2010 may be a landmark year for the ongoing issue of violence in videogaming. In their fall session, the United States Supreme Court will hear the State of California’s appeal to the overturning of their 2005 ‘ultra-violent video games’ laws. These laws were spawned in response to the overall content of the Mature-rated and infamously violent game “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,” and specifically to its "Hot Coffee Mod,” in which the game could be ”hacked” or modified by players to unlock a sexually explicit game within the game.
If reversed and put back into law, these statutes would criminalize the sale of games deemed harmful to minors, based primarily on their ESRB ratings (the industry’s equivalent to Motion Picture ratings), and require games with ‘Mature” ratings to be stocked behind the counter and away from other games at retailers.
While gender violence has so far been a minor facet in the debate on the psychological effects of gaming, other recent developments threaten to bring it to the forefront.
On the April 12, 2010 episode of NBC’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, the teaser trailer for “Gears of War 3”, the latest installment of the ultra-popular gaming franchise debuted, an unprecedented media event for gaming.
While likely unbeknownst to the majority of Fallon’s audience that evening, astute gamers identified Lieutenant Anya Stroud, a well-known female rear-echelon communications officer in previous installments of the series, armed and armored as a frontline trooper.
Fans quickly anticipated what this meant: possible curb-stomping and shoulder-to-hip eviscerations of female player characters, along with the prospect of mass media attention over more virtual violence against women.
The gaming series is known for M-Rated [Mature] animations of graphic violence, most involving its signature Lancer Assault Rifle and chainsaw bayonet that players can use against opponents, and one another in online multiplayer matches.
The catch-22 facing the gaming industry, however, is weighing this sort of potential negative attention against their need to appeal to the growing numbers of female gamers in a once male-dominated demographic.
“It’s good business sense to add a female character to the mix, and truly is a win-win for both Epic Games and the community,” said Ismini Roby, a Singapore based software developer and Chief Editor and Co-Founder ofWomenGamers.Com. “Women prefer their online characters to mimic a persona they're comfortable role-playing. When the choices are limited to male characters, it's harder for women to be immersed into the game.”
“Immersion” - the quality gamers seek to make themselves as seamless a part of the game’s virtual world as possible - is often the primary goal of game designers. But as games continue to blur the lines between reality and console-generated fantasy, the issue of the potential psychological effects is being drawn to the forefront.
The author of the challenged laws, State Senator Leland Yee, when asked about his legislation (via gamepolitics.com ) said, “I have seen individuals who play these games. I have seen individuals using a baseball bat and bludgeoning a hooker to death, or taking a gun and shooting a cop. Those are the direct result of someone pushing a button and making a conscious decision. I can see that that kind of connection between your action and the consequent behavior is dangerous.”
The prospect of high-def video of virtual women being blown to pieces or chainsawed in half running in loops on the 24-hour cable news networks and the description of these scenes being read aloud on the floor of the high court this fall likely increases the possibility that a media-friendly fight on the issue could be waged in time for this fall’s congressional mid-term elections. Some industry observers, however, don’t seem intimidated by the prospect.
“The idea that we women are these docile doe-eyed things until something comes along to break us is a patriarchal stereotype,” said “Ed the Sock” host Liana Kerzner. “This isn't really new in gaming: Lara Croft has been around for years,” she added, going on to note games like “Resident Evil” and “Mortal Kombat” have featured playable female characters both on the giving and receiving end of virtual violence for years.
Responding to a fan’s question at last month’s “C2E2” comic book and gaming convention in Chicago about the possibility of media backlash concerning the prospect of female infantry solders in the next “Gears of War” entry , “Gears of War 3” head writer Joshua Ortega said, “I think men and women are equal. And a chainsaw is a chainsaw.”
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