by Dave Proctor
Hello, it’s been a while. As the last week was spent in E3 recovery mode (and the week before E3 spent prepping), I decided to take a moment to reflect on a few key thoughts that emerged from E3 and purge them from my system before some upcoming much needed vacation. It should be noted that E3 was largely a positive experience for me. I played some really innovative games, and I felt energized about my work, but these stories are still sticking in my brain two weeks later.
I was up late packing for a red eye the night the Pulse Nightclub shooting happened in Orlando.
By the time I got to the airport at 5am I was too bagged to notice anything on the TV screens so I didn’t really hear anything about it until EA’s E3 press conference was under way. I was circling into news of the shooting and then seeing news on my twitter feed about EA’s announcements, and suddenly a little tweet from Ron Gilbert caught my eye.
My twitter stream is filled with heartbreaking stories of a mass shooting mixed with excited people at E3 waiting for the next big shooter.
— Ron Gilbert® (@grumpygamer) June 12, 2016
I have not been able to shake this thought. So much of our industry is steeped in violence that I hardly would have noticed this year were it not for this tragedy. The excitement for Battlefield 1 very high, and we took the chance to hit up EA Play, all the while catching up on news about Orlando. We sat down in a room with 62 other people ready to play a massive 64 player world war 1 simulation, and we watched Battlefield 1’s promotional material ourselves. I could not shake this feeling that this should not be happening. Definitely not in the wake of another mass shooting. Maybe not at all.
I am a fan of violent video games. I also don’t believe we need to censor creators who are using violence to express a point. Spec Ops: The Line is one of the greatest games I have ever played because of what it does with shooting, violence, and consequence. But the violence of Battlefield 1’s trailer and promotional material is presented so devoid of point, so aimless in its intention, that I find it harder and harder to tolerate.
I should also note that I don’t think violent video games make violent people, but I do think that overexposure makes it harder to vocally criticize violence in real life. To shoot several people with an AR-14 doesn’t really have the same weight if its your favourite weapon in capture the flag matches. You don’t really understand the gravity of how easy it is to access and how devastating it is to real people if you are bombarded with violence so often.
EA is sitting on top of a massive opportunity with WWI, one of the most horrific wars of the modern era, and could tell a real story about history and challenge. At least on the Canadian side, people were shooting at their own soldiers for lack of clear communication. People were diseased, suffering, and their individual war efforts were so underfunded that they were issued shovels with holes in them and told to dig. There is a game here, an experience that demonstrates the real cost of war and the loss of dignity and humanity that comes with it, but it is not in Battlefield 1.
To further add to this, the promotional video that played before the trailer (which played before we played) talked about “The Glory of War,” and outlined the “Innovative new ways soldiers were using to engage their enemies.” You could “Engage” or “Approach” or “Take on” your enemies with a variety of different guns and vehicles, but nothing the disembodied voice said resembled the word “Kill.”
“Just say it,” I muttered to myself. “Just say kill.”
The idea that using the word “Kill” is gauche in a trailer about murdering other people is fascinating to me. I would be beside myself if I found out they pulled it after the Orlando shooting, but even more likely is that the people producing these games know the damaging vernacular of truth, and they themselves are finding it harder and harder to admit that what they are doing is an increasingly more realistic representation of a very real problem.
Watching these trailers by myself I can distance my brain. I know what’s not real. I know how silly it is, and I can always be critical of media alone. But sitting in a room with 62 other people, I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone was truly getting off on it. If being told that killing someone with a hatchet in close quarters was a genuine selling feature of the game, how many believed it? How many were sold? 60? 35? 1? It’s hard in a room to know who else is in disbelief like me, and who among us does not see the problem with so wantonly depicting violence when we have a very real violence problem to deal with.
It was hard to imagine in a room of 64. Imagine when the game sells millions. It is a lot to think about.
This went beyond Battlefield though, and seeing games pulsing around me with guns blazing made me hyper aware of how little we challenge the status quo when it comes to our depiction of violence. Jim Sterling said this well without the political overtones, and I think his criticism is hella on point. I just like taking it a step further, because I believe nothing is apolitical. Everything is a choice, and the choices we make as game designers affect our audience in an incredibly impassioned way.
And then we ended up on skid row.
We took a wrong turn and made a trek down one of the most impoverished places in the United States. Los Angeles’ “Skid Row,” 57 blocks from 3rd to 7th and Almeda to Main, is a massive derelict stretch of land in a city that, for all of my experience, is pretty nice. There are hundreds of people sleeping in tents and miles of condemned real estate. Los Angeles, to put it bluntly, has a poverty problem.
But the convention probably pulled in over 40 million dollars. That’s based on 2012’s revenue, as it’s getting harder and harder to find the ESA’s reports from recent years. We spend so much money on in Los Angeles that the local poverty is really a staggering and confusing change of tone from the highly profitable convention.
I also don’t want to become a “well we can’t do anything fun while there’s still poverty” crusader, because I am aware that life must move forward (and I don’t like tonedeaf arguements). But someone, somewhere, could take a look 30 blocks east of the convention centre and say “is there a way we can make this better?” A portion of proceeds or SOMETHING. Video games benefit from people entering the middle class… it is a leisure pursuit that requires disposable income. Couldn’t E3 look at reaching out to its closest, most destitute neighbours as a long term investment? IF you can’t see the human benefit, at least the profitability should be easy to read.
But I guess my feelings about this are summed up with the thoughts about violence as well. How can our industry be so navel-gazing at times that it doesn’t see the bigger picture. Video games aren’t necessarily contributing to poverty, or violence, but we have so much power to affect people and show them real actions, real consequences, and real situations of people all over the world. Why instead do we spend millions of dollars on giant Chocobos and huge foam rubber robots?