MONTREAL — Video games are not detached from the real world.
We use them to remind us of real life, or sometimes to escape from it. As I was traveling this week, I thought about this multiple times as the world mourned the loss of life in Paris. The Canadian flag in Montreal, where I attended the Montreal International Game Summit, was flying at half-staff. In the airport, CNN was blaring with reports on the aftermath. On the floor before my hotel room, the Montreal newspapers stared up at me with images of horror. In games such as World of Warcraft and Splatoon, players honored Paris with their own tributes, much like people put French flags over their pictures on Facebook.
The organizers of the MIGS 15 conference paid my way to Montreal. Our coverage remains objective.
Like the flag that hung over the city, I felt that the specter of Paris was draped over the MIGS 15 event. At the same time, it was so sad that people didn’t bring it up. It was business as usual. After all, that is what survivors of the attacks said should happen. We shouldn’t let terrorists take us away from our normal course of life. But what do you do when your normal course of life is making violent video games? I was expecting a politician somewhere to blame the attacks on violent video games.
At the very end of the event, one game developer brought Paris up directly. In the last “Brain Dump” talk, eight speakers talked about a “moment of clarity” in their video game careers. Three of those talks made me think about video games and Paris.
Vander Caballero, the founder and chief executive of Montreal’s Minority Media, used his 5-minute talk to break the silence on Paris.
Earlier in his career, while working at the former Electronic Arts Montreal studio, he was working on Army of Two, a shooter game about private military contractors who are called in to take on terrorists in the wake of 9/11. The violence was over the top. He came to see the violence as a “power fantasy” created by developers who had never witnessed a family member dying from a violent act.
“It’s a terrible thing, and when you live that, believe me, you will not create the violent games that we are creating today,” he said. “Shooting and stabbing is fast and easy. Empathy is slow and hard. That’s what we need today. We have to be responsible. We are shaping the minds of millions of kids and adults. You saw what happened in France. We are not going to solve that problem by shooting and stabbing. We need empathy.”
Caballero had seen violence happen while growing up in Colombia. He came from a wealthy family, but he said he saw little girls turned into prostitutes. He said he saw the aftermath of a bomb explosion.
“I saw a woman with both hands blown off, blood flowing to her pants and giving me her eyes,” he said, is voice quaking. “It is really hard. We, the living, we have to bring games about the powerless, and that is why I started Minority. To tell those stories. To make those games. We have to explain the powerless. We have to teach kids it’s not about creating a shield around you and having a weapon. We solve problems by being humble.”
Caballero made a game with a lot of empathy, one that fosters in players the ability to understand another person. He created a new game studio, Minority Media, and published Papo & Yo, a video game based on his childhood growing up with an abusive, alcoholic father.
The moment of clarity came for Caballero when he put on the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. He watched a demo where you had a conversation with a girl in a cafe. It wasn’t that great, but he felt a connection to another character.
“It was a moment of clarity for me, of how they achieved this with a new technology,” he said. “What happens when someone looks straight into your eyes, you create a connection. You’re impacted. Who is that person? Do you care about them? Hopefully, you are not going to shoot them in the head.”
That led him to another moment of clarity. He said, “The VR killer app is not going to be a shooter. And I’m really happy for that.”
Caballero’s talk was full of contradictions, but it was short and it brought thunderous applause from the crowded room. I have felt my own contradictory feelings about video game violence in my own life. There were times when I didn’t play violent games or I wouldn’t play the murderous bad guys in games like Grand Theft Auto. As I listened to Caballero, I reflected on how I had just finished playing the intensely violent campaigns of Halo 5: Guardians, Rise of the Tomb Raider, and Call of Duty: Black Ops III.
Mia Consalvo, a professor of game studies at Corcordia University, noted in her own talk how people can see games as a “safe space,” where they do things, like cheat, that they would never do in real life. Games can offer you ethical choices, she noted. In Rise of the Tomb Raider, you can get through the missions minimizing the number of enemies you kill — or without killing at all.
I did not go down this path.
“Many players feel bad playing as evil,” Consalvo said. “Some said it was just the way I was trained or raised. I just can’t do it.”
