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Realism and the Relation to Controversy

As video games become more realistic, controversy seems to follow. My blog post takes a reflective look at my personal experience with realism and controversy in recent video games.

Robert Weidner, Blogger

December 1, 2009

6 Min Read

     In RE5, I had read that the game was racist. As I played through the game and thought it was certainly obvious what people were referencing. Yet I never felt like I was doing something racist.  I do remember laughing at the way they had added a couple of white zombies here and there as if that somehow made it better. It certainly made me feel better as I was laughing at their obvious attempt at cultural awareness.     

     I did feel a bit uncomfortable playing another game that courted less controversy, a game called Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. For those of you who have not played the game. It's a bit like Tomb Raider featuring, the hero, Nathan Drake following in the footsteps of Sir Francis Drake to find El Dorado. It features third person platforming and puzzle solving.  What I found to be a bit uncomfortable was the sheer amount of people you had to kill. Nearly all the mercenaries you killed were of a darker skin color than the hero.     

      As I look back on the similarities between the two games, I wondered what would bother me about Uncharted but not bother me about RE5. If you are saying RE5 the enemies were zombies and in Uncharted they mercenaries, then you are only seeing what I believe to be a small part of the overall reason.     

     The other reason is that Nathan Drake really has no reason to kill the bad guys. They really haven't hurt him or kidnapped somebody close to him. They are simply shooting at Drake so you need to kill them. There are also bonuses for headshots and getting so many kills with each weapon. Each medal pops up reminding you that you of how many people you have killed.  I remember playing the game and feeling uncomfortable of my slaughter of mercenaries who were just trying to do a job.     

     I certainly never felt that way playing Goldeneye back in the day so then why was this game making me feel uncomfortable now?  Looking at the screen caps I had theory.  



      The main difference is the graphics, finally I had a theory. Had video games reached a visually tipping point where players had gone from being a passive  person pressing buttons, to an active member who is in a simulation and feels emotions connected to their character?     

     Discussing this among my peers has been difficult, the moment you mention 'simulation' it seems to bring up the idea of 'murder simulation' which was a key phrase of anti video game advocates.  In fact arguing that games are a simulator incites rage among many gaming faithful as if saying so is allowing people who want to ban video games a foothold for their arguments.     

     Thinking as a game designer, isn't the point to create a simulation. As a game designer you want to create games that are a simulation, where you feel genuine emotions and allows a player to truly feel what it is like to be a fortune hunter?     

     Have we arrived at the future?     

     If we have arrived at the future where games are so hyper realistic that they can be considered simulation. Is this why games such as GTA are now courting controversy?      Controversy has always existed in video games. For every Excitebike, there is a Custer's Revenge. For every Final Fantasy there is a Grand Theft Auto game.      

     Though gamers can easily the difference between the first top down GTA and the newest GTA,  there has obviously been an increase in controversy as each games become more realistic.     

     Most recently, there has been some controversy with one of the best selling games of all time, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, and the 'No Russian' mission.     

     Yet, when I first watch the video of the No Russian mission, my knee jerk reaction was  to find it in bad taste to the point of genuinely being upset. It took me awhile to ask myself why I was so upset.  It was just that you as a player were killing civilians it had been done before, and so I had to ask myself why I was feeling this was in bad taste.     

     I believe now, after a lot of reflection that quite simply games are moving into a graphical point where they are now a simulation. Developers are using their games either unknowingly or knowingly to create an emotional response in the player.     

     By games reaching a graphical peak, it creates new emotional responses in even experienced gamers. Yet as I look to the future, I wonder well there be a war or horror game that is so realistic that it might cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?  It seems silly to write that, but if you would of asked me ten years ago if I would ever feel sad shooting pixels in a video game I would of thought that was silly.     

     Still I can hear people saying, well if it get's to that point why don't people just turn the game off?     

     I am sure most Gamasutra readers have heard about the man who married his girlfriend in Love Plus. http://www.gamertell.com/gaming/comment/man-marries-love-plus-ds-game/     

     I really feel that we are moving to a world where games are becoming so realistic that calling them simulators is a moot point.  If so, does that mean going forward game designers will be doing different things? It would appear that Infinity Ward decided to use the new found realism to explore player's emotions. Though as games become more realistic, will there be a point where game's effect on people in their non gaming lives becomes detrimental to their real health?

     I don't have all the answers, but I feel that we are approaching new levels of realism and I am a happy gamer to be experiencing history as it happens.

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