I can’t comment on the leaked video specifically, since I haven’t hunted it down yet, but I wanted to jump in because of this prevailing notion that open-world games have the same moral impact as linear games with set mission goals.
In a game like Grand Theft Auto, which is made up of an entire city (or tri-county area) and boasts almost no limits whatsover on what you’re allowed to physically do to people, a player with controller in hand can enact some pretty amazing and fucked-up shit, the likes of which tend to make non-gamers cringe and wonder what on earth is wrong with developers who allow such things to happen in the game rather than… I don’t know, making an imaginary barrier appear when the player tries to run over innocent people?
Anyone seeking to make a comparison between slaughter in Call of Duty (a linear, mission-based game with an intense plotline about internation terorrism) and Grand Theft Auto (a no-rules, over the top romp in parody versions of NYC, Miami, or LA) should be aware of something pretty key:
The ESRB refuses to rate games based on what’s in the player’s head.
That is: if a player goes and, of their own free will, chases hookers around the red light district with a chainsaw, or wrecks aircraft into populated areas, or even holds off against the inevitable wave of FBI and national guard who come hunting you with all assets once you start such a rampage - those are all player choices. Fox News and grandmas worldwide can watch such things be played with mouth agape, but the person holding the controller is often pretty calm, or simply impressed by the complexity of the game for the way the world responds to the chaos being enacted.
Because no matter what GTA game you’re talking about: unless it’s in an actual mission (and I can recall very, very few missions, if any, that require you to kill innocent people), the person holding the controller is the one responsible for the outrageousness and crime on the screen: not the emergent world the developers created.
To contrast that, the purported level in Modern Warfare 2, whether it involves playing as a confederate infiltrating a terrorist cell or an actual terrorist (both involve some interesting ideas for storytelling), has a few things going for it that give it some order of magnitude more impact, both morally and politically, than any other game so far:
This is a mission-based game with linear level design and clear objectives. Unlike GTA where, no matter what mission you’re on, you ultimately have the decision to fuck off and do something else if you want to have fun, any Call of Duty (and especially Modern Warfare) is a game where you play part of a special-ops squad and fight alongside your commander as he issues instructions and suggestions. When there aren’t suggestions, there are on-screen prompts telling you what to do. This, in loose terms, takes the moral choice out of players hands. If they don’t want to engage in the missions and see the story of Modern Warfare 2, they ultimately only have the choice to turn the game off. Obviously, Activision has skirted this issue somewhat by making the mission skippable, but I doubt any gamer, no matter the age, wants to say they were the one who didn’t <experience the emotional resonance of playing from the terrorists’ POV and hearing their ideas/get to shoot all those dudes in that one building>. It was still a pretty safe move politically to at least not force players to go through it.
This game is played entirely in first-person. If you don’t count utterly ridiculous games like Postal or Manhunt, there’s not much at all in the retail space that puts you in the position of having “enact mass genocide” as a de facto mission objective, which you then play out from the eyes and behind the gun of the terrorist doing just that. For all the media misunderstanding about video games and cries about “murder simulators,” it is true that there’s more personal impact in playing or watching a scene in first person than there is in taking similar actions from outside a character’s body. It’s intangible and hasn’t been studied very much yet, but it is there.
In fact, one of the reasons Modern Warfare 2 interests me even more now than it did a few days ago is that the developers, Infinity Ward, have already proven themselves masters at getting across some pretty poignant stories about the reality and impact of war through that first-person medium. That, if no other reason, is why this game deserves to be looked at with some weight and not just quantified as a set of features: “This game lets you shoot panicking office workers in the back!” “This game lets you beat grandmothers to death with a double-ended dildo!”
- Hi Jack Thompson!