By: Brian Crecente
It’s a controversy launched by a sentence.
The video game Bully, from the makers of Grand Theft Auto, has been called a Columbine simulator and an impetus for teen violence. The House of Commons condemned it, the Miami-Dade School District banned it, and anti-violence activists have protested it.
Until this week, the only thing these vocal critics knew about Rockstar’s upcoming game came from a single sentence released in 2005:
“As a troublesome schoolboy, you’ll laugh and cringe as you stand up to bullies, get picked on by teachers, play pranks on malicious kids, win or lose the girl, and ultimately learn to navigate the obstacles of the fictitious reform school, Bullworth Academy.”
But with this week’s announcement of the game’s October release, more details have emerged — as have advocates for the game. Where some people see controversy, others now see a cause. Months before its release Bully may be evolving into a benchmark game for issues ranging from censorship to the stature of video games as relevant social commentary.
“This is plainly a new way to communicate messages, to tell stories and a new way to get people conversing with one another,” said Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship.
“(Video games) plainly have certain levels of subtlety that are not easily available to other genres. The story can move in a lot of different directions depending on how you play it.”
But Frank Bolaños, the Miami-Dade school board member who pushed for the game to be banned in his district, has a different view. “It’s just a violent game,” he said. “It just seems to be profit driven.”
Bolaños, who hasn’t seen the game, formed his impressions from the three screen shots released for it last year. He asked the board to add the game to the school’s banned list as part of an ongoing effort to “increase student safety and reduce bullying.”
Bolaños thinks the game will lead to an increase in violence at schools. School districts have a responsibility to look out for what games and books children are exposed to, said Bolaños.
“Parents need to be aware of the impact books or video games have on children.”
Bertin isn’t surprised by that sort of reaction to Bully and a call to suppress it by the British government last December.
“I think that censorship is a kind of reaction that can occur across the board with regard to almost anything,” said Bertin, who visited Rockstar and saw the game. “It can be high art or low art, but it still gets the reaction it gets because someone finds it threatening or subversive or offensive.”
Terry Donovan, one of the founders of Rockstar, recognizes that gaming is going through an ordeal that other media have had to endure.
“History is littered with forms of expression that have been considered ‘controversial,’ only to be welcomed into the fabric of society as valuable creative expression a few years later,” he said, adding that in the case of gaming, the critics rarely know anything about the games they condemn.
“I honestly think that is the hardest thing about the debate is that by and large we face criticism from people that don’t play games and have no interest in getting to grips with what the medium has to offer.”
Bertin likens the Bully debate to what happened to James Joyce’s Ulysses. The book, now considered the foundation of the modern novel, was banned because of its sexual content.
“Ulysses was targeted because it had sex in it … it wasn’t targeted because it was a great piece of literature,” she said. “These (video games) are things not being assessed by their content or value; they are being assessed by the topics.”
A new generation gap
Clive Thompson, video game critic for Wired News and contributing writer for The New York Times, calls video games this generation’s rock ‘n’ roll.
“Video games are as divisive as rock ‘n’ roll was and they have created an experiential generation gap.”
It’s that gap, Thompson thinks, that is sparking much of the outcry against video games:
“There are a number of reasons why games are more disturbing to people than movies or music. It is demographics; the people who are worried about them, don’t play them, and don’t understand them. It’s a perfect storm of misunderstanding.”
Bertin agrees, adding that youth culture is often demonized.
“There are certain kinds of forms of expression that we just have ongoing problems with,” she said. “I think there is a notion that popular culture, or anything that looks like popular culture, isn’t good for you.”
Because of that, the message often gets lost in the medium. Alice Taylor, executive producer with the BBC, says like television before it, video games are struggling for general acceptance.
“I think that’s the case with any new technology or new system, people who haven’t grown up with it think it’s the devil,” she said. “I think there are cultural moments that challenge people’s thinking. Hip-hop did it for poetry. Television did it for indoor entertainment. Games are doing it now.”
Thompson thinks that’s because video games are seen as a waste of time, something meant to be amusing or fun, not evocative or informative.
“Play tends to disturb America,” Thompson said. “All forms of play are seen as wastes of time, but they are philosophically, existentially important.”
“Video games are forms of valid expression, without question. You can use them to convey ideas, thoughts, a world-view, they are so obviously art.”
