[In this opinion piece, Game Developer EIC Brandon Sheffield takes Electronic Arts and Visceral to task for their competition asking fans to "design a kill" for Dead Space, calling it "incredibly regressive for our industry."]
Here we are in an era of video games coming under intense scrutiny for their violence, and for any hint of sexuality. This is an era in which the Australian and German governments are rejecting the sale of certain games by the handful, Venezuela has banned all "violent" video games with sweeping terms, and psychologists study the effects of violent games on behavior around the clock.
It's in this climate that EA has chosen to launch its Design a Kill for Dead Space 2
contest, which to me runs second only to Acclaim's attempt to buy ad space on tombstones in terms of irresponsibility.
Here's the text from the press release, describing the contest:
"Have you ever played a video game and thought 'wouldn't it be cool if...' Well, Visceral Games announced that fans of the critically-acclaimed
Dead Space franchise can make their "what if" dreams a reality. This is their chance to design a kill and get it in the game. Players can submit ideas via text, video or still images.
Since the contest began last week, there are over 1,000 entries already, so the cooler the kill, the better chance it has of winning a place in the upcoming
Dead Space 2 video game. To prove to the Visceral development team that they have the right stuff, players have to demonstrate Isaac Clarke defeating or dismembering various Necromorphs including the Slasher, Lurker, or Leaper using their own signature kill.
The grand prize winner will not only have an opportunity to have their dismemberment move recreated in the game but they'll also win the opportunity to have their likeness modeled onto a non-player character in the game."
Where To Draw The Line?
I don't believe we should shy away from violence in games - violence is a part of life, and can make for very interesting scenarios in games. And it's no secret that a large majority of fun video games are based on conflict, much of which is combative. But I also believe that asking fans to think as hard as they can
about an innovative way to kill someone is a very regressive thing for our industry.
Just think for a second about what EA is actually asking people to do. Yes, this is what many of us do every day - there are those of us who design combat and combat scenarios for a living. But asking fans to do it is just too much.
First, it's acknowledging that games can inspire fans to think of ways to kill. Second, through promotion, the contest is saying this is a good
thing to do, or that it would be fun, posing 'wouldn't it be cool if...'
Third, it's implied that this is a proper way to enter the industry (that's part of the implication, that this design will be your foot in the door). That really hammers home the misconception that all we do is think of ways for things to kill each other.
Fourth, it asks for documented evidence of this fan violence. EA must certainly have plenty at this point, with over 1,000 submissions, which anyone will be able to view once the competition is over at the official Facebook page
Fuel For The Fire
Many in the mainstream media, parent-advocate groups, and in the public opinion at large consider the game-playing population to be mostly children. And for better or for worse, it's likely that a number of children have in fact played the M-rated Dead Space
. This kind of contest is amazing fodder for the groups that want to limit and restrict games, and it's hard to believe EA or Visceral would not be aware of this.
If they are not aware of the regressive nature of this competition, as the video on the official page seems to suggest, that is incredibly unconscious, and certainly indicative of the immaturity of our industry. This seems like the sort of thing you should really think through. Perhaps we're all so desensitized to violence in this industry that they did not think about it in this light.
If the intention is to get the contest to stir up controversy, well I suppose they may achieve their goal. If the mainstream media does get wind of the competition, and they get hold of even one video of a kid doing a "brutal kill" on his brother, the shitstorm begins. I do not think the results of this storm will be positive for anyone.
Little To Smile About
One of the images that accompanies the press release (above) shows a sample entry from an actual fan, in which all the descriptions of actions are accompanied by smiley faces, such as "knee in the head ^^." This description comes after the one that says "grabs the head and shoot in the neck."
You could argue that since the creatures you kill are not human, this is not so bad. I would disagree. They are humanoid enough, and asking fans to figure out a way to kill anything
is enough to cause a horrified gut reaction in any parent or politician that may see it. A company as large as EA cannot simply make the "games are just fun" excuse. I do not believe this is an overreaction. I believe the reaction from those outside the game industry would be magnitudes above what I write here.
You could argue I'm bringing more attention to this contest by mentioning it here, and you'd be right. I think we have to take these things to task when we see them, and I can only hope that if an intrepid journalist is researching this "brutal kill" phenomenon they might see this article and pause before decrying the entire industry as actively breeding violence in its players.
Know that the assumptions and drives of one marketing campaign do not reflect the majority. There are those among us who recognize that this is regressive, and I would caution any game company against taking this sort of action in the future.