Freedom Bridge

I must begin today with an apology- I’m going to go on about games today SORRY DON’T RUN AWAY IT’S DIFFERENT THIS TIME! Instead of looking into gaming as a whole today I want to focus on just one game.

Before I do, I should probably give you the rundown as to what I am getting at. The majority of the population, including (and quite possibly especially) the gaming population, generally views games as a pastime- a relaxation, a release, a chance to take out some of their surplus aggression and stress on an unassuming NPC. However, some people are willing to go further, and suggesting that games be considered something special on the mass-media scale- not just another tool for making money, but a tool of expression and delivery unmatched by even TV or film. In short, some people believe that games are a unique and special form of art.

This is the subject of quite some argument among both gamers, artists and (of course, since they are never ones to let a good contentious issue go to waste) journalists, but to explain both sides of the argument would be long, tedious and biased of me. So instead I thought I would present to you a case study, an example of just what the Games Are Art crowd are going on about. I give you Freedom Bridge.

Freedom Bridge is a free-to-play online Flash game (I’ll include a link to it at the bottom). It takes all of a minute or two to play (depending on how you play it), and it’s generally about as simple as games come. You play as a single black square on a white background, able to move up, down, left or right using the arrow keys. Your movement is somewhat restricted- you cannot move up or down beyond the dimensions of the playing screen you start with, and cannot move very far to your left either. Your only choice to progress involves moving right, towards a curly line that stretches across the screen in front of you. You cannot move to either side of it- your only choice is to go straight through. As you do so, your movement instantly slows- your block is struggling to move through, and when it finally does, it is leaving a thin, sparse trail of red spots behind it. The spots are blood, and that curly line is barbed wire.

Your direction is still limited to moving right, through a large expanse of white screen broken only by you and your trail. Stopping for a while causes the spots to build up into a bigger red mass- your blood piling up. As you continue to move right, another length of barbed wire appears in front of you, and you once again have no choice but to go through it. Once again, your motion becomes painfully slow, only this time, when you’re on the other side, some of your loss of speed remains, and the trail of blood is thicker and more obvious. You may turn back if you wish, but will not find anything new- your only real choice is to press on right. All the time the sound of rushing water, playing since the start, is getting slowly louder. Another length of barbed wire appears and, beyond it, the source of the sound is revealed- a fast-flowing river, with a bridge crossing it. Once again, your sole choice is to go through the wire, and once again you are slowed still further, and your bloody trail becomes still thicker. Your movement is laboured now- but the bridge awaits. You cannot travel up or down the river, so your only choice is to cross the bridge. As you do so, your movement now slow and bloody, a shot rings out, and you disappear into a splat of blood. That’s it. The game doesn’t even fade out (well, not for a while anyway). There’s just the sight of the blood, and the sound of the flowing water.

At first glance, this barely warrants its description as a game. This is a game that makes platforming look open-world, has no levels or sub-divisions- hell, there aren’t even any characters, or clearly defined plot for that matter. There are no options, no way to win. And that is the secret to its effectiveness.

The game does, in fact, have a plot, but it’s hidden amongst the detail. Think of the title, Freedom Bridge- that bridge is the embodied representative of freedom, of escape, of liberation, whilst the barbed wire and your side of the river in general is symbolic of restraint, or oppression. Think of the wire itself- used to guard borders by oppressive regimes who don’t want their citizens leaving. This bridge could be in Korea (where it is actually based on), cold war-era Germany, Zimbabwe, wherever- it represents them all. The white landscape itself is symbolic of the bleak emptiness of the borderlands, devoid of care and emotion. Think of the way it ends- the sound of the water very gently fades out to nothing, but for a long time the scene doesn’t change (and when it does, it’s onlt for some rather poignant context). Your death doesn’t change things, doesn’t make the world a different place. The world is uncaring, you appear immaterial, and all your sacrifice has done is coloured the earth red. And then, think of the game element itself. If you were to just hold down the right arrow key, you could replicate the experience almost exactly by watching a short video. But the effectiveness of that video? About zero. The important detail is that you have a choice of how to proceed. You can, if you want, go up, or left, or down, you can try to look for the thinnest points in the wire, you can try to see if there’s another way across the river- if you wanted to, you could draw pictures with your own bloodstained trail, or even (if you had rather too much time), turn every spot of white on the map red with it. The point is that you have all this choice, unavailable if this were simply a film, but it doesn’t make a scrap of difference. No matter what you do, the game is still going to end with you as a splat of blood on that bridge. This is a game about inevitability, and whatever you do in it, you are only delaying the inevitable. Death is inevitable. For the poor soul trying to escape their oppressive regime, there is no way out- only the icy grip of death awaits them.

