Game Content Under the Microscope: View from the Game Developer

Next Story

Veotag's Deep Tagging Gets $750K

In our third part of our series on video game violence and content, CrunchGear talks to Jason Dell Rocca, executive director of the International Game Developers Association, a professional society committed to advancing the careers and enhancing the lives of game developers. A member of the game developer community for more than a decade, he’s worked at Matrox Graphics, Quazal and Silicon Graphics.

igda_logo.gif
Part of the mission statement of the IGDA is to fight government censorship of video games. “The IGDA opposes any effort that would treat digital games differently from other forms of art and creative expression. Digital games are an expressive medium worthy of the same respect, and protections, as movies, literature and other forms of art and entertainment. The IGDA fully stands behind voluntary, industry driven, content ratings that allow consumers to make informed purchasing/playing decisions for themselves and their families. Games are part of our cultural fabric and are enjoyed by diverse audiences.” (IGDA Web site)

Crunchgear: In recent years we’ve seen an increase in graphical capabilities that now allow for more realistic depictions of everything from a racecar to a battlefield. But this has also meant that games have become even more graphically violent as a result? So what level of responsibility should the video game industry as a whole have when it comes to video game content, and should there be greater responsibility from the game developers and publishers?

dellarocca.jpgJason Della Rocca: You’ve kind of put two questions together. One is looking at the graphics and what does visual realism have to do with this issue. And then there is the much larger question that is what is the responsibility of the game developers and publishers. That’s how I see it, or would break down your questions. And to what extend does the increased realism impact the second part of that question.

So, in terms of the graphical side of things it is kind of an easy assumption right? You at the graphics and they look much more realistic, and you kind of say that looks much more like real life. And the violence in some ways becomes more real. And despite all the advances in graphics technology we’re still not at complete real world simulations. And we’ll never quite get there.

Now in both in animation in games there is this interesting concept called the ‘Uncanny Valley,’ in that the more realistic something looks the more demanding the viewer is going to be in terms of the behavior and the movement of what you’re looking at. So that if something looks — a character – very realistic you expect realistic movement, meaning the animation and the physical reaction and so on. As well as the facial movement, such as when the character is talking.

Realistic visuals require realistic movement, as well as realistic behavior, so we’re talking about artificial intelligence, and when they’re doing in the context of the story and the world and so on. And while the game industry has done very well to pursue the first item of realism, which is the visual realism, we’ve not done as well in terms of pursuing the movement and animation aspects. And even less so with the behavioral, or AI aspects. In some ways, it could be argued that the advances in realism are actually causing sort of, and acting as a barrier to deeper experiences. Things are looking real, but not quite moving realistically, and that kind of breaks the illusion, and/or ‘they’ don’t behave in a realistic way. And you expect that something that looks really, really realistic to move realistically and you get that breakdown.

It is much more complicated than just saying “oh that means violence is more realistic.” Because the realism is lacking in some areas it actually breaks down the illusion. So more than if the look was kind of cartoonish.

CG: If the violence is even more realistic, is there a greater responsibility from the game developers and publishers?

JDR: Right, so the question of responsibility is a valid and important question regardless of the level of visual realism. I don’t think it really matter one-way or another how it factors into the question, for me personally anyway. I don’t think that if it doesn’t look so real that we can do whatever wants, versus that if it looks real we have to limit or control ourselves in some way.

I think the question of responsibility is a valid one regardless of the level of visual detail. And the way we look at it is that video games are a form of art, a form of expression. And that as a form of expression they deserve the same rights and protections as other forms of art and entertainment, like film and music, and literature, etc.

And as creators I suppose we have a responsibility to be true to our artistic vision. That we should have the right and ability to express any aspect of the human via our canvas, “the video game.” You know, the same way that a painter or a musician or a film director has the right to express themselves. So what does that mean practically speaking? There are certain limits, hate speech is obviously inappropriate and we don’t to go there. Or stuff like child pornography, which is obviously illegal no matter which way you look at it.

So there are some very clear boundaries, and that’s true for the other forms of art and entertainment as well. Within those very extreme cases it our responsibility as game creators to remain within the boundaries. I don’t see big picture level if goes beyond that.

