sells a truly grotesque, stomach-churning, amoral, repulsive product, only does so because it’s what the market wants. (You know, like arson, where big crowds of people always show up to watch the fire department swing into action.) But that doesn’t mean we can’t understand products in context, and that includes hyper-violent games.
Twelve years ago I wrote an article for Siggraph’s Computer Graphics magazine (see p. 9). I talked about what was needed to improve interactive storytelling, and what was not needed. Here’s what I had to say about realism:
The pursuit of photorealistic computer graphics has little to do with the creation of interactive works that are emotionally involving. Worse, not only is there no real correlation between how realistic an image or object looks, and how compelling the viewer believes it to be, but photorealism can also work to our disadvantage. If we’re trying to create a consistent world in which the user can become imaginatively involved, it makes sense that using imagery which is not directly equivalent to that in everyday life would be of help, simply because the user would have fewer external referents clouding their mind. On a practical level, hardware limitations will keep photorealism from being implemented consistently for a considerable time, which should be sufficient reason to look elsewhere.
The problem with today’s gore is that it’s just a more complex modeling of yesterday’s gore. Which is to say that all this gore-selling and gore-cheering and gore-lusting really only reveals a stagnant, moribund facet of the interactive industry that hasn’t changed much in a decade. Yes, I know whole new markets have opened up now that Facebook has become a gaming site, but at root I’m not sure there’s been much change in the core design of games in the last ten or fifteen years. Graphics keep getting gussied up for the latest video cards, the voice acting is better, the writing is generally better, but the mechanics of play are pretty much the same, and in many games the main mechanic involves on-screen violence.
Game designers and developers are born innovators. If there’s a way to push a game or genre forward they’ll try it, even if the marketing weasels aren’t always on board. Unfortunately, the ugly truth is that many games can only be advanced by incrementally improving camera effects, particle effects, weapon effects and blood spatter. Which means the reason all those people are cheering small, evolutionary developments in the depiction of gore is because it’s all they’ve got. And that’s the industry’s real violence problem.
— Mark Barrett