As Election Day has proven, there doesn't seem to be any way to discuss an issue these days without hopelessly politicizing it. Gaming is no different.
While the biggest source of violence at my house lately is a bricked Xbox 360 (my second so far — gee, it would be nice to hear back from you, Microsoft), it seems recently there's always someone leveling criticism at some game for some kind of perceived slight or insensitivity.
Take, for example, Red Redemption's new Fate of the World, a strategy sim that lets players decide the best course of action to prevent climate change from ruining the planet. Among the various game modes in that title, which was put into the online beta stage on Oct. 29 and is scheduled for an early 2011 release, is a particularly nasty scenario called "Dr. Apocalypse." In this simulation, instead of other modes focused on saving a nation or rationing supplies to the world in the hopes of saving everyone, the object is to cause as much destruction as possible. That means heightening carbon emissions to the degree that you ultimately fry the planet — and everyone on it.
This is in addition to generally being more sinister in your approach to containing global warming, such as overthrowing governments that don't want to abide by your climatic dictates or even secretly putting birth control in nations' water supplies. According to the New York Times, making such unscrupulous decisions an option in a game version of a real issue is unconscionable and, some say, unethical.
"It's a thought experiment," Matt Miles Griffiths, one of the game's designers, told the Times. "No people were harmed in the making of this product."
And that's where the discussion should end. Playing out wildly unlikely and chaotic scenarios is the very purpose of video games. In fact, it could easily be argued that's the only purpose of video games.
But don't be surprised if armchair ethicists balk at the game next year. It's de riguer once again to question any sort of gameplay certain factions may find distasteful. The Supreme Court is currently weighing arguments over a California law that wants to restrict violent, M-rated games to those younger than 18, the debate over which is tantamount to video games' First Amendment rights. And Electronic Arts' latest installment of Medal of Honor grabbed plenty of headlines over its planned but now-scrapped mode that would have allowed gamers to play as members of the Taliban fighting U.S. troops. The military still elected not to sell the game on bases when it was released on Oct. 12.
Those complaints have defensible positions, but if the issue becomes whether causing apocalyptic destruction in a digital realm should be allowable, prepare to give up a lot more of those personal freedoms such critics claim to cherish. After all, as games often prove, ruining things can be more fun than building them.
— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at firstname.lastname@example.org.