Won’t someone think of the children?!?

There’s another post up at SFist, which I mention only because that’s the only way they show up in the sidebar down below to your right.

Speaking of belated responses to basically inconsequential news: A couple of weeks ago there was a big stink all over the videogame section of the internets about this “lawyer” named Jack Thompson and his run-in with the guys from the webcomic “Penny Arcade.” In brief: he wrote something claiming that he’d donate $10,000 to charity if any videogame company would make a game based on his premise, which was a ridiculous story about a father whose child was killed as a result of game-inspired violence and went on a killing spree murdering game developers, publishers, and retailers. The Penny Arcade guys, to their credit, handled it reasonably well: they pointed out to the guy that they ran a charity which raises money and supplies games for sick kids, and they made a $10,000 donation to that charity in Thompson’s name. He responded with legal threats and various letters to the FBI, several webcomics and hundreds of blog articles resulted. (And when somebody did actually make the game, he responded by saying that his claim had all been “satire,” and then with a couple more threats of legal action.)

In short, everybody got what they wanted. The sleazy ambulance-chasing lawyer got the attention he wanted and kept his name in the press. The Penny Arcade guys drew more attention to their charity, which could be seen as self-serving, but was basically a potent way of getting their message across, that most of the people who play videogames are not hyper-violent, semi-autistic selfish children.

I don’t even like mentioning Thompson, because it just adds one more internet reference to him, however insignificant, to make it seem like the guy’s having more impact than he really is. He’s laughably incompetent, and his agenda is completely transparent, even if you’re not aware (as I wasn’t) of his history of grandstanding and dementia. One of the Penny Arcade guys had an unexpectedly mature take on it: he said that they were aware they should just ignore the guy instead of giving him more attention, but that it was essentially a good thing he was at the forefront of the debate. Because if they ever had anyone competent taking all the credit as leader of the anti-videogame crusade, game fans and companies would be screwed.

(Senator Joe Lieberman and SF Assemblyman Leland Yee also make occasional headlines in videogame censorship news, but usually only when it’s around election time. And when they do, it becomes apparent they have no real expertise in the issue other than knowing enough to mention Grand Theft Auto and Postal).

The problem is that there’s nobody particularly competent on the pro-videogame side of the issue, either. All we’ve got is the insistence that there’s no evidence linking game-playing to violent behavior, and the First Amendment. Which means that as soon as someone releases a study showing that there is a correlation between GTA and Columbine, then all you’ve got left is the ACLU and “I know my rights” and an argument that has parents responding, “Well yeah, but…”

The fact is that game developers and publishers do have rights; that’s trivially true. They do have the right to make a game where you kill a cop, then rip off his head and piss down his neck. The Framers guaranteed that; I believe that Madison made specific reference to such a game during the first Continental Congress. But the question remains: why would you want to make a game like that? Is everybody going to just completely ignore the idea of personal responsibility?

I’ve been thinking about the issue lately because of Shadow of the Colossus and a documentary on “Violence in Videogames” that I saw on G4 TV. The documentary hit on all the salient points, with the prerequisite C-SPAN footage of senate hearings, shots of Columbine and an interview with one of the students, and blurry footage of Mortal Kombat, all set to a techno soundtrack and interspersed with ads showing bikini-wearing women on cars. And just like “Hardball” and “Hannity and Colmes” and other bastions of responsible journalism, they set up two polar opposite yahoos on either side of the issue as their main talking points.

On the one side, they had the hearings about game violence and the ESRB and of course, soundbites from Thompson. But on the other side, they had some guy from PC Gamer magazine who kept repeating that there was no causal relation between games and actual violence, and — more telling — that games weren’t just for children. He said this over and over again, until you got the impression that he was trying to defend his own hobby (and job) from being immature than to make a relevant point about game violence.

Last I checked, the average age for gamers was in the mid 20s. So what? Is it that much better to know that it’s not 12-year-olds spending four hours a day running around gunning people down and screwing hookers, it’s just unemployed 23-year-olds? It helps counter the claims that parents have a right to know what their kids are playing, and it does reinforce the idea that not everything sold at a game store is suitable for your 12-year-old, but it doesn’t say anything about the state of games on the whole. It’s absurd to say that a videogame will make an otherwise well-adjusted person go on a killing spree. But is “doesn’t make people murder” enough of a justification that something is actually good?

One of the big things Thompson rallied against was a “Hot Coffee” mod for some version of Grand Theft Auto San Andreas that had an explicit sex game. The response from the company that makes the game, and all of the game’s fans and defenders, was that “it was locked content that wasn’t meant to be seen by the public.” Great. I was outraged at how offensive that whole thing was — not because it’s explicit sex, but because it was such a tremendously juvenile and boneheaded thing to do. People actually got paid to make this garbage and at some point discussed putting it in the finished product. For shock value. Because Rockstar and GTA are all “edgy.” What better way to prove the maturity of your industry than by giggling over boobies and hoo-has?

And then you’ve got games like Shadow of the Colossus. I already said that I’m more impressed with it than I think it’s actually fun. Sure, you could say it’s violent, but I don’t think anyone other than the shadow-creature-controlled Giant lobby would be offended by it. What impresses me about it is that it exists for art’s sake. At some level, it’s basically a series of boss fights and jumping puzzles, but it’s presented with such innovation and artistic design that it just stands out as remarkable. I’m more frustrated with it than I have been with any game in recent years, but I’m also having a reaction to it unlike any game I’ve played since the old LucasArts adventures — I’m really engaged in figuring out how the game world works, what’s the solution to a puzzle, and feeling a real sense of accomplishment once I’ve figured it out.

And that kind of thing — making something that’s impressive from a visually artistic standpoint and actually engaging you in the activity — is what games are capable of. That, and the few other games that have really tried to be artistic works, like Full Throttle and ICO and Grim Fandango and Rez and Seaman and even Space Channel 5, are what people should be pointing to whenever anyone asks whether videogames have any merit, not just claims of “it’s not just for kids” and “freedom of speech!” And that’s what the industry should be working towards, not being edgy rockstars pulling in the big bucks and being subversive by showing little pixelated people screwing.