It's that time of the year again, when a Grand Theft Auto title releases and everyone with a soap box and some sort of grudge against the industry declares whether games are (or are not) art and what elements of the medium should (or should not) be allowed. Raising questions into the integrity of the entertainment sector is commonplace, but gaming offers a unique perspective that a book or film cannot. Making a player partake in an intense, if questionable, moment is a unique way to deliver narrative; and when the subject in question is rape, torture, or murder it's understandable why a few ethical questions would be raised.
The problem is that most who try to challenge the legitimacy of games like GTA V (or at the very least question its narrative integrity) generally approach it from one angle: The worst one possible. Simon Parker, a blogger featured monthly in the New Yorker, recently stepped up to bat using GTA V's torture scene as a means of example. He asks, in so many words, if there should be a limit as to the evil acts permitted in a video game and if there is a line we should draw when exploring new means to tell a story.
Torture, alone and for the sake of, does not belong in gaming. To feature it in a game is a jump into a dark and sadistic action that most normal people would never once consider but must now be subject to. There is no justification to be forced to inflict torture for the sake of torture in any medium of entertainment.
But lets consider Heavy Rain, where a man is forced through tortuous trials in an attempt to save his son from the clutches of a killer bent on drowning children alive. Or maybe in Metal Gear Solid where Snake must endure torture at the hands of Ocelot, who strives to test the man's endurance for punishment while stripping away precious information. The entire story of Black Ops revolves around the torture of the main character and the information he spills forth as a result. Even a game praised universally for its storytelling, The Last of Us, has several torture sequences that both show and imply the means and methods of harming another human for information.
What's missing from all this is the full context of the situation, not just a snippet of the event. Why is anyone enduring these horrific acts? Why is anyone inflicting them? What is at stake? What age is the game intended for? Is there are overall moral to the story? Did the scene serve to develop the character in some way? If so, was it a realistic development?
If I were to show you a scene that included a massive amount of cocaine being used by a corrupt gangster in a lavish palace of a home, whom eventually picks up an assault rifle and begins to mow down anyone who would challenge his right to power, how would you react? Many critics would say glorifying crime is too irresponsible. Should a player be allowed to act that out, or would it be better to only keep that final scene in the movie Scarface; a movie which received a considerable amount of praise for highlighting the lives of criminals from the criminal's perspective. Volatile acts and all.
Perhaps it would have been rated differently if we could then play as Tony Montana. If we could make the choices or live out the actions that brought him from a small fry to head honcho in the world of Scarface's crime syndicate. But playing every game is not simply about watching a complex sort of cause and effect unfold. Most developers have a story they want to tell and a general path they would like us to experience even if that path may have some branches. The end is supposed to justify the means.
Without the full context of story we're free to make any claim we want and question any game we want in a means that suits any individual interest. For example:
-Brutally submitting children's pets to multiple lacerations, severe burns, or other cruel acts of physical violence teaches children how to be bullies. Particularly when the reward in Pokémon is to take money from the owner once you've proven victor.
-Any title which does not responsibility approach the training or dedication required to do a particular task is failing both in purpose and as a form of art. To that effect Mirror's Edge does not do enough to warn children against the true hazards of unassisted freerunning, particularly across dangerous (but common) urban environments.
-Dante's Inferno gives an unfair, biased, and offensive interpretation of Hell that does not properly showcase what an eternity of torture would truly be and is offensive to anyone with strong religious standings. For example, there was never once the sound of wet hands being moved over plastic wrap which is by far the most unbearable sound imaginable.
-The upcoming Call of Duty Ghosts encourages mistreatment of animals by suggesting one makes a better combatant on the battlefield than a trained soldier. Both online and offline show the canine as a force to be reckoned with, assaulting everything from helicopter pilots to players that foolishly think a shotgun is going to help them on Whiteout.
It all flows back to the old argument of whether or not video games are art, because some people believe that art as a medium is allowed to do whatever it wants without any repercussion. That's far from the truth. Artists of all kinds across all mediums hold themselves proudly responsible for their work, the questions it may raise and the changes it may spur forth. Repercussion may not be the goal, but for many it's a push in the right direction.
So how "˜evil' should a game allow you to be? Well that depends on the point that the developer is trying to make. If GTA V was nothing but a single extensive torture sequence that never ended there's a good argument to say such a product is an abomination within the video game industry. Maybe it would even be safe to say that's not art. I am certain sales numbers would at least agree a product like that would be tasteless. Rockstar would have a lot of explaining to do.
But GTA V is a peek into lives often glorified by American culture, a satire meant to entertain as well as draw parallels to the actual world. Rockstar has worked hard to create an environment that's incredibly realistic with a staggering amount of choice available, but at the end of the day they are still a trying to tell a story. A story which features some fairly terrible people doing questionable things to others.
It can be difficult watching someone you're in control of do something you disagree with. Just like in a book we're there for the most exciting of events to the most mundane of tasks. Just like in a movie we watch the subtle nuances of every scene in search of hints of what to come. But unlike either you are actually acting as the main character, even if main character is far from a hero. In the end we're as evil as that character chooses to be, and that's how much "˜evil' any artistic medium should allow us to experience. The player is simply along for the ride.