The other day, when I saw it appear on the Playstation 3′s “What’s New” splash, I downloaded a demo for a first-person shooter game I hadn’t heard anything about before, called Bulletstorm. The demo video preceding the actual playable level pretty much set the expectations for the game — chaotically violent grindhouse with over-the-top game mechanics, protagonists with generally more machismo than intellect (even the girl) who are quick to make lewd sexual references, and buckets and buckets of blood. Despite its outlandish presentation, the demo was actually fairly fun. The ability to kick enemies and have them thereafter hang in mid-air long enough for you to aim at specific body parts is a bit silly. but otherwise my first impression was that with some polish, the game has potential.
I had no idea that potential that I saw was the potential for lulz when Fox News lost their shit over it. But there you have it. Turns out I’m not prescient — whoda thunk it? Though, given their earlier performance in grossly mischaracterizing Mass Effect’s “full digital nudity and controllable explicit sex” (which, as it turns out, is no more controllable or explicit than any sexually tinged and artistically presented offering on Fox Network’s prime time block), I should have seen it coming.
In the new video game Bulletstorm due February 22, players are rewarded for shooting enemies in the private parts (such as the buttocks). There’s an excess of profanity, of course, including frequent use of F-words. And Bulletstorm is particularly gruesome, with body parts that explode all over the screen.
But that’s not the worst part.
The in-game awards system, called Skill Shots, ties the ugly, graphic violence into explicit sex acts: “topless” means cutting a player in half, while a “gang bang” means killing multiple enemies. And with kids as young as 9 playing such games, the experts FoxNews.com spoke with were nearly universally worried that video game violence may be reaching a fever pitch.
“If a younger kid experiences Bulletstorm’s explicit language and violence, the damage could be significant,” Dr. Jerry Weichman, a clinical psychologist at the Hoag Neurosciences Institute in Southern California, told FoxNews.com.
In their private parts! Such as the buttocks! You just can’t make this up.
More commentary below the fold.
Of the experts Fox News referred to, one among them, Carole Lieberman, hardly classifies. She is a “media psychiatrist” whose bread and butter is in giving the media exactly what they want, so naturally she’s the one voicing the kinds of concerns that make good copy, the kinds of concerns that you can build a controversy around. She is associated with no institutions, she is cited only on Google Scholar for her gender-muddling book Bad Boys (but strangely not for its companion Bad Girls), and not at all on PubMed. She is an expert-for-hire, by all appearances. And her clarifications blunt her words so much as to render the original alarmist Fox piece completely inoperative.
And the “expert” in the blockquoted section above, Dr. Jerry Weichman, appears to be an accredited psychologist whose actual stock-in-trade is motivational speaking to teens. He gets no hits on PubMed, no hits on Google Scholar (unless he’s a trout psychologist on the side), and as far as I can tell nothing but a vanity website and a bunch of Youtube videos of his media appearances and a self-promoted “best of” of his talks to his digital name.
The “sexual themes” these “experts” are referring to are puns. Sexual puns, directly referencing circumstances of the way you just killed the game’s enemies. I don’t know that that’s worth saying that exposure to these puns would be directly harmful to any 9-year-old who happens to get a hold of the game (despite the ESRB ratings system correctly rating this game as Mature, meaning not to be sold to children). The implication that using sexually charged names for the many and varied methods you can use to kill enemies is in any way tying that violence to sex outside of sophomoric puns and tactless (and possibly misogynistic or homophobic) slurs that you wouldn’t want your kids to repeat, is one I’d need to see some extraordinary evidence for. Given the very high penalty for breaching the ESRB’s recommendations, it’s grossly unlikely that the game will be purchased by any child any time soon — so the fault lies with the adult that puts the game within a child’s reach. In exactly the same way that that adult put a porno flick or horror film in their reach.
