February 29, 2012 by justingroot
That’s the title Yahtzee Croshaw chose for an article in the Escapist he wrote last November. His question is directed at a specific demographic of modern gamers: namely, those who made Skyrim’s “child killing” mod such a hit, and those who found Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (MW3)’s obligatory “shocker” moment disappointing not because it was, in Yahtzee’s words, “hollow [and] incidental,” but because it could have been much more brutal.
As evidence of these people’s existence, Yahtzee quotes a disturbing comment from beneath his MW3 video review:
“Or they could have zoomed in on Makarov caging up a bunch of children ‘HoloCaust style’ And using chemicals on them first. It would have made an ironic statement and it would have been quite the upgrade, since it wouldn’t have been instant incineration, but slow torture.” — anonymous commenter
How mainstream are these gamers? In regard to Skyrim’s child-killing mod, which makes normally invincible child characters subject to murder the same way any other character in the game is, Yahtzee had this to say: “it always seems like not being able to kill the children in huge, open-ended games is something that gets complained about with alarming regularity by a certain demographic of hardcore gamer.”
As Yahtzee notes, the usual argument is that invincible children are unrealistic, and therefore ruin immersion. This fits in nicely with what we’ve been discussing lately in class. Indeed, “shocks” (like discovering that children are impossible to kill) were included in our reading as aspects of a game that detract from immersion (VGTR pg 76).
One of the three basic requirements of immersion, as detailed in Chapter Three of the Video Game Theory Reader, is that “the user’s actions must have a non-trivial impact on the environment” (pg 68). Sounds straightforward enough. If I stab a child with my sword, I expect him to die. When he doesn’t — in fact, when he runs away more or less unfazed — the “spell” is broken. Isn’t that enough of an argument to make killing children possible in a game like Skyrim, which prides itself on creating a huge and immersive virtual reality?
Well, not entirely. Yahtzee addresses this point in his article:
“The designers of Skyrim are trying to create a setting in which you forge an epic fantasy story. And whether your story is one of a fine upstanding swordsman, or a neutral mercenary, or a morally flexible assassin-thief, pausing on your way to work to methodically slice your way through a row of innocent schoolchildren is going to turn that story into something it doesn’t want to be.”
The fact is, no game is ever going to include everything a player might want to do. Some activities will be impossible because it would be impractical to implement them, since only a few people would ever take advantage of them. For instance, if the developers of Skyrim had gone through the trouble of implementing a system that allowed the player to carefully nurture a crop of turnips from seeds to harvest, their efforts would mostly have gone in vain. Hardly anyone would prefer the life of a peaceful turnip farmer to that of a marauding adventurer.
Then there are the things that the player will not be allowed to do simply because the developers don’t want him to. In Skyrim, killing children is one of these things. Nor is torture possible, or rape, or any number of other disgusting and horrible crimes. Outlawed activities aren’t just limited to the despicable: they also include acts that the developers consider out of place in the diegetic world they have created, such as using one’s knowledge of firearms to construct a machine gun and mow down Skyrim’s dragons with it.
Another argument in favor of being able to do things like kill children in a game is that it’s okay as long as the game isn’t ABOUT killing children, and you’re never encouraged to do it. This is the rationale a lot of people used to justify Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’s airport massacre scene, in which the player character is permitted, but not forced, to participate in the slaughter of countless unarmed innocents.
The problem with this is that, as Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman are quoted as saying in Understanding Video Games, “In a very important sense, a game IS its rules” (pg 99). Anything explicitly permitted in a video game — and there is no doubt that participating in the massacre in MW2 is accepted, since you achieve the same outcome at the end of the mission either way — is, in a very real way, encouraged by the framework of that game. If it weren’t, the developers, who have a final say on everything that makes it into the game they create, wouldn’t have made it possible.
So why do people seem to want things like Skyrim’s child-killing mod so badly? Why does this “shock” bug people more than the countless others present in Skyrim’s expansive world? Is there something implicitly brutal about the video game player?
Modern Warfare 2 was a tremendous commercial success, despite the gruesome airport sequence. Skyrim’s child-killing mod was tremendously popular (and similar mods have been made for many games). Maybe it’s the case that entering a video game’s “magic circle” makes the player into a monster. That’s certainly what Yahtzee seems to be saying in this article.
I’m not so sure — but I do think it’s something worth looking into.