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PETA, the Red Cross and Videogames

Recently, PETA kicked up a fuss about Mario wearing a Tanooki suit. Now, I've always thought PETA sucked, and the reason is this: Rather than using their network of informants and activists to promote their cause they choose to adopt a holier-than-thou attitude and spend their time attacking popular icons (before someone corrects me, I'm sure that they spend a lot of time and effort promoting their cause in better ways, but honestly you never hear of them doing that, they get the headlines when they attack something. And it is probably more important how they are seen rather than how they act, because as a charity they rely on the goodwill of others, People don't want to donate to jerks.) That isn't how a charity acts. That's how terrorists act. Now I'm not about to use such a controversial and elusive term to describe PETA, because obviously there are still a vast amount of differences between them, and, say Al Qaeda. I'm just pointing out the methods that they use, and trying to move towards a definition.

So yeah, PETA are jerks. That in itself is not that big a deal though. There are plenty of Animal rights charities out there who's methods people can agree with, and many people support those charities. PETA are just one bad apple in the bunch.

So when I read that the Red Cross were debating on whether to scrutinise War crimes in games, I fell off my chair.


Even the Red Cross is getting in on criticising games.

Now PETA I understand, I've already said I think they suck. But the Red Cross? Surely they have better stuff to do with their time. Plus it's not even established whether or not video games have psychological effect on us.

I've heard both sides of the argument - the 'It's only a game', that it's virtual, no-one is being hurt in reality and therefore there is no need to worry about it, that video games are simply being used as a scapegoat and people blaming them are ignoring the true social issues. You always hear about the Psychopath of the week who murdered someone 'over videogames' or 'because of their addiction to videogames' but the more discerning of us readers immediately know that such causal reasoning is deeply flawed. The addictions or similar issues are usually symptoms, rather than causes, and that is is very unlikely that the person's issues rest solely in videogames - without the existence of games, would they really be a fully functional member of society?

Anyway I'm off the point. The other argument is that video games, while not unique in their ability to influence but aggravated in it because of their visceral nature, can have a profound effect on people's behaviours and beliefs. Violence in a game desensitizes people to real violence, and they are therefore more likely to use violence in real life, and with less remorse.

Now why would the Red Cross even consider looking at video games? OK, I agree that playing violent games probably does have some effect, but I personally think films have more of an effect due to their aspirational nature (everyone looks up to the action hero, hell even I want to transform into a truck and duel with decepticons) and games are simply more cathartic, or too ridiculous to actually stimulate aggressive impulses.

So with that argument, I ask 'Saving Private Ryan had war crimes. So did Schindler's List. Hell, those two films were basically about war crimes. Why not look at them?'

Ah but those are historical films, showing a historical conflict. Not entirely fictional, highly fantastical films. But what about, say, Avatar? Although the Na'vi are not human the film makes the point that it doesn't matter that they aren't specifically human, they are like humans and the attacks against them are wrong.

So what is it about videogames that makes them so easy to criticise? Why is it that they find themselves in the spotlight so much?

In part, this is due to videogames being a relatively new art form (YES AN ART FORM, they are certainly capable of aestheticism, or conveying a message as effectively, if not more so than any existing 'art form'). That will just change with time. But I think it's important to note when these criticisms are strongest, weeks after the release of Call of Duty.

Now I'm not a hater, Obviously these criticisms are not unique to Call of Duty, they are shared by almost all military shooters. The difference between them and, say, Saving Private Ryan is that the war crimes committed in Saving Private Ryan helped to illustrate the war, and various themes - loss, family etc. In, say, Call of Duty, they have no real value above simply shocking the player. In multiplayer, war crimes have no purpose other than the accumulation of points. They are a necessary measure for victory, an idea which, it taken literally could be dangerous. Good thing games don't affect us too badly. Anyway, beyond that they have no meaning. There is no punishment, only reward in the virtual coliseum of leaderboards and stats.
However, single player is different. Take the infamous 'No Russian' level. Now it could have shown the coldness of human nature, or the horror of terrorism. But for me it didn't. Unlike Saving Private Ryan, while the terrorists were certainly evil, making me one of them meant that as a Player I couldn't judge their actions - even as a mole. Secret agents aren't supposed to judge the actions of others. They are supposed to serve their country, whether they are fighting terrorists or other, less morally reprehensible people. And the civilians, well they didn't differ much from an enemy who had run out of ammo. They weren't people, they were simply cardboard cut outs who bled and screamed when you shot them. As a player, I wanted more to show their humanity. I think a cutscene, focusing on, maybe a family or something for a minute or so (like that halo reach live action trailer), then showing the terrorists mercilessly cutting everyone down. Or, if you hate cutscenes, make me the father of two young children, desperately running for my life, doomed to fail. Then I can judge them, and hate them.

Whether or not games affect us psychologically is still an issue. There will likely be countless studies in the future which will both support and denie those claims. However, I think our violent games need to have a little meaning, and that there are more themes to explore in the theatre of war than shock value. Until then, I'm off to skin a Tanooki.
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About CJHRRIHRHone of us since 7:00 AM on 07.31.2011