Gaming's Stillborn Conscience

I wrote a review in this month’s issue of PTD magazine that I’m sure is going to garner me much hate mail. I won’t reiterate the entire thing here, but to make a long story short, I panned Crackdown, a game where your objective, as a cop, is to murder as many immigrants as possible. I panned it specifically because of the game’s absolutely vile morals, and more specifically its vile politics.

I actually felt uncomfortable panning the game. Technically brilliant, this is still a game whose idea of a good time is shooting a rocket launcher into a crowd of racial stereotypes. Why hesitate before panning it? Because game reviews are expected to be analytical, not holistic. For all the bleating about the “new games journalism,” discussing a game in political or, worse, moral terms is a risky activity. Avid gamers, and thus critics who game avidly, are too quick to credit the winking eye. “Oh, sure, Grand Theft Auto lets you beat up hookers, but they didn’t really mean it. It’s only a game. That was just a joke.” As if being a joke makes it OK. As a consequence, the games industry is beset by outside critics like Jack Thompson, with their calls for censorship and regulation.

In Crackdown you travel through a fairly unconstrained sandbox. Once you start getting the hang of things, you can deal destruction on a truly impressive scale. You’ll leap tall buildings in a single bound. You’ll drive cars up ramps and launch them hundreds of feet into the air. You’ll waste hundreds of thugs with a variety of weapons. All of this is presented with clear hints that you’re in a Robocop-like dystopia. So the defense of the game is that all of this violence is somehow ironic. That really, the designers were aware of the political implications of what they were saying. It’s all just a joke.

I played Crackdown. I got the joke. It was a crappy joke.

I think that what we fantasize about matters. I think that when you decide to tell a story like Crackdown, a product that is created, packaged, and marketed to mass audiences at a cost of millions of dollars, the type of fantasy you choose to create matters. The games you produce will require the collaboration of thousands of players, making them a part of the fantasy you conceived. And I think that when you choose to tell a corrupt story, a story that makes the player an accessory to a moral crime, then it’s important that those of us who play games stand up and tell you that you’ve done something wrong.

It is possible to create games that address ethically problematic – oh, hell, let’s just call them “evil” – situations without being reprehensible: consider Shadow of the Colossus, which makes the player just as much a collaborator in that game’s crimes as does Crackdown. The difference is in the details. Just as no one would mistake the torture scenes in Nineteen Eighty-Four as the same sort of pointless brutality in American Psycho, neither can one mistake the evil acts in Shadow, with say, the “pointless murder for fun and profit” sandbox activities in Grand Theft Auto.

It’s not a matter of the game adopting a finger-wagging posture. If a game has reprehensible elements, are they in the service of some greater theme? Or are the reprehensible elements – as they are in Crackdown – the whole point of the game? Games are narratives mixed with player-driven activities. Is a given act in a game because it advances the narrative? Or because some developer whose psychosexual development was arrested at 12 said to themselves “Hey, you know what? Raping an American Indian would be fun.”

My larger point, I suspect, will be lost. I’m not wanting – or expecting – game developers and publishers to only publish videogame versions of The Book of Virtues. I don’t want them to avoid controversy, or avoid edginess. But I do want to put a stake in the ground and say that the politics of games are not only a legitimate subject of criticism, but are in fact something critics should feel obligated to address. The attitude that critics should shut up and swallow whatever swill the industry is shilling at the moment is contemptible, and anyone who makes such arguments deserves no respect.

And if your idea of “edgy” is dropping a guy into a snake’s stomach then your game probably wasn’t worth playing anyway.

You can Download the “digest” version of PTD magazine here. The digest includes my full review of Crackdown.

Update: PTDmagazine has posted the review as HTML, so you don’t have to download the PDF unless you want to. Also, if you’re so inclined, please feel free to Digg this story.