Ethics in the Video Game Industry are Changing

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“Shooting Ducks, all in a row,” © 2012 shoe the Linux Librarian, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/deed.en

By David Swift

In the past, criticism against the video game industry has come primarily from outside the gaming community.  Occasionally major news stations have staged debates or forums to address the concerns of video game violence or sexuality. Each time the industry has been accused or attacked it circles the wagons and defends the art of games.  The debate has been very simple, and very predictable.  Until now.

Now that the industry doesn’t feel the need to debate its freedom of speech or whether games are an art form or not, it has taken an introspective look at its ethical standards and wants to turn over a new leaf.

Keza McDonald of IGN spoke out about the sexualised violence in the Hitman Absolution: Saints trailer:

The latest Hitman Absolution trailer, though, pairs gratuitous violence with sexualised imagery to create the most troubling piece of marketing material I think I’ve ever seen.

Major companies brought their marketing machines to E3 and pumped out ultraviolent scenes, scantily clad women, and vulgarity to shock and awe.  It was all a bit overwhelming for some, and the art form of video games again took a back seat to the industry’s chauffeur–marketing.  There was a sick feeling in the stomach of the industry, and Kris Graft, Gamasutra editor, was prompted to write his “E3 2012 – The E3 of Disillusion” article which said:

E3 2012 was unabashed pandering to the lowest common denominator, more than ever before. The video game industry wants to be respected as a medium that can be held up to the same creative standards as a New York Times best-selling book or an Oscar-winning movie. Instead, the games industry is complacent in further developing its relegation as a semi-interactive Michael Bay mocking bird.

Big companies and their marketing don’t speak for all of the industry, but they do recruit and pay the top talent to work on these major projects.  Top talent, however, is not staying quiet anymore.  When asked about his thoughts on E3, Warren Spector, in an interview with Steve Peterson of Gameindustry.biz said:

Well, my spider-sense is sure tingling danger, danger, Peter Parker! This is the year where there were two things that stood out for me. One was: The ultraviolence has to stop. We have to stop loving it. I just don’t believe in the effects argument at all, but I do believe that we are fetishizing violence, and now in some cases actually combining it with an adolescent approach to sexuality. I just think it’s in bad taste. Ultimately I think it will cause us trouble.

Tomb Raider’s executive producer, Ron Rosenburg, was interviewed by Kotaku’s Jason Schreier at E3, and what he said ignited a firestorm among rape survivors, critics and fans of the series.  Describing Lara Crofts beginnings he said:

And then what happens is her best friend gets kidnapped, she gets taken prisoner by scavengers on the island. They try to rape her, and…She’s literally turned into a cornered animal. And that’s a huge step in her evolution: she’s either forced to fight back or die and that’s what we’re showing today.

The community was not short of choice words for Ron’s comments and his studio, Crystal Dynamics, later apologized.  However, some were left wondering what Crystal Dynamic had done that other games had not done already.  The word “rape” is very common in the vocabulary of the FPS multiplayer community, but some are beginning to question whether it belongs in their barrage of trash talking.

“Playing games can bring the Hyde out in many of us,” admits Patricia Hernandez in her exposition of how she fights to get out of this “rape culture.”

Leigh Alexander addressed the current state of game culture from the topic of sexism and noticed:

For the first time in my life as a video game player, there’s a broad audience of people to whom this dialog has become essential.

Linking the Hitman Absolution: Saints trailer and the Tomb Raider interview Brandon Sheffield spoke of the way the industry depicts women in games, and treats them in the game industry, and said:

The reactions boil down to, essentially, “I like this, and who are you to say otherwise?” People are offended at the idea that anything they’re doing or enjoying could be wrong, and lash out as a result.

This cultural shift is partially due to the maturity of the gaming population.  The Entertainment Software Association reports that the average gamers’ age is now 30 years old, which is prime time for the responsibilities of marriage and parenthood.  With browser games, mobile games, and games on every device, the demographics of gaming are changing and bringing into the industry a diversity of viewpoints that were never a factor before.  Gamers are no longer willing to allow marketing campaigns to hold a magnet to their moral compass.

Designers are trying to give gamers tough decisions and present thematic elements in a calculated way, in order to deliver unforgettable experiences.  In a phone interview with Kirk Hamilton, Spec Ops lead writer Walt Williams speaks about presenting controversial content in games and admits “You slip up once, and it taints the whole thing.”  The more “slip ups” that happen the more the industry becomes corrupt, but the more that people stand up and challenge the old ethics the more the industry is encouraged to take its noble stand against the corruption.

The industry is standing up and speaking out about the old ethics, even if they are expressed in games due to lazy game design.  The folks at Penny arcade spoke up against The Call of Juarez: The Cartel. They noticed designers’ racist, “Bad Guy” achievement/trophy is given for killing 40 characters in the gang bang mission all of whom are African American.

The ethics are changing in the industry and designers are thinking twice about what to include in their next games.  When IGN’s Michael Thomsen asked Santa Monica’s game design manager David Hewitt if there was a line of violence they wouldn’t cross, Hewitt responded “I think where this has been an issue is with violence against women — the team’s pulled back from some of that and assessed that a little more carefully.”

As an older brother protects his younger brother in public the industry has had a defensive posture in the past, but as an older brother talks with his younger brother at home, now the industry is inspecting its own, not for its shame, but for its success.

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3 thoughts on “Ethics in the Video Game Industry are Changing

  1. But seriously, I think this is a very interesting trend. It seems to me that as the average age of the gamer has increased so has the average age of the game industry influencer so that the influencers who used to create these ultra-violent, ultra-sexy games in their 20’s have now grown up a bit and have kids and are making that morality check: “Do I really want my kids playing these kinds of games? I love games, and would love for my kids to follow in my footsteps, but do I really want my kids immersed in an industry that puts out these messages???”

    It’ll be interesting to see how the industry self-regulates itself. Any ideas on what it should do?

  2. One start could be for the ESRB to adopt a public feedback system on their site for consumers to agree or disagree with the rating given like the DJCTQ does in Brazil. Games would be dynamically critiqued by the culture, and everyone would know what they are buying. ESRB does a pretty good job these days though, and their new short form application (free) will help a lot of smaller games get ratings, and get them across all devices.

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