Me and Miyamoto: Lamenting Fallout 3

The gaming world is not one where you find many dissenting viewpoints, at least on matters of morailty. Sure, you’ll get the usual “GEARS OF WAR UZ THE BEST FL**CKING GAMEZORRS EVAR” versus “STFU N00B GRAND THEFT AUTO ROOLZ111!!1!1!!”. But when it comes to matters of morally compromising game content – particularly violent content – the game community presents a united front.

Shiggy Shunned

Every so often, there is a violent incident and “they” attempt to blame it on video games. “They” are never gamers themselves – “they” are always mothers, teachers, advocates, priests, newspaper reporters, or crazy-go-nuts Florida lawyers. “They” are rarely ever gaming insiders, so it’s very easy for the gaming community to band together and dismiss these claims as coming from out-of-touch outsiders with no business commenting on gaming.

Only recently did a respected insider speak out against game violence. Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Mario, Zelda, Donkey Kong, Pikmin, Nintendogs – as “inside” the game industry as it gets – spoke out against video game violence in a teevee interview. In a message forum that i frequent, even Shiggy, one of the most respected creators in the industry, was dumped on by the violence-worshipping hive mind.

World’s Tinist Violin

The game community lacks a moral conscience, and that unnerves me. i live in Canada, a country where the goverment is structured such that an opposition party monitors the majority party’s every move. The game community needs its own Jiminy Cricket, because it’s getting a little out of control. i’m offering myself up as that cricket.

Jiminy Cricket

i’m a professional game developer of over eight years, and a lifelong gamer. i have written and published many video game reviews for national publications, and have written and appeared in lots of game commericals for Nintendo and Microsoft. i have been playing games since the early 80’s, back in the stand-up arcade days. i am as much a game community insider as you’ll ever meet. And, as an insider and this industry’s self-professed Jiminy Cricket, i have to get something off my chest:

With Bethesda’s upcoming megahit Fallout 3, the video game industry has gone too far.

Fallout 3

You think that might be a little over the top, fellas?

Fallout 3 is the sequel to a highly regarded video game franchise set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia. In the first two games, you must survive and scavenge from a barren wasteland scarred by a nuclear catastrophe. The world is bleak, grim, and violent – and a whole lot of fun, thanks largely to the surreal and somewhat saracstic 1950’s motifs peppering the game. Most notable of these is Vault Boy, the games’ cheerily-drawn mascot, who depitcs various Perks in the game. Perks are special abilities that range from night vision to sharp-shooting to reduced drug addiction. (Yeah, really.)

Vault Boy

Vault Boy gives Fallout its quirky retro flair

Flash forward to now, as Bethesda Softworks has released its first-person update of the franchise with Fallout 3. i was excited when i heard the sequel would be built on the Oblivion engine, so i snapped up whatever bits of news about the game i could find.

Then the video previews started rolling in. i was dismayed – sickened, in fact – to find that the new game is unreasonably violent and gory. In every video i watched, the player character was shooting enemies and the camera was zooming in for a slow-motion close-up of bloody geysers spurting from dismembered leg stumps and arm-less shoulders. In one particularly unsavoury clip, the player punches an enemy so hard that his fist goes straight through the enemy’s head and knocks it off his shoulders – all in a glorious fountain of blue-black blood. All in borderline pornographic slow motion with extreme close-ups.

i’m not a big fan of gore, but i did still want to play the game, so i rationalized this. i figured the designers must be demo’ing the game with the famed “Bloody Mess” Perk turned on – that’s the one where people die as violently as possible. But the more i watched the videos, the more it seemed that gross, spurty violence was the norm for the game. Fallout 3 was summarily crossed off my Christmas wish list.

Angry Santa

Fallout 3 makes Santa angry

When i was cruising IGN, an online video game magazine, i came across a video where the Fallout 3 designers were discussing the morality in the game. “This oughta be good,” i thought, and i clicked “play”.

What follows is an abbreviated transcript from the video. These are the actual words of a few of the actual Fallout 3 production team members, as they speak over the afore-mentioned shots of exploding heads and fountains of blood:

I often try to start playing as a good character, but there’s so many tempations in the game. There are just so many instances where it’s like, you know you’re talking to someone, and – i dunno – your gun goes off by accident, and you blow their whole head off and you’re like “Whoops! That was … fun. Let’s do that again!” Once you start going down the path of evil, it’s a lot of fun.

Istvan Pely – Lead Artist

It’s a real joy buzzer to be evil. It’s something we wanted. There’s some evil Perks that are almost too engaging not to pick.

