[Featurama] Does Warren Spector Have a Point?
I was 13 when The Beastie Boys burst onto the scene with Licensed to Ill. It was a bratty, nasty, funny combination of rap, rock and roll, and bad behavior. It was the soundtrack to my life back in the mid-80s. 13 years later, while playing at the Reading Festival, the Beasties got into it with The Prodigy over their hit song Smack My Bitch Up, saying that they didn’t want to be sharing a stage with sentiments like that. In the end, the Prodigy played the song, the Beastie Boys called them out for it, and everybody had an opinion about it. Some people called them hypocrites and said that they don’t have the right to criticize others for walking on ground they themselves tread years before. Others said that they weren’t hypocrites, that they were a group of men who had become famous as teenagers, learned some hard lessons along the way, and wanted to impart the wisdom they’d gained on a younger generation in hopes that they wouldn’t make the same mistakes.
So what does this have to do with video games? The other day, game developer Warren Spector was giving a talk at DICE and he made some negative comments about violence in modern video games; citing Suda 51′s Lollipop Chainsaw as a particular example. Around the Twinfinite office, it turns out Matthew Stevens and I have some differing opinions about all this and we thought it would be fun to share them with you.
I love what Warren Spector has brought gaming and there is little doubt that the man is a legend in gaming. But let’s dive into his career a little closer before giving his statements the benefit of the doubt here.
Lets break down what he actually said at the DICE conference a little bit. During his panel, Spector made mention of lowbrow games like Lollipop Chainsaw as examples of games that don’t deserve to be made. He talked about his childhood and how it would have been perfect for a younger him, but that he’s outgrown it. As a nearly 60 year old man, I would hope that Spector has outgrown ridiculous campy horror flicks with gushing blood and a voluptuous cheerleader protagonist. However, what he never did go into is that the game shouldn’t be made because violence is a bad thing in gaming. He did knock it as a game that was little more than a time waster and not as a type game that draws you into its story like The Walking Dead does. What I think he is missing is that all games don’t need to be serious, almost depressing stories. They can be fun things that you just put in to blow off some steam with.
Saying that games like Lollipop Chainsaw shouldn’t be made is akin to saying that movies like Killer Klowns from Space shouldn’t be made. Lollipop Chainsaw is an attempt to make a campy B horror video game in the same style that those 80′s cult classic horror movies are done. It uses over the top violence, dialog and goofy plot aspects to put itself solely into that territory on purpose. For fuck’s sake, you slice up zombies with a chainsaw while you carry around a dismembered head of your boyfriend; if this doesn’t sound like an 80′s movie starting Christina Applegate, I don’t know what does. Simply put, Lollipop Chainsaw is an homage to those types of movies and like any other art medium, should be able to be expressed for their entertainment values.
Spector is a man that has created iconic games like Wing Commander, System Shock, Deus Ex and Thief. Yet in his 23 year career, Warren has created more than a few games that were obvious cash grabs and not up to the standards that we expected. Deus Ex: Invisible War is one of the biggest flops that comes to my mind and is a game that is completely forgotten in the franchise. Spector has done nothing in the past 9 years outside of Epic Mickey and Epic Mickey 2, both of which were panned as being disappointments by critics and executives alike. He recently had to fold his Junction Point Studios as Disney essentially fired him because Epic Mickey 2 was such a major sales disappointment. To say that the man has had an up and down career would be putting it lightly.
What does his career have to do with his statements here? Well for one, Warren should not be a judge on whether a game should be made. The man has experienced just as many lows as he has highs in this industry. Him thinking that a game shouldn’t be made because it has a niche audience pretty laughable. Let’s also not forget that his entire career is based on violent games, so to remark on them is little more than an unemployed man speaking for the sake of speaking.
The whole case of games being ‘too violent’ is one that I just refuse to buy into as you can read in my previous article. We as gamers want to be taken seriously and having producers criticizing our content like Spector is, is not a good thing. We need to band together and point to examples in other industries as how this is OK and in fact entertaining to a fairly large audience even if it is just a goofy little game for blowing off time. We as an industry should stop pointing our critiques at things like this and find ways to make better games that are more engaging.
Before I go any further I should clarify a couple of things. First, I haven’t played Lollipop Chainsaw. Based on what I do know about it however, I think Warren Spector could have used a better example of a game to illustrate the point he was making because with this one, there seems to be a consensus that it is meant to be a satire of genre tropes. There are developers who are deserving of the kind of criticism being leveled here, but based on his track record I don’t think Suda 51 is one of them. Second, Spector’s comment that games like it (i.e. excessively violent ones) “shouldn’t be made” wasn’t the most diplomatic choice of words.
“If we’re going to reach a broader audience, we have to stop thinking about that audience strictly in terms of teenage boys or even teenage girls. We need to think about things that are relevant to normal humans and not just the geeks we used to be.”
We all know the stats that the average age of people who play video games is about 35 years old. If that’s the case, and if gamers are supposedly older and more sophisticated than ever before, why are we letting the video game industry market to us like we’re 15? The big elephant in the room which Spector alludes to is that we (the community, industry, press, etc.) like to pay lip service to how misunderstood video games are. When push comes to shove however, that’s what we buy in large numbers. Rarely are mainstream games marketed for their compelling stories or mature (I mean ‘geared for adult audiences’ and not ‘boobs and blood’) content for the simple reason that fans don’t demand more.
Is that inherently wrong? Not necessarily, but for someone on the outside looking in, the perception of video games is that they are a medium in which players can engage in mindless, transgressive fantasy. If we want the mainstream to look at video games seriously (and let’s face it, we are DESPERATE to be accepted by the mainstream), the quality material instead of the shlock should be pushed to the forefront.
Warren Spector’s output in the last decade has been spotty. That does not however mean that his opinion about current games is invalid. This is a man who was one of the premier developers of his era; a man who introduced a significant level of narrative and gameplay maturity to games. Yes, he has had some misfires along the way but since when is having a perfect record a requirement for having an opinion about something? Mature video game narrative EXISTS partly because of the work he did in decades previous. To make another musical comparison; Public Enemy hasn’t made a relevant album in at least 15 years, but Chuck D has more than earned the right to have an opinion about something he helped to create. I feel the same way about someone like Warren Spector; Respect the architects.
At the end of the day, you may or may not agree with what Warren Spector said about violent video games. You may feel compelled to respond to his comments, and that’s perfectly okay. I certainly don’t agree with everything Mr. Spector said at DICE, but I don’t think he was completely off-base either. Take a moment and consider a couple of things. Consider the possibility that maybe it is time for us as a community to stop trying to defend big, dumb games that use blood and gore to appeal to our reptile brains. Consider that maybe the onus is on us to start getting behind developers who are trying to create mature content and are striving to move video games forward.