Over the last 20 years of the annual conference on computer graphics, Siggraph, games have gone from being a minor topic in a side conversation to having complete relevance in panel sessions, exhibits, and research posters.
In one such session, 'Video Games: Content and Responsibility', executive director of the IGDA Jason Della Rocca joined other panelists including Tamsen Mitchell of Shaba Games, Inc. in tackling the issue of violence and regulation.
The meat and potatoes of the discussion might have been a refresher course for many game industry veterans. But the computer graphics community had a significant number of questions and concerns about games and how they could or do arouse violent behavior in children, desensitize them to violence, or expose them to an unscrupulous community of game-playing pedophiles.
'Neither Black Nor White'
Often using film and other forms of art, such as literature, to draw parallel examples, Della Roca equivocated the concept of interactivity, calling it “neither black nor white,” and stating that interactivity and passivity are not binary conditions.
He instead refers to the “degree of engagement” of a product itself, not a media form in general. In other words, certain works of literature may be highly engrossing and told from a narrative perspective, and some game titles may have game play in which the player does not indentify strongly with the action on the screen. “What does pushing the button mean and is that the key to it all?” he asked rhetorically.
Some audience members, including a Siggraph chairman, pushed Della Rocca to address the fact that games are indeed, by their very nature, interactive and to acknowledge that game players affect the outcome of their media, which is never the case in literature or film.
Missing The Point?
Personally, I would further question other factors and characteristics of games and its industry that are so essential to their being, that they are sometimes taken for granted, as interactivity sometimes is. For example, it is often assumed in conference panel sessions or journalistic interviews--often rightly so--that members of the game industry are members of the liberal media. And in a sense, by the very products that the industry generates, the majority of game developers really must be situated on the left side of the political spectrum.
Yet this fact has somewhere along the lines become lost in public discussion. On the topic of legislation in particular, it is so strongly assumed by the industry at large that all developers are against all forms of outside intervention. The discussion, time and time again, neglects to consider or challenge or question or address enormous issues within the bounds of this topic.
For example, the session moderator at the Siggraph discussion invoked the name of Senator Hillary Clinton, which was met with all too predictable responses (Elizabeth Losh of the University Of California, Irvine: “Senator Clinton has one of the worst parent guide sheets I’ve ever seen”; Della Rocca: “The legislation is an absolute a waste of time”). While those statements may be opinionatedly true, they also fail to consider how a politician’s legislation might very well be just that — political.
It leaves the conversation weighing on bad politics or how politicians are misinformed about AAA game title gameplay, instead of following the stream to its source, which in this case is likely public (read: middle America’s) perception of video games and the politician’s need to create a targeted public relations response.
Or worse in this case, it ignored part of the question the moderator asked: “Is there a way ... for government to be involved?”
Pitbulls And Gamers
Somewhere along this train of thought I was reminded of a Malcolm Gladwell article called 'Troublemakers: What pitbulls can teach us about profiling'
(The New Yorker
, February 6, 2006). It’s not much of a stretch (with a few hefty caveats) to apply video games to his argument about pitbulls, or game players to pitbull owners, or media hype about violence in games to media hype about pitbull attacks.
But lest I become too distracted by other subject matter (though Malcolm Gladwell is always a welcomed and thought-provoking distraction), I should note that Losh in particular was deeply attuned to addressing audience concerns about children’s welfare issues, as pertaining to games. As a former social services worker, Losh explained, she knows all too well that sexual pervasiveness is not unique to games or the internet.
To an audience member who asked a question about safeguarding his daughter from sexual deviants she may encounter in MMO games, she said, “Your child is going to be hit on in public libraries and everywhere,” noting that sexual abuse occurs most often within the family, but also at church, and other seemingly safe areas.
Della Rocca responded as well, “It’s really interesting as a parent to play the same game as your child,” encouraging parents to spend time not only becoming familiar with the child’s entertainment sources, but also engaging with the child.