A peculiar thing happened to me today while I was at E3, something that I was not expecting.
I had just done an interview with the developer of a war-themed game. The PR person from the game’s publisher spent the whole interview hovering over me and listening in on my questions and the developer’s answers, which is fairly normal in these situations. At the end of the interview, once the developer went off to be interviewed by other journalists, the PR person pulled me aside and said:
“I just wanted to make sure that you’re not writing a sensationalist story about this game – you asked a lot of questions about ethics and war and I just wanted to be sure that it won’t be for a story that sensationalises the violence in games because we’ve had a lot of negative attention from the media and…”
I assured this PR person (who is actually a really lovely person and does their job well) that I was not going to sensationalise anything and that the interview was in good hands. But what baffled me was that I had to do that at all.
First, I was a bit insulted that they thought I would sensationalise anything to begin with, as I am sure any journalist in my position would be. Second, I was annoyed that I was basically being told how/what to write. I hadn’t signed a contract of any kind; I was there purely to see the game and report on it if I wanted to, and if I was going to report on it the only person who I’d take instruction from would be my editor.
But what I found really baffling was they thought that talking about the issue of war and ethics in games somehow equated to attracting negative media attention. If anything, we should be talking about these issues more if we want to counter the negative image surrounding violent videogames. If you read sensationalist media reports, how many actually talk to the developers about how they chose to portray the violence and combat? How many talk to them about their ethical considerations, the experiences they tried to craft for players and the messages they tried to put out? These are the things we should be talking about. These are the questions we should be asking. Instead, whoever that is responsible for controlling the flow of information (I don’t want to lay blame on PR professionals because I’m aware they take their orders from higher up) encourages questions about how awesome the kills are, the range of weapons, how many dudebros you can smash in multiplayer and how powerful the next bazooka is… and that’s meant to somehow paint the industry in a better light?
I should point out that I don’t have an issue with those kinds of questions in general because I’m aware that many gamers do want to know about the weapons and sweet killz, but when that’s all we talk about and that’s the only kind of information we’re pushing out into the world, we’re really not doing the games many favours.
I don’t think every game needs to be talked about seriously, but some games do. I don’t think every article that comes out about a war game or a street crime game or a drug and sexual violence-themed game needs to Address The Big Issues, but the industry shouldn’t shy away from answering these questions, and they certainly shouldn’t worry that it will only result in their games being vilified by those who blame videogames for society’s social ills. If we discuss the issues openly and honestly and shed light on the development process, then I’m sure this will lead to people having a greater understanding of how and why controversial decisions were made, and that can only be a good thing, right?