Dear Stephen, Kirk, gentle readers and online trolls,
Welcome to the first edition of Game Theory, a conversation about the year in video games. Some introductions for the uninitiated: Stephen Totilo is the editor in chief of the gaming news site Kotaku.com, and he also writes about video games for The New York Times; Kirk Hamilton is the features editor at Kotaku; and I’m the deputy editor of Yahoo News, and a writer of video game reviews for The Times. The three of us will be bickering — I mean, coming to a friendly consensus — about the year’s best games, the year’s worst games and about what 2012 indicated about the state and future of this creative medium.
Chris Suellentrop, Stephen Totilo, Kirk Hamilton and others discuss the year in video games.
We’ll be joined here and on the ArtsBeat blog by some distinguished guests: Rich Moore, the director of “Wreck-It Ralph,” by my lights the finest movie about video games ever made; Lucy Prebble, the British playwright of “Enron” and “The Effect,” now onstage in London; Gavin Purcell, the supervising producer of “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” probably the most prominent place in pop culture that evinces an interest in new games and their creators; Helen Lewis, the deputy editor of The New Statesman, a British current-affairs magazine; and Jenn Frank, whose essay at Unwinnable.com (“Allow Natural Death”) about her mother, video games and death might have been the most widely circulated piece of online writing about games this year, as measured by cursory glances at my Twitter feed.
It’s hard to talk about video games and 2012 without addressing the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and the inevitable debate over violent games that emerged from the entirely predictable discovery that Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old gunman, played Call of Duty games. (Perhaps he also ate Big Macs; he’s in that core demographic too.) There’s no evidence that video games cause — or even correlate with — violence, and that can’t be stated often enough. And one of the most pleasurable aspects of playing in 2012 was how many tremendous games had nothing to do with shooting people in the face.
But I do think gamers are overly defensive about the news media’s focus on video game violence. Video games, or at least some of them, are horrifically violent. Tom Bissell, writing for Grantland this year, phrased it this way: “Why do gamers want their puzzles to bleed and scream?” It’s worth at least engaging with the question.
I have a pretty strong stomach when it comes to violence — I intend to see “Django Unchained” and expect to enjoy it mightily — but I have to admit that I’m a little tired of all the killing in my video games. No, games don’t turn people into killers. But since the day when 28 people died in Newtown, I have craved games (and other things) with more beauty and less blood.
Newtown struck home, in part, because in my personal life 2012 has been about fatherhood: My wife and I welcomed our second daughter. But parenthood kept creeping into my games in 2012 too (and not just because I couldn’t help noticing the similarities between raising a child, walking a dog, and playing a video game). In a continuation of the phenomenon that Stephen has called “The Daddening of Video Games,” the past 12 months were filled with games that led me to reflect on the relationship between a father and a child.
Lee and Clementine in the Walking Dead game series are not biologically related, but over the course of the five episodes she becomes something close to a daughter to him. The stunning final moments of the Unfinished Swan (for my money the greatest credit sequence in gaming history) are a meditation on how having children — in the words of Joel Lovell, the deputy editor of The New York Times Magazine, in another context — simultaneously saves and destroys your life. And most of all, Papo & Yo — my favorite game of the year — ended once and for all the tedious debate over whether a game can make you cry, or whether you should be ashamed if it can.
Video game players can be a pretty ungrateful lot, and while I think that 2012 will not be remembered as the finest year in the medium’s history (and it was certainly underwhelming when it comes to blockbuster releases), it’s worth remembering that there is much to be enthusiastic about: Sony’s Vita hand-held and Nintendo’s Wii U console show great promise; the Nintendo 3DS has a new version with a much-needed bigger screen; and, best of all, downloadable games have finally arrived, en masse, as full-fledged rivals to the best of what the big game studios offer.
For what it’s worth, my wife and I don’t let our daughters play video games. The older is only 2½ and can’t master Slap Jack, much less Candy Land, much less Angry Birds, much less Call of Duty: Black Ops II. But Michael Abbott’s essay at Brainy Gamer on playing Skyrim with his 4½-year-old daughter gave me something to look forward to, and one of these days she’ll be ready.
Until then, it’s a little sad that I find myself quickly hiding some of the games that arrive in the mail for my perusal, because their cover art is too frightening. Yes, many games are about something other than carnage. But merely by looking at pictures on boxes, a 2-year-old girl has figured out that more often than not these things — and she doesn’t even know what they are — are about fighting and physical violence.
It’s tough to believe these three things at once: 1. Video games are a uniquely powerful medium of communication. 2. They have a negligible effect on behavior, whether promoting violence or aggression or hugs or butterfly collecting. 3. Children should be shielded from violent games (and from all violent media) for a very, very long time, and the 10-year-olds who are playing Call of Duty: Black Ops II (or going to see “The Dark Knight Rises”) are being failed by their parents.
I believe all three arguments are correct. But I’m not sure I can explain how they logically cohere.
Stephen, Kirk, readers: Any ideas?