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A scene from Spec Ops: The Line

A scene from Spec Ops: The Line

Review by Emmet O’Cuana

Within days of the horrific murder of Luke Batty by his mentally ill father, a local conservative lobby group – in a shameful display of opportunism –  has seized upon the tragedy to advance their agenda that violent media was the cause.

Internationally, scare stories about video games as a psychological trigger have been widespread in the media since the mid-90s.
This pattern of panic and attribution to actual violent crimes is a familiar one, previously evident in the crises surrounding early American gangster movies in the 1930s, rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s and rap music in the 1990s.

In 1999 the cause for the profoundly disturbing murder spree of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold in Columbine was held to be that generation’s violent game of choice Doom.

In January 2013, following the tragic events of the Sandy Hooks Elementary School massacre, President Barack Obama promised funding for research into “the effects violent video games have on young minds”.  This was in response to immediate media coverage on the possible influence of war simulation games such as Call of Duty on the shooter Adam Lanza.

The role played by factors such as mental health and access to fire-arms is therefore portrayed as negligible, or secondary, due to the powerful simulations of these games. However, an Australian government report published in 2010 titled Literature review on the impact of playing violent video games on aggression went so far as to propose that, by the terms commonly used to define violent games, Pacman could be considered equally dangerous.

Clearly the emphasis on violence within gaming is over-emphasised.

What critical media coverage and parent-baiting headlines fail to acknowledge is the sophistication of video game developer culture itself.

Take the 2012 shooter game Spec Ops: The Line. Seemingly yet another war game that allows players to role-play as an American soldier killing anonymous ‘insurgents’ in a devastated Dubai – so far, equally as offensive as Modern Warfare or Call of Duty.

But the game’s lead writer Walt Williams intended it to be a critique of the use of violence within these popular titles.

The game begins with player character Martin Walker entering a Dubai destroyed by recurrent sandstorms to discover what happened to a battalion of soldiers. They were led by the mysterious Lieutenant Colonel John Konrad in a rescue mission to gather up survivors.
The player in turn is caught between fellow American soldiers and an armed resistance movement of Dubai citizens, with both sides equally aggressive.

Forced into the position of having to fight to survive, the player then is confronted with a choice between fighting an overwhelming military force, or using white phosphorous on the enemy to devastating effect. In an interview Williams explained:

But it’s not until you’ve used the mortar and seen the consequences of your actions that you start to wonder, “Could I have done something different?” And the answer is no. It was your only real option. To which you might say, “That’s not fair.” And I’d say, “You’re right.”

In fact the only moral option would be to turn off the game.

Instead players continue and are confronted with the horrifying consequences of their actions.

It is a powerful condemnation of video game violence, but also how media in general censors our exposure as viewers to the realities of war overseas.

Video game culture discusses the use of violence within the form with more insight than the scaremongering of tabloids and lobby groups. An ironic post-script to the coverage of Lanza’s tragic breakdown was the late reveal that his favourite games were Super Mario Bros and Dance Dance evolution.

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