Thursday, September 1, 2011

Bloody Irony

My son is about to turn 13… become a teenager as it were.

His mother and I have been pretty careful about what he gets to watch on TV, see in the cinema, listen to on ipods, and play for video games. I think it is important, regardless of circumstances, for parents to stay on the same page and present a united front in family policies, and that includes what the kids take in for entertainment.

Up to now it has been pretty simple to clearly divide what is inappropriate content-wise from what is okay. Sex and violence, dubious morality, drug use, torture, and all that… pretty easy to say ‘no’ when your kid is grade-school age. But like the Harry Potter films’ and their gradual creep up in dark tone and violence, so one’s children gradually expand their sphere for what is appropriate for them to see. It is every parent’s judgment call just how much to let in the sphere.

The film rating PG-13 is pretty terrible. I mean the usefulness of it. I find myself paying a lot more attention to those little black and white words underneath the rating to get a better idea of content. PG-13 is so far-ranging that I find myself expending a shitload of effort trying to find out just where on the scale this or that particular film is falling. A film with this rating can be a family film with the word ‘damn’ in it or a few too many scat jokes. Or it could have the levels of violence, including the occasional decapitation, of an R-rated movie but without mature levels of cussing. More than once I’ve had to go to the movies a day or two ahead of my kids just to be able to make this call.

I’m no prude and I’m not easily shocked—certainly not by entertainment content. In fact my commitment to pushing my own boundaries in film viewing may make me the best filter on content that I know of. I’ve been determined to observe my children, their behavior and their reactions, and introduce various levels of onscreen mayhem if and when I think they can handle it. If I’ve gotten a bad reaction, then I dial it back. Unless I’m feeling mean on Halloween or something. Because my daughter is almost two years younger than my son, she has sort of set the bar for what I can allow, since keeping two separate standards going for the two is not really manageable. So she probably sees things a little too early (but she’s mature), and he sees things a little late (he isn’t mature) so it has been made to work out.

TV is simple. I can use the cable box to simply lock all programs above a certain rating, and look at individual programs on a case-by-case basis as they come up. With music, we’ve sort of gone with a looser policy altogether. Given the lack of visual component, the content seems less impacting. So I’m not going all ‘parental advisory’ on the kids about what they listen to. I just keep an eye on it, and if I see playlists that start to lean towards gangster rap or graphic deathgrind, I’ll bring the hammer of censorship down. Lady Gaga and Rhianna have me wincing a bit at times, but I’m letting it go for now.

Games are more complicated. In terms of keeping a different game standard for my younger kid… there’s no issue because she isn’t interested in the games that push that envelope. The worst I have to worry about here is a bit of cussing or some of the sexual content in her DDR games, the same as her music basically. But with my son there’s a whole different need for monitoring in place.

It has only been about two years since I loosened up the reins on violence in first person shooters and let him play Halo. The lack of violence to humans (little conventional ‘gore’) and the emphasis on the game world’s aesthetics and the music, made it more palatable. And this turned out to be a positive decision. He became enamored with the whos and the whats of the Halo universe, including getting toys and books… and not just focused on painting the walls in neon-bright Covenant blood.

BUT. Like his friends, the baseline favorite game genres are first and third-person shooters. So as he’s gotten older, and shown he has been levelheaded, I’ve moved him on up to more mature material. Not too long ago he was playing Serious Sam. This game is pretty violent, with tons of enemies to mow down in a sort of abstractedly gory manner. But the type of enemies, the stylized graphics and the whole over-the-top attitude of the game tempered it for me. When I was his age I was drawing big pictures of war scenes or underwater views of boatloads of people getting attacked by sharks. It had the adults around me rolling their eyes, but not calling for a straightjacket.

Later still, I let him play Wolfenstein. Now this game ups the ante, being by far the most realistic representation of violence he’d yet played. Along with seriously creepy or scary enemies and a sound effects aspect that will make you duck your head from incoming fire even days after you’ve started playing it. But Wolfenstein also has clear-cut, no-ambiguity enemies—Nazis. And their historically supported penchant for occult artifacts. So y’know? No drug dealers, no prostitutes, not much in the way of dubious moral choices, unless you count slaughtering Hitler’s minions a dubious choice. It’s still pretty clearly not in Grand Theft Auto territory. So at this point, the violence is becoming almost secondary, helped in large part by the fact that he isn’t showing an increasing tendency to punch his sister or talk about headshots at the dinner table.

So this brings us to the present. At the moment he is pressing his way through the various episodes of Half Life 2. Half Life is kind of on the order of Wolfenstein. Realistic human enemies mixed with otherworldly fiends. There are also no morally questionable paths through the game. Gordon Freeman is a standup guy whether the player wants to be or not, but the game does a good job of not making it feel too restrained. Half Life is also a cut above almost anything else in terms of drama, story, and overall quality and has seriously given Halo a run for its money in my son’s list of favorites. The world built by Valve has him thinking about a lot more than just the killing, and he really cares about the people populating the resistance against The Combine. By association he also likes the Portal games which emphasize puzzle-solving over blowing things away, though death for your avatar(s) is never far away.

