A Gamer Asks: Can Games Go “Too Far”?

Leland YeeThe constant determined attempts of media outlets and others to draw some sort of connection between violence in video games and in real life have already been covered at length here. But last week Kim Berkley of Artistry in Games offered an avid gamer’s take on the issue of controversial material in games: is there in fact a point that’s “too far”? And if so, what should be done about it?

Berkley’s jumping-off point is the much-publicized stabbing attack carried out by two adolescent girls in Wisconsin who supposedly hoped to become acolytes of Internet myth Slenderman. Happily their victim survived, but Berkley knew exactly what would happen next:

[I]t’s only a matter of time (if it hasn’t started already) before the media and the less-than-informed masses start crying from the hilltops that creepypasta fiction, along with rock n’ roll, horror movies, and M-rated video games, incites violence, promotes crime, and opens the door to drug use and demonic possession.

Correct! While a rational person might say the general public knows much too little about the details of the case to offer a judgment on it–that’s what the justice system is for–some media outlets preferred to seize on the sensational aspects that would gain them the most viewers and readers. Of course this is a song we’ve heard many times before, says Berkley, but creepypasta which is read and enjoyed by multitudes as a harmless diversion is no more to blame for this attack than video games were for the shootings at Columbine and Sandy Hook:

If someone’s going to snap, they absolutely don’t require a video game to trigger it – people have been driving themselves over the edge since long before the advent of modern technology. Did the Marquis de Sade get thrown into prison and an asylum for being – well, a sadist – because killing hookers in Grand Theft Auto lost its appeal after a while? (The answer you’re looking for here is “no.”)

Additionally, each person’s judgment of what qualifies as “too far” is subjective. Berkley herself, for instance, reports she can tolerate almost any amount of in-game violence or horror–unless a cat dies. (Some of us who choose to avoid any movie in which a dog dies can sympathize.) This affords her some understanding of the pro-censorship perspective, but at the same time she realizes that line is highly personal and it would be impossible to avoid everyone’s bugaboos:

So what do I do when a cat dies in a game? Here’s what I don’t do: I don’t write hate-mail to the developers blasting them for their inhumanity and obvious psychological issues. I don’t post some scathingly sarcastic review on the internet detailing just how deplorably unplayable the game is, or write letters to the editors of high-circulation magazines whining about how terrible it is that we allow such filth to be published in our society.

Instead, I take a break. I stew about it for a bit, fuming silently to myself about the state of the video game industry and the human race until I finally run out of steam. Then, if I find the game is still worth it to me after all, I go back and hit “play” again – and if not, I uninstall and never look back. Why? Because ultimately, this is my problem, and no one else’s. If I don’t like it, I don’t have to play it. No one is making me, because it’s my choice, and mine alone.

What’s more, there is already a system in place to warn players and/or parents that they might find a game’s content disturbing or objectionable: ESRB ratings. All ratings systems have their drawbacks, but Berkley points out that parents angered by something their minor children were exposed to in an M-rated game have no one to blame but themselves. Even when there are games that almost everyone finds disgusting, like the rape simulator RapeLay (which doesn’t have an ESRB rating because it’s not officially distributed in the U.S.), Berkley says the solution is not to legislate them out of existence. Doing so would inevitably also effect more mainstream games that include intense content as part of the storyline; in other words, to again borrow a phrase from Neil Gaiman, “laws are big blunt instruments that do not differentiate between what you like and what you don’t.”

Ultimately, says Berkley, setting boundaries of acceptability for games would stifle innovation:

[A]ll art, be it video games or any other medium, is a means of exploring reality, both as it is and as it could be. To try to censor or place limits on such exploration, such freedom of expression, would, by extension, be an attempt to limit the scope of our collective imagination, and it could cost us more than we may realize. Both life and video games are balancing acts. It’s like adjusting the gamma levels before loading the first level of a new game. We need a balance [of] both dark and light to see the big picture; otherwise, we’re playing blind.

We wish that every “expert” and media commentator would read that before they again target games as a scapegoat for the latest mass shooting! Check out Berkley’s full article at Artistry in Games.

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Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.