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E3 Day Zero: When Game Violence Becomes Vile


One of the most striking scenes of yesterday's E3 press conference gauntlet didn't take place on a stage or a screen. It wasn't rehearsed or pre-planned, and it most certainly wasn't expected. I sat in a jam-packed arena-sized auditorium and watched a game demo unfold on a screen bigger than my hometown. OK, that wasn't the surprising part. I'd been doing that all day. This one, though, came to a rather abrupt halt when - mere inches away from the camera - a man's head erupted into a volcano of hyper-detailed gore after a point-blank shotgun blast. And then: deafening applause from hundreds of people.

This was the blaring exclamation point on the end of a day of gleefully grotesque neck-shanking, leg-severing, and - of course - man-shooting. I can honestly think of maybe five games - in four multiple-hour press conferences - that didn't feature some sort of lovingly rendered death-dealing mechanic. And oh how show-goers cheered. So then, have we all become brainless barbarians with a lust for blood bordering on fetishistic? Hardly. That'd be a simple black-or-white (or, I suppose, red) answer, and this issue's a whole lot messier than that.

Obviously, over-the-top killing in games isn't new. Violence, as it turns out, is the answer when the question is "What's the most immediately engaging, compulsively satisfying way to interact with a game world?" The problem with yesterday's showcase, then, is manifold, but its frail, probably soon-to-be-skewered heart lies in presentation.

It's amazing what a few dabs of makeup, some ill-advised comments from a clueless presenter, and a trailer cut to draw an incredibly specific target demographic from its collective Man Cave can do. See, during all of yesterday's Internet furor, many (very intelligent) people failed to notice something: a few of these games - blood-spewing kneecapitations and all - are trying their damndest to push games forward into interesting new territory.

Seriously! Far Cry 3 - to hear its creators tell it - is a purposefully over-the-top examination of how first-person shooters and the surrounding culture affect both players and developers as human beings. Tomb Raider, meanwhile, is playing up character vulnerability to a point of cringe-inducing discomfort, and Last of Us - the (sadly) PS3-exclusive apocalypse survivor with the aforementioned shotgun blast heard 'round the Internet - did an excellent job of making violence look and sound terrifying, like a last resort of desperate, miserable people fighting to protect the few remaining things they love.

Admittedly, an alarmingly high number of other games - for instance, Assassin's Creed, Dead Space, Medal of Honor, Black Ops, Splinter Cell, and (so far, at least) even Watch Dogs - stuck to the ol' slow-mo shooty shooty bang bang for its own sake, and that's definitely part of the problem. I do not, however, believe there's necessarily a moral quandary in having fun with ultraviolence. These things are fictional. We're all (read: mostly, I hope) responsible adults here, and we know where to draw the line. I mean, goodness, the entire "Games don't cause violence, so calm down everyone jeez" line of thought is almost entirely predicated on that assumption.  That, however, is precisely the problem: yesterday's press conferences suggested anything but.

Responsibility is the key, and there's been a tremendous lapse in that on all sides of this issue. In the press conferences themselves, shocking acts of rapid-fire violence became the central message - not simply part of a larger experience - and showcases were structured to facilitate that. Far Cry 3, especially, was flat-out misrepresented as a result. To those who hadn't seen it behind closed doors (read: plenty of press, everyone tuning in for the livestream), it just looked like a mess of blood, bare breasts, and ruthlessly slaughtered wildlife. And then, to make matters worse, conference host Aisha Tyler enthusiastically announced that she, too, wanted to "use a tiger as a tool and then kill it." Disgusting, right?

That's what Ubisoft's writers and presenters chose to emphasize and even glorify. But honestly, flinging quick, sloppy spectacle onto our plates is much easier (and more instantly gratifying) than slowly ladling out context, so it's really not much of a surprise that Ubisoft took that route. Similar mentalities showed through in the rest of the day's presentations - including, even, Tomb Raider and Last of Us. And, of course, this comes in the wake of the nigh-indefensible Hitman trailer from last week. Is it irresponsible on the part of publishers? Absolutely. But they were trying to sell products, and that tactic - at least, on paper - has "proven," "effective," and "fool-proof" written all over it.

It would be a colossal mistake, however, to pin this thing entirely on publishers. Once again, as Responsible Adults Who Know Where To Draw The Line, it's our job to, you know, draw the line. But, quite evidently, we're not doing that very well. So either we don't actually know where to draw the line, and there's a serious problem with, well, humanity here, or - more likely - we're also being irresponsible. We're clapping - basically sending the universal human signal for "Yes! Amazing! Keep doing that until one of us dies!" to publishers - without thinking. We're endorsing the way these games are presented in all sorts of public channels and forums without considering the consequences.

Yesterday, I saw games that treated violence as the raddest, most Mountain-Dew-can-crushed-against-your-forehead thing in the world, an utterly bone-chilling, blood-curdling last resort, and quite a few things in between. But wow, it sure didn't look that way. And, if we don't stay mindful of what game-makers are doing and how we're acting in response, it won't be that way for too much longer. So pay attention and speak up. Sure, a thousand hands clapping paints a pretty damning picture, but you know what's a thousand times worse? Silence.

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