By forcing a player to do unpleasant things, a video game can encourage a player to reflect critically on those actions. As I’ve written about on Geek Studies and elsewhere—and as others have put quite well too—”forced failure” scenarios in games allow for new avenues of meaning, new emotional responses from media that pure spectatorship can’t easily provide. In my paper “Seeking Truth in Video Game Ratings,” I offered this technique as evidence that the mere presence of violence in a game isn’t enough to qualify the content as inherently immoral (or even amoral). I stand by that perspective.
As this technique becomes more commonly understood as part of the vocabulary of game design, however, it’s worth noting that recent games appear to be showing how heavy handed and poorly conceived the application of “violent gameplay to discourage violence” can potentially be.
The example getting the most press and critical attention now is probably Modern Warfare 2, which includes a scene the developers considered so disturbing that they give you the option to skip it entirely. This level, commonly referred to as the “No Russian” scene (stop reading now if you haven’t heard about the generic spoilers) involves playing as an undercover terrorist, and basically being forced to help real terrorists gun down an airport of defenseless people and innocent law enforcement officials.
As I said, though, this isn’t just an isolated example. It’s becoming part of the vocabulary of game techniques, an unofficially standard idea of how to engage players along a certain dimension. To consider a parallel example, see how Kotaku succinctly describes Hit the Bitch, produced by Denmark’s Children Exposed to Violence at Home, an anti-domestic-violence group:
We can see where they’re coming from; something akin to “No Russian” for the domestic violence scene. Make you do something horrible to better confront the horror. But the execution? It’s a flash game. Where you do nothing but smack a woman around. Comes across a little tasteless.
Where is the line between “tasteless” and “meaningful” in gameplay that’s meant to be disturbing?
I think a major source of the criticism directed at the “forced unpleasant violence” in these particular games is a relative lack of meaningful context. There really isn’t much breadth for critique in a little Flash game that involves beating up a woman. There is nothing engaging about it, and there’s not really a precedent for domestic violence in other games, so it’s not clear why a game seemed like the proper vehicle for such a critique. I could see this working if the target of the critique was misogyny in silly little Flash games themselves—see, for comparison, You Have to Burn the Rope, which is somewhere between a gag and a lighthearted critique on the purposelessness of game tasks. I get the impression, however, that this was supposed to be about the issue in at large.
Modern Warfare 2, meanwhile, is seeing some critical appreciation mixed in with the condemnation. I hear some describing the scene as truly disturbing and affecting, in a good, purposeful way. Part of the approval may simply be from wanting the game to work; we believe that games are capable of more affecting emotional experiences, and we want to celebrate those who at least seem to be trying. Beyond this, however, what seems to be leaving critics divided on this issue is that the “No Russian” scene is embedded in a larger narrative, but not necessarily as purposefully or coherently as it could be.
When people defend this scene, it’s largely in terms of the significance of the protagonist’s actions in service to the overarching narrative. By the same token, when some attack it, this often includes pointing out that the level right before this one involves something along the lines of a fun snowmobile extreme-sports extravaganza. And, as Nels Anderson points out, “No Russian” is only “interactive” insofar as you control the camera and certain character actions, for a little while. You can “die” and restart the level, but you don’t stay dead until the game designers say so. There is too much narrative incoherence for this to really work in context, at least for some.
I have to concede that I haven’t played Modern Warfare 2 at all yet, though I can’t help but contrast what I’m reading with my experiences playing Splinter Cell: Double Agent. On the surface, the narrative context seems identical: You are playing as a government agent in deep cover with a terrorist organization, and you are being asked to do reprehensible things. The big difference in Double Agent is that you actually have some opportunity to try to mitigate the effects of your actions. Saving people’s lives (and making it look like an accident) may jeopardize the terrorists’ trust in you, and could even jeopardize the lives of characters you may have grown to like. You may find yourself in something of a no-win situation, and you may or may not end up with the blood of innocent lives on your hands, but it sounds like it may do a better job of avoiding crassness or shallowness than Modern Warfare 2 by weaving the difficult choices into the entirety of the gameplay mechanics.
That’s not to say that disturbing and tragic scenarios in games can’t be presented linearly, forcing you down a dreadful path, but part of what made this work well in other games is the pacing and integration in the game as a whole. In Shadow of the Colossus, we realize we are on a path to tragedy only gradually, through a creeping, uncertain sense of dread, culminating in a moment of sadness and remorse. BioShock is another famous example of this in action; while the scene in question is indeed affecting, one of the most common complaints has been that the rest of the game didn’t live up to the promise of that scene. They made us hit the bitch, and we felt bad, but it didn’t leave us to reflect or give us the opportunity to respond. It made us let ourselves down by our own moral standards, and then it let US down. We’re distracted from the meaning by the disappointing gameplay mechanics, not unlike walking out of what could be a powerful film if only the guy in the projection booth could keep it in focus and the picture synced with the sound.
I’m glad to see that game developers are learning to say no to “fun,” to conceptualize games as capable of offering other sorts of experiences. I think it requires a deft touch, though. It still needs to be engaging. We must feel as if we can’t look away, can’t turn off the console; we must feel pain and fascination as awful events unfold before us. This is not the same as simply forcing us to play through something awful to get to the next “fun” part, or presenting something not-fun as if it were something fun, but devoid of a larger, apparent purpose. Creating such a game is surely challenging, but nobody ever said that art should be easy.