Why We Game - Murder Simulators Pt1

FBT looks at how gaming became Public Enemy Number One.

It’s a three parter, so let’s hope he didn’t keep taking breaks to go murder someone.

Part One; Think of the children

Marcus Brigstocke once said “If Pac-Man had affected us as kids, we'd all be running around in dark rooms, munching pills and listening to repetitive electronic music.” Has a lifetime in the digital world altered my real-world morals, corrupted my ethics, turned me into a mindless murderous drone, ready to crack at any second? Let’s find out!

When a caveman painted the first cave-painting I bet someone tried to wipe it off, concerned a drawing of mammoths being speared would influence the cave-children. Theatre, writing, art, films, music, tv have all upset the moral majority but none are so reviled, so evil as Gaming. Arcades were often the focus of moral decline, but when the Ataris and Vic-20s invaded the home, the images were too blocky to cause true outrage; they were just childish time-wasters. Indefensible titles like Custer’s Revenge and Beat’em n Eat’em caused outrage in principle, but they went unnoticed by concerned parents and the basic graphics meant they couldn’t really titillate, so publishers turned to the old trick of lurid covers. I’ll never forget Barbarian The Ultimate Warrior …

It caused controversy, selling sex to kids (ironically, no controversy was generated when the cover-star, Maria Whittaker appeared topless on Page 3 aged 16; aka, legally a kid) but there was no sex in it. There was the then-graphic violence, but everyone was distracted by the covers; you could bring home Sam Fox’s Strip Poker but it never lived up the cover. Gaming was sleazy but the technology shielded us from the intent. And then came the 90s.

Discovering America’s then-Sweetheart Dana Plato in the shaky Night Trap, and the ‘fatality’ deaths in Mortal Kombat, US Senator Joe Lieberman demanded the government act. It did. By telling the gaming industry to act. They created their own ratings system, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB). Job done. Everybody happy. At least, until Doom. Until Columbine.

When Doom was released in 1994, I wasn’t aware of the controversy, I was just staggered by the intensity of it. I played it, then didn’t start devil worshipping or murdering people. It did get me back into gaming after a lull, so there’s that influence. To all the ex-girlfriends and pals I stood-up in favour of a game, blame Doom.

Doom was unlike anything before, but it wasn't just the quantum-leap in gaming that caused the issue; Doom was released on shareware not in shops, which meant copies being traded in the playground or across that new thing, ‘the Web’, another panic in the making. The Moral Campaigners panicked gleefully; an unknown evil has seeped into the Godly home - it even had a ‘mode’ called ‘Deathmatch’!! What is this new devilry? The campaigners had a new name for corruption of the youth; Doom.

The scene was set. When Columbine happened, Doom was found guilty. Talk of gun control, school politics, bullying, drug over-prescription in the youth, parental responsibility, mental health and adolescent struggles were drowned out by the screaming that Doom did this – it was a Murder Simulator - it made them kill, just like the campaigners warned. To use Columbine as an opportunity to say “told you so” is despicable but to ignore the perpetrator's real triggers and motivations to further an anti-games agenda is unforgivable. As was the gun lobby's reaction - ban trench coats so the guns can't be hidden; yeah that's the cure, let us see them coming. Doom did influence me; it made me wary of those who knew best.

After Doom, anything gamey was a bad influence, but the one that really stuck out for me was Carmageddon (1997). One day, my mother was waving the Daily Mail, raving about a game that rewards you for running people over; “I hope you’re not playing that” she said. I wasn’t, but after that I was down Woolies quicker than you could say Moral Outrage. But it wasn’t there. Stainless, Carma’s devs knew it was outrageous and for hype, submitted Carma to the BBFC - who loved it then banned it, saying it was so much fun, folks would be inspired to go on hit and run sprees. That led to any game with ‘linear cinematic qualities’ be run through the BBFC. Nice one Stainless.

I got the sanitised version with zombies, but by then I’d also found a floppy off some magazine that restored the humans. And that’s a universal problem – when you ban rather than regulate something, it goes underground and that forces kids into areas you really don’t want them going, be it street corners or the so-called 'dark web'. After the panic subsided, Carma was quietly resubmitted and rated 18 uncut. In other words, Carma was banned due to graphic depictions of moral outrage.

While in the real world I drove as dangerously as any other teen behind the wheel, I didn’t replicate what I saw in Carma. I did ‘enjoy’ running people over in the game, but I knew it was wrong. I also knew it was a game. Whether or not it was in poor taste is another debate - it wasn’t aimed at kids, it was for adults who could decide for themselves. Which kids can too, by the way.

