Last week the long-debated subject of violence in video games hit a crescendo of sorts. A topic often debated among game makers, game players, parents and politicians found itself at the center of a discussion in the White House about the broader topic of violence in America.
Is the video game industry, as the National Rifle Association recently claimed, a "callous, corrupting shadow industry that sells and sows violence against its own people?"
Of course not. The more reasonable question is: Are video games too violent?
Video games, like many forms of artistic expression, sometimes deal with the struggles of society. Games like Call of Duty or Battlefield or Medal of Honor are in some ways the byproducts of America's current War on Terror, existing in part to explore a fascination with military conflicts in the Middle East and abroad.
"Media always has something to say about our society," said Leigh Alexander, Gamaustra editor-at-large. "Popular high-end television — say, Girls, or Game of Thrones, to grab some easy examples — currently deals with social roles, class issues and the position of women in society, across an election year that had much to do with social issues and the politicization of women's rights. We can always take the pulse of our times in popular media, and in light of that I think violent games can never be 'just for fun,' meaningless or existing in some context-less vacuum."
Kate Edwards, president of the International Game Developers Association, says that game developers are very aware of the use of violence in their games.
"On the issue of violence, I think most game designers are cognizant of the role that violent actions serve in their games' stories."
"Developers consider many complex social issues that may arise in their games," she said. "On the issue of violence, I think most game designers are cognizant of the role that violent actions serve in their games' stories, very similar to how a film's scriptwriter or a book's author leverages such acts to serve the stories they wish to tell. Having worked on many major game titles over the years, I can attest firsthand that the writers, designers and developers are usually very conscientious of their craft and how certain actions — violent or not — serve the purpose of their games."
While Edwards feels that asking what responsibilities specifically game makers have to society is unfair, she said the broader question of what responsibilities artists have in their craft is a relevant one.
"I think in the broader context most people would agree that they have to be true to their artistic vision as part of a broader creative expression of our culture," she said. "The decision to accept or reject that artistic content is at the discretion of a consumer's own preferences, or if they're young, at the discretion of their parents to decide what is appropriate."
In many ways, the artists' greatest responsibility is to themselves.
Markus Persson, the Swedish developer behind the massively popular, mostly violence-free building game Minecraft, agrees.
"A lot of game developers are game developers because they're passionate about games," he said. "They make the games they want to play themselves, and as adults, these games might not be the same as the games children want to play. Personally, I did not create Minecraft in an attempt to cater to kids, but rather just made a game that I wanted to play myself.
"Creators have no responsibility towards anyone to do anything; they should simply express themselves as much as they can through the means they choose. Some material produced might not be suitable for children, and that can be regulated with a rating system and responsible parents."
And perhaps that's the more important point: Not all video games are for everyone and not all of them are violent. The game industry produces a surprisingly eclectic mix of titles.
"The role of violence in storytelling is as old as human history, and it has long served a purpose in conveying values of honesty, courage, confidence and perseverance."
Nearly 18 million copies of Minecraft have been sold. While last year's top-selling games included Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, half of the top games of 2012 weren't violent. Those non-violent games include sports titles, dancing games, even a Lego game. And that's just counting games sold in stores in the U.S. When you start to look at mobile gaming, where Angry Birds remains the king of the platform, overtly violent games become even less prevalent. Stepping back to look at the history of video games shows you that gaming has always had a diverse selection of experiences.
"If you look at some of the most popular video games in history on a global scale (based on units sold), the list will include titles such as Wii Sports, The Sims, Super Mario Brothers, the Pokémon series and Tetris," the IGDA's Edwards said. "I personally feel that the video game medium is as diverse in its range of content as other forms of popular media."
The real difference between video games and most movies or books is that video games give you choices. You can choose to derail the nuanced narrative of a game developer, to side-step the inherent morality of a game, to introduce violent acts where none are meant to exist.
That violence exists in a virtual world meant to simulate the real, violent one in which we live shouldn't come as a surprise. That some people find only bloodshed when they peer through this modern-day looking glass probably says more about them than it does the games they're playing.
"The role of violence in storytelling is as old as human history, and it has long served a purpose in conveying values of honesty, courage, confidence and perseverance," Edwards said. "If games were the first medium to have a compelling influence over society, I could understand the obsession with imbuing them with powerful qualities of changing human behavior at a fundamental level. But this is not the case. As one of the more recent forms of artistic expression, games and their interactivity are providing us with a new way to explore ancient themes. I for one welcome more research into their uniqueness and their potential influence, as has already been profusely explored for the printed word, the film and other media."
Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding News Editor of Polygon.