Tradition of controversy
In 1976, a year before Atari’s home console was to launch video games into the mainstream, Death Race become one of the first video game controversies.
The arcade game, based on the movie Death Race 2000, had players trying to run over gremlins, represented by stick figures, for points. That sparked a national outrage that was covered by 60 Minutes, NBC and the National Enquirer. The National Safety Council called it sick and morbid.
Six years later a number of “adult” video games were produced for the Nintendo Entertainment System, including one that involved the rape of a American Indian woman tied to a stake.
By 1992, with video game popularity skyrocketing, Mortal Kombat drew Sen. Joe Lieberman’s ire, sparked a senate investigation into video game violence and helped spur the industry to create a ratings board.
The latest wave of controversy started last summer when a hacker discovered a hidden sex mini-game in the computer version of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. That spurred the ratings board to order a recall and re-rating of the game.
But it’s bullying, not sex, which has upset so many people about Bully.
Bullying “is a topic that is very important in literature and film and it’s controversial in those genres, too,” Bertin said. “I find it fascinating that it has been taken on as a topic in a video game. It may take the ability to play with these ideas in a different direction, one that has got to be a positive direction. I suspect it will be a very potent item for a certain constituency.”
Bolaños thinks the only constituency is the one that shouldn’t be playing it: children.
“They were looking for a setting that kids could relate to and a life setting kids could relate to. I fail to see how this could be an outlet for dealing with the important issues surrounding bullying.”
“I think this game is going to lead to more acts of violence like what happened at Columbine.”
Increasingly, federal legislators are trying to get government involved in the ratings of video games. Last week, congressman Cliff Stearns pushed introduced legislation, dubbed the Truth in Video Game Rating Act, which directs the Federal Trade Commission to “to prescribe rules to prohibit deceptive conduct in the rating of video and computer games.”
Bertin says even if such legislation doesn’t become law, any attempt to ban or censor video games could have wider implications, with the industry and developers taking fewer chances.
“We know there are serious chilling effects,” Bertin said. “And we also know even when government fails to achieve its purposes, it may achieve something through the bully pulpit role.”
A tipping point?
Video games seem to be on the verge of a cultural tipping point, one that will thrust gaming from the realms of subculture into the public eye as a pop-culture influencer, and it seems that Rockstar has a lot to do with that.
The game developer was founded with the concept of changing the perceptions of the powerful medium from something played by children to something enjoyed by adults. They did that by making gaming more mainstream, less geeky, just cool.
“I think Rockstar is great for the industry, as a creative force, they are opening up the palette of what video games can do,” Thompson said. “They have been able to push the aesthetic of games into other cultures.”
While they may be most famous for Grand Theft Auto, Rockstar has created games based on everything from street racing to spaghetti westerns and pingpong. While the subject matter varies, the games all share the developer’s insistence on high production value, emphasis on fun and indifference to controversy.
“There’s no question we have broken down a lot of the boundaries that previously existed,” said Rockstar’s Donovan.
“But you have to remember that came with a very simple philosophy of treating ourselves as the demographic and selfishly creating things we would want to play — our mission is less subversive than many non-game players might imagine: we are simply into elevating the gaming experience so it can meet and exceed the standards set by other arms of the entertainment business.”
Where the Grand Theft Auto series could be seen as social commentary on three decades of American life and Midnight Race Club as a peek into subculture of street racing, in Bully, Rockstar plays with the notion of the dichotomy between the educational objectives of school and the brutal social stratification of students.
“The interesting thing is that they are being very explicit because they are putting it in an everyday setting,” said the BBC’s Taylor. “By putting it in the more real setting, it raises real moral questions. Actually it’s making you think … I think it’s an interesting thing.”
Perhaps Bully isn’t a line in the sand for the industry and its struggle to be recognized as a legitimate form of expression and artistry. But it has again put Rockstar at the center of a spotlight the company doesn’t want.
“I would prefer it if we could simply make great games and not have to deal with misunderstanding and misperception of what we do,” said Donovan.
“But I guess that simply goes with the territory of being first to cover some of the fictional themes that the rest of the entertainment business has been using for years.”
This story originally appeared in The Rocky Mountain News on Aug. 11, 2006.
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