Bulletstorm In A Teacup

As I’ve said before, I’ve played videogames for a long time. Deep down I know that this is a fairly ridiculous pursuit. I realise that it is probably a waste of time, time that could be more profitably spent doing other, more profitable things. Then again, the same could be said of any hobby, be it journaling or scrapbooking or pressing flowers or whatever. Of course, the difference is that videogames are perpetually looked upon as the black sheep of the entertainment industry. They are often held up as having a corruptive, poisonous influence on young people who play them. It is said that in the most extreme cases they incite the player to commit random acts of brutal violence. I have always struggled with this conceit. I find it difficult to believe for several reasons but the most pronounced is that videogames are monitored by the PEGI, a classification board whose job and responsibility is to safeguard young people and who are, in my opinion, much more punitive than the increasingly lenient BBFC. I was recently asked to contribute to a feature on Radio Ulster about this very issue. During the live discussion a parent phoning in expressed concern that her son, aged 12, was playing too much Call Of Duty: Black Ops. Now, considering that the game box bears a fat red 18 this raises the question of why she would allow her son access to such a title. It seems to me that this is a common problem. On one hand there is the argument that videogames are  an idle pursuit with a mental age only children could appreciate yet on the other there is the contention that they put that same group at risk. It’s a strange dichotomy and one which certainly does not make any logical sense.

I write this as a father. I am very careful about what I allow my child to see on television and hear on my music system and I am even more cautious about what videogames I play if and when they are in the room. Age ratings exist for a reason and people more knowing than me about these matters have decided them with the best of intentions. One wouldn’t allow their child to go to the cinema to see an 18 or R rated movie so why would they buy them a copy of Fallout 3: New Vegas or Mortal Kombat?

Further, it is easy to blame videogames, whatever form they may take, for all manner of societal evils. They are the perfect scapegoat for drawing attention from the real problems which plague our world. If videogames are violent then one could argue that they are a mirror, rather than a lamp, for those problems. They certainly are not, as far as I see it, the cause. That is not to say that videogames cannot be plain nasty. For example, I stopped playing Kane And Lynch: Dog Days even though I had to review it, not just because it was lazily designed but because it was so relentlessly grim and foul-mouthed.

Finally, I firmly believe that videogames can be categorised as art. The best ones and even some of the mediocre ones are made by groups of very talented writers, producers, directors, designers, illustrators, animators and voice actors. They can be immersive, emotionally affecting journeys that appeal to the gamer’s imagination as much as they do to their need for letting off steam at the end of a hectic day. I’m sure that some would baulk at this argument but then they probably have never been caught up in the open world narrative of Red Dead Redemption or been terrified by the Dead Space series.

I think about this issue quite a lot. As I find my responsibilities changing I find myself considering the media I absorb. This is partly influenced by my Christian beliefs, a faith which is certainly a work in progress but one which I find myself more concerned about honing. I think it’s important that more Christians negotiate their way through the Arts. I personally believe that it is vital for believers to express the  Biblical response to these things without resorting to the classic, stereotypical tub-thumping. The truth does not have to be doled out with a side order of hypocritical judgement.

The main reason that I am considering these issues is that I recently wrote some copy on Bulletstorm, a game which invited the wrath of the world’s more puritanical press. This is a difficult game to defend. Yes, it is juvenile. Yes, it is very violent but only within far-fetched and in reality rather silly videogame parameters. What Bulletstorm does not do, as some journalists in America tried to argue, is promote murder and rape. And again it raises the issue of exactly what an age rating is for. How can serious-minded reporters suggest that games like Bulletstorm will corrupt children when they are not designed to be played by children. If parents are either willing to break the law or do not take much of an interest in what their children are playing in their bedrooms then blame has to be placed elsewhere.

Here’s the piece…


You do a football slide along the ground, shooting a mutant grunt into the air. You unload two barrels of buckshot into his trunk, bisecting him with a thunder crack, and both parts are impaled on an overgrown cactus. The words “Torpedo”, “Topless” and “Pricked” appear onscreen like BIFFs and POWs in a comic book, accompanied by buckets of animated blood squibs and the kerching! of multiple points being racked up. This sounds pretty unpleasant when starkly described in print but in action it’s so cartoonish and wilfully far-fetched that it raises more guffaws than heckles. This is, however, a quality that the media’s self-appointed moral arbiters have missed. Bulletstorm, the latest rock-and-rolling shooter from Epic Games, the studio behind the none more macho Gears Of War franchise, has swaggered its way into a whole heap of trouble for its parade of non-stop ultraviolence and profanity. The unrelenting brutality or aforementioned “Skillshots”, most of which are rooted in obvious sexual innuendo, have invited yet more criticism upon the gaming medium, with critics again carping that it’s dangerous and downright corruptive. There are, of course, several problems with this argument. Firstly, videogames are censored and rated by boards such as the PEGI who are much more punitive than the BBFC, for example. If they brand a game’s box art with an 18 certificate it means exactly that: this is not for young eyes. If a parent permits their pre-teen child to play Call Of Duty it’s certainly not the game company’s fault. Secondly, if a title is given a high age rating then surely the consumer should be permitted to decide for themselves if they should play it or not. It’s only logical. We don’t sell cigarettes to people and then tell them that they can’t have them, regardless of how damaging they are. That’s not how free choice or free trade works. Finally, the recent brouhaha irritates because the naysayers have spent no time playing the actual game or conducting interviews with its makers. In short: doing their research. If they had done so they would know that the most salty material dissipates after thirty minutes. It then transforms into a fun and well structured score attack game which is truly no more violent than Space Invaders. Both of them involve killing aliens, though graphics have improved somewhat since 1978.


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