Without the element of choice that the game offers, this message simply cannot be delivered with the same effectiveness. The experience of it cannot be replicated by a film, or even a piece of art- this is a an experience which, when thought about, can be immensely harrowing and poignant, and yet cannot be replicated in the same way by any classical art form- only the interactivity of games allows it to be quite so special. Some people argue that this kind of experience cannot really be called a game. But even so… if the experience that delivers isn’t art, then I don’t know what is.

To play Freedom Bridge, follow this link: http://www.necessarygames.com/my-games/freedom-bridge/flash

Gaming Concluded

And so I return, wiping off my smirk and trying not to laugh at anything that sounds French, back into the foray of my regular blogging experience, in an effort to conclude the topic on gaming. So far I have considered the two main complaints that non-gaming people tend to have with gamers and games themselves- today I want to get more into the guts of exactly why gaming, over so many other things, appears to be a target for particular dislike from large sections of the mainstream.

In case anyone reading is in any doubt that games ARE as much of a target as I am painting them to be, I refer you to a situation a while ago in which the American Supreme Court agreed to hear a proposed Californian state law restricting the sale of games to minors, especially ‘violent content’ Please bear in mind that these laws pop up all over the US from time to time and are always shot down for violating the First Amendment- but in this case the Supreme Court, the ultimate last line of appeal, the highest court in the most powerful nation on earth, was willing to give voice to an argument claiming, based on claims made from rather spurious studies that ‘games harm U18’s’, that games do not offer sufficient value to the world as a whole to warrant First Amendment protection. Anyone could see the law was unconstitutional- but the political voice was loud enough to get the Supreme Court to have a listen. Can anyone imagine them hearing a case proposing the restriction of film content in this way? Or TV? Or music. Of course not- but games? Whole other kettle of fish apparently.

(I could spend all day shooting this law down, but since I only know about this from an Extra Credits episode and they are going to do a far better job of it than me, I suggest you hit PATV and watch their take on it: http://penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/free-speech)

So yeah- people and politicians don’t like games, but why? What is it that what’s basically giving a film a joystick and controls suddenly turns that film into something that everyone thinks just doesn’t matter? The reasons are, as with all such widespread emotions, many and varied, and I have certainly not thought of all of them, but here are just 3 that especially spring to mind:

1) The Social Gap

It’s no secret that gamers are a fairly predictable group of people in terms of who they are- young, often middle-class, men aged between 14 and 28 ish probably comprise at least 70% of the game-playing population (my own guesstimate, so shoot me down if you know any better figures). But, for starters, half the world’s population are female and the majority are outside the ‘game-playing’ age bracket- especially in the western world where advances in living conditions and healthcare have meant that seemingly everyone is middle-aged. Thus, gamers are something of a group unto themselves- in my social circle, for instance, just about everyone will be a gamer to some extent, but in, say, my mum’s, none of them would know the difference between Final Fantasy and Battlefield. So games become less of an all-encompassing medium, and more of a seemingly ‘niche’ product that just doesn’t seem very important to large sects of the population- particularly the small rich, white, middle aged, upper middle-class sect that dominates the western political and (to a large extent) cultural landscape. This is compounded by the fact that, unlike TV or film which have been around for years, gaming in its current, industry level, world-dominating form is really a creation of the last 15-20 years or so, so there has been little generational ‘trickle-down’- ie the more elderly sects of society will NEVER have played a game, much less grown out of them, so are even less inclined to be sympathetic towards them.

 

2) Internet Connections

As I’ve just said, modern gaming is really an invention that began gathering speed around the mid-to-late 90’s- almost exactly the same time that the internet was first invented. As such, with gaming and the web growing up to becoming the fully-fledged entities they are now almost in parallel, they have since developed a close bond. For example, a lot of internet memes, such as the whole ‘arrow to the knee’ thing, are gaming-based, and while gaming may only be relegated to a small back page every fortnight in the paper, online it has entire sites and communities dedicated to it in a way even films can’t match on the web. Unfortunately, this internet link, and especially the tie-ins the web also has to the same middle-class young men group who make up the core gaming stereotype means that a lot of the ‘bad boy’ parts of the internet that disgust big corporations and governments seem to have an inherent link to gaming- and thus gaming gets tarred with the same ‘we don’t like you’ brush. Not only that, it also gets landed with all the active dislikes people have of those sectors of the web- its juvenile and rather crude sense of humour, the potential for hacking dangers, and the generalised sexism and borderline-offensive ‘banter’. It is this, in part, which turns mere indifference to the gaming population into genuine dislike and mistrust of the medium.

