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Gaming Boundaries.

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Eric Kohn February 18, 2009 at 3:15AM

Gaming Boundaries.

"I can’t remember the first time I shot someone," Seth Schiesel writes in his review of Call of Duty: World at War for The New York Times. He proceeds to track his experience with firearms through the history of the first person shooter: Doom. Marathon. Wolfenstein 3D. Classic games. Bloody as hell. Total fantasies.

Schiesel discusses the gaming experience as a cinematic one. He explains how the design of the game keenly manipulates the emotions of the player -- so that even while the killing of Japanese and German soldiers appears justified, the reality of individual deaths becomes a visceral, psychologically trying undertaking. "I didn’t feel especially heroic," Schiesel writes, reflecting on the digital screams of Japanese soldiers scalded by one of his bombs. "I don’t think I was meant to."

Compare that to a recent Japanese game (uh...awkward) where the player's objective is to rape pregnant women. Hopefully, you can see a serious distinction: Call of Duty contextualizes the behavior of the player with enough story to make the behavior seem rational, if not exactly pleasant. Rapelay essentially forces you to sympathize with the protagonist's horrifically twisted intentions. That's where the danger lies.

Games started cultivating the qualities of interactive movies years ago. Like movies, they require a moral compass in addition to an aesthetic one. With apologies to those who abhor academic analysis, it may help to categorize the issue in accordance with film theorist Christian Metz's ideas about primary and secondary identification. Primary identification is the viewer's identification with the camera's gaze, "with himself as a pure act of perception." Secondary identification involves the viewer's identification with the actual context of the movie -- mainly, the actors or characters. Both factors play an important role in the gaming experience, although I would argue there's also a tertiary identification involving the player's specific decisions within the game world. In Rapelay, your decisions are limited. There's nothing wrong with observing Call of Duty (that's primary identification) while relating to the soldier's plight (secondary identification), but if the latter were a factor for someone playing Rapelay...that's a primary concern.