M-rating.jpg[“The Blue Key” is a new biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Connor Cleary that explores the wide arena of gamer culture -- where it's been, where it is now, and where it might be going. This is the second of a two-part series exploring the violence in modern gaming -- the potential benefits as well as the potential problems. This week, opposition to the recent California legislation and support for the ESRB.]

In part one I defended violence in gaming as a healthy outlet for our natural but socially unacceptable tendencies toward aggression. However, there is another side to this issue, and it would be unfair to ignore the often valid concerns of parents and educators and the like who worry about kids being exposed to violence and graphic imagery.

The famous California court case regarding video game ratings and minors has recently brought this issue to center stage under the public spotlight. To address the issue, I have chosen arguably the most extreme example of gratuitous, unwarranted violence that has ever been portrayed in a game.

Now, I never picked up Modern Warfare 2, and somehow I missed the initial fervor around the notorious airport massacre scene, but a friend of mine recently showed it to me.

As my friend strolled through the bloody mess of an airport (the character is forced to calmly walk, making it that much more disturbing) I wracked my brain trying to figure out why Infinity Ward would put this in their game. As more and more shrieking, pleading, unarmed civilians were gunned down, the only conclusion I could come to was this: At best, it is supposed to disturb you and make you disgusted with what you’re seeing and doing, while at worst, they did it for shock value in a shameless attempt at publicity.

In the above linked article, author Tom Chick describes a scene at his local GameStop on MW2’s launch day: “A lot of children were there with their parents. One kid with his copy ran back to the car ahead of his grandparents. He was literally leaping into the air, clutching the box, kicking his legs out eagerly, like a gymnast or a spazz.” To be completely honest, the thought of those kids playing the infamous level is more than a little unsettling.

That’s not to say that I haven’t played and enjoyed my share of ultra-violent games like State of Emergency and Grand Theft Auto—these examples are particularly notable because in both cases civilian casualties are not only possible but also highly likely. Despite my experience with violent games, and my previously stated belief that such games can be highly therapeutic, I was still horrified. There is something about the MW2 scene that epitomizes everything negative that has ever been said or written about violence in video games.

The wisdom—or lack thereof—behind the inclusion of this scene could be discussed ad nausem, but as a private game studio it was and is Infinity Ward’s right to do so. Censorship is clearly not an option, as it can only stunt creativity; if that kind of censorship had been placed on movies, it would have prevented the realization of some of the most compelling cinematic experiences to date. Saving Private Ryan’s famous Omaha Beach scene comes to mind. But just as Saving Private Ryan earned itself an R-rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, so too did Modern Warfare 2 earn itself an M-rating from the Electronic Software Rating Board.

Those who bash violent games, and characterize them as some abominable evil that turns children into violent lunatics seem to either be uninformed about the video game rating system or misunderstand one of the primary purposes of that system. It allows parents to make the call whether or not their child can mentally and emotionally handle the more graphic games. Most people can handle violent imagery without suffering any mental or emotional consequences, and some of those people are under the age of 17.

In part one of this series, I cited a set of psychological studies, one of which showed that the young people who are negatively affected by violence in games and movies are most often people with certain pre-existing traits. As Christopher Ferguson, PhD, states in the above linked article: “Violent video games are like peanut butter. They are harmless for the vast majority of kids but are harmful to a small minority with pre-existing personality or mental health problems.”

So, while playing Grand Theft Auto might be good for me—as a healthy outlet—it could also be really bad for certain subgroups of people. For example: How many people played the Grand Theft Auto games? And how many of those people tried to set a house on fire with Molotov cocktails afterward? Two, apparently. Considering this ratio, it would be patently absurd to place the blame entirely on the game.

Speaking of M-rated games, let’s go back to that kid from Tom Chick’s article, and his grandparents. The ESRB website has plenty to say about Modern Warfare 2. The content descriptors are: “Blood, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Language” and the rating summary includes:

… Players use machine guns, sniper rifles, grenades, and missiles to kill enemy soldiers throughout the battlefields. Realistic gunfire, explosions, and cries of pain are heard during the frequent and fast-paced combat. The most intense depiction of violence occurs during a "No Russian" mission where players take on the role of an undercover Ranger: Several civilians* are gunned down at an airport as players are given a choice to participate in the killings (e.g., players can shoot a wounded civilian that is crawling on the ground), or walk by and observe without opening fire. In either case, civilians scream and emit pools of blood as they are shot to death. … [Emphasis added.]

*Author’s Note: This is a serious understatement; it should probably read something like “A ridiculous number of civilians.”

Clearly this game is not intended for children.

Although Chick never mentions an age when describing the boy, I will generously assume he is a pre-teen. For the sake of argument let’s say the kid is really mature for his age, has a good sense of the difference between real and fake, and in real life is very empathetic to the distress of others. Furthermore, let’s say his grandparents took this all into consideration before purchasing the game. In that case: So be it. A judgment call was made, and who am I to second-guess his guardians? I don’t have that right, and neither do the attorneys general who have thrown their weight behind the so-called “Schwarzenegger appeal” California legislation.

The folks trying to outlaw the sale of M-rated games to minors through legal action, would probably have a more useful impact on society if they spent that time informing parents about the ESRB instead. Arming parents with that knowledge would allow them to make informed decisions about what to buy for their kids, and would therefore probably go a long way in keeping games like MW2 and God of War III out of the hands of children. How many parents would read the ESRB’s God of War III summary—including this gem, “[A] god's eyes will be gauged out by thumbs.”—and think: “That’s the one. That’s the game I need to get for little Brad’s birthday this year!”

After a little over 40 weeks on the shelves, Modern Warfare 2 recently became the largest selling video game title of all time in the UK. Despite this, I have not seen an unusual flood of violent crime and horror stories flowing out of the UK. So I think we can safely assume that violence in gaming—even the gratuitous and unwarranted kind—does not, in and of itself, create disturbed criminals. I would expect Conan, and the guy who single-handedly defeated a Predator, to understand that.