Issue: Volume: 32 Issue: 6 (June 2009)

Guest Editor's Note - Courting Controversy

By: Martin McEachern




Immediately upon its release, the graphic-novel styled video game MadWorld (see “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, MadWorld,” pg. 26) became a lightning rod for the outrage of media watchdog groups the world over. John Beyer, director of the UK conservative special-interest pressure group mediawatch-uk, was quick to vocalize his disgust over the game’s content, even urging the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) to deny the game a rating, which would have effectively banned it from being sold. On March 10 of this year, the day the game was released, the National Institute on Media and the Family issued a press release lashing out at Nintendo for tarnishing the family-oriented image of the Wii by “opening its doors to the violent video game genre.” (The game is played on the Wii platform.) The game’s publisher, Sega, already buckling under pressure, announced late last summer that it would not release the game in Germany, fearing a backlash from local media watchdog groups and an ill-informed public there.

The game is, without question, graphically violent. Literally. All the action centers on killing and dismembering, though it is done in a black-and-white comic-book style, with red accent: blood. The moral outrage, however, almost seems laughable considering the violence plays out with all the realism of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. Nonetheless, these media watchdog groups, hyper-sensitized to game violence, are a threat to artists, their livelihood, and the artistic maturity of the medium, especially if developers and publishers concede to their wishes in fear of stoking their ire. They have the power to foment public opinion, influence mainstream media, and pressure ratings boards, such as the ESRB and the BBFC, to strip games of their classifications, essentially crippling their marketability and distribution.

Even worse, with the economy fighting its way out of the recession, Bloomberg.com is reporting that Activision Blizzard, the world’s most powerful publisher reportedly with $3 billion in cash and no debt after the merger with Vivendi, is now looking to gobble up smaller developers as cheaply as possible. This follows in the footsteps of another gaming giant, EA, which has in recent years acquired Mythic Entertainment, Phenomic Game Development, Hands-On Mobile, Digital Illusions CE, and Headgate Studios, while still holding a 15 percent controlling interest in Ubisoft. With the industry’s wealth and power consolidating in the hands of a few gaming conglomerates, the opportunities for creativity and innovation could only dwindle under these pressures. What could result is a gaming industry that looks much like the film industry, where media conglomerates crank out safe, generic, homogenized art, carefully assembled in a boardroom, where every creative decision is driven by market demands and the need for maximum profitability. Needless to say, anything that would threaten a market-friendly classification would be avoided. 

“We understand there are differences among the ethical sensibilities of each country,” says Atsushi Inaba, one of the four famed developers who founded Platinum Games, creator of MadWorld. “However, we believe that adults are capable of distinguishing fantasy from reality, and understanding that a game is a completely virtual experience. And only in this virtual world are we given opportunities to do things that are not acceptable in the real world. At the same time, adults have to communicate to their children that a game world is totally different from the real world. The media and [these watchdog groups] have to think about this. Yes, MadWorld is a violent action game, but the violence is not gratuitous; it’s not like you can do anything you want to do. In fact, if you take the time to play to the end of the game, the story line delivers a very strong anti-violence message, so we just want the media to understand and report the contents of the game accurately.”

Inaba remains vehement in justifying the game’s violence and protesting the media castigations of his art. Whether MadWorld’s story delivers an anti-violence message or not is ultimately irrelevant to the majority of game artists. For centuries, violence and conflict have been the cornerstones of dramatic art, as much as art has been a harmless outlet for violent tendencies. If we were to ban MadWorld, making it a scapegoat for violent adolescent behavior or inept parenting, we’d have to ban Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Frank Miller’s Sin City, and nearly Stephen King’s entire canon of work. To deny adults or, more importantly, kids that outlet would be to assume they’re incapable of differentiating fantasy from reality.

A wise seventh-grade teacher once told me, you can’t lock children up in the castle tower; you have to send them out into the world with a suit of armor. Indeed, with a good suit of armor, they should have no problem enjoying Inaba’s mad MadWorld.

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