E3, The Takeaway: Conflict in the Gaming Biz; “Empathy” in Games about Conflict?

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He had been assigned to cover the big producers, including Bethesda, Activision, Square Enix, EA, and some of the PC oriented companies like Nvidia, AMD, and Razor. We asked Phil (shown left, talking to DnA co-producer Ray Guarna, under the artificial light of a booth at E3) what he felt was the takeaway from the show; in his view it was the Xbox V Playstation real life warfare, as well as the glimmer of a trend toward more “empathy” in violent games.

Phil: The story this year is the new consoles. The Playstation 4 and the Xbox 1, and the big story is what happened on Monday. There’s been a lot of fervor over how the new Xbox will have restrictions on selling copies of games you’ve bought and lending them to friends and it will require a broadband internet connection to run, and on Monday Sony held a press conference and the head guy at Sony America comes out and he says, we’ll put no restrictions on trading or selling games, on lending them to your friends; we won’t make you connect to the internet if you want to just play offline games.

And also the PS4 is also going to cost 100 dollars less than the new Xbox. They kind of laid the smack-down on Microsoft on Monday and it was pretty interesting to see it happen. That’s all I’ve been thinking about all week while I’ve been going around covering other things, because I was at the Sony event, and I’ve never seen anything quite like that in all of the times I’ve been covering E3 or PACs or any of these events.

bethesdaThe thing about the Sony event is that there were fans there, not just industry folks, and that place just erupted when he announced the price at the end of the conference. It just went wild, there was screaming and standing ovations and I was just laughing. I just thought it was funny because Jack Tretton, who is the head of SCEA he just had this great look on his face; he knew what he had done and it was really funny and I just enjoyed that but all of the Playstation fans were just going nuts because they knew Sony had basically had won the show already. We’ll see how it plays out when the systems are actually released, but for now Sony has a lot of goodwill and Microsoft doesn’t because of that.

DnA: Sounds like more exciting conflict than a video game?

Phil: It’s intensely interesting, this sort of behind the scenes stuff, it’s very fun to follow and to watch folks talk to the Microsoft people in the wake of that and to see the stuff they’re saying and to see the stuff that the Sony people are saying; it’s just been a saga all week long.

We also had one other specific question for Phil, prompted by the shootings that took place last week at Santa Monica College, where KCRW is located. What was his view of the contention that violent video games might be linked to violent behaviors, and had he heard of efforts by a group called Moms Demand Action to persuade video game producers to curtail licensing and branding relationships with gun manufacturers.

Phil: I’m not familiar with that movement in particular, but honestly after thinking about it for a minute, I kind of think it’s a good idea because I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable with the glamorization of high powered weapons, like real weapons.

I don’t buy into the link the idea that there is a link between a video game habit and real world violence, because if you’re under 30 years old, you’ve played violent video games probably so the percentage of people who’ve played violent video games who end up doing something like that is so small that it it just you know.. , and it’s not like violence is a new concept for humanity in general. We’ve always been very violent beings.

But having said that. . . I mean I come from Alabama, and in Alabama everybody loves their guns and they have, and I know a lot of folks who have, I mean they’re not violent people, they all have gun collections; my grandfather has a collection of pistols and shotguns and he doesn’t even use them that much, like he might go hunting sometimes.

Guns are a symbol because when there is a major violent incident in the U.S. it always involves guns, so I sort of have become over the years uncomfortable with the fact that we sort of fetishize gun violence in video games, not because I think it’s necessarily going to lead to something bad, but I just it’s not very creatively inspiring to me, and I feel like if we’re gonna advance as an art form, video games, then maybe we need to expand the scope of what we’re looking at.

e3 photo

So in the context of what you’re talking about, I think that perhaps that if the gun publishers were not able to make a big deal about having these real guns, that sound authentic, and the characters use them correctly and all that stuff, then maybe they might be more imaginative in the types of weapons. Maybe people would stop caring so much about the guns and maybe they’d encourage developers and studios to do something different. Of course at the same time most games don’t use real guns.

DnA: So what do they use?

Phil: They’ll use guns that are maybe modeled after a real gun but they’re named something else, or they’re just a creation of whoever made the game. I mean obviously something like Battlefield and Call of Duty those will emphasize real world weapons, or in the case of the new Call of Duty which takes place in the future they are sort of deriving new weapons from current brands. I guess it is a big deal that those are the most visible examples of these types of games — Battlefield and Call of Duty — everybody plays those and Call of Duty is a cultural phenomenon.

set at e3
Some videogame companies create sets at E3, as seen here. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: You said video game producers should try and advance the art form. In what way?

Phil: Well there’s a couple. that are incremental possible improvements, one of them is ‘Rome II Total War‘, which is a grand strategy game, you control a faction that existed during the rise of ancient Rome and you control armies and stuff like that. I did an interview with a couple of developers at the studio that made that game and they are adding features to the game like when you are controlling your armies, you can zoom in close and you can see the individual soldier’s reactions to what’s going on around them; and you can see the impact that it has on these nameless characters when the guy next to him gets killed.

DnA: That sounds similar to what Steven Spielberg said about future games involving more empathy.

It is, it adds some emotional impact to what’s going on, it makes these epic battles have a much more personal feel if you’re paying attention to that kind of thing anyway.

The other game is ‘The Evil Within‘ by Bethesda. I haven’t played it, because they’re not letting us play it here, but they showed us a gameplay video. The prologue of the game is a sort of Texas Chainsaw Massacre Scenario, it’s a horror game, but instead of it being about killing monsters or fighting off these creatures that are trying to get you, it’s about hiding, it’s about running away, you have no weapons, you’re hurt, all of this stuff is going on, there’s this big guy with a chainsaw chasing you and you can’t fight him, you have to run away, you have to hide, you have to sneak around, and that’s really cool to see.

There’s some smaller independent games that have done this kind of thing before, but this is the first time I’ve seen a major publisher put out a game with something like that in it where it’s about being scared for your life, being a real human in that kind of situation as opposed to an action hero like in a Resident Evil game. So that’s cool, I don’t know if the rest of the game is going to be like that though so I have high hopes for it.

DnA: You said that playing video games is your career. Is it a career you’d like to continue?

what's next nowPhil: At this point, I would like to do this forever, I didn’t mean to start doing this, to be honest. I worked as an entertainment journalist, but I used to have a focus in movies, TV, and music and somebody offered me a job writing about video games and I took it, and it’s been three years now and I like it. We are basically at the dawn of video games; video games are still a baby basically, so I think of what video games are now as being completely different from what they were 20 years ago, it’s almost a new medium, and there’s so much potential, and they’re not necessarily trying to maximize the potential right now, but there’s a lot of potential and I like being a part of that, and I’m young and hopefully I’ll live a long time and get to see it evolve over the years and become something truly special like the way we see movies now.

DnA. What would like to see more of in video games?

Phil: Variety. Right now big budget games are so homogenous. And you see that this week, PA is making a Plants vs. Zombies shooter, and it’s like, yeah, we need another shooter game, okay (sarcastic). It looks like a very imaginative game, but it’s still just like a lot of other games in a lot of ways, in very core, basic ways. And as someone who plays pretty much every game that comes out, it gets kind of tiring, I kind of want to do something else sometime.

(In a following blog we look at Indiecade and the growth of independent games for people who are trying to develop gaming as an art form.)