Today I’d like to talk a bit about games, and the effect that they can have on impressionable young minds. This is an issue that I take very seriously, and let me say up front that in the past I’ve been extremely critical of games that seem (at least to me) to draw their appeal from offering players the chance to be morally bankrupt, vicariously. Not because I believe there’s something wrong with the notion itself, mind you, but because they get released into a world full of children who aren’t yet necessarily ready to process the difference between fantasy and reality. Personally, I think that the line that separates what’s acceptable in a game and what isn’t falls directly between adolescence and adulthood. An adult can (presumably) understand the concept of vicariousness, and (presumably) isn’t likely to let those experiences affect his or her thinking–certainly not to the extent that they turn off the console or stop watching the movie and then go on a creative-media-fueled rape and murder binge, Alex Delarge style. I don’t believe, however, that the same can be said of children. Granted, the Clockwork Orange scenario is unlikely no matter who you’re dealing with–it’s an extreme example. But I don’t think there’s any question that kids generally get desensitized much, much easier than adults do. If a 9-year-old kid sits down and sinks 50 hours into a video game that turns a rampant killing spree into something that resembles nothing but fun without any real consequences, there’s a chance that he’s going to wind up more comfortable than he should with the thought of pulling an actual trigger, or worse. I used to speak about this in hypothetical terms, but now I’ve seen it first hand. I know a kid who spent WAY too much of his childhood playing Call of Duty, only to wind up aspiring to join the military because he has no idea what it actually means to shoot someone, or be shot himself. All I’m saying is, there is some credence to the concern that oversaturation of violence at too young an age can produce undesirable results, and those results are rarely as obvious as people would imagine them to be. How eager is he to fight? Does he have a normal, healthy attention span? How does he respond to the opposite sex? You see, this problem doesn’t end with violence. There are plenty of ways in which the wrong suggestions can adversely affect the development of a young mind, especially when those suggestions come in a barrage through video games, TV shows, and movies.
Given that adults don’t need the real world watered down for them, I believe that the heart of the ethical problem with developing media that features violence, or anything else “unsavory,” is that ultimately, we don’t seem to have much control over whether or not little kids have access to it. We can tell everyone that it’s only for people 18 and older, and we can even card people who want to buy it, but let’s face it–kids are going to get their hands on that stuff, plain and simple. It’s unfortunate, but it’s a fact. This is usually the point at which fans of the Grand Theft Auto franchise like to point out that “it isn’t the developer’s responsibility to shield other people’s kids from violence.” This is a completely valid point to make, but I’ve always felt like that reasoning has been used as an excuse to keep doing something we like without guilt more than as an actual argument for creative expression. The fact that we can’t control what’s out there seems like a bad reason to be complicit in perpetuating the problem. All this leads to a very difficult question that I wrestled with endlessly during the preliminary stages of development for Devil’s Playground: given the adult oriented content of my creation, how can I justify letting it loose in the world when I know there are kids out there who don’t have the maturity level or frame of reference necessary to take it for what it was intended to be? The short answer comes down to three main points–first, I think there’s a distinct difference between being told that something is happening and actually seeing it get played out. Second, I don’t think a kid can figure out how to play Devil’s Playground on his own. And third, I hope that the help it provides ultimately outweighs the harm.
It’s important to be clear, now. I’ve said at every available opportunity that Devil’s Playground was most definitely NOT designed for kids. It is a board game, yes, but it is a board game unambiguously intended for adult players. There’s heavy stuff in there, people–it features drug addiction, murder, corruption of law enforcement, strippers, the monetization of human souls, and even a russian roulette mechanic designed to be used in desperation. I wouldn’t want a kid anywhere near it. In writing this blog, my intention is not to try to justify what I’ve created by claiming that my content is somehow less volatile than that of the GTA franchise. At the end of the day, I’m guilty of the same thing–I’ve put this out into the world, knowing that kids might get their hands on it, but trusting those close to them to have the sense to keep them away from it until they can really grasp the intended concept. What follows is how I was able to come to terms with this admitted moral quandary.