– Todd Howard, Game Director

But i think for a lot of players, there’s this inherent, sort of, you know, it’s the i-get-to-do-something-that-i-could-never-do-in-real-life. I’m living out my darkest fantasies, you know what I mean? I can talk to an old lady or an old guy and have him be a character, and then I can KILL him, and – you know – really FEEL like i KILLED a person. And then i can, like, you know, pick up his head and put it on a shelf. And i look at it, and it’s like “i was talking to that person five minutes ago, and now i’m not.” You know? So it’s THAT type of thing. It’s – we’ve really crossed that line between the – you know – between reality and fantasy there.

Emil Pagliarulo – Lead Designer, Writer

Gaming industry, let me be your mom for a minute. Let me be your Jiminy Cricket and say this to you: this game is not good. This is not a good way for you to spend your time, either as content creators or content consumers.

Is Fallout 3 going to drive some people crazy in the brainpan and cause them to run out into the streets killing people? i don’t know. That’s the claim many of the video game outsiders make, so i’ll leave them to it. That’s where the argument has been for many years, and there’s no sign of movement from the entrenched insider attitude that games don’t cause you to flip out and kill people.

Lighten Up, Mom

The counter-arguments have always been “it’s just a game!” and “It’s fantasy, not reality!” But listen closely: here are some game deisgners working on a title, bragging about the fact that they’ve “crossed the line between fantasy and reality”. They’re delighted that you can decapitate someone and keep the head as a trophy on a shelf. They talk about all these details gleefully. They are delighted with themselves.

This all has the ring of pre-schoolers saying dirty words to each other. When i was in day care, there were these two little boys my mom told me not to hang out with at the playground. i didn’t know why. Every day, they would mysteriously disappear into this orange play tube. i was always curious about what they were doing in there, so one day i joined them.

There, in the orange tube, far from the meddling reach of their moral watchdogs, the grown-ups, the boys would say words like “fart” and “wee” and “bum-bum” to each other and giggle maniacally until the recess bell rang.

Watching this Fallout 3 video, i am reminded of those boys – so pleased with themselves for wallowing in territory they were always cautioned to stay away from.

Think of the Children!!!

Another defense the insiders always troll out is where they say “It’s rated M! For MATURE! It’s alright as long as kids don’t play it.” Of course, kids do play it. They always get their hands on it. And thanks to the blind-spot adults seem to have towards video games, it’s far easier for a kid to get ahold of an M-rated video game than it ever was for me to find a mouldy old 70’s skin mag in an abandoned tree fort in the forest when i was that age.

But let’s leave kids out of this. i’m talking to you, Joe Gamer and Joe Game Developer. The reason why we put content warnings on things is not to protect the children. We’re not saying that such content is okay, as long as you’re an adult. The things we put warning labels on are not alright, even if you ARE an adult. The things we try to keep away from kids – cigarettes, pornography, excessively violent imagery, profanity, gambling – are things that are bad for people. These things are bad for people of any age. They’re bad for you. They’re not healthy for you to consume, and they’re not healthy for you to create.

The danger is not that we will create or play a game about killing people, and then go out and kill people. It’s much more subtle than that. As any musician can tell you, you become proficient at what you practice. The more you do evil, the more you want to do evil, and evil comes to you more easily. And by its creators’ own admission, yes, Fallout 3 does enable you to practice evil. By the giddy enthusiasm demonstrated by the creators, i’d say the game probably encourages you to practice evil.

Fallout 3: Murder Simulator

Jack Thompson would probably call Fallout 3 a murder simulator. Whether you like him or not, it’s tough to disagree at this point.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

It may be a much more difficult thing to prove in a lab, but i will make the claim, without benefit of scientific research, that a gamer who spends hours upon hours playing a game in which he aggresively and graphically murders hundreds or thousands of game characters, shooting their limbs off and shattering their skulls into tiny fragments – i’ll wager, with assured accuracy, that that person will exhibit more aggressive, downright dickish behaviour to his fellow man than the guy up the street playing Rock Band.

So as your Jiminy Cricket, gamer, let me assure you: it’s okay for you to take a pass on Fallout 3. There’s no reason anyone should think less of you. You’re making a moral choice not to fill your head with unpleasantness, with nasty things. You’re choosing to not practice evil. You are meditating on the true joys of your human existence – patience, kindness, humility, gentleness, and love.

Forget the chart-breaking sales. Forget the hype. Don’t feel pressured by a single-minded and amoral mob to “live out your darkest fantasies” in a video game.

16 thoughts on “Me and Miyamoto: Lamenting Fallout 3

  1. NotPigeon

    Well, I can’t say that I necessarily disagree on too many points (I choose to avoid violent games in most cases, just as a personal preference).
    However, there is one thing I noticed- you seem to be going with the assumption that playing Fallout 3 necessitates choosing the violent, kill-random-people-for-no-good-reason method of playing. Now, I know this wasn’t intentional, and an argument can be made to the effect that the problem isn’t that people choose to do it as much as the fact that they’re given that option in the first place. Even so, the fact that you can keep people’s heads as trophies doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to or will. It’s a slight distinction, but an important one.

