Is the video game industry too PC?

16 Mar

In a recent announcement, Japanese publisher Irem  cancelled development of their game Disaster Report 4, in which the player is a survivor of a Tokyo earthquake, out of respect for the survivors of the recent earthquake and tsunami.

First off, to all those poised and waiting to be offended with your gasps of outrage at the ready, let me say my heart goes out to all those affected by this tragic disaster. Destruction of this magnitude is impossible to conceive, let alone the pain and suffering which follows in its wake. I cried over the footage and I donated to the relief effort and while I have nothing but encouragement for those who wish to be sympathetic to the plight of the Japanese people, I struggle to see the logic behind cancelling a video game because it depicts an event vaguely similar to one which occurred in real life. Since when did video game developers become so PC?

It’s not the first time this has happened. After September 11, 2001, Sega cancelled Propeller Arena and Nintendo cancelled Advance Wars. There’s a couple of things that bother me about this kind of reaction to disasters, either natural or man-made,  neither of them have anything to do with any of the games in question, particularly Disaster Report 4 which, frankly, sounds so lame that if it were a racehorse you’d shoot it. What bothers me about it is that a) it’s unrealistic, and b) hypocritical.

Unrealistic because who survives a devastating earthquake in Japan and immediately thinks “Gee, I need to take my mind off this horrible tragedy. I know! I’ll play a video game about an earthquake in Japan!” It’s not like the developers kept the subject matter a secret. If you think you’ll be traumatized by it, play something else. I understand the desire to be sensitive about showing earthquake footage to someone who’s just been through it or knows someone who has, but it’s all over the news…ALL the news…ALL the time! You can’t avoid it even if you want to. Not to mention the inevitable (warning: appallingly insensitive pun alert!) tsunami of Disaster Channel style TV documentaries that are soon to follow. It’s getting to the point where the only people not being bombarded with news of this event are those unfortunate enough to be in the middle of it.

The hypocrisy lies in the logic that if something traumatic happens in real life then you shouldn’t represent it in a video game. If this was true then why don’t game makers cancel the development of war games because WWII happened? A facetious example, I grant you but there’s no shortage of wars going on in the world right now and although I can’t speak from personal experience I imagine all of them are pretty fucking traumatic in one manner or another. And yet war-based video games are some of the highest earners in the industry. What about people who’ve suffered trauma as a result of war? What about veterans? Why are they not spared?

One phrase in particular really brings home the hypocrisy: “…once things return to normal…” When exactly will that be? This thing is all over the news and the interweb and will be all you see and hear for some time (and rightly so). When exactly is this magical grace period after which people who are traumatized by an actual earthquake will cease to be affected by an imaginary one? You’re still going to release your game but just not right now. Call me callous but that’s not sensitivity, that’s just maximizing sales by temporarily distancing yourself from bad press. The trauma of this event will most likely linger for years to come so if someone’s going to be upset by a video game then it doesn’t matter if they see it now or in six months. I’m all for being respectful and sensitive but no one’s talking about exploiting the pain and suffering of others here by making them relive the horror. Only the most cynical of folks would accuse a developer or publisher of exploiting a natural disaster to boost video game sales. What happened is a terrible tragedy, but the timing of the game is an awful coincidence, nothing more.

I’ll concede the point that perhaps a game about earthquake in Tokyo might hit a little too close to home right now but how about a racing game set in a post-apocalyptic nightmare world? The release of Motorstorm: Apocalypse has been postponed in the UK for the same reasons as Disaster Report 4. Interestingly, Motorstorm was due to be released in New Zealand earlier this year but was delayed due to the earthquake that struck Christchurch (coincidence? Or is this game so awesome that it’s literally groundbreaking?). One other game of note to be delayed is Yakuza: Of The End featuring Japanese gangster zombies…which are, of course, the inevitable third wave of tragedy about to crash upon the poor unsuspecting Japanese people. Surely a game like this could be a useful public safety  education tool…

Here’s an idea: instead of delaying or cancelling these games, why not use their release to increase awareness of the relief effort and donate a percentage of sales to charities and the reconstruction effort? Encourage gamers to dig deep and give to others by playing the games they love while helping out a worthy cause. No one really knows what impact this disaster will have on the Japanese psyche, but getting all PC and knee-jerky about it isn’t going to make things better. Which do you think the Japanese people would appreciate more: being shielded from a video game they’re unlikely to play even if they had the means? Or receiving help from people all over the world who heard about their plight and cared enough to donate?

These are strong, resilient people who have survived some of the worst catastrophes imaginable, both natural and man-made. They will recover but they need help…our help…real help…not band-aids.

Ways for gamers (or anyone else) to donate:

  • On Facebook, Zynga gamers can buy special items like power-up crops and Japan-themed decorations with the full proceeds going to Save The Children. Or go directly to Save The Children’s Japanese disaster relief fund.
  • SEGA have announced that all revenues for the Football Manager 2011 iPhone app (until the end of the week) will be donated to Japanese relief efforts.
  • Shirt Hunter has compiled  a list of t-shirts you can buy, the proceeds of which go to helping various charities.

Feel free to suggest more in the comments below.

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