It is a given that many mediums, like literature and movies, exist largely in part to give something for readers/viewers to think about. That is not always the case, but it has been generally accepted by most people that this is their main function. This is gaming’s forgotten purpose, as gaming too can be thoughtful and bring about self-reflection (we all agree though that games largely exist for entertainment, but they too can function in this way, which is forgotten). Now though, too many people are trying to hinder that process.
This understanding has been greatly misunderstood and/or confused, particularly recently. We all have to remember that it is not the purpose of a game, or anything else for that matter, to tell you what to think but to prompt you as a player/viewer/reader/etc. with questions to think about yourself. That to me is the biggest area of misunderstanding.
So when games like Grand Theft Auto V are criticized for including a torture scene, I have to really wonder why. Do they think that the game is telling us that torture is good, fun, or exciting? Or could it be to show us something so that the audience can contemplate on it? Is it really any different than reading it in a book? Sure, there is the argument that the effect on a person is much different when they, as the player, are conducting the acts of torture on another person rather than being a passive observer.
But does that really change the questions or contemplation? At most it makes the questions more personal and can lead to more profound individual experiences unique to the player. Direct involvement creates a personal emotional attachment where one could argue that passive observation (which is far too general and I do not mean to suggest that people do not get invested in what they read, but that there is a stark difference in activity with gaming and something like a book) helps to look at particular issues in a more general sense.
So going back to the torture, the questions from reading/seeing a scene may be more about the ethical implications of whether or not it was ever okay (the ticking time bomb scenario). Whereas with something like Grand Theft Auto V, questions about the player his/herself may arise, like would I ever participate in torture for whatever reason? How do I feel about myself for going through with this scene? This is all of course assuming, in every case/medium, that contemplation is taking place by the individual, which does not always happen.
This is not a discussion of games being better at bringing out these questions, but a discussion about the nature of questions and self-reflection games can elicit. That individual examination, which I argue games can be very good at prompting, is not something anyone should try to prevent but encourage. That immediate tangible experience has a great chance of leading to self-reflection with the active involvement of a player, which is something we should all try to capitalize on as gaming moves forward.
Not only should we capitalize on it, but we should celebrate, encourage, and nurture the potential impact gaming can have on an individual level too, not only culturally. One of the most important aspects to things like literature is critical thinking, or as an old teacher of mine put it “thinking about thinking.” And that just means that you more thoroughly examine your first reaction to something.
For example, you may have been disgusted by the torture scene in Grand Theft Auto V, and if you then thought about why you were disgusted you were getting into that critical thinking. Going back to earlier, maybe Grand Theft Auto V wanted you to feel disgusted so you could then contemplate on why.
Why are games not allowed that freedom, or why are games discouraged from creating more moments of critical thinking? What is it about games that make people feel that they should be shielded from all the “horrors” they can bring? Why not let them ask tough questions for people to wrestle with? This of course goes back to that misunderstanding between telling and showing, which is something every relatively new medium has gone through at some point.
It is a dangerous and disheartening thing to try and “protect” people from examining themselves and the world around them critically. Making everything “politically correct” and inoffensive will only greatly hinder the growth and maturation of a great many people. While games have not hit the greatness of many literary works or films, it should not be discouraged from doing so before it even has had the chance.
Advocating for the removal of those “difficult” scenes from any game threatens gaming’s chance to finally “grow up” like literature or film. This only leads to less opportunities where a player is challenged with a difficult dilemma of some sort, leading to less self-reflection that everyone sorely needs – no matter of the reflections content, be it torture, murder, etc. Many famous works in history are famous because of the ethical, moral, and philosophical dilemmas they bring up due to their “difficult” scenes.
I guess all I am advocating for is the famous Socrates quote: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” That is a little more dramatic than what I am saying, but it does point to the value I see in self-reflection and that I think gaming is a perfect medium to bring about chances to examine one’s life. That is not taking into consideration how much more profound and generally accepted games can become when they can more masterfully elicit such questions.
It is not gamers themselves that are squandering this opportunity (though we all probably don’t appreciate it enough), but outside forces that threaten it. I just want everyone to be aware of what is at stake – including those that threaten the possibilities for gaming’s future.
So many people criticize gaming for being immature and a waste of time, yet will do so much to try to inhibit gaming from becoming more.
I won’t go so far as to compare this to book burning, but we all can’t ignore the similarities.
(And all of this is not to say that great games that ask questions or tell great stories don’t exist already, but gaming hasn’t really had something on the level to what we would consider classics or masterpieces in terms of message. We do have some in terms of gameplay, but that is different than what I am talking about here.)