Another answer led Consalvo to her own moment of clarity. Many players choose to see the game character as themselves. It is a power fantasy, after all, where you are able to save the world with your own actions. Or you play as a better version of yourself, Consalvo said, “killing only in a noble or egoless way.” Some would stop playing the game because they felt bad about what they had to do in the game.
“Players don’t leave their moral frameworks behind or push them aside when they play games,” Consalvo said. “They tell us that over and over again. They don’t like to cheat because they want to earn achievements and take pride in their accomplishments. … For people who don’t want to let others down, they won’t want to let their digital friends down either. There is no safe space for them where they push aside those beliefs. Games push them to keep those beliefs. If a game keeps insisting you are the hero, you are the chosen one, you are the lone survivor in the wasteland.”
The games set up a justification for killing a room full of people. If it’s an optional quest, players won’t do it. There are lines they won’t cross. If games force them to do so, they disengage with the process, and the illusion of reality dissolves and it becomes just a game, Consalvo said. The challenge is to make players feel more comfortable in taking alternative paths, to see what happens when you walk a different path, Consalvo said.
“Games still need more hooks to entice players to help them, at least temporarily, to get over the guilt of letting down digital characters or moving beyond their personal moral frameworks,” Consalvo said. “Otherwise, they’ll keep rehearsing the hero role and refusing to engage with more complicated ways of being.”
Of course, in the context of France, it brought up the ethics of playing violent games. Is it OK to shoot terrorists in games? It certainly isn’t OK to be terrorists in games, and the vast majority of games do not allow you to do this. If you do behave badly in a video game, are you less likely to do so in real life, or at least fully think through the consequences before you do it?
That talk reminded me of the moral of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Mother Night, about an American spy who played a role as a Nazi too well. The moral was, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Such thinking made me feel the burden of France even more, for the moment. But as Consalvo articulated, this is not necessarily the proper conclusion that we all need to reach.
Amy Hennig, the co-creator of the Uncharted games and now creative director at Electronic Arts’ Visceral Games (where she is working on Star Wars projects), lifted the burden off of our shoulders with her final talk. She talked about the Uncharted series as a “love letter to the classic pulp adventure genre.” The aim was to recapture the fun, charm, adventure, and romance of the genre of movies, books, and comics. They drew from a lot of sources.
One of the obscure ones was a 1942 film, Sullivan’s Travels. It’s about a Hollywood director who is fed up with churning out lightweight comedies and yearns to make a socially relevant film about the sorrows of humanity. It’s no coincidence that Victor Sullivan, one of the key figures in the Uncharted series, shares a last name with John Sullivan from the old film. Preston Sturges, director of the film and its writer, wrote the story of the film as a plea to fellow movie makers “not to abandon the fun in favor of the message.” He was saying the directors were getting a little too “deep dish and they ought to leave the preaching to the preachers,” Hennig said.
Sullivan has one comic misadventure after another. Then the film takes a dark turn. Bit by bit, Sullivan loses everything, except his ability to laugh. He realizes his greatest gift as a film maker is to make people laugh. The film was criticized as a comedy that got too serious and as a tragedy that was too funny.
“This is the subversive thing about Sturges’ movie,” Hennig said. “He made a message film arguing about message films.” The film had a message embedded in a story with escapist fun.
Hennig said that games are being criticized in a similar way.
“There is so much dogma about what games should and should not be,” Hennig said. “And we want so badly to be taken seriously, my fear is that in the face of this criticism, we start to take ourselves too seriously, and will abandon the fun in favor of the message. And forget that above all, our goal is to entertain. That is why Sullivan’s Travels is an important touchstone for me. It’s a reminder that there is nothing wrong with escapist fun. It’s OK to just entertain. In fact, maybe that ought to be our primary goal. Our games have the power to transport people out of their daily lives. So even in the midst of all the gunslinging and two-fisted combat, stunts, and spectacle, we can still tell a story about beauty, despair, compassion, fear, loss, regret, and grace, with a little sex in it.”
Hennig got thunderous applause. We got the message. Not everyone brought up Paris. But to me, it was clear that everyone was thinking about it, and the opinions were not uniform at all.