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Updated Monday, January 21, 2013 at 11:02 AM

Maybe better video game stories can offer less violent experience

By Brier Dudley
Seattle Times technology columnist

After a month on the wagon, I slipped off and used an assault rifle last week. It didn’t feel the same.

The rifle was in a new episode of “Halo 4” that Microsoft was previewing for reporters at its Kirkland game studio. I blasted away at aliens on the screen, then swapped the rifle for more powerful weapons hidden in the game.

“Halo 4” is a fun game with a rich sci-fi story that blurs the line between game, movies and episodic TV shows like “Star Trek.”

But action shooting games have lost some of their appeal since the Newtown shooting in December.

President Obama’s call last week for research into whether there’s a connection between violent games and gun violence is welcome, even if it’s motivated by politics. A definitive, objective analysis is overdue to address this unpleasant question hanging over the industry and lingering in the minds of players, parents and game developers.

Meanwhile, I’m not sure I want to play the military shooter “Call of Duty” again, even though it used to be a favorite and remains the best-selling game and a cornerstone of the industry.

Like the mass killer in Norway in 2011, the Newtown shooter was a fan of “Call of Duty.” Adam Lanza was a deranged loner who reportedly played the game in a basement room decorated with military posters.

That provided an opening to the gun lobby, which tried to deflect the call for more gun restrictions by blaming video games as well. Then it proposed bundling new gun restrictions with limits on games.

The bundling may sound logical, but it’s really political flimflam. Every politician and lobbyist knows that repeated attempts to crack down on violent games have gone nowhere and that the Supreme Court last year settled the issue, ruling that games are protected speech under the First Amendment.

So bundling game and gun restrictions would pretty much guarantee nothing will happen. It also shows that the gun lobby is concerned about protecting just one passage in the Constitution (but not the “well regulated” part of that passage).

Obama sidestepped this roadblock. He punted on games, without ignoring the concerns.

The study he proposed would follow on the heels of a new generation of game hardware promising even more realistic, immersive games. With luck, the heightened attention will push game publishers to be more creative and perhaps develop new franchises that are less centered on combat.

Some games are already evolving into more sophisticated entertainment, even if many still “cater to that innate male desire to have a shoot-em-up,” said Richard Rouse III, a Seattle game developer and author of a book on game design.

This is happening in part because players are getting older and have higher expectations. Half of American homes now have a game console, the average player is 30 and two-thirds are over 18, according to the Entertainment Software Association.

“In time, as the audience realizes some experiences are richer and fuller and more grounded in real life and struggles we all face, they’ll stop wanting ones that are so abstracted and removed from reality,” Rouse said.

Rouse drew a parallel to food, saying that people can only go so far with junk food before they crave something more nourishing.

“Eventually people figure out that empty calories aren’t such a good idea,” he said.

Rouse, who was hired by Microsoft in June, speaks at industry events on ways to incorporate moral choices into games.

An example he gives is “Far Cry 2,” a 2008 game by Ubisoft that puts players between warring factions in Africa. Players have choices about how to approach challenges. They can avoid combat by sneaking around things, and there are different tools to use besides guns.

Combat is still the heart of the game and what draws players in, but there’s more depth.

“Just as we can have serious movies about combat situations that deal with it seriously, games can do that as well,” he said.

For now, the most successful model is “Call of Duty.”

The latest version, subtitled “Black Ops II,” made more money after its November launch than any other entertainment product — more than the launch of any movie, book or album. It generated more than $1 billion in its first 15 days on the market, remained the best-seller through December and continues to be the most popular of the multiplayer games hosted on Microsoft’s Xbox Live service.

It’s a brutal game where you earn respect by quickly killing as many people as possible, preferably with an efficient shot to the head. But maybe it’s really an extension of the soldier games that boys have always played.

I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve been pretending to shoot people for as long as I can remember, from the mean streets of Spokane’s South Hill to the jungles of Magnolia and the galactic battlefields of “Halo.”

In elementary school, my parents took a stand and decided they wouldn’t buy toy guns for me and my brother.

So we played combat with sticks instead. Realizing this put our eyeballs at risk, my parents decided it was safer to provide an armory of toy guns instead.

Now we’d probably simply blast each other on the TV screen.

I’m just glad my kids are girls.

Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays.

Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

Coping with games

HERE ARE a few thoughts on things parents can do to help ensure their kids don’t become too immersed in ultra-violent games:

1. Add a few of the more humane games to their diet. You can’t stop them from eating chips and fries, but maybe you can work in some fruit now and then.

2. Observe and play the games they play the most. It may not be your bag, but try to understand why it’s fun for them and what makes the games appealing.

3. Encourage cooperative play with friends — real ones, who are known offline — so the games complement rather than substitute for companionship.

4. Maintain access to the hardware and software you provide, and know how to access user accounts. Create your own account on the game service and become their friend, similar to the way you would on Facebook.

5. Play a match online with kids, or recruit a friend or family member to play online with them periodically. It adds real-world perspective to hunt for someone you really know, and not just blast away at strangers.

Who knows, it might even be cathartic.

— Brier Dudley


Activision
“Call of Duty: Black Ops II” generated more than $1 billion in its first 15 days on the market, more than any other entertainment product.




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