Video Game Makers Favor Diversion over Depth

Some say video game makers are squandering their cultural clout by not making games that contribute to the national conversation about important issues such as the war in Iraq or teen pregnancy.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

The videogame industry claims it's all grown up. Here's a stat game makers point to: sales grew 110 percent last year and the majority of that growth came from buyers over 35. With that growth, the big companies are eager to be seen as major players in American entertainment and culture.

But as Heather Chaplin reports, critics say videogame makers are shying away from the issues they should be confronting.

HEATHER CHAPLIN: Big Hollywood studios took on issues of national importance last year — the war in Iraq, the politics of oil and teen pregnancy — sometimes with big-budget productions and A-list actors. Not the videogame industry.

Professor IAN BOGOST (Game Design, Georgia Tech): Politics are off the agenda.

CHAPLIN: That's Ian Bogost, professor of game design at Georgia Tech.

Prof. BOGOST: How can we really apologize for them and say, oh, well, yeah, it's understandable that you don't want to take on any hard issues, you live this difficult life where you bring in billions of dollars a year. No more excuses. I think we just need to demand it.

CHAPLIN: Bogost says if you want to get serious in the corporate videogame world, you have to talk to Harvey Smith.

Mr. HARVEY SMITH (Video Game Designer): Some people believe that games should just be fun diversions and that's a fine viewpoint, I guess. I disagree with it.

CHAPLIN: Smith, an Air Force veteran, says he was angry when he made his most recent game, BlackSite. Angry about the Walter Reed scandal, the Patriot Act, the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina.

Mr. SMITH: All these things, and it's it just like, my God.

CHAPLIN: Until recently, Smith was creative director of Midway, one of the industries biggest publishers.

(Soundbite of videogame)

CHAPLIN: His game BlackSite drops you into the war in Iraq in the very first scene.

(Soundbite of videogame BlackSite)

Unidentified Man #1: Big mistake, pal.

CHAPLIN: Posters of Saddam Hussein adorns bunker walls, and alarmingly realistic Iraqis crumple to the ground when they die.

(Soundbite of videogame, BlackSite)

Unidentified Man #1: Burn to the hole.

CHAPLIN: By the end, the game is a satirical rumination on how allies become enemies, and enemies are sometimes armed by former allies.

Unidentified Man #2: It didn't kill them; they gave it to us.

Unidentified Man #3: I don't buy it, maybe for the enemy, but U.S. soldiers? Delta Force? No way.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

CHAPLIN: BlackSite was not successful critically or commercially, but Georgia Tech's Bogost says it was still an important game.

Prof. BOGOST: The importance of BlackSite may not be the political speech inside of it, but the idea that it is kind of giving the industry the finger in someway.

CHAPLIN: Bogost says that artists have a long tradition of pushing the status quo, but not game designers, despite being unimportant culture makers of the 21st century. But many designers say it's not so simple to put political messages into videogames. Unlike novels, paintings, or movies, videogames are not representations of a single static experience. Videogames are spaces in which the player explores many possible experiences.

Clint Hocking, a creative director Ubisoft, says this means players get to decide what to do.

Mr. CLINT HOCKING (Creative Director, Ubisoft): It's like you take all of the words of your novel and then you cut them up into strips and you stick them in a paper bag. The player can take all those words out and make them say whatever you want. If I give the player all of the words in William Shakespeare, he can write some pretty despicable things.

CHAPLIN: Think of the Sims, will you guide your cartoonish characters through their humdrum suburban lives. The Sims is considered pretty family-friendly, but the industry is rife with stories of players who keep their Sims in cages or intentionally starve them to death. And as Smith says, the Sims are pretty benign.

Mr. SMITH: The Sims is not a game that has potential violence, really incorporated into it pretty much. That, also, is a little safer I think.

CHAPLIN: Certainly on the fringes of the industry, people are experimenting with less safe subject material like genocide and third-world poverty. But critics point out these are mostly educational in nature. Messages gussied up as games, and they don't have to contend with the marketplace.

According Georgia Tech's Bogost, it all comes down to the way the videogame industry wants to present itself.

Prof. BOGOST: I'm not sure the game industry does want to see a game as an art form; I think they want see games as a primary form of entertainment. Art is about changing the world and entertainment is about pleasure.

CHAPLIN: Bogost says in mainstream industry can trumpet its big numbers and grow in the adult market all at once. But until it gets serious, its cultural prominence is just wasted opportunity.

For NPR News, I'm Heather Chaplin.

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