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The truth about video game violence

OPINION

  • "Call of Duty: Black Ops II"
"Call of Duty: Black Ops II"
January 10, 2013|By Ryan Smith, @ryansmithwriter | For RedEye

Video games have a Donkey Kong-sized image problem, and it's only gotten worse since last month's massacre in Newtown, Conn.

In the weeks following the Sandy Hook shooting, the NRA has blamed the "corrupting shadow industry" of games for contributing to a violent society. Vice President Joe Biden has made plans to meet with video game makers as part of his gun violence task force. A few towns or community groups have encouraged boycotts, burnings or buybacks of blood-soaked video games. And in suburban Algonquin, an arcade owner ditched a dozen gun-related games such as "Revolution X" and "Virtua Cop 2" because he said he doesn't want to be a part of the problem, nbcchicago.com reported.

Whoa. As a professional video game journalist, I'm here to set the record straight because I'm tired of cultural critics assuming that modern video games that depict violence are all socially irresponsible bloodbaths that encourage murdering hookers or gunning down hordes of innocent bystanders for kicks.

The truth is this: Many of the best action games of 2012 present violence in a way that's more nuanced than you might think.

In the steampunk assassin game "Dishonored," you can shoot and kill everyone in your path, but the game encourages restraint. As your body count rises, the city visibly deteriorates and the rat population increases. You earn the best ending in the game by completely avoiding murder.

Jason Brody's transformation from average Joe to gun-toting badass in "Far Cry 3" is depicted as one with consequences. The game challenges the user with this question: By killing his thuggish enemies, is Jason becoming exactly like them?

"Spec Ops: The Line" retells the anti-war movie "Apocalypse Now" for the modern age. In it, U.S. Army Capt. Martin Walker goes on a rescue mission in a sandstorm-wrecked Dubai and discovers the ways that the horrors of war can affect your sanity and judgment.

Even in "Call of Duty: Black Ops II," the top-selling military shooter often targeted by anti-games groups, there's a theme running through the campaign about the generational effects of violence. The hidden motivation for the game's villain, a terrorist named Raul Menendez, is both the abuses of the United States-backed "contra" counter-insurgency in his home country of Nicaragua in the '60s and '70s and the murder of his sister by a rogue soldier in the U.S. military. Violence is shown to beget violence.

Of course, none of these games will ever be confused with "Sesame Street." There is death and destruction throughout, which is why they are all rated "M" for "Mature." It is entertainment created by adults for adults.

So here's my modest proposal: Let's stop calling "Mature"-rated titles such as "Grand Theft Auto" and "Assassin's Creed" "video games" altogether. Instead, let's label them "interactive entertainment."

Then we could reserve the term "video game" for light, general audience fare such as "Pokemon" or "Angry Birds."

Comic books for adult audiences have been rebranded "graphic novels." Maybe the same thing could happen for cinematic, story-driven, adult-themed games. Separated from the "kids stuff" stereotype, games could be taken more seriously as an art form, and we'd be less quick to blame them for moral decay.

Now you'll have to excuse me, I better run this idea by Mario and Luigi.

RedEye special contributor Ryan Smith is a video game critic.

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