Playing inFamous in New Orleans

This piece originally appeared on First Person Scholar, February 26, 2014.

Advocating for videogames can be paradoxical. Often the very features praised for making videogames a unique and powerful medium are assailed as threatening the public good.

Take for example the oral arguments in the Supreme Court case Brown vs. Electronic Merchant’s Association from November 2010. The state of California argued for the right to impose tighter restrictions on the sale of violent videogames to minors. Since no such restrictions are placed on violence depicted in other protected media forms like cartoons, rap music, film and even Grimm’s Fairy Tales, much of the debate revolved around why videogames require extra provisions. California Deputy Attorney General Zackery Morazzini explained that it is the “interactive nature of violent [games],” in which the player is “acting out this—this obscene level of violence” that makes gaming “especially harmful to minors.” Then, to support his claim that all content being equal, interactivity makes videogames significantly more influential, Morazzini presented “video clips of game play.”

This line of argument seems nonsensical. How was the court to assess these supposedly obscene interactions by watching video clips? Morazzini here takes interactivity for granted: whatever players actually do when they play games—he suggests—we can agree that we don’t want them participating in what we see on-screen.

This is the kind of argument that draws scoffs from the gaming community. Furthermore, it evinces the need for people who know about videogames—developers, critics, players—to speak for them. Thus, as the tragic events at Newtown brought violent videogames back into the public spotlight, exactly how the gaming community should address misconceptions and reductive assumptions about interactive media became an urgent topic of debate.

Yet, the issue here can’t be neatly explained by the ignorance of non-gamers. Even successfully demonstrating the variety of the wonderful things one can do with videogames might not help, for underlying a great many public discussions about videogames—both positive and negative—are similar assumptions about what happens when players engage with virtual environments.

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