Some might say that sunshine follows thunder.
In 1993 the world watched as the apparent dangers of video games on society were laid bare. Even before the video games industry fronted the United States Senate to talk about video game violence there was a steady simmering of concerns about video game violence. But these were the latest manifestation of social misconception and alarmism about what video games – and before that pinball and parlour type games – were doing to social norms.
Mortal Kombat may have been the tipping point, but video games were certainly already in the firing line, and throughout the 90’s the proliferation of graphic and violent videogames fundamentally changed the perception of what video games could be. For better or worse.
Looking back at some of the heavy hitters at the dawn of the home console era – Doom, Mortal Kombat, Killer Instinct, Street Fighter II – it’s easy to dismiss these tame depictions of violence as nothing more than alarmism and folly. But it was, as with anything, the beginning of the salami slicing that gave way to modern acceptance of the brutal masterpieces we see today. Without an easing of concerns around violence that we saw during the 1990s and 2000s, we wouldn’t have had the big budget beautiful sci-fi gore-fests like Calisto Protocol, or perhaps even the indie-darlings like Hades.
Video games were scary to some for a period there. But we walked long enough and far enough, that we indeed got to some place, a place where fear for the most part evaporated and gave way to acceptance.
What’s old is new again, though. With great power competition hitting the evening news more than some of us would like, technology is the enemy anew. Renewed interest in the potential damage of emerging gadgets and widgets has countries (and people) closing their borders, locking their doors, and hiding their loved ones in something not that unlike King Henry VIII’s reformation. Ask any national security inclined folk what they think of the ground China has made in advanced technology – or even games with the increased prevalence of mega corporation Tencent -and you’ll likely get the same response. The world is on fire.
It’s hyperbole, sure, but you’d be forgiven for thinking the world is indeed on fire, and that technology is absolutely the enemy.
Video games should, for all intents and purposes, be the good guys here in this tale of high technology. Even though there are games that I find too violent, without substance or taste, or just plain objectionable, I never feel as though they’re a threat to the very fabric of humanity. Fortnite, for example, may be a distilling of everything that rightly gives capitalism a bad name, but even in that case it’s the business model not the game itself that’s giving rise to social harm.
That’s the key phrase here – social harm. If a bad video game proliferates, what are the actual harms caused? If the business model is predatory that is area that should be subject to critical debate, not necessarily the pixels and polygons.
Critical debate is a subjective term, of course. And with the fears over violent video games largely abated – at least in popular and mainstream discourse – there was always going to be a next target. And so despite the lack of actual harms there is more hostility, suspicion, and criticism levied on video games and their creators than ever.
It is perhaps a sign of the times that critique has been trumped largely by criticism. They’re not mutually exclusive, of course, but constructive and artful critique can and often are drowned out amongst a sea of hyperbole and idiocy.
But that critique, discussion, exchange, and community around video games is still there – and if you look in the right places, video games are indeed a most agreeable pastime.
The wonderful Two Point Campus and its predecessor Two Point Hospital are excellent abstractions of the absurdity of public sector service management with a healthy dose of dry British wit. The larger-than-life tales of debauchery and friendship in Ryu Ga Gotoku studio’s crime epics are wonderful explorations of the human condition. And there’s still the wonder of revisiting classics from yesteryear that, whether it be the Bitmap Brothers pixel masterpieces or the weird-in-retrospect Wario Land games, remind us just how far we’ve come and how far we still can go. From accessibility for all to the stories of minorities or culturally or gender diverse people being shared with the world – video games are an important part of humanity’s story.
So here we are, 30 years on from the events that gave rise to games ratings writ-large, and with the world crumbling under the weight of unabated technological advancements and the spectre of great power rivalry, video games are truly a bastion of hope for technology. An oasis for artistry, narrative, and exploration for the human condition. There is no consumer device on the planet that can – unbound from pangs of nostalgia – fundamentally alter how we view ourselves as a species. But it is the one thing that art in all its manifestations can do, irrespective of how it’s delivered. Whether video games are art is almost irrelevant. It’s the fact that these expressions of who we are and what we can be, however fantastical, that make video games a true comfort.
Video game violence for me here, really, is just the vehicle to discuss change. To explore the nature of fear and how we as humans can easily find ourselves feeling as though we need to defend ourselves. But look beyond the artificial conflict and video game are a uniting factor. Whether it’s the camaraderie some find in the technology behind games, the unabashed love for years gone by, or the sheer joy of discovering new worlds with those we love and care about – video games are something to cherish and treasure. And with that it’s good to be home amongst friends.