Game creators are in the eye of the video-game storm

Video: The Washington Post’s Hayley Tsukayama talks about violent video games and the scrutiny these games could receive on Capitol Hill.

BURBANK, Calif. — At work, Ted Price’s latest pride and joy is a video game in which the cardinal rule is “don’t trust anyone,” bullets fly from guns the size of a side of beef, and a fighter’s response to another character’s warning that “You can’t kill a senator” is “Why not? I didn’t vote for him.”

At home, where Price does not permit his four children to play violent games, he and his 12-year-old daughter spend a Saturday afternoon sitting side by side, playing “The Sims 3: University Life,” which sparks the most frank discussion he’s ever had with his child about cliques, gender and homosexuality.

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A dozen times a day, Price, chief executive and founder of Insomniac Games, a studio that makes everything from kids’ games to violent shooters, flits seamlessly between the kind of games that many politicians and parents abhor and the more benign brand that virtually everyone embraces.

Three decades after video games joined the main stage of American pop culture, the school shootings in Newtown united voices across the political spectrum in renewed condemnation of the amoral violence in some of the most popular games. When authorities unsealed search warrants in the Newtown investigation March 28, the documents confirmed earlier news reports that a witness had described shooter Adam Lanza as a “shut-in” and “avid gamer” who played the first-person shooter “Call of Duty.”

Social scientists and game creators such as Price agree that just because someone has a passion for killing with a joystick, it doesn’t make him any more likely to turn to real-world violence. Violence is as essential and defensible in the art of video games as it is in movies, books or TV, game makers say.

Yet many of them won’t make first-person shooter games or won’t play them in front of their own kids, because the alluring interactivity of violent gaming has such a visceral impact.

In the search for causes and solutions after mass shootings, game violence is the rare target that unites left and right, Democrats and Republicans, gun boosters and gun opponents.

“This isn’t just about guns,” Vice President Biden said in January. “It’s about the coarsening of our culture, whether it’s with video games or movies or behavior.”

National Rifle Association President Wayne LaPierre said then: “There exists in this country a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells and sows violence against its own people through vicious, violent video games with names like ‘Bulletstorm,’ ‘Grand Theft Auto,’ ‘Mortal Kombat’ and ‘Splatterhouse.’ ” (The NRA’s own game, “NRA: Practice Range,” was released in January and engages users in target shooting.)

Violent games are no underground subculture. Five of the 10 best-selling video games in the United States last year were violent, adult-rated games, including the three most popular games, two versions of “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3” and “Halo 4.” The various versions of “Call of Duty” have sold more than 75 million units in the past three years. The top 10 also included family fare and sports games, such as “Kinect Adventures!” “Just Dance 4” and “Madden NFL 13.”

Inside studios in Southern California suburbs that are better known as the home of the movie business, the artists and technicians who make video games traffic in stories, characters and effects designed to entertain, educate and excite. Some win sales and fans with cute or touching characters, some with tough moral dilemmas — and some by satisfying a craving to kill.

Connections and conversations

Ted Price’s children are the second generation in his family to grow up with video games. When Price was a boy in Richmond in the 1970s, playing “Pong” on his friend’s Magnavox Odyssey console and then “Combat” on his own Atari 2600, games were something his parents watched from afar and restricted to weekends.

Price, 44, enforces the weekend rule for his own children, but games are now something that bring his family together, dancing to “Just Dance,” competing in Wii sports or playing college with “The Sims.”

Even as they search for the best strategies to make their Sims thrive on campus, father and daughter talk about what jocks and nerds are like in college, and what boys expect from girls. “It’s not something I would have brought up with her,” Price says. “Playing the game together allowed that conversation to happen.”

Interactivity is the key. In every game he develops or plays, Price says, “I’m part of that world I’m moving through and I’m connecting with characters and stories, which allows me to think more deeply about my own life experiences. We’re influenced by everything we see, hear and do.”

Thus his ban on violent games. “As a parent, I’m going to intervene if I feel a game is having an effect I don’t like,” he says. Game makers who deny that their products can change users’ moods are not being honest, he says — of course they do, but that’s not the same as inspiring violent behavior away from the game console.

