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No child’s play

Is it a coincidence that some of the most successful video games today are also some of the goriest ever played? It’s not for nothing that several governments have started censoring violence in gaming under the ruse of ‘protecting the children’.

india Updated: Jul 25, 2009 23:25 IST

Is it a coincidence that some of the most successful video games today are also some of the goriest ever played? It’s not for nothing that several governments have started censoring violence in gaming under the ruse of ‘protecting the children’.

On the face of it, it’s a reasonable response to game publishers who care about nothing but the profits. So you have games such as the infamous Grand Theft Auto series where the violence has become — slowly, surely and eerily — more realistic. From GTA: Vice City, that was an ode to over-the-top violence, we have gone to GTA: San Andreas, that depicted gang violence in urban America.

Now the latest release, GTA IV, gives us the chance to play out the role of Niko Bellic, a hitman for the Russian mafia who kills even those closest to him. If that isn’t enough, the recently-released Prototype has its protagonist Alex Mercer running through New York spraying bullets and wrecking buildings. If his fight happens in a crowded zone, civilian deaths are just ‘collateral damage’. What’s new, you might ask. Well, Alex happens to pick up passersby and ‘consume’ them to improve his ‘health’. And to imagine scores of wide-eyed children lining up to buy such games and then play them over and over is exactly not pleasant.

While you imagine that, also know that Niko’s options in GTA are often powerful moral dilemmas that have dramatic impact on the narrative — so every little choice may have tremendous emotional consequence on the player too. In Prototype, Alex discovers that he is not human and the rest of the game-play underscores his sense of otherness. It’s also clear that Alex does not see himself as a hero, just a thing fighting for survival. Do you want children to play with these characters to ‘win’?

These games are not just for kids. As gaming is becoming more and more expensive, those over 20 are becoming the larger share of followers. A new game today can set you back by about Rs 3,000, and the gaming consoles cost upwards of Rs 20,000. Most studies — including one by Nimhans, a premier mental health institute — agree that the games themselves do not harm our minds.

But look around — there’s violence in all sorts of media targeted at children today. Children’s books, from C.S. Lewis’s Narnia to Brian Jacques’s Redwall, are bloody affairs. Tom is forever whacking the daylights out of Jerry. He-Man and GI Joe hardly stand for peace, though they are probably going to be labelled as ‘educational’ soon. Would you really want your child to watch one of the gory Saw movies? Or even the fable-like Pan’s Labyrinth? Like these movies, games such as GTA IV or Prototype are made by post-teens, for post-teens. But then, the violence is optional. Parents need to know and choose.

Gopal Sathe runs the gaming forum, split-screen.com