Violence Across the Uncanny Valley

[Hot on the heels of our most commented article ever, Travi returns to stir up debate, hint at conspiracy theories, and get your right brain pumping.]

The Uncanny Valley:  When Computer Generated effects in movies become less like a cartoon (Toy Story, Cool World) and more like the real thing (Polar Express, Star Wars) you may find yourself forgetting that what you see is animation, only to be snapped back to reality by a simple nuance of light or some other fallacy obvious to the eye.  When it looks so real that it creeps you out you approach the uncanny valley.  Across this valley you are unable to tell the difference between what is real and what is CG.  Image Metrics has built the proverbial bridge across the valley.  Check out Emily (High Quality embedded below) and imagine the implications in a video game including human characters.

This didnt really help me, but it looks scientific.

This realism is the factor that makes “growing up playing games” mean something a bit different than when the phrase was applied to me.  My parents had an Atari and I grew up playing with dots moving across screens with  *bloops* and *pppphhtts* for sound effects.  This then evolved into colored dots.  Lets face it, your iPhone has better graphical capabilities than anything I played when I was still an “impressionable” young man.  It was immensely easier for the maturing mind to recognize simulated violence (MK on my Genesis) separate from real violence (the “news”) when the animations that video games were comprised of were clearly not real.

Let me just state these few things:  I enjoy controversial movies and games.  I’ve even read books that are banned in most schools.  I’ve been playing video games for more than 2 decades.  My endgame here is not to condemn or condone anything (parenting, violence, a certain game, a company, society, etc.), but to show you things in a different light.  I prefer education to censorship.  I appreciate free speech.

Now stay with me, this is all relevant…mostly.

pwnd!

pwnage!

You like to kill things.  You enjoy various methods of evisceration.  You will teabag a fallen adversary if you are able to find enough pieces of his/her/its body clumped together to imply insult.  You are a person of rational thought and know the difference between fantasy and reality.  You are the average gamer of this generation, and hopefully an adult.

The developing voices that can be heard in any online multiplayer deathmatch means the latter isn’t always true.  In virtually any M rated title on any system after school and before bedtime one can hear the banter of junior high kids.

Mature entertainment is for mature people.  Mature entertainment can be summed up as any media not intended for children.  I think many readers will agree that kids get to view/play this material way before the “intended” age.  I understand there is no magic switch at age 17 that makes one more mature than they were the day before.  I understand the parental attitude of “it’s okay, he sees it on TV” or “she knows the difference.”  A kid that wants to play Game A or watch Movie B or read Book Q badly enough will find a way.

My point is that, inevitably, mature entertainment will reach some kid somewhere somehow, by accident or on purpose.

Virtual Murder/Manslaughter Simulators like Manhunt, Hitman, and their sequels are acceptable in our society.   [Watching a movie with realistic gore like Hostel or Turistas is different in that the viewer has no control over the outcome, actions of characters are predetermined, and you can't kill anyone who isn't "supposed" to die]. Imagine what a stranger to video games displaced from another era (“I am not and have never been a member of the Communist Party”) might call Gears of War or GTA IV after an hour of gameplay.  It is the realistic look and feel that could make this stranger vomit, not to mention the depravity of the game character’s available actions.   Certainly we gamers do not think “murder simulation” when we play Call of Duty 4 or Battlefield: Bad Company, but essentially this is what they are.  In many cases we no longer fight ghouls, goblins, aliens, Nazis, zombies, mutants, or monsters of old, but the scariest monsters of all:  Humans.

War Simulators constitute a large portion of these “VMS” and for good reason.  Is there a better way to make a largely male audience perceive war as fun?  An 18 year old male who has handled a virtual weapon for years will likely a) be more comfortable wielding the real thing and b) more inclined to use it in the prescribed manner (Sir, yes, sir!).  This is so plausible that this whole set of sentences may very well be redacted in the future.

Of course these “video games” (which is the stuck nomenclature of these experiences that conjures up imagery of adolescence) also promote the development of tactics, communication, and perhaps creativity.

Feelies, a word coined by Aldous Huxley, more accurately describes in part what video games are evolving into.  You are more emotionally invested in your character’s actions than ever before and could possibly actually feel bad about killing virtual creations.  As some games become more nonlinear in storyline our reward for playing a certain way is not only an alternate ending or special gear, but the satisfaction that you didn’t kill anyone that was innocent.

Try beating Metal Gear Solid 4 with 0 kills.  Did you “harvest” Little Sisters in Bioshock, you monster?  These are moral decisions but did they arouse a moral sense in you?  Or do you find deplorable acts like this liberating?

Once we combine this new moral-ish storytelling with the CG that is available right now (look at Emily again!) what should we expect?   A novel-worthy plot with unparalleled graphics that you are in control of certainly sounds playable.  Whether it be violent or sexual (gasp!) in subject matter does not matter if it is intended for adults.  If you get to play it let us hope that it doesn’t desensitize you to violence.

Or is it too late to be worrying about that?

What do you think?

[Travi Thornton is Games Are Evil's resident Conspiracy Theorist and bringer of flames.]

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