Now, to my first point, the experiential difference between some form of media (from here on out we’ll focus on video games) and a board game is vast. In a video game like COD or GTA, a player goes through the actual motions of aiming a simulated gun, pulling a simulated trigger, and watching a simulated person die from it. In many cases, this act is both preceded and followed by many other similar deaths. In the case of a board game, even if death, or even murder, does occur, a player can only draw on his or her prior experience to fill in the blanks of the actual process, if they feel the need to picture it at all. Murder becomes a very abstract thing when confined to the non-descriptive text on the face of a card, and no new ideas are being injected into anyone’s brain, I don’t think. The images on the left illustrate my point. The above image is a screen shot from the Call of Duty franchise; the one below is a sample of an Assassination Contract from Devil’s Playground. In concept, they amount to the same thing, but in practice they feel much different. This difference extends beyond violence, as well. The treatment of women in video games (while it IS gradually becoming less of an issue these days) has been historically shameful. In the same way that GTA hasn’t been afraid to cash in on its morally bankrupt reputation, there are a lot of video game developers out there that design female characters specifically to appeal to our baser natures. Now, once again, if you’re an adult, and you can see that for what it is, I have a hard time believing that it’s ultimately that damaging, but my perspective is obviously a male one. In any case, the same difference still exists between a video game and a board game when it comes to the manipulation of, and interaction with, these female characters. At first glance, the images shown on the right might not seem that different when it comes to the basic depiction of females as characters in games. The one at the top, however, is a character named Lara Croft from the popular Tomb Raider franchise. The image itself is not one taken directly from one of the games, but it goes to show what sorts of thinking her almost comically exaggerated physique lends itself to. As arguably the most popular female video game character of all time, I think she’s fair to use as an example. Lara’s character seems to have been designed as a “strong” female lead–she’s smart, resourceful, tough, and adorably British. But let’s take a moment to ask ourselves how many people–especially teenagers–bought the game for that reason. Yes, there’s a strong case that can be made for the gameplay, because they ARE actually pretty good games for the most part, but it’s a mistake to overlook the fact that a stunningly beautiful female character is being put into the hands of kids who don’t know what to do with puberty yet…every element of those games seems harmless, but it adds up to something that smacks of control fetishism at its extreme. She has to do whatever that teenage kid wants her to do (within the admittedly harmless limits of her programming), and he can play the game just to watch her do it. The same is true of the lower example, Liliana, but in her case, the image on the right is the only concept a player is ever going to see of her. Liliana is a character in a card game called Magic, that has to be played on an actual table in the presence of actual people. Her image doesn’t move, and once again, no blanks are filled in for a youngster who may not yet know what he could expect. That sense of subconscious control is gone…the game can be played without the undertones of exploitation present. Moving Lara Croft around an abandoned tomb is a much different, much more suggestive experience than sliding a 3/4” x 3/4” token around a game board, even if that token DOES represent a stripper (and, in the case of Devil’s Playground, it might).
To my second point, Devil’s Playground is not something that a kid can just pick up and start playing. It’s a game with a fairly complex rule system, and the setup requires some actual attention, unlike popping a disc into a console and pressing START. Not only that, but it’s also something that’s impossible for said whipper snapper to play alone. Even if he does manage to get his hands on a copy of the game (despite the fact that he can only buy it with a credit card), he needs other people around–at least two more–to make it work. Hopefully those two more people have the sense to screen him from it, if he needs to be screened from it. There do exist in the world kids who can handle this stuff, which brings me to my third point…
It isn’t all bad, not by a long shot. In an ideal world, the good things this game can offer outweigh the potentially bad and offensive things, if you’re the queasy type. Devil’s Playground features almost depthless opportunity to strategize, and as a board game, it can easily help combat some of the ADD that Sponge Bob has wired into your kid’s brain. Also, while it does feature drug use and addiction, there is no scenario in the game in which associating with the people who are using it can be considered desirable. My hope for this game is that it provides people with a unique and, most importantly, fun reason to have some genuine human interaction. There is something to be said, after all, for sitting down and taking the time to do something with people whose company you enjoy.
The key point I want to leave you with is that I made this game because I believe it has a place in the world. It, like the GTA franchise, finds a way to use real world elements and turn them into a fun experience for everyone involved. It gives players the opportunity to vicariously enjoy things they otherwise would never be able to see themselves doing. It is very important that it isn’t taken too seriously, though, and that’s why I insist that no one under 21 years of age should play this thing. Have fun with it, people. Now that that’s off my chest, we can move ahead with the rule/design/character previews in the weeks leading up to the game’s release. All you have to do is check in on this blog from time to time, and remember to bring your worst intentions…