    Reply
  2. Ryan

    i totally agree. It’s a weird situation when, in order to make moral choice an option in your game, you have to program the possibility of absolute evil. i wrote about that in a piece on Christianity in gaming:

    http://www.untoldentertainment.com/blog/2008/03/06/prince-of-persia-prince-of-peace/

    The distinction here is that the Fallout 3 devs go on and on about how great it is to be evil in their game. They’re making the perverse, anti-social and psychologically suspect game options sound like a major selling point for the title.

    i’m reminded of a very different situation back in the mid-80’s, when i was distraught that i could stab the goat in King’s Quest with my dagger and actually kill it, pixellated blood and all. i felt terrible. And the game designer applied her own moral spin to it by excluding the player from a different puzzle that was worth more points than the goat-killing option.

    These days, not only are you rewarded for being evil, but the evil may even be the preferred path through the game. It was less offensive to me with titles like Knights of the Old Republic, where Dark Jedi earned cooler powers that Light Jedi, but it was all done in a very altruistic, naughty mousache-twirling Dirk Dastardly sort of way. That’s all fun and games. But the moment we start rewarding people for being digital Jeffrey Dahmers, it is good and right and worthwhile to call that content into question.

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  4. What?

    The only problem I see with the violence in Fallout 3 is that the choices and consequences system is broken.

    In Fallout 1 and 2 if you killed an innocent person you would suffer terrible consequences. In Fallout 3 I can nuke an entire town and nobody will bother me for it.

    By dumbing down the consequences the developers made this game far more gratuitous then the Post-apocalyptic theme necessitates.

    Reply
  5. What?

    It’s pretty stupid that they tried to make violence “funny” though. The originals never tried to make violence funny. The humor came from witty characters and story.

    Bethesda doesn’t have the imagination or gusto to make memorable characters and a mature story so instead they make juvenile violence pranks.

    Reply
  6. dendritejungle

    This post is particularly interesting to read knowing you as I do, and that really, you are SO NOT a sanctimonious guy. Hell, you’re the guy I watch Dexter with!

    Knowing that adds an extra weight to your words, so to anyone passing by: if he’s saying this, this game must be pretty damn condemnation-worthy indeed.

    Reply
  7. Ryan

    Dexter is a very, very violent teevee show by teevee show standards. It would rate a T-rating if the exact same cut-away violent content were in a video game. Not to spoil anything, but on a few occasions, some poor folks get chopped into pieces with a chainsaw. One of the key differences between the chainsawing in Dexter and the chainsawing in video games is that we’re not actually *seeing* human beings be dismembered with chainsaws. And why? because we don’t *want* to. It’s not necessary. It’s a turn-off. But in a video game, you’re going to SEE limbs getting cut off.

    For anyone who’s watched a Greek play, you know that what happens off-stage or off-camera can be far more impactful than what happens in plain sight. In plays like Oedipus Rex, they always have a character run on-stage and say “Holy CRAP! You’ll never believe what I just saw! Dude just totally gouged his EYES out!!”

    Dexter lowers his scalpel/chainsaw/hedge trimmer below the camera’s frame. We see blood splatter. We hear screaming. We hear the noise of the implement. And lo, we are disturbed. And we tune in next week.

    If Dexter actually showed limbs getting hacked off, the show would not invoke a morbid fascination or a sense of intrigue. It would invoke disgust. Repulsion. i would not tune in next week. And indeed, that degree of violence would never be depicted on teevee – not even on the show’s pay-channel carrier ShowTime, and not even with the show’s pre-emptive content warning.

    Likewise, there’s a difference between two naked actors slow-motion dry-humping and pretending it’s real sex, and real sex. The latter is called hard-core pornography, and it has its place, but it’s not often something you make a Sunday evening of with your friends.

    The other huge difference is that we are observers in Dexter’s world. i am not Dexter. i am watching him. i am free to make a judgment call on his behaviour. And i for one don’t approve of his murdering ways. i keep watching the show to see how close he comes to getting caught, because i think he needs to. He’s a bad guy.

    Other folks watch the show because they are delighted that “bad” people who aren’t punished by the justice system are being punished by Dexter hacking them to bits.

    Either way, we are third-party observers, and we are Dexter’s judges. If Dexter was a game, and i played Dexter in the game, and i had the decision of whether or not to chop people into little bits, i would decide not to. If that decision was not mine – if the game instead asked me to choose HOW i would chop people into little bits – i simply wouldn’t play the game.

    Reply
  8. Phinehas

    Good article. I wrote the following recently on joystiq regarding the recent study on violence in video games.

    ***

    Most gamers who take the time to think about the link between media and behavior tend to couch things in terms of causes. It seems obvious to them (and rightly so) that a game about shooting things doesn’t *cause* someone to go on a shooting spree. But studies like the one conducted by the RAND group are looking for more subtle links that are more appropriately thought of as influences, not causes.

