For (im)mature audiences only. (computer games) (Column)
by Orson Scott Card
The stereotype of a computer programmer is a permanent melvin who has never had a date. The stereotype isn't true. Programming attracts no more nerds than any other brain-intensive profession. And yet some games make you wonder if their game-wrights have complexes lingering from junior high.
When Crime Wave came out, Access had a state-of-the-art mystery game with all of the ingredients: a hard-boiled detective in the Raymond Chandler mode, a high-tech near-future underworld where life is cheap and greed is king, and sex as casual as a cup of coffee.
Access does games right, providing multiple named saves at any point; a built-in hint system; and a quick, clean exit from the game. And when you're given a choice of dialogue, it makes a difference which questions you choose--maybe you'll get information from another character, and maybe you won't.
There's humor in the story and good writing throughout. The visuals are a stunning mix of recorded video and drawn animation, so that reality blends in with unreality.
But that's where we get into trouble, too. Crime Wave begins with a scanned video of the president's daughter being kidnapped. Later, we see her struggling in the grip of a thug. The image is of an attractive actress in a red spaghetti-strap gown. It's set off as a special moment of reality in the underlying unreality. It's disturbing that the sexiest image is of a woman struggling to resist being abducted by a stronger male figure.
At another point in the game, the player accesses a database in which the images of several characters are stored for reference. The president's daughter is apparently nude, but you can only see her upper chest. As you watch, her image is smoothly rotated in video. But the database listing for a man shows him wearing a shirt, and nothing is shown below the collar. And instead of a lovingly transferred video, you flip from front to profile to one-quarter views. The implication is clear: Women are sex objects; men are people.
If the president's daughter were Jessica Rabbit, an exaggerated caricature of a woman, there would be a great distance between the scene on the screen and reality.
She isn't Jessica Rabbit, however. And so we're back to the image of computer programmers as guys who can't get a date.
Martian Memorandum is perhaps less disturbing, but considering that there is no warning on the package, I wonder how happy many parents would be to know that one of the experiences their teenagers might have during the playing of the game is a sexual encounter with the character Rhonda. The gamewrights aren't taking themselves all that seriously. They videotaped Rhonda pressing her lips against a glass screen in order to suggest that she's kissing the player, which looks silly and gets a laugh. And they certainly weren't trying to be pornographic--when Rhonda gets you to her room, she undresses only to her underwear, and then you skip to seeing her in bed afterward. Nor does the game flow force you to go through this encounter--indeed, the game seems to steer you away from it. But it's there for any player to find. Access is hardly the only company engaging in this behavior. Rise of the Dragon (Dynamix) is in the same league as the Access games, and because it's a cyberpunk game, it also takes us through some lowlife experiences. Dragon isn't videotaped; it's drawn. The artists did a good job at tricky moments (the Pleasure Dome, for instance) of putting the nudity and suggestive activities in a grayed-out background. Still, kids discover soon enough that in playing this game you can "do it" with your (the hero's) girlfriend. Nothing is shown, but having sex is one of the options in the game experience.
While parents can preview a videotape or movie or read a book before giving it to their kids, they can't possibly preplay a difficult computer game and be sure they've seen every scene that their kids might end up seeing.
It's time for game developers to do some serious thinking about who their audience is--and how they're affecting that audience with their R-rated computer games.