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As Vice President Joe Biden contemplates regulations for gun control and possible curbs on video game violence, we should take note that one of the most successful games of 2012 was a peaceful title called Journey.
Journey might not have sold as much as Call of Duty: Black Ops II, but it was the top downloadable title on Sony’s PlayStation Network in 2012. In Journey, you play an other-worldly being who traverses desert sands and other treacherous landscapes to reach a high mountain peak. You don’t arm yourself with machine guns, rocket launchers, or other staples of violent games.
It was such a moving experience that it received 11 nominations (including Game of the Year) at the DICE Summit Awards (Design, Innovate, Communicate, Entertain) last night from the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences. That recognition is important as the industry tries to wade through the reactions to the tragic shooting in Newtown, Conn.
Journey advances the argument that games can be high art. And as such, they deserve the same free speech protections that other works — books, movies, paintings, or other established media — enjoy. The U.S. Supreme Court validated this line of thinking last year, saying that a California ban on selling violent games to minors was illegal in part because of the restrictions on free speech and because the state had not proved a connection between violent games and real-life violent behavior. I don’t believe we should relitigate this matter even after the latest shootings.
But we as critics could do more to inspire game artists to do the best possible work they can. We don’t have to draw attention to experiences that appeal to the lowest common denominator when it comes to sex or violence. Those games will do well on their own. But we can do a lot more to encourage developers to create the most consequential works of art — games that inspire us with great stories, animations, gameplay, and simple fun. If the administration wants to get involved in that, I would welcome it. President Barack Obama could host the creators of the most imaginative games at the White House.
The awards shows — Spike TV’s Video Game Awards, the Game Developers Choice Awards, and the DICE Summit Awards — offer recognition and a spotlight to the creative people who stand out. But wider publicity will help take the message deeper into the public awareness and maybe even spur sales of nonviolent titles. Acknowledgement of the best achievements is a way to steer developers in the direction of being more responsible. If we say to developers that they each might only get to make 10 games in a career, it might inspire them to make something more meaningful than those which only generate the next paycheck.
And I believe that recognizing the very best of the art will weed out many of the games that are considered too violent. I realize that this approach will only go so far. As a voluntary step, it will not be enforceable under the power of law. But that is as it should be in a free society.
But the strategy could be effective. Game developers are and should be free to create what they want. But they should also be responsible, and appealing to their consciences and inspiring them with positive rewards is the right thing to do. You could say that would be a “gamification” of the industry itself, inspiring developers to diversify beyond violent games toward providing different kinds of experiences, like those embodied in concrete, successful titles like Journey. Hell, you could give an “X Prize” with $10 million to the developer who makes the best nonviolent video game.
Some people have run out of patience. They want to use a stick. But I think that a carrot will work better than the stick when it comes to urging creativity in the game industry.