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Gearbox's Pitchford On Gaming's Grown-Up World: There's No 'Line' To Cross
Gearbox's Pitchford On Gaming's Grown-Up World: There's No 'Line' To Cross
April 25, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander

April 25, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander

["If our medium is art, how could there be a line?" Gearbox Software CEO Randy Pitchford tells Gamasutra, addressing the role -- and potential responsibility -- of gaming content within a broad entertainment landscape.]

The video game space just gets bigger and bigger, its relevance finally impossible to ignore in the wider entertainment media landscape. While you'd think this means the days of seeing mature-themed video games as fodder for evening news warning bulletins are over, sometimes it seems the lens of scrutiny is on game content more intently than ever.

And strangely, this cultural heyday for games as a sophisticated and socially-acceptable medium comes with some odd signifiers: The joyful recidivist gore of Bulletstorm is one example, but there's none so blatant as the upcoming launch of Duke Nukem Forever, almost a decade and a half awaited.

Duke's world of big explosions, 90s action cliches and bikini babes seems almost all the more anachronistic in context.

It raises a striking question: Now that "we" have the spotlight, what, if any, responsibility do we have for our content and how it's perceived?

It's one thing for developers to say they're making games that act as self-expression or that represent the kinds of games they themselves would most enjoy playing; it's one thing for gamers to say that games are just for fun. But what signifies the sophistication of a medium: Its content diversity, or the highest common denominator?

"We are in an interesting time right now," Randy Pitchford, CEO of DNF developer Gearbox Software, told Gamasutra when we asked him that very question. "Video games have created the largest generation gap in the history of all entertainment on earth."

He likens it to the advent of rock and roll in the 1950s and '60s: "The older generation thought rock and roll music would bring about the downfall of a generation. They banned 'Louie Louie' because they thought it would corrupt the youth -- and they couldn't even understand the lyrics."

And yet even that particular musical generation gap had something of an advantage: "At least they understood what music was, and they might not approve of that [rock and roll] concept, but at least they thought that music had value," reflects Pitchford. "We have evolved a bit since then, but it's interesting because [video games] do have a much larger generation gap."

It's true that most of what Pitchford calls "the older generation" -- which includes modern policy-makers -- were born and grew up in an era that preceded video games altogether. But today's young people have been brought up in a world where video games have always been an option among a wide range of entertainment choices.

"I read a study that suggested that 95 percent of school-age children prefer video games over all other forms of entertainment -- books, music television, film, everything," says Pitchford. "And now if you take the same survey of people around the age of 90, you'll probably find the inverse -- and they're afraid of them."

"So we have this ginormous generation gap, but it'll go away, because we will get older -- and as gamers get older, they keep playing games. Soon we'll have a president who has a Gamertag. And every news anchor will have a Gamertag," he adds.

But in this wide new world, are there limits to the content game developers are producing, as realism and extremism marches on? "I don't actually think that the evidence supports that video games are becoming more violent or irreverent," Pitchford disputes. The humor and content of DNF "is actually the same stuff that was in Duke Nukem 3D," he adds.

"Is there a line [to cross]? If our medium is art, how could there be a line?" he suggests. "How could we allow there to be a line, and who gets to decide what the line is? That's a very slippery slope -- there should not be a line."

Unrestricted creativity and expression are not necessarily at odds with the concerns some still may have about content, however: "We do care about developing minds," Pitchford emphasizes. "We do care about the difference between children and adults, and all of us should."

The fact that the industry's ratings system is more effective, in Pitchford's view (supported by some research) than that of other entertainment media helps, he says: "It's much easier for someone under the age of 17 to sneak into an R-rated movie than it is for them to get into an [M-rated] video game," he says.

"And once we're in the realm of adult stuff, really, we're going to be a society that draws a line?"

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Joe McGinn
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Totally agree, 95% of the hand-wringing about games is the generation gap.