 

3) Content & Style

The very nature of gaming and gameplay itself demands an action-driven plot & content style- even in the more cinematic or narrative games, what keeps the plot ticking over is you as the player actively doin’ stuff. If we make a quick comparison to films for a minute, this does happen in the film industry- action flicks for example often go for plots almost entirely driven by the protagonist’s actions over the course of the film. However, this is not the only way for a film to go- different genres, be they romances, ‘arthouse’ films, even horror movies, can push the film forward via other means, such as dialogue or even acting expression. This variety is one of the reason films are so accessible- there is something for every taste. However, the action-driven nature of games inherently limits the variety of experience delivery they can offer, which isolates large sects of the non-game playing public from giving them a chance. Basically, to a non-gamer, all games would, if they were films, have Jason Statham in the lead. Now, people not naturally inclined towards that sort of thing don’t find it so much of a problem with films because there is still space for the sort of delivery they prefer- but the image of gaming as ALL being like this makes it all seem a bit juvenile and not worth all the bother. This is a problem unfortunately compounded by the fact that the popularity of games like Call of Duty, where action is so central it seems to hide all else. This makes it seem like all modern games are about KILLING EVERYBODY- not the image that best portrays the emotion and general awesomeness that really good games can inspire. Thus, once again, an image of a medium that’s ‘just not for me’, is turned into one that is juvenile, grotesque, occasionally obscene and thus not worth the same merits as other forms of media.

This list is far from exhaustive but to me it covers the main points as I see it that make gaming a seemingly exclusive and disliked medium. What can be done about it? Well, a little just being more grown up about stuff and sharing quality gaming experiences with the rest of the world wouldn’t go amiss, as would not taking the piss constantly out of the Nintendo Wii- while it may not be a serious gaming platform, it has done more for gaming’s image than the PlayStation 50 ever could. As for any less ‘woolly’ ways out… well, do you want me to make this a four parter, cos I don’t?

Way more punctuation than is probably strictly necessary*

I am not a ‘gamer’. Well, certainly not one by the popular, semi-obsessive, definition- I like computer games, sure, and I spend a reasonable amount of my time playing them, but they’re not a predominant weekend pastime, and they are far from being a focal point of my existence.

However, part of the reason I am wary to get into games is because I have an annoying habit of never wanting to let an argument die, and given the number of arguments I see online and elsewhere on the subject of gaming, its probably best for all concerned if I give in to my better judgement and give myself no reason to join in (I could spend an entire post talking about arguing online, but that’s for another time). Gaming is a topic that causes far more argument and controversy than it appears to warrant, both within the gaming community (which is normal for any modern mass media- film and TV fans argue among themselves too) and, more interestingly, between the gamers and the ‘rest of the world’. For such a rich and massive medium, this, frankly seems odd. Why such argument? Why so much worry from parents and politicians? Why are gamers always thought of as seemingly laughable, the stereotype being an overweight nerd cocooned in his basement at 3am fuelled by Mountain Dew and chips? Why, basically, do people not like gamers?

I should pause at this point to say two things- firstly that the image I portray here of the prevailing attitude towards gamers is just what I have picked up from my (actually pretty limited) interactions with the non-gaming community, and second, that this is probably going to have to be a two parter. The first will aim to lay out the complaints lain at gaming’s feet by the main protagonists (and a few other things besides while I have the opportunity), and the second will go into my favourite question: why?