Games about war, terrorism, alien invasions or crime are designed to arouse feelings of fear and aggression, all to deliver the games’ payoff — a sense of mastery and fulfillment. But at Insomniac and other studios, designers resist the idea that they dial up the violence just to rev up customers.

In Insomniac's new sci-fi game, “Fuse,” the main characters are operatives who shoot people and blow things up to save the world from a pernicious and mysterious substance. The shooting is there because the characters “struggle to come together as a team and must overcome great dangers,” Price says, “so weapons that have a pretty visceral impact fit holistically. We don’t single out violence as either a prerequisite or something to avoid. But we are storytellers and violence is part of what humans experience. Conflict is what makes stories interesting, and resolving conflict creates fulfillment.”

Whether he’s making shooters or kids’ games, Price says, “the goal is the same: Make people ask questions about themselves or their world.” In “Fuse,” Price wants players to be confronted with questions such as “What happens when people are given tools that are beyond the capabilities of their world? Does it change them?”

Lasting opposition

When movie theaters first opened in the early years of the 20th century, public protests and political campaigns threatened to shut them down to halt the crime, delinquency and amorality that movies were accused of fomenting. Similar backlashes hit jazz, radio, comic books, rock ‘n’ roll and hip-hop in their first decades in the marketplace.

Those art forms managed to quiet the opposition through soaring popularity and adult adoption of what had been teenage crazes. Video games have yet to see any such arc of acceptance.

The average age of game customers is now in the mid-30s, and about half the country plays video games of some sort. But the political debate over games has not changed appreciably since controversy over gore in the 1992 game “Mortal Kombat” — hearts ripped out of chests; bloody, severed heads — led the industry to police itself with a ratings system that prides itself on being tougher than Hollywood’s.

Even a strongly worded U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2011 rejecting as an unconstitutional infringement of free speech a California law that restricted the sale of violent games to children has done little to change the dynamic. In that 7 to 2 ruling, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that “Like the protected books, plays and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas — and even social messages.”

As technology has improved, the range of games produced has broadened; shooter games are now vastly outnumbered by social, fantasy, educational and sports games. But as games have become more detailed, developers have also ratcheted up the level and realism of violence. The latest version of “Mortal Kombat” lets players cut their opponent in two with a buzzsaw. And the hugely popular “Grand Theft Auto” series — players can kill police officers and run over pedestrians — has given opponents enough ammunition to last a century.

Technological challenges

The dimly lighted, open-space offices where many of Insomniac’s 220 employees work at double-screened computers are nearly silent. Japanese shoji screens frame work spaces. Conversation occurs mainly electronically. Designers, animators, programmers and technicians dress nearly uniformly in hoodies, jeans and sneakers.

The contrast with the driving rock riffs, rat-a-tat gunfire and squirting jets of blood in the studio’s newest game is stark.

In those quiet studios, designers, wrapped up in their technical puzzles, are mystified to see games become fuel for a political firefight. “What drives us is the technological challenge, not the violence,” says Al Hastings, who stumbled into games after studying cognitive science at Princeton. He spends his days wrestling with how to use lighting and shading to create a realistic scene, not what role shooting plays in a narrative.

“The way games fit into people’s lives is different for each person,” he says. “The moral complexities of a story affect people so differently, especially people with a personality disorder.”

But even as they defend using violence to engage and stimulate players, some game makers say they are offended by titles that deploy guns and bombs without moral aims.

“It’s very scary to watch young people sitting down and shooting people on a screen every day,” says Lorne Lanning, a longtime developer best known for the Oddworld series. Lanning believes too many people in the industry are willing to create amoral, violent worlds, satisfied simply to work on a successful game.

Insomniac’s lead designer, Rowan Belden-Clifford, 24, grew up playing games, including violent shooters. But his passion was to work on games that tell complex moral stories. “I play games that have violence,” he says, “but as a means to get to basic questions about life. There’s always going to be a market for games like ‘Call of Duty’ that tap into something primal in people and satisfy the desire to see big, bombastic things. But I don’t want to make those.”

