GI.biz: Learning from the Resistance row
"The Church's position is far from incomprehensible..."
With far more predictable sources of tabloid ire - Manhunt 2 or GTA IV, for instance - due for release on their consoles relatively soon, Sony can be forgiven for being blindsided by the latest headline-grabbing furore over games content.
Resistance: Fall of Man, an alt-history alien blaster for PS3, is a surprising source of complaint compared to Rockstar's controversy-baiting output - and it's also surprising that the complaint comes from the Church of England.
This is fantasy games violence, heroic rather than criminal. But nonetheless the Church remains unhappy that Manchester Cathedral should be used as a battleground in a major console title without any prior consultation or compensation.
Regardless of the legal merits of the case, discussed widely on this site as well as legal blogs, the Church's position is far from incomprehensible. A church is, after all, a place of peace, and it is understandable that the sight of such a building as an arena for a gun battle - no matter how fantastical - might cause offence, especially considering problems with gun crime in the city.
In his recent interview with ITV News, Bishop of Manchester the Rt Rev Nigel McCulloch cited the 'photo-realistic quality' of the Cathedral's reproduction in Resistance as part of the problem. If Resistance had been released for an earlier system, with a more abstract, pixelated or jagged portrayal of the Cathedral, then the reaction to seeing it in the context of a game may not have been so visceral.
That the realism of the portrayal has caused the kind of adverse reaction that, say, a live action film showing similar scenes might have garnered, is in some ways a back-handed compliment to the power of PS3's graphical grunt.
Greater realism in graphics makes, obviously, for images that will be more immersive and convincing. Stripped of the abstraction of primitive graphics, the images and actions in games are more easily comprehensible not just to gamers, but to more casual observers.
This is part of gaming's gradual movement into the mainstream, from the near complete abstraction of Pac-Man, requiring total suspension of disbelief from the player, to the instantly recognisable, realistic worlds of Resistance or MotorStorm.
The level of realism in a game alters the impact of player actions. Mario jumping on a bad guy's head is cartoonish, not even really violence in any appreciable sense. Abstracted, the consequences have no moral dimension and are not taken seriously. A casual observer may not know, or even care, what Mario is up to.
Transfer that sequence of events into a more photo-realistic presentation, and the image of booted feet crashing into the side of someone's head raises considerably more questions. An observer will instantly understand what the gamer is doing, and have a real life context to put it into. A closer resemblance to the real world can provoke real reactions and potentially cause real offence.
The advances in games' ability to portray a convincing world have come so rapidly that the industry has not necessarily appreciated the impact certain images can make - that photo-realism in games can create the same impact as a photo or filmed image, especially when a real life location is represented.
This state of incomprehension seems likely to change considering recent reactions to real locations appearing within games, especially when guns and/or crime are involved.
Some complaints have an obvious political and economic dimension, where a country or city feels badly treated by being portrayed as either a war zone or a crime-ridden hell.
It's hardly surprising that Venezuelans should be displeased when their country is shown as a nest of terrorist cannon fodder to be blown away without remorse in Mercenaries 2, or that New York politicians have taken offence at the more realistic, nearer-to-the-knuckle 'Liberty City' of GTA IV. No one likes their neighbourhood to be misrepresented, especially elected representatives keen to be seen to stick up for their constituents.
Other cases have a more serious, potentially deadly, dimension. Following the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech earlier this year, a student was transferred from one Texas school to another after it was found he had been playing Counter-strike using a map modelled on his school. Around the same time, a student in Washington State arrested for planning a school shooting claimed his plans for a massacre were designs for an FPS.
Under these circumstances it can be hard to see where the line is drawn between the relatively innocent, albeit macabre, fantasy of gunning down terrorists in a familiar environment, and a more violent fixation that could eventually lead to tragic real world consequences.
To interpret these cases correctly will require greater understanding from authorities of how play and the real world overlap, especially in the minds of the young. At present, games are in an interim stage, where the mainstream media and the general public have a heightened awareness of videogames as a phenomenon, but not necessarily a particularly deep understanding of how gamers think.
This is where the industry needs to help to bridge the knowledge gap, to show that representation of the real world in games does not reflect directly on the locations shown, or express a desire on the part of gamers to imitate game actions in real life.
This may not be the best time to have to argue such a case, as representation in all media is an increasingly fractious issue. Interested parties and lobby groups are jumping into action at cases of alleged misrepresentation, no matter how fantastical the fictions.
Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, set in an ancient and long lost civilisation, raised accusations of distortion. The Da Vinci Code provoked polite statements from religious group Opus Dei to explain that they did not in fact employ any albino monk assassins, and protests when Lincoln Cathedral was used as a location for the movie. Even Harry Potter has been derided by hard-line groups as a textbook for practical paganism that shouldn't be given to kids.
A higher profile means higher levels of scrutiny, and greater potential to be used as a whipping boy by other interest groups desperate for headlines. Where there are legitimate concerns, they need to be met - and illegitimate concerns and scaremongering needs to be played down.
This is the situation that all mainstream media have to deal with, and engaging with it is, as Sony have found this week, a necessary evil that comes when you sit at the big boys' table.
This article was originally published on our sister site GamesIndustry.biz. Coincidentally, we believe we sought all appropriate permissions before re-publishing it.