Once again the mainstream media has latched onto a forthcoming game and found a handful of people keen to blame it for the moral decline of society - Hurrah! Whiplash, due out on PS2 and Xbox next Friday, is a cartoony adventure starring a pair of lab animals - Spanx the weasel and Redmond the rabbit - shackled together by three feet of chain. By smashing up their test centre home on the way to freedom they've earned lashings from the RSPCA, the Research Defence Society, the Police Federation and - of course - a Labour MP. Quite a feat - even for Eidos.
Some of the gameplay ramifications of the Whiplash arrangement will be obvious to followers of the platform genre and anybody with some semblance of imagination. (Chain-whip attacks? Check.) But, as ever, the question of how good Whiplash actually is (and by most accounts it's pretty ordinary and grows old fast) is only a secondary concern in light of its attitude to such a contentious topic as animal testing.
It's worth pointing out at this juncture that for once us Brits seem to be far more worried about the sick filth in question than our American colleagues. The yanks don't really care - some of them still dissect animals in school, and they don't generally see the kind of extremist animal rights activism that goes on in the UK. They certainly haven't had to abandon animal testing research at major universities due to rising security costs. (That and the fact most of their universities probably have their own SWAT teams by now.)
However the Daily Telegraph article that kicked off all this fuss certainly goes a long way to point out just how upset some people are. It offers an example of the game's sense of humour, which the various folks contacted then go on to dispute. Whiplash, it says, "depicts animals being abused in a laboratory, including one experiment in which a hamster is fired from a cannon and another in which monkeys are forced to run on treadmills to test their endurance." Okaaay. However, in the words of Dr Ian Gibson, Labour MP and chairman of the House of Commons select committee on science and technology, "It is a nasty and vicious way of prejudicing young minds for the rest of their lives. Young people with fresh minds need to be brought into an understanding of the problem with both sides of the argument being put forward in a rational and reasonable way. Clearly such programmes are not bringing a balanced judgement to serious and difficult areas of understanding." Games, Dr Gibson, such games.
Dr Gibson wasn't alone in his criticism of Whiplash. Penny Hawkins of the RSPCA's research animals department said it was "extremely disappointing that someone would see fit to produce a so-called humorous computer game out of [the suffering of animals]," arguing that it sends out completely the wrong messages - "that animal suffering is funny - that it is something to make a joke out of. We believe that being violent is not the best way to help animals. What is not needed is a computer game trivialising their suffering."
Then there was Mark Matfield, who supports ethical and humane experimentation on animals as part of his work as executive director of the Research Defence Society. "The suggestion that this game might raise young people's awareness of the issues involved in animal experimentation is ludicrous," he said, in response to claims from publisher Eidos that the game could do just that. "It's worrying that this game appears to condone acts that are clearly illegal or violent as an appropriate way of contributing to an informed debate." Is it not just a silly little sub-Ren & Stimpy tale about two animals trying to break free? Speaking of cages, the Police Federation chairman Jan Berry called it "alarming and disturbing", and argued that the police have a tough enough time without games subverting the youth of today out from under them.
Although the article does include some quotes from an Eidos spokesperson, it's certainly weighted fairly heavily in favour of the negative side of the argument, and you would certainly get the impression when you finished reading it that there's more consternation over the game than there is support for it. But, to be completely honest, there is neither anger nor sympathy flying around the likes of you and I - the gaming public - because once again we're dealing with a crisis entirely of the media's invention. With respect to developer Crystal Dynamics, when this game was announced nobody even batted an eyelid about it. Animals go crazy in a testing lab, complete with silly little visual jokes like monkeys on conveyor belts, and have to escape over the course of various levels. They happen to be tied together, which lends curious parameters to their predicament. Big wow. It sounds about as shocking as a balloon tied to a doorframe - not exactly what we're used to, sure, but we all know what to expect.
With Whiplash, where you stand on the issue of animal testing seems to be completely irrelevant, because just as Tom & Jerry never encouraged kids to buy pet mice and equip them with frying pans and steak knives, nobody who plays this will then go out and smash up a testing lab - apart from anarchistic protesters taking time out from their latest smash and grab raid on a Pedigree Chum warehouse, who happen upon the game and think "Ooh I'm late for the lynching over in Cambridge. Quick! Get the pentangle of salt! Cheers Whiplash!" We clearly need to learn to have more faith in the next generation of adults as they grow up. They can tell the difference between right and wrong, and if someone can't grasp the concept of what they can and cannot do in this world then there are far more deep-seated issues at work here than the sort of computer games they play. The notion of likening, or even connecting a joystick-waggling experience to the physical act of ransacking a test facility is just ludicrous.
As for Mr Berry's comments - surely videogames keep young hoodlums off the streets? No? Any implication that children would beat up policemen in the game and then decide it was okay to go out and repeat that behaviour in the real world is just completely ridiculous. This isn't Grand Theft Auto - this is a game where you try to escape from an animal testing lab! Of course you're going to beat up the rentacops who get in the way! That doesn't mean you're going to start doing it on the street, does it? Maybe if you lock up your kids in small cages then they'll be more inclined, having played this game, to try and knock you out and escape to freedom come feeding time, but a) that's hardly likely and b) I'm not sure that's legal anyway.
In the end, the Telegraph article didn't exactly leave me reeling, but I did feel a bit sad. It's a report, granted, so it obviously doesn't go to any great lengths to debate the issue and lay out the wider arguments, preferring to stick to expert comments (from people who probably haven't played Whiplash, and in one case clearly didn't even realise it was a videogame). But in my view it's also indicative of a broader and unspoken media game-plan that happily latches onto and enhances these little make-believe crises in the hope of sparking outrage, when there are far more pressing issues at hand.
Yes, there are games that go too far and wouldn't be suitable for children. Freedom of expression is not an exact science - that's why we have institutions like the BBFC. But games are just like any other art form - they encourage discussion, debate and entertainment, and each of us reacts to them in a different way. Until there is clear scientific evidence that directing the actions of an on-screen avatar somehow amplifies the effects of negative imagery, then surely we have nothing more to fear from them than we do from paintings, books and films - forms of media that regularly touch on subjects as vile and repulsive as rape, drug abuse, suicide and murder. What we have here is a cartoon about smashing up a laboratory, and if anything bad does come out of Whiplash, it'll most likely be that scores of parents are forced to trudge back to the shop on a Saturday afternoon when little Johnny realises he should have bought Ratchet & Clank 2, and not because little Johnny rounded up his friends to run off and liberate the pandas.