Still, plenty of people do want to create such games. “We have to make games that appeal to people who watch ‘The Sopranos’ or go see ‘Django Unchained,’ ” says Keith Boesky, a game publisher and agent in Los Angeles. “We’re not all angels. But these games aren’t for children.”

Boesky recalls a party he attended with his son, then 10 years old, where the children were playing “GoldenEye,” a game in which players got bonuses for headshots. Boesky confronted the host: “Hey, they’re playing an M-rated game.”

“So what?” the father replied. “It’s a game.”

“There’s only so much responsibility we can bear as creators,” Boesky says. “As an industry, we need to say, ‘Come on, be a parent!’ ”

Role playing vs. reality

The Obama administration has asked Congress to fund studies on the impact of video violence, but entire shelves of such studies have already been done, and they conclude that, as any player can affirm, violent games do arouse aggressive feelings and mild, short-term aggressive behavior. What’s less clear is whether playing such games translates into violent crime, except among highly aggressive people.

Social scientists have found that people who play violent games are more likely to act aggressively immediately after play. “People who consume a lot of violent media come to view the world as a hostile place,” concludes Brad Bushman, an Ohio State professor who reviewed research on violent games for the National Science Foundation.

But some studies found it was more aggressive people who felt drawn to violent games in the first place, leading some researchers to conclude that there’s no sure-fire way to determine whether game play encourages violent behavior or provides an outlet for people to safely vent their aggression.

It’s not clear that it’s just the violence in the games that produces aggression; some studies point to the anonymity that games allow as what encourages antisocial behavior; players who are required to reveal their names tend to behave more responsibly.

Despite the research, the connection between fantasy violence and the real thing seems instinctively right to many people. Ed del Castillo, co-founder of Liquid Entertainment in Pasadena, discovered that on his first date with his future wife. As soon as she learned what kind of work he did, she asked how he could stay in a business that made people do violent deeds.

It took him the better part of a year to convince her that violence in games could actually diminish a player’s aggression, allowing them to get it out of their system on a screen rather than in real life.

Liquid’s “Rise of the Argonauts,” an adult-rated game based on Greek mythology, is “a very violent game based on the emergence of thought and philosophy amid the brutality of war,” del Castillo says. “Hitting someone with a mace and seeing their head crack open doesn’t make you want to go out and do that, either because the bad part of you is sated by playing the game, or because the good part of you is disgusted by what you saw. We can’t live in the world where the strong people have to wear weights; we can’t be ruled by what a few people with major personality disorders might do.”

A social evolution

For years, game makers have assumed that criticism of their products as dangerous and amoral would fade with time, that as their own generation came into power, the politics of games would change. Del Castillo, 43, who grew up playing Donkey Kong and Space Invaders at the local Sears store, sees politicians who rail against game violence as vestiges of a time when only kids and geeks played games.

The message that isn’t getting through, say game makers, is that the scope and nature of games has changed dramatically, becoming more social. Many new games encourage players to advance through cooperation. “It’s kind of infuriating that this stereotype of the loner in the basement is perpetuated,” says Jamie Madigan, a St. Louis psychologist who writes a blog about games and human behavior. “The technology has evolved to allow sharing and cooperation and that has led developers to work into their games incentives for people to cooperate.”

Sales of games played on consoles such as PlayStation or Xbox have been declining as games on Facebook and smartphones boom, and that evolution is altering the audience and content of games. “When I started, almost every game was targeted at boys 12 to 17,” says Holly Newman, chief executive at Liquid. “Now it’s totally varied, men and women of all ages.”

With more games played on phones and tablets, often in public places, studios are steering away from violent games that consumers might be reluctant to play out in the open.

“Human beings have been social for as long as we’ve been human,” del Castillo says. “Board games, card games, all games prior to video games were social. We’ve just been forced into two decades of isolation in games because the technology wasn’t there to let us play together. Now, with multiplayer and cooperative games, we’re returning to our nature.”

 
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