To begin, the Article.
Go read it. I’ll wait.
All done? First and foremost – I abhor violence against children. I think people who hurt children should be subjected to all the pain, violence, and abuses they subject on children. I pray for swift retaliatory karma against these people and hope the rest of their lives are miserable, equal to, if not greater than, the pain the child felt during the abuse.
Now, violence against children in video games is a wildly controversial thing. So why does it show up at all?
1. More and more game designers are parents.
Just look at Heavy Rain, Nintendogs, and Mario Galaxy. More game designers that started in this industry as young adults in their 20s are now reaching the age where they have children. Anyone with children will readily admit that it is a radically life changing experience. So logically it makes sense that as these designers have this experience it will reflect in their work. 10 years ago an RPG wouldn’t have considered including having children as something the player can do. Children aren’t adventurous and heroic. But now, as in games like Fable 3, children are becoming a part of the game. Because the game designer parents are able to say “This is an adventure. This is a compelling reason to radically change the way a player plays the game.”
2. The social mores against things in video games are falling, just as they did for other mediums.
Do you remember the brouhaha over Fred and Wilma being shown on TV in bed? It was a huge deal that a cartoon would depict people in a bed together, thus implying sex. Now, it is common to see women in their underwear, sex, and violence on TV. Sex is coming to video game mainstream. So will all the other things like drug use and children. These are the things that define our humanity. Our successes and our failings. That is why they create drama and evoke emotion. Video Games will continue to attempt to elicit emotion from players and drama is a part of that.
3. Why even have kids in the game?
Ask any parent what their worst nightmare is. I am willing to bet most of the answers involve something with their children. The Sims allowed me the joy of having a house full of children, something I will never do in real life (I mean like 6 kids, seriously). The terror that I feel at the idea of having a game where I can gain a child, then possibly lose them… *shudder* The article brings up Bioshock as a violence against children example. However it is notable that in Bioshock they are always Little Sisters, in-human. The NPCs in the game even back this up, saying “Those aren’t little girls anymore.” But when given the option it is always Save vs Harvest. That is an intentional distinction. Despite the fact that the player knows that Harvest will kill the Little Sister, it doesn’t say Kill, it says Harvest. The interesting point is that this is a moral choice presented to the player. And at the end of the game it is revealed that the player is rewarded for choosing the “correct” path of saving the Little Sisters.
In Dead Space 2 (I haven’t played it, I am going off the article) it sounds like the designers needed a small fearsome enemy that was hard to hit, could move fast, and needed to scare the player. As a secondary effect of their story choice they even created the feeling that the player *shouldn’t* be shooting this enemy. Despite the fact that you should. That moment of hesitation can lead to the players death.
It is also worth noting all of the games mentioned are arguably Horror games. The designer’s job is to elicit horror from the player. What could possibly be more horrific and want you to bring down the whole thing than something that harms children? It never occurred to me that Andrew Ryan in Bioshock wasn’t a bad guy. Despite what the designers tried to twist into the story, here is a man willing to exploit children to further his own ends. Once that is made clear, the player no longer feels bad for tearing through this ruined city and destroying it’s people. They allowed their ideals and beliefs to lead them away from the inherent compassion and sense of right. At this point, I no longer wanted to just escape Rapture, I wanted to punch a hole in the wall and allow it to flood. To destroy it completely for the failure to retain it’s humanity.
4. But why have violence against kids in the game?
To evoke the parental emotion and all the messy feelings that come with it. In Heavy Rain I WILLINGLY took a vial of poison, knowing that the probability of it killing my character was high, knowing it was likely a trick by the designer to set me back. But I could chose no other option. I had to save my kid and if this was the hoop the serial killer wanted me to jump through, then by God, I was going to jump through it. My life for my child’s? In a heartbeat. The designers were exceptionally clever with their choices of trials. How far could they push the player to save a child? And push the player they did. It even sparks the thought that while yes, this is a game, would you really do such a thing? If this were real, what would you give up? The designer held up a mirror to the player’s soul and that is definitely going to make people uncomfortable.
5. Games are all about fantasy and being the hero.
Guitar Hero and Rock Band did so well because they MADE THE PLAYER A ROCK STAR. World of Warcraft makes me feel like this powerful and amazing hero that literally saves the world over and over again. Games are about fantasy and being the hero, and what is more heroic than saving a child? The catharsis of saving the child in Heavy Rain is sufficient to have made it a critically acclaimed game despite iffy controls, ambiguous choices, and uncanny valley.
I will admit as a designer, I am uncomfortable with the idea of putting children in harms way in my own games. But that doesn’t mean the question shouldn’t be asked or the situation explored. I am wildly uncomfortable with rape and yet I accept it’s inclusion in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as a required event to bring me closer to the protagonist, despite her alien responses and behavior. Did Dead Island create the trailer with the express purpose of sparking the discussion to get press? Of course they did. Should they be vilified for doing so? No more than any other game like Call of Duty that does such things to spark discourse and free publicity. After all, movies have been doing this for years already.
Now, take a moment to imagine the Dead Island trailer, which I will admit is marketing at it’s finest. Everyone has a strong emotion about it, despite the fact it doesn’t show one second of gameplay. But imagine if the story the player is stepping into is this family’s story. The player assumes the role of the parents or even the child at various points in the game. The goal of the game is to get them out alive, as all survival horror zombie games are. Through a single short trailer they have given the player all the motive and drive to not only play the game, but play it at their best. To seek, to strive to save this little girl. The trailer shows the worst possible outcome, one the player should stop at nothing to change. That is a powerful emotional response. That is a powerful story over a standard and common game type. Much like movies set themselves up for Oscars, this game appears to be setting itself up for the art and story telling in video games debate. Will it succeed? I can’t wait to find out.
As it turns out, the trailer was in fact, pure marketing hype. It’s a shame, to use something so artistic that could have been the stepping off point for a truly spectacular story. Ah well, back to hacking zombies to bits.