Then there is the other theories about projection, that when you’re presented with a character that is more cartoonish – but not kiddie cartoonish but just more abstract – that you’re better able to project yourself onto that character because they are kind of an empty vessel. Whereas when you’re interacting with a character that is fully defined, and very realistic it is less of a projection and more of a “you’re that character and that’s who the character is.”

CG: If the violence is even more realistic, is there a greater responsibility from the game developers and publishers?

JDR: Right, so the question of responsibility is a valid and important question regardless of the level of visual realism. I don’t think it really matter one-way or another how it factors into the question, for me personally anyway. I don’t think that if it doesn’t look so real that we can do whatever wants, versus that if it looks real we have to limit or control ourselves in some way.

I think the question of responsibility is a valid one regardless of the level of visual detail. And the way we look at it is that video games are a form of art, a form of expression. And that as a form of expression they deserve the same rights and protections as other forms of art and entertainment, like film and music, and literature, etc.

And as creators I suppose we have a responsibility to be true to our artistic vision. That we should have the right and ability to express any aspect of the human via our canvas, “the video game.” You know, the same way that a painter or a musician or a film director has the right to express themselves. So what does that mean practically speaking? There are certain limits, hate speech is obviously inappropriate and we don’t to go there. Or stuff like child pornography, which is obviously illegal no matter which way you look at it.

So there are some very clear boundaries, and that’s true for the other forms of art and entertainment as well. Within those very extreme cases it our responsibility as game creators to remain within the boundaries. I don’t see big picture level if goes beyond that.

postal2.jpgCG: As far as responsibility goes, some games are mature rated because of the violence and language so is a game like Postal 2, which featured you being able to shoot innocent people. What is the responsibility of the game developers when it comes to making these sorts of games?

JDR: Play is a very complex thing, and we need to explore it outside of the context of just video games. Video games are just a subset of games, which is a subset of play, which has been with humans and even animals since the dawn of time.

And this idea of transgressive or subversive play is an important part of cognitive development. When you’re playing cops and robbers someone has to be the robbers and someone has to be the cops. You sort of take turns and this is a very simplistic example. But there is idea of using play as a way to explore boundaries and the way to explore ideas, and to sort of test limits. To try things that you are know are wrong, or not allowed in civil society. I’m not an academic so I don’t know the core technical ways to describe these sorts of things, but it is the notion of transgressive or subversive play. The way that humans play in general and not just in video games. This is something that has been researched for a long time.

And so it is this idea that in games like GTA (Grand Theft Auto) you’re playing the mob, Mafioso type character. On the surface it is absurd or wholly wrong with that, but you take it in this kind of larger context of transgressive or subversive play it doesn’t come out as such an issue, and that even takes you to the next step.

Understanding games is much more than the surface details. Look at the book A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Ralph Koster, where he splits games into two elements. One is the systemic element, which is the button pressing and the rules of the game. How you optimize your character and what is going on within the game. And the other is the dressing, the basic surface details. The character, the story, the visuals and the audio, etc.

People who are not game players really only are able to absorb or feed those kind of surface details, because maybe they are looking over their kid’s shoulder or they’re looking at some screen shots in a magazine. Or a seeing clip on TV, so all they see are the “Mafioso” running around with a shotgun and they don’t kind of comprehend it, or why this would even be fun.

If you look at the game player, you see that they quickly dismiss a lot of the surface detail and it really comes down to the game system. They understand the resource allocation and how to optimize and gain new levels. You see this especially in games like Counter-Strike. It’s not so much about the terrorist about the anti-terrorism forces; that quickly goes away. And it really is about map navigation and winning points over your competitor. This good versus evil epic story is quickly dismissed. Ralph Koster goes into this in much greater detail.

CG: Obviously if you’re creating a military based game, where it is something like Counter-Strike, or a even a World War II game like Medal of Honor or Call of Duty, someone has to play “the enemy.” Some people might have a problem playing “the Nazis,” but I agree that this is really a team-based game, so someone has to be the Germans if you’re playing a WWII game set in Europe. But when you’re playing a game such as GTA or Saints Row, where you are a criminal, I’ve heard time and time again from the developers, “this is meant to be entertainment for adults.” So why aren’t we seeing an AO rating on these games? Why isn’t the Adults Only rating used if the developer says, “this is for adults?”