    Nearly $150 b-b-billion was spent last year on advertising in the US. Evidently, someone is pretty convinced that a 30 second spot of people enjoying a certain brand of soda on TV can influence consumer buying habits. This isn’t about mind control. No one can say that a TV ad *caused* their eyes to glaze over and prompted them to walk, zombie-like with arms stretched out in front of them, to the nearest convenience store for a cold one. But a whole lot of people seem convinced that the aggregate influence of lots of people simply seeing a picture, hearing a radio spot, or viewing moving pictures will influence buying patterns to the point that they will make their ad budget back and more in sales. We don’t like to think that we can be influenced so easily, but hundreds of billions of dollars say otherwise.

    Media is often used for propaganda purposes as well. Once again, there appears to be a belief that media has the power to influence people’s opinions, beliefs, etc. In fact, from a decidedly more cynical perspective, effective media is *all* about audience manipulation. It is often designed to influence the way we feel. If it doesn’t accomplish this, it is considered somewhat less successful in its design than a piece of media that does.

    If games do not have the power to influence, then they are the weakest and most useless form of media known to man. On the other hand, if they do have the power to influence, then should we assume that they must always and only influence for good? Where’s the logic in that? This study appears to indicate that games can sometimes influence us in ways that may be seen as negative. Rather than shocking, this is to be expected based on all the knowledge we’ve managed to garner so far on media and influence. Why even have an ESRB rating system if this were not already thought to be true?

    Rather than an indictment on games as a medium, this study confirms its status as a legitimate and robust art form. The study also confirms that, as with everything that is produced, the power to influence the lives of others to some degree places a burden of responsibility on the producer. Rather than denying the science behind this study, as someone who works within the game industry, I believe that it should embrace its responsibilities, continue to try to improve game-rating systems, work to better educate parents, and support further research into games and how they influence gamers.

    ***

    As a Christian Game Designer, I find this a tricky subject. Some Christians go to one extreme. Recently, someone at church told me that they don’t let their kids play games because they found out that playing games stimulates the same area of the brain that pornography does. Right. I don’t even know how to have a rational discussion on the issue after something like that.

    When I read the Bible, I see a decided lack of censorship. When telling me the story of David and Goliath, my parents always left out the part about how David saws Goliath’s head off with his own sword. But the Bible doesn’t shy away from such things. While I’m on the subject, Rock ‘n’ Roll didn’t invent songs about sex either. Solomon beat them out by a number of millenium.

    But I agree with your assessment that Fallout 3 is taking things to a different extreme here. The Bible is REAL, but it isn’t gratuitous. When I have a say in design decisions (not as often as I would like), I try to keep this distinction in mind. Verisimilitude is one thing, but I don’t really see the need to push the evil envelope.

    I also think you hit the nail on the head with your playground analogy. I often think that “adult” content isn’t. It is only those who desparately want to be adults that are titilated by “adult” themes. Too often, the game industry is a sad commentary on this reality.

    Reply
  9. Ryan

    It’s great to hear from another Christian game designer! We’re coming out of the woodwork.

    i’ve mentioned to my friends quite often lately that if the entire Bible were to be a filmed epic, the movie would be lucky to squeak by with an R rating. (Exodus 4:24-26, anyone?)

    i couldn’t agree more about the influence of advertising, and its relationship to the influence of any other form of media. Local news interviewed me last week, and in the pre-interview i made the same point: it’s been scientifically proven that brand recognition influences purchasing. And a related study reliably links listening to sexually explicit song lyrics to teen girls engaging in S-E-X. So why do gamers swear up and down that games don’t provoke violence and aggression?

    It’s simple: they don’t want anyone to take their toys away.

    http://www.untoldentertainment.com/blog/2008/12/04/ryan-creighton-on-city-news-at-6-with-dr-karl/

    As a Christian gamer, this might be of interest to you:

    http://www.untoldentertainment.com/blog/2008/03/06/prince-of-persia-prince-of-peace/

    Reply
  10. Phinehas

    Actually, I read the Prince of… article first, then moved on to the Dr. Karl piece and ended up on Fallout 3. I found the first article from a comment of yours on LinkedIn. If you don’t mind, I’d like to add you to my LinkedIn contacts. I’ll be sending you a request.

    –Paul

    Reply
  11. Ryan

    Sorry – i get a little pepped up about self-promotion from time to time. Thanks for the LinkedIn invite!

    It’s funny that you’re a Full Sail grad. i personally know four Christian game devs – and among them, you and a fellow named Grant Shonkwiler are both Full Sail alumni. He was in the class after you graduated, in the FLA location.

    i wonder what it is about Full Sail … ?

    – Ryan

    Reply
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