In HG Wells’ The Time Machine, the Eloi lead a simple life. They never read, they never question, they never learn. Living according to a doctrine of serene hedonism, any sense of responsibility or consequence has long been excised from society while they are fed and kept, like cattle, their existence facilitated by the cannibalistic Morlocks. Advocates of the notion that ignorance is bliss should note: closing your eyes doesn’t keep you safe.
There’s a school of thought that would suggest to you that the opposite is true. Exposure to ‘wrong’ forms of media can be socially damaging, we are warned. It was books in Wells’ era; travel through time and videogames present the same moral questions. This is what we’re seeing with startling hysteria following the release of Modern Warfare 2, as MPs squabble in the Commons over whether or not this kind of thing should be allowed.
"I am absolutely shocked by the level of violence in this game and am particularly concerned about how realistic the game itself looks", said Keith Vaz MP. In response, Tom Watson MP defended the existing classification systems – the game is rated ‘18’ by the BBFC – but made sure to distance himself from the infamous airport scene in particular, describing it as “deeply repulsive”. Despite founding the ‘Gamer’s Voice’ pressure group on Facebook, even he seems not to appreciate that repulsion is precisely the intended response.
The scene in question portrays a covert operation to infiltrate a terrorist cell. To maintain cover, the player is forced to be complicit in the murder of innocent civilians at an airport. In context, it asks you to question how far a nation should go in defence of its own interests, whether or not the cost can ever be too high. It’s a thoroughly unpleasant experience but, much like any film that attempts to evoke the realities of war, it is relevant and thought-provoking.
Of course, such common sense can be hard to come by. Typically, people unfamiliar with the medium of videogames tend to make two erroneous assumptions. Firstly, this game, like all others, is intended for use by children. Secondly, the only purpose of games in general is to elicit enjoyment. By logical deduction, this game is teaching our children to enjoy participating in acts of terrorism. But why does such ignorance seem to represent mainstream opinion?
This week, BBC 1’s The Big Questions featured several such uninformed characters. Despite playing World of Warcraft himself, Reverend Stephen Lowe asserted that “some people get the thrill of that [violence] – I think that’s actually sick...and I don’t think it should be in a game”. Beneath his apparent presumption that gamers are not unusually misanthropic or sociopathic and cannot be trusted with content of this kind (just in case), it’s hard to deduce any cogent argument.
But it is comforting to know that ignorance like this at least crosses the religious divide; countering the suggestion that holy scripture has provoked far more violence than any indulgence in computer games, Favan Mohammed of the British Muslim Forum said without irony: “It’s the way people misinterpret holy scripture...it’s taken out of context.” There is the root of the truth, even if nobody recognised it – games are only as inappropriate as a person’s interpretation of them, just like anything else.
The notion that Modern Warfare 2 intentionally glorifies violence is perverse and wrong-headed. Certainly there are many games which are guilty of the accusation; if anything, Infinity Ward’s game lends a human context to the mindless brutality of titles such as the recent Wolfenstein, featuring historically neutered Nazi approximations joyfully dispatched with abandon. But then, who complained when Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds did exactly the same thing? The problem is not with the content of games, then, but the general perception of those of us that play them. But with MPs and religious speakers more often than not misrepresenting games, that is a perception we continue to fight.
So we shouldn’t give up reading, like the Eloi. The idea that we should somehow protect ourselves from uncomfortable images ignores the real question. How do we tell society, our children, to process those images, to react to them in an appropriate way? Failure to do so is our fault alone, and not the responsibility of any media which merely seeks to reflect the world in which we live. That is the nature of art, after all, and it is the weaker society which cannot bear its own reflection.