So, what exactly is it that people seem to dislike about gaming? The list is quite substantial, but can basically be broken down to (in no particular order)…

1) Modern gaming encourages violence/desensitises people to it
This is probably the biggest one, and the one to which politicians and such make the biggest deal over, and it’s not hard to see why. The hypothesis seems perfectly reasonable- modern games such as Battlefield and Call of Duty are violent (true), and the general lives of everyday people aren’t (true). Thus, the only exposure gamers have to this level of violence is through these games (basically true), and since this violence doesn’t hurt anyone real (true), they subconsciously think that violence isn’t actually that harmful and this desensitises them to its effects (okay, here we’re getting into speculation…)
There is some evidence to support this idea- watching people playing FPS’s and similar can be a quite revealing experience (next time you’re watching someone else play, watch them rather than the screen). Sometimes there are smiles and gentle laughs as they’re playing for fun (evidence point 1- the violent acts they are performing onscreen are not really registering with them), sometimes there is a quite alarming sense of detachment from the actions they are performing on screen (evidence point 2- the sign of conscious realisation that what they’re doing doesn’t really matter), and sometimes people will get seriously aggressive, gritting teeth, shouting and swearing as they bite the dust once again (third, and most compelling, point of evidence- people have gone from being ambivalent about the consequences in a scenario in which, let’s face it, there are no consequences, to getting genuinely aggressive and yet simultaneously compelled to play by such action sequences)
The fundamental flaws in this idea are twofold- firstly there is the simple “Well, DUH! Of course they’re lackadaisical about all the violence- THEY KNOW IT’S NOT REAL, SO THEY DON’T CARE!”. Plonk the average person, even a game-hater, in front of an FPS, and their prevailing emotion will not be the writhing under the chair screaming in abject terror that they would most likely demonstrate if they were really suddenly transported to a gunfight in Afghanistan or somewhere. The second flaw is based more upon the fundamentals of human psychology-  people and animals, at a fundamental level, respond well to action and violence. It’s in our nature- in the distant past it was necessary for us to prompt us to go out and hunt for food, or to make us run rather than go rabbit-in-headlights when the lion appeared in the path ahead. Plus… well even before games, guns and swords were just damn cool. Thus, you cannot complain at a person getting really into a violent game (which, by the way, has had millions poured into it to MAKE it compelling), to the point where they start to feel it is semi-real enough to make them slightly aggressive over it. With a world that is nowadays largely devoid of violence, this is about their only chance to make contact with their inner hunter, and unleash the adrenaline that entails. This is why a soldier, who gets plenty of action in his everyday life, will not relax by playing CoD after his patrol, but a suburban child will. People are not, from my point of view, getting aggressive from playing the game too much, but merely during the experience the game provides.
The case study that always gets quoted by supporters of this argument is inevitably ‘The Manhunt Murder’, referring to an incident in 2004 when a 14 year-old boy (Stefan Pakeerah) in Leicester was stabbed to death by a 17 year-old friend (Warren LeBlanc). While the authorities put the motive down to attempted theft, the victim’s parents insisted that their son’s murderer was obsessed by the game Manhunt. The game itself is undoubtedly bloody and violent, rewarding particularly savage kills, and so too was the murder- Stefan was repeatedly stabbed and beaten with a claw hammer, a method of execution the game features. The event has since be seized upon by those worried by the the violence in modern gaming and has been held up repeatedly as an example of ‘what can happen’.
However, the link is, according to many, a completely invalid one. The only copy of the game found at any point of the investigation was found in Pakeerah’s bedroom (his parents claim it was given to him by LeBlanc two days prior to his death), so if his murderer was ‘obsessed’ by the game, he didn’t play it for at least 48 hours previously. Perhaps more importantly however, only two people involved in the scenario blamed the game itself- Stefan’s parents. His father described the game as: “a video instruction on how to murder somebody, it just shows how you kill people and what weapons you use”. However, the police and legal authorities, at all stages of the investigation, said that LeBlanc’s aim and motive was robbery- gaming did not come into it.
This ties into the results of several research studies that have been made into the possible link between virtual and real-world violence, all of which have been unable to come to any conclusions (although this may partly be due to lack of data). My thoughts on the matter? Well, I am not learned enough in this field to comment on the in-depth psychology of it all, but I like to remember this: as of 2009 (according to Wikipedia, anyway), 55 million copies of Call of Duty had been sold, and I have yet to hear of anyone getting killed over it.

Okay onto part two… actually, 1200 words? Already? Ach, dammit, this is looking like it’s going to be a three-parter at least then. Saturday I will try and wrap up the complaints levelled at the games industry, the Six Nations series will continue on Monday, and Wednesday I’ll try and go into whys and wherefores. See you then

*Now let’s see who can get the gaming reference I’ve made in the title…