JDR: I suppose we have to look at what is the definition of an adult. I guess ESRB-wise an M-rated game is meant for 17+, while an AO is an 18 and over. So it is a question of a year.

ratings1.gif

CG: Isn’t it more than that. This is meant to be similar to movie ratings. You can bring a child to an R-rated film, but you can’t do the same with an X-rated film. M (Mature) is recommended for ages 17 and older, as is an R-rated film. Showing a child an X-rated film is a misdemeanor, possibly a felony in some states. So there is a difference, correct?

JDR: Right. So, as a father if you let your under 17 play a game like Scarface should that be a misdemeanor?

CG: I’m not saying that it should be a misdemeanor, but as a long time game reviewer I hear a lot that “we really intended for this to be a game played by adults,” so has the AO rating been commandeered by the porn industry for their games. Why is AO seemingly only used for sex and not for violence or other “adult” content?

JDR: This is a great question. And we can look at some parallels, such as Scarface. So we’re saying, “Ok Scarface is intended for mature audiences,” and it is M-rated, why isn’t it AO-rated? Much the same way as with the film industry, an AO rating essentially means you don’t get retail distribution. Wal-Mart won’t carry it, most stores won’t carry it. I know for sure that Wal-Mart has a policy that they will carry AO ratings.

CG: First in the movie version of Scarface the main character dies. He basically pays for his evil deeds. This isn’t the case with the game. And also, today you can find anything on the Internet. If you wanted the game you could get it.

JDR: Yes. Freedom of access, freedom of choice does come up, but in the marketplace the games are actually held to higher standards. Aside from Tony dies versus doesn’t die, which I wasn’t aware of that in this particular case, most video games that are based on movies end up getting a higher rating than the movie does.

Many movies might get a PG-13 rating, while the game is M-rated. We’ve seen that time and time again, where the video game version is held to a higher standard. Because they’re games versus what is allowed in the film. The ESRB probably has a list of games that they’ve rated and you can see whether the rating ended up higher on the game than in the theater.

With Scarface I don’t know if that really makes a difference. One of the things that we get more of in games is that if we create a game about something, it is assumed that we’re advocating something. That by putting it down on a disc it means that we support the Mafia, that we support hooliganism, or whatever. Whereas if you do that in film, it isn’t so much that the movie is supporting the Mafia, it is really seen as a way to explore that world. To be artistic and to express some ideas, and aspect of the human condition. But as soon as the game industry puts it on a disc it somehow means we’re advocating for that sort of thing.

CG: Isn’t that sometimes the way that the content is presented? There is an emphasis on aspects that the film doesn’t overplay. I would bring up a “James Bond” game versus movie, where the game really is all about those action sequences. So you’re not playing James Bond, these games just become another shooter? There is lots of shooting bad guys, driving cars and then shooting more bad guys. We see this also with the upcoming Sopranos game or The Godfather. The TV show/movies were rich with dialog; the games are just a lot of beating someone senseless. But is this just a problem with game design?

JDR: True, true. That speaks more to the limitations of our design skills and technology. Conflict is most easily designed as point the gun and shoot. That very complex series of negotiations and being charming as Bond is really hard to code, and it is hard to build in a game setting. So yeah, we are critical of ourselves, and in many cases this straight shoot ‘em up violence is really a design crutch. But it is kind of the easy thing to do.

Do you want to have a more dashing James Bond that can flirt with the women, and smooth talk the bad guys, and then jump from the airplane and do all sorts of things? Yeah, it would be nice to have all that, but there is no question that as an industry we need to push in that direction. But at the same time, my point was that because our version of Bond is just a shoot ‘em up, doesn’t mean that the company putting that game together is telling people to go out there an shoot people up. That is my point.

The same way no one criticizes the studio for the Bond movies for saying, “you have to go be an international spy. That we’re advocating for you to all get your guns and cars that drive underwater.” No one puts them under that light. But as soon as we do a game based on uncomfortable content then it becomes that we the industry advocate it, or we’re pushing people to do those bad things.

And to some extent less than 15% of games are M-rated, so these questionable games that make some people uncomfortable get a disproportionate amount of media attention, when in fact they’re in the very small minority of games that are bought and played. The vast majority of games are those E-rated games, like the sports games such as Madden, FIFA and Need for Speed, plus the Sims and Myst and all those other “fun” games. But it is the M-rated games that get the negative media attention.

blog comments powered by Disqus