Virtual/Reality: Violent Videogames And Issues Of 'Art'S

"These videogames are not art. They are extreme pornography," boldly states the headline to Jacqueline Hunt's opinion piece in the Guardian. But why are all videogames - and by extension, players - being judged by one admittedly perverted standard?

Hunt's article is in response to an earlier Guardian piece by Mark Kermode, who admits he isn't really a game player but draws parallels to the horror movie genre, and ultimately concludes that outsiders can't judge an art form they don't understand:

With almost any genuine art form, the most important works can rarely be taken at face value, and are only fully appreciated by those who have an affinity for the medium. Today, the British Board of Film Classification prides itself in bringing that kind of knowledge to bear when rating horror films.

Now videogames are the tabloid press's demon du jour. So, when I hear murmurings about "violent video games" such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (left), I tend to pay less attention to the opinions of MPs than to writers such as Charlie Brooker, who spends his life gazing at a TV screen. Brooker described CoD:MW2 as "the Citizen Kane of repeatedly shooting people in the face" concluding: "Don't worry, it won't turn anyone into a killer." I believe him. Why? Because he knows his subject. The game is rated 18, is not intended for kids and as far as I'm concerned it is no more of a threat today than The Evil Dead was 25 years ago.

Hunt was apparently moved to respond, pointing out that gamers are generally a hostile bunch (how is this news?) and gender based stereotypes can have a hazardous effect in the real world. As a feminist, anti-racist, and gamer, I concur - it's an ugly digital world out there. But I found myself sighing with frustration after reading the article.

Hunt's argument appears to hinge on two points.

The first, the idea that all video games contain content similar to RapeLay - the Japanese rape simulator game that made international headlines - is ridiculous. Hunt writes:

[Equality Now, Hunt's organization, led an] international campaign called on the Japanese government to ban games that promote sexual violence against women and girls. Fans of these games were outraged. They asked us why we were targeting RapeLay when, they said, it was mild compared to similar available games. In Japan there is a whole genre of extreme pornography, known as hentai, which takes in cartoons and comic books as well as videogames. Imagery includes women and girls being molested, stalked and gang-raped.

Yes. Those are games used for pornographic purposes, mainly, in the same way that major companies will use games as advertising, and educators can use games as an instructional tool. In this case, the video game is one type of format for that type of content - it isn't necessarily a reflection on the industry at large. And, just as no one is offering up the latest skin flick from Vivid Pictures to the Oscars, RapeLay falls pretty far outside of the boundaries of the types of games that would earn the title of "art."

The second point is a bit sticker - it deals with Grand Theft Auto, one of the gaming industry's top selling and most contentious franchises, arguing that the games help reinforce harmful stereotypes:

But if games such as RapeLay can now be classified as art, maybe the popular media promotion of sexual violence against women is so normalised that we don't even pay attention any more. Does "killing" a prostituted woman in Grand Theft Auto just reconfirm to a gamer the "lesser value" of women in prostitution generally?

And that it does. We make video games, and many of them follow the norms of our culture - so what the culture values is reflected within the gaming environment. It is true, with video games becoming a popular past time more and more, people are exposed to these virtual worlds - and more and more people are calling attention to the problematic aspects of gaming, like its whole-hearted embrace of sexism. And Grand Theft Auto is certainly no exception. However, there are a great many women who play GTA - and I include myself in this count. So while, it is easy for my gender and racial outlook to pinpoint a great many issues with the game itself - a lack of decent women characters outside of love interests and sex workers tops my list - I'm also listening to the criticism as a fan and player.

Here's what gender based criticism of GTA sounds like to someone who plays the franchise:

"Excuse me - I know you're busy attacking with people with chain saws, fleeing from burning crackhouses, acquiring new territory for your gang, and coordinating heroin shipments, but I'd really like to take a moment to discuss the deplorable way you treated that prostitute!"

Now, this isn't to say that Grand Theft Auto has no issues with gender and representation, or that an argument can't be made for normalizing images of violence against sex workers or reinforcing other harmful societal norms, including racial stereotyping. But it can be hard to launch that argument when the in-game norm makes places you in the role of a trigger happy underworld kingpin. This isn't an environment of moral, upstanding citizens.

When Grand Theft Auto IV released, it was seen as something far closer to art than entertainment. As many have pointed out, it isn't the violence that makes the game so special, but rather the intrinsic theme of moral ambiguity. The complex narrative of the game, combined with a lush background and the freedom to do as you will, presents an immersible experience rather than violence for the sake of violence. Rapelay was a game created as a masturbatory aid.

These things are not on the same level.

I do not object to Hunt attempting to critique a flourishing media environment, and make people aware of issues of gender and sexualized violence in video games. It will be work that is necessary if video games truly want to make the full transition (at least in some genres) from base entertainment to art. However, I do object to her flattening the full world of video games, which encompasses everything from Metroid to Little Big Planet to Super Smash Bros. to Spore, as if it is all one teeming mass of violence and perversion. There are many, many reasons why people are players. And, if one seeks to truly understand the difference between video games and pornography, I would suggest they start by picking up a controller.

These Videogames Are Not Art. They Are Extreme Pornography [Guardian]
Do Violent Computer Games Turn Us Into Killers? [Guardian]
Equality Now [Official Site]
The Best-Selling Video Games [Newsweek]
Open Letter Implores Games Industry: "Don't Forget Women" [Border House]
Reviews: "Grand Theft Auto IV" will change your life [Salon]
"Grand Theft Auto IV" is a dark urban masterpiece [Salon]
How Can Grand Theft Auto Transition from Base Entertainment to Art? [Cerise]

Earlier: U.S. Ban On Rape Simulation Game Not Likely