Tom Abernathy
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Well spoken and written, and all true. Does this mean we can make games that are really, truly for adults now? (The big studios don't even let moviemakers do that anymore.) I wonder if it's possible for us to evolve a games version of HBO, Showtime, AMC, FX et al who focus on making quality adult fare, on a certain limited budget if necessary so that sales wouldn't have to be the only consideration in the development and production process. It would be good for the medium, I think.

Brian Bartram
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The question is... what makes a game "adult"? Is it the content, the mechanics, the characters, a brief flash of nudity? I'm hoping to hear other examples than Heavy Rain and Alan Wake. Perhaps games that don't "hand hold" and whose design isn't focus tested into mediocrity could be considered "adult" in that they cater to experienced gamers more so than mainstream games (Demon's Souls comes to mind). Then, there's the "art house" games, like Amnesia, that eschew the common tropes and give the adult player an experience that AAA studios don't believe has a market ("what, no guns!?!?! our market research shows that we'll miss out on the entire 'dudebro' market!!!!!!").

If we're only talking about "adult" in terms of story, I think we're missing the strength of our medium. Adult stories, with the same mechanics... is that truly the "mature" video game experience we're talking about? Is it possible that mechanics can mature as well as story and character?

Christopher Braithwaite
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I agree with Anthony Taylor, this is a case of the wrong person making the right argument.

Joe McGinn
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So watcha gonna do then ... shoot the messenger? ;-)

Michael Joseph
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"Is there a line [to cross]? If our medium is art, how could there be a line?" he suggests. "How could we allow there to be a line, and who gets to decide what the line is? That's a very slippery slope -- there should not be a line."

Rediculous. Of course there are lines.

If you equate line to law then there should be lines as far as ratings goes and what material is sold and marketed to children. You don't sell pornography, alcohol or cigarettes to 10 year olds.

If you equate line with social responsibility, then you don't create a game where you run around killing Jews. Sure you COULD as it's not illegal, but you'd be rightfully scorned and you'd have to accept that you're not the good guy anymore. You may not care because all you wanted was the money in the first place.

Beyond these extremes examples in law or social responsibility, are there real instances where greed causes game makers to inch close to that line or even cross it? Absolutely. There's no question.

There are lines. There just aren't necessarily personal consequences for crossing them. Maybe one day some developer wakes up and feels kind of sleezy. Maybe they feel they haven't really done anything to make the world a better place. Indeed maybe one day they feel they've only contributed to the dysfunction.

As far as the people who complain about the growing lack of class ---- lack of civility, lack of dignity, lack of ethics and principles in the individuals in our society and which is evident in everything from tv, music, film, games, politics, wallstreet and corporate management, and growing fear, alienation and isolation of people from each other ---- to claim that these people who decry all these things (and yes that is what you're doing in a round about way) are wrong/old fashioned/behind the times and to dismiss their views out of hand and without consideration or debate I'd say is unwise. And it's alarming how such casual dismisals go unchallenged and are accepted as fact. (I think that's evidence of our condition agreeance with neoliberalism but that's going a bit off topic.)

I don't have a problem with people like Mr Pitchford who want to make money, but do it legally and the social responsibility will be left up to you. You can remain ignorant and abdicate any claims of social responsibility but for goodness sakes stop hiding behind "it's art" line. It's bogus.

SDF River
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If there were no lines, we'd live in Rapture.

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At least I never have to live in CoD-land :P.

Would be scary to think about though...

Anna Tito
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In Australia there is no R(18+, adult) rating for games because all our policy makers are on the other side of the gen gap. So instead of making one they just ban games that don't fit into their 'games are for children' is sad particularly as australia begins to miss out on the games that are aimed at the mature market.

Brian Buchner
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Trying to run a nanny police state is ridiculous. Didn't any of these people read 1984?

They don't have censorship with books, music, and other artistic media , so why should there be any lines here? Oh... wait... Forgot the PMRC and the damn nazis.

This is why we have ratings. Caveat Emptor.