Video Games, Violence, and Advertising

I’ve been a gamer for as long as I can remember, and having been raised on shooters like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom all the way through to Medal of Honor and Bioshock, videogames, particularly the more violent ones, have always been a fixture of my life.

Of course, gaming has come a long way in its relatively brief history in every aspect imaginable, whether through high-definition graphics that already look better than real life, complex, Hollywood-grade storytelling (which some would argue isn’t saying much), or refined gameplay mechanics. Yet there’s something else besides the games themselves that has changed quite profoundly, and that’s the manner in which they are marketed.

I’m referring specifically to some of the most popular games on the market right now, namely Call of Duty, Destiny and Battlefield, of whom are First-Person Shooters. Not too long ago, you would only hear of games like these in the media when they were accused of perpetuating some kind of real-life atrocity, such as Doom after the Colombine shootings or Grand Theft Auto III’s alleged influence on several juvenile crimes. Nowadays today’s shooters command Superbowl Halftime advertising space and building-sized ads. Even my parents know about Call of Duty, and they need help figuring out how to turn on the TV.

So what’s been at the helm of this change? Well, aside from the fact that there are far more gamers today than there were ten years ago, big name publishers like Activision and EA have figured out a way to make violence fashionable. Of course, you can argue that Hollywood, with the likes of Michael Bay, have already done that in spades, but the key difference separating videogames from any other form of media is their interactivity. You aren’t sitting there watching people get shot and blown up; you are the one who is making it happen. You’re the one running around with a gun in your hands ending the lives of countless nameless villains who, for all you know, have wives and kids back home. There’s a degree of agency in games that gives more meaning and significance to what happens on the screen more than any movie can hope to achieve.

Take a look at these ads for Call of Duty, Destiny, and Battlefield 4. Instead of simply showing us scenes from the games, these ads actually transplant gamers themselves into the action, albeit less overtly in the Destiny ad, which I’ll get into in a bit. Call me old fashioned, but there is something profoundly disturbing about a bunch of kids decked out in body armor and assault rifles running around in a war-torn Vegas, being shot at by a Hind, all while making wisecracks as Frank Sinatra croons in the background. These are scenes straight from the campaign of Call of Duty: Ghosts; scenes that are depicted in the game rather seriously, as a desperate struggle for surviving American forces. The manner in which the ad depicts war as if it were a fun-filled trip to Disneyland, or indeed, a trip to Vegas, is a disturbing change in the way publishers are marketing their games.

Speaking of Vegas, there’s a moment in the ad for Destiny in which the three guardians, having casually wiped out an army of aliens on the moon, suggest heading to the planet Venus, upon which they all cry “Venus baby!!!” Cue more action-packed scenes of the guardians effortlessly defeating the opposition and going on a galactic tour of sorts around the solar system, telling lame jokes while in the midst of battle. For a bunch of humans fighting a desperate battle to prevent their extinction, they seem pretty nonchalant about the whole thing. It’s also worth noting that their dialogue is more befitting of your typical gamer, and not the highly trained supersoldiers they’re supposed to be.

The point I’m making is that, as videogames become technologically advanced and financially powerful beyond our wildest expectations, it’s unfortunate that the biggest names making them, let alone people outside the gaming community, still see them as mindless, bloody entertainment for the masses. Bungie credits itself as a studio that seeks to innovate videogaming particularly through storytelling, yet why, $500 million later, have they put out a game that people have described as fun but weak at storytelling? How is it that Infinity Ward hired Hollywood heavyweights like Paul Haggis, Stephen Lang and Sam Worthington to give credence to Call of Duty’s story modes, when time and time again every CoD game has been slagged off for having a weak story?

Fundamentally, games have to be fun to play above all, that much is plainly evident. However, as we have seen with Bioshock: Infinite and the Mass Effect series, they can be fun to play and have genuinely well written stories with characters and plots that we invest ourselves in; something all videogames in this age should aspire to. Both of these titles involve a great deal of death and destruction as well, sure, but the violence in Infinite and Mass Effect are advertised as being part of a story that necessitates it. The violence you see in the Call of Duty ads, on the other hand, depicts it in the same manner a car commercial depicts a young, hip couple having the ride of their lives in their brand new convertible. This can be all well and good for certain games, like Mario Kart and even the humorous Borderlands, but games like Call of Duty and Destiny,whose gameplay are framed around a fairly serious depiction of war and everything that follows it, deserve to be treated with a certain amount of respect by the people who publish them. How on earth are you going to make anyone care about Destiny’s story of survival and extinction when you market it as a hip, fun-filled romp across the galaxy where you can play soldier, shoot ferocious aliens with impunity and then impulsively head to “Venus, baby!!!” for more good times?

Videogames are becoming incredibly good at depicting war and combat. Call of Duty for instance uses accurate military terminology whenever soldiers communicate with one another and both it and Battlefield 3 depict highly realistic scenes of enemy combatants getting disintegrated through the lens of a thermal imaging camera on an AC-130 and an Apache helicopter. These are depictions of war that, as anyone in the Middle East will tell you, is ever present in our world today, and and I take no issue with videogames that put players in the shoes of its participants; after all, these are some of my favorite games. However, I do take issue with the trivializing manner in which these games are promoted.

Videogames get a lot of bad rap for allegedly making kids violent, and of course these allegations have been proven to be patently false. But I do think that with the new-found influence that they wield, and the increasing level of interactivity their games are attaining (think Oculus Rift), game developers and publishers should have a certain degree of responsibility to treat violence and war with some amount of respect and not turn them into something that’s hip and trendy, as this particularly awful Black Ops ad does.

When I was back in high school, our English teacher broke decorum to give us his impromptu opinion on the American invasion of Iraq. Amidst his rambling, a friend of mine who I regularly played Command & Conquer with leaned over and said that he liked the fact that there was an invasion happening. I asked him why, and instead of getting a response about Saddam Hussein being an evil guy or something like that, got something to the effect of, “Because we get to see F-15s, M1A1 Abrams tanks and all that cool stuff blowing things up.” It’s too bad that more than a decade later we’re likely to see this sort of attitude multiply exponentially, but I still hope for the day that a game with the maturity of Spec Ops: The Line becomes the new flagbearer for gaming, and not Call of Duty.

Kerwin Tsang