Far and away the most extreme thing he’s played is the new Mortal Kombat. And I really had to think that one over. It is extremely violent, never mind the somewhat scantily clad sexed-up looking women. And it encourages matches to be finished in as violent a manner as possible. I kind of looked at it like some old monster drawings I might’ve done as a kid. Gory, yeah. But MK is also populated by otherworldly creatures and almost every human has superpowers and is dressed accordingly. It is pretty far removed from reality. I actually found The Krypt, where players buy the various unlockables, to be the most objectionable part of the game. You basically have to push a button to kill some hapless prisoner in order to ‘unlock’ his soul, which then flies off to provide you with your ‘reward’. These deaths are by torture device and creature infestation. They don’t provide the meat of the game, and actually get tiresome after a while owing to the amount of shit that’s in The Krypt. But it is still ‘push a button kill an innocent dude’. A didn’t stop my kid from playing MK because it IS just a sidebar to the game, but it was a moment of realization in how casual ‘murder’ has gotten to be even apart from the obvious ‘murder simulators’ that are the typical first person shooters.

But his friends are all about this graphic killing. And apparently have parents knowingly or unknowingly abetting the carnage. When his friends talk about their coolest games they are almost invariably talking about a Call of Duty game or something like it. The only real-world war FPS I’ve really let him play are the Battlefield Bad Company series for Dice. The first one actually didn’t even get up to a Mature rating and what I saw of it, emphasized tactical thinking with its destructible scenery and the comradery between you and your comrade NPCs more than it did running up to the enemy and capping them. So the Battlefield games got a pass. He’ll probably get to play the new one just coming out soon. His friends know these games and think they’re ‘okay’… I’m sure they don’t rate super-high for the very reasons I green lighted ‘em. They’re not in-your-face enough about the killing.

I have since put the nix on some other games, almost always coming up because some friend of his has recommended it. It makes you wonder if these parents really have no fucking idea what their kids are doing, or have just written them off because their ‘only games’. Remember in the old days of Dungeons and Dragons when some kids showed marked behavior changes from taking their characters too seriously? Yeah. Those were only games too.

This brings us to Fallout. Specifically Fallout 3. Fallout is the cat’s ass as far as my son’s buddies are concerned. I knew these games probably had objectionable material in them, because I knew enough about the Fallout game world. I hadn’t played any Fallout games since previously they’ve been PC titles. The Fallout titles I knew about were also role-playing games. So when my kid asked to get Fallout: New Vegas after seeing it briefly at a friend’s house, it was not too difficult to dissuade him since I knew FNV was also an RPG, albeit one with some real-time action aspects. I just knew he wasn’t into games to manage inventories and get into long conversations. He’s done a bit of RPG stuff on his handhelds and is currently stalled in Chrono Trigger on the VC, but it is amongst the least appealing genres to him.

Then some friend let him borrow Fallout 3.

I don’t know if it is because of the way Bethesda actioned-up specifics of the game that were strictly RPG staples before, but the game appears to have changed enough things to where my son wants to get into the Fallout world. Or maybe he has matured enough to where the RPG aspects don’t hinder him. Either way, he took the game home along with Portal 2. I looked at it thinking ‘hm, I don’t know…’ but put it off because I figured burying himself in Portal would buy me some time to research just how bad Fallout 3 is. Nope. He apparently went straight to Fallout. I know this because I his Mom heard screams of agony coming from some NPC he was working over. So she pulled the game for his Xbox 360 until such time as I could render a verdict. I had some explaining to do on how he had a game where the rating box out shows ‘sexual situations and drug use’ right under the M rating.

Needless to say after doing a bit of poking around about what-all is in the game, he’s not going to get to play Fallout 3 for the foreseeable future. Drug use, prostitution, and the ability to murder innocents, are dodgy enough when seen in some RPG-typical isometric view, but Bethesda’s work to make the experience immersive and ‘cinematic’ pretty much shreds any rationalizing I might do. Oh, and hearing ‘fuck’ about five times in as many minutes kinda does that too. Fallout has a karma system where doing the civil thing clicks you towards a certain ending, and doing evil another. But that’s not enough for a kid still in formative years. If he CAN do the horrible thing, he’s going to do the horrible thing. Just to see how the game handles it. If he gets a shitty ending for it, he won’t be happy, but it’ll have been worth it just to see all the forbidden crap we’d never let him watch in a movie.