I understand, and agree with, those who believe that the fetishization of violence in Western society is deplorable. The fact that you can see gratuitous violence on prime time (or, say, on the nightly news), but a female nipple would get your show pushed off into the wee hours of the morning, is ridiculous. The fact that every hero in every action movie has more guns than genitals, and that these guns are invariably used to mow down body counts greater than any recent gun tragedy in memory, and yet those movies often get PG-13 ratings, is ridiculous. The fact that America so values its “right to bear arms” to the point of ignoring the “well-organized militia” clause, and to the point where any attempt to restrict said arms to reasonable limitations (e.g. not anti-aircraft, not 30-plus-round clip size) is met with howls of distrust and further stockpiling of weaponry, is not just ridiculous, it’s potentially deadly. And has already become deadly all too often in the powder keg that is today’s political climate — with its rhetoric of violent revolution and demonization of liberals, gays, Muslims, pro-choicers, et cetera, as “other”.
So with that said, I fully realize that this type of game may be in bad taste considering all of the above circumstances.
I don’t, however, think it’s going to incite one single nine-year-old to become a rapist. And I don’t think “bad taste” is against the ever-vaunted First Amendment of the States’ Constitution.
This “think of the kids” argument works best when the average gamer is a child (hint: the average gamer is 34 years old and has been playing games for 12 years). It also works best when safeguards aren’t already in place to prevent kids from playing the game (hint: PS3 has a parental lock that any parent of any gamer kid should damn well invest the time it takes to learn it if they give half a shit about kids playing Mature-rated games without their supervision). And it works even better than that if parents realize that desensitization due to violent imagery comes as a result of all violent imagery in aggregate — including every shred of violence they will be exposed to on television, in print, on the internet, from politicians’ violent rhetoric, on the playground, and in their home lives when dad hits mom for overcooking the chicken.
Being a product of my culture, I am unfortunately desensitized to violence in media. I enjoy games involving guns, blood, brutal merciless killing and senseless mayhem. I enjoy most action movies — though some of the ultraviolent horror films or Japanese offerings I’ve stumbled across on Netflix recently are a bit off-putting, if not because of the buckets of blood, then because of the sheer implausibility of the scenarios and disturbing imagery as a matter of course. I play first-person shooters extensively, and am at least moderately skilled at them. I have never touched a real gun in my life save for a compressed-air powered BB gun when I was young — and I’ve even been shot in the leg with same on a bad ricochet, which thankfully left a welt but not much more damage. I have seen a few guns in real life, but have had no particular desire to pick one up. I am extremely respectful of guns as a practice, when I do encounter them. I am not cavalier about their existence, nor about their use, in reality. In video games, though, the people I aim at aren’t people at all, but graphical representations of bits moving about a game field — pawns to capture via explosive particle effects with the press of a button at the right time.
I am mature enough to make the distinction that the video games I play are escapist fantasy. I have never mentally superimposed the image of any person that I had an argument with, onto the “faces” of the “people” I “shoot” in these games. Because I am not a child, and because I have the intellectual self-awareness to understand that the use of sexual puns to describe ultraviolence that I intentionally perpetrate on the “victims” in the game world is nothing but sophomoric humor making an already over-the-top game scenario purely absurd, I don’t think it’s affected my ability to separate fantasy from reality. In fact, I strongly suspect I have a very solid grasp on that distinction, moreso than many of the people I meet on a daily basis.
What gets me about the whole situation is the lack of nuance, the black-or-white, the “it’s gonna destroy our kids zomg” nuttery that you generally get from the conservatives. And that in the face of their simultaneous elevation of real weaponry to role of panacea for all situations. And their making taboo the natural, fun, generally harmless (as long as all parties consent) sex acts to which the puns at hand refer.
So you want to “gang bang” or “go topless”. So you want to engage in some “rear entry” or “double penetration”. As long as all parties consent. Unless those phrases are referring to a Skill Shot in Bulletstorm, in which case they refer instead to methods of killing virtual people on a cartoonish video game, and not a sex act at all. If you have the intellectual paucity to make the incorrect association that sophomoric humor leads directly to rape, then maybe you should get to work banning cracked.com and collegehumor.com. Oh, and the Fockers films while you’re at it. Demonizing this game as the end of society is just bringing it to more, and more enlightened, eyes than your own. Eyes belonging to people able to synthesize a bigger picture than the one you’re seeing on your 42″ plasma TV.