Also in 1997 was Postal, where your character went on a killing spree in their home town. The US Postal Service were rumoured to be considering making their own game so they could copyright the name and block it – literally only worried about bad PR; instead, be concerned it happens so often there’s a name for it.

Developers Running with Scissors pointed out it’s mature rating and stated "Guess what? You should really know what's going on in your kids' bedroom." Its satirical commentary on real world violence was ignored by the Moral Guardians; Liberman called it the ‘number one threat to kids in America’ - I can think of more pressing issues kids faced, but such was the backlash that Postal was pulled. And went underground, passed around with even less parental awareness. Liberman later listed the most dangerous threats to American kids; Postal, Marilyn Manson and Calvin Kline underwear adverts ...

When I played Postal I was influenced; it felt off to play someone killing innocents instead of the other way around, and that’s an important reaction; the Liberman types think we’re influenced, but the opposite is true; we try to influence the game. We fight for the best possible outcome, to save the day; when presented with a ‘bad’ choice we still tend not to do it even if it makes things worse for our character; we just can’t go through with it. But if you do take the bad route, that’s also proof games don’t influence; you knew it was wrong. The key difference is taking an ‘evil’ route and thinking it’s okay. If you think that, the problem is in your head, not the game. Shooting Udina doesn’t mean I’ll go kill a politician. I might, the way things are going, but if I do, it won’t be because of Mass Effect.

While Lieberman and others were failing to get the government to ban games, Jack Thompson, a family values activist and lawyer, had taken umbrage with the music industry. But then the Washington Wives solved that evil with a Parental Advisory sticker so Thompson moved onto video games. And a sticker wasn’t going to cut it.

In 1997 Thompson filed a multi-million lawsuit against pornography sites, computer game companies and the producers of Natural Born Killers and The Basketball Diaries after a 14-year-old broke into a neighbour’s house, stole firearms and attacked his school. The case was dismissed since none of them contributed to the attack; he was diagnosed with extreme paranoid schizophrenia. Then, Thomson met his nemesis.

In 1998, GTA began. Briefly the centre of moral panic for allowing you to successfully play as a criminal, the outrage passed fairly quickly due to its cartoony, top-down style, but like Thompson, GTA was also just getting started.

The most high-profile ‘victim’ of the Columbine fallout was Kingpin (1999). It allowed free-form violence as you made your way from street thug to kingpin, and while it wasn’t very good, no one got the chance to find out. Even after it was altered to include a ‘safe mode’ only one chain carried it but still, releasing a game not for kids with a kid’s version to appease the moral panic is ridiculous. Just don’t let kids play it. Kingpin was a mishmash of violent movie refs but it was derivative, not dangerous.

Nowadays those bad boys of gaming can be picked up anywhere with barely a nod to their insidious, dangerous nature; Postal is on Steam for a quid. So surely that proves their threat was unfounded? Games continued to be released to a storm of outrage, but we constantly didn’t become killers. Turned out it the real threat was hidden.

But as games grew in complexity and design, they didn’t mature. Many were just sexist but some like Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties and The 11th Hour were misogynistic. Some of that comes from 90s games’ intended audiences, teenage boys, and that doesn’t help the argument that games were for adults. You’d hope the developers grew out of it once the graphics grew too, but no, they did the opposite. Boobs.

Tomb Raider's Lara Croft (1996) came in for some heat due to her sex-doll look - she was quickly feted as a sex icon vs feminist icon vs gaming icon vs outrage icon (helped by a mod called Naked Raider). Her image quickly overtook the games, and each new release featured a new model to represent her; it was always Rhona Mitra for me, the first Lara; like Sean Connery. Girls in games had gotten hot instead of heroic, and following the comic-book trope, were rarely dressed for the occasion. Even now, just look at female armour (metal bikinis) compared to male armour (armour).

During this period, while I was obsessed with boobs I wasn't murdering anyone. We didn't all get triggered into pulling the trigger as many campaigners claimed. And that caused other, less sensational folks to look at gaming’s influence. In 2001 the US Surgeon General reported that gaming had little impact, and the “strongest risk factors for school shootings centre on mental stability and the quality of home life, not media exposure”. Seems fair and balanced, so the Campaigners responded with an equally considered view; they petitioned for video games to be considered obscenity so they could be prosecuted. A Senator tried to introduce a bill called the “Protect Children from Video Game Sex and Violence Act” - why not just call it *shakes fist*. Everyone, take a coffee break...

In part two, FBT explores the worst video games has to offer, and finds an excuse to bitch about the Black Eyed Peas.