And I don’t blame him for doing it. I tried to see inappropriate sex and violence when I was kid. But my Mom went apoplectic catching me at it sometimes. Back in the day, the film Jaws (understandably) had a serious public rep for excessive violence. Based on everything she’d seen and read there was no way I was going to see it. So I snuck. And she caught me. Now there were worse things I’d seen and read. But THAT movie was the one she specifically had inside her blinders. I think parents today are doing the same thing. They all have their shields up for Grand Theft Auto, the scapegoat of today, but are missing the Fallouts getting by them. So my kid? Not happy. Not at all. He got caught watching Jaws. There won’t be any disciplinary action to speak of—I mean I looked right at the damn box and handed it back to him. But that’s another game his Dad cut off.

He’s found compensation though, and the irony is almost suffocating.

Yesterday we downloaded the demo for Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine. The full game releases next week on September 6th. If you’ve read my previous post about Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team, you know we played that little lead-in download to death and are eagerly awaiting this game, its big brother.

So the kid has started in on the demo, and it is one of the most violent games I’ve ever seen. And I've seen A LOT of video game violence.

Games Workshop’s 40K universe isn’t replete with sex or drugs or the exploitation of fuzzy kittens. Controversy around it mostly has to do with the fascist nature of the Imperium of Man (though all the ‘armies’ take a sort of kill-everyone-else stance since the species’ survival is frequently at stake), or the demonic imagery associated with the forces of Chaos. The Space Marines, though the most elite and haughty of human forces, are also frequently far enough above politics that they are shown taking something resembling moral high ground. That is, a Space Marine commander can follow what he believes is right and there’s precious little the more pragmatic human forces like the Imperial Guard or Inquisition can do about it. So playing a Marine captain as you do in this game, you will probably be taking as noble a road as possible given the context, that of protecting humanity and its resources against the invading Ork hordes. So, in terms of narrative choices, I’m not too worried that my kid will be complicit in holding some human victim’s testicles over an open flame. A Marine isn't going to do that.

But cripes. I love GW and 40K, but this is like Mortal Kombat with about a dozen combatants on the screen at the same time. Amongst the 'goodness' is performing ‘executions’ (of Orks mind you) that GAIN YOU BACK SOME HEALTH. I realize they need a healthup mechanic but turning the paragons of humanity into vampires? Actually, there is a precedent for that amongst the Blood Angels Chapter of the Space Marines.

But that’s a long, complicated story. The protagonist in WH40K: Space Marine is by default an Ultramarine—a chapter based in Greek imagery and who run their own empire of Ultramar about as close to 21st century standards of fairness and equality as you’re going to get. So the boy is using his Marine to hack about with a chainsword (chainsaw sword) throwing up clouds of blood and popping off the occasional Ork head with a bolt pistol. Of course he stops every now and then to EXECUTE an enemy which is usually shown as hoisting them in the air on the chainsword while the blade chews through their abdomen and bursts them apart in a shower of blood that then stains the Marine’s armor for the remainder of the combat. Yay!

When I get involved in 40K games or painting or drawing or whatever, yeah BLOOD is implicit or explicit in all of it. The novels are probably the place where the violence actually gets the strongest, particularly where anything has to do with Chaos (the really uber bad guys). But the video game is VISUAL. I’ve rarely seen a GW spinoff that so revels in carnage. And this is the ‘good guy’.

Now for me, this would be fine. I still look askance at the vampire health thing (what the fuck?)… it just seems like there’d be a canonical 'Ultramarine way' to make this happen instead of such a weird, macabre manner. But graphic gore doesn’t rattle me. The problem is that I set this up to my kid as, ‘yeah, you’re gonna love it!’ And boy does he ever! Right down to the smoking, headless, eviscerated Orks lying all over the landscape. He plays the 40K tabletop game, but the brutality is still totally abstract even if the body count was the same… which it isn’t. If the ten minutes I saw is any guide, before the game is completed this Marine is going to kill twenty times more enemies than a similar character would manage in a dozen tabletop matches.

I’m just dismayed looking at this as a parent. It IS over-the-top like Serious Sam. It IS about facing non-human alien enemies out to destroy humanity like Halo. And he isn’t being exposed to any attitudes or philosophy he doesn’t already see in the 40K wargame literature.

So I won’t put the brakes on for this. It might be difficult to explain to another parent the nuance here that makes Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine different from Fallout 3. But there’s a difference. I'll admit to bristling less at violence than the other objectionable sorts of content that Fallout has on display, along with its giving the player the ability to indulge in some of it. He's already been exposed to everything in Space Marine except the execution mechanic. So, though it is off-putting, I'm not lumping it in the same league as Fallout 3.
At least with this new Space Marine game, he’ll be on the hip side with his other blood ‘n’ guts buddies for a little while. He's just going to have to wait awhile longer to be allowed to be totally amoral.

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