There’s been a lot of controversy about the game ‘Mass Effect’ recently in the States; a pretty standard science-fiction RPG with gameplay that is not nearly as good as the plot. The controversy comes hot on the heels of the game’s release... two months ago. What this sudden influx of attention by American conservative institutions shows is that they are simply following a trend.
The controversy stems from a trite little article on a website by Kevin McCullough (who incidentally bears a striking resemblance to Daily Show alumni Rob Corddry). Unfortunately I can’t find the offending article anymore so I assume it’s been taken down or buried beneath the crushing weight of thousands of gamers descending on the site. Here however is one of his few rebuttals. What I found most ironic about the post was that, despite rallying the troops against the exploitation of women and sex, there was an ad directly to the left for conservative T-shirts which shamelessly used an attractive young woman as a selling device. Anyway the upshot of his argument was that ‘Mass Effect’ is a game being marketed to teenagers that contains gratuitous and vivid scenes of sex where the player can control everything from breast size to “sodomy”.
I played ‘Mass Effect’ over my Christmas break and, if you check my Gamercard, you’ll see that I unlocked the Paramour achievement which means I finished the romance sub-plot (with the character Liara T’Soni). I dare say that many of the commentators on TV and in newspapers can’t say the same thing. Reams could be written about the misrepresentation of the game in the media, the outright lies that are being churned out to Middle American households, and how the game is not a “sex simulator”. Instead a macro approach is required; examining the true position of this controversy in the span of human civilisation.
In the 19th Century ‘Penny Dreadfuls’ were heralded as corrupting the youth and bringing about the downfall of moral society. In the 1960s comic books were said to desensitise young people to violence. This kind of controversy is absolutely typical of the emergence of a new media format. The conservatives that cry out that video games are corrupt are simply playing their part in a cycle that has gone on and will go on as long as humanity creates forms of entertainment. All this has happened before and all this will happen again. Conservatives rallying out against video games is part of a trend, a trend which shows these sensationalists' lack of autonomy and deference to social confirmation/authority. None of these people would think of calling for the censorship of books: but can’t a child walk into a bookshop and buy a gratuitously explicit ‘Mills and Boon’ book? The fantasy series ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ features outrageous sex scenes in parts but no-one is calling for a government body to rate books. With the right degree of imagination, are these not as or more immersive than video games? The difference is that video games are in the public spotlight and that “moral commentators” don’t care about sex or violence in other formats because no-one around them cares.
In a decade or two, video game controversy will be a thing of the past. New conservatives will find some other medium to find objectionable and people will long for a return to the good old moral climate of the early 21st Century.