Are Video Games Conservative?

Article excerpt

Through July and early August 2005, controversy has dominated the world of videogame journalism. In the United States, discovery of a hidden sex scene in this year's Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas brought Senator Hillary Clinton, among others, to reiterate the old idea that videogames were exposing children to sexual and violent content that would harm them in some way.

Journalists have been raising concerns about videogame content since 1976, when the arcade game Death Race let players drive a car over running humanoid zombies, and lawmakers have seldom passed up an opportunity to jump on the bandwagon. Concern about videogames' alleged potential to corrupt youth reached a peak in 1999, when journalists reported on a home video in which Eric Harris talked with his friend Dylan Klebold about how the massacre they later committed at Columbine High School in Colorado would be like the videogame Doom. Since then, negative coverage of videogame violence has been steady, and governments' usual reaction to specific controversies is censorship. Once news of San Andreas' hidden sex scene broke, Australia's Office of Film and Literature Classification quickly revoked the game's classification, effectively banning it from sale.

When I tell people about my doctoral research, they often ask if I'm trying to prove that videogames really do turn players into killers before I manage to explain that I investigate videogames' political aspects. Parents usually inquire if playing videogames will harm their child or teenager. For the generation of parents, journalists and legislators that grew up before videogames became a part of popular culture, the new medium seems to be the bearer of a strange newness that threatens to corrupt youth and destroy the foundations of society. But really, videogames are packed with themes which suggest to players that it is good to be a guardian of one's societies' traditions and institutions. These themes, in turn, are part of aesthetic traditions that videogame developers constantly turn to as a basis for new creations. The medium is, in fact, dominated by conservative sentiment.

Roger Scruton captured the essence of conservatism when he wrote, in The Meaning of Conservatism, that it 'involves an attempt to perpetuate a social organism, through times of unprecedented change'. English parliamentarian and intellectual Edmund Burke crystallized this conservative attitude in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, which championed British constitutional monarchy against the threat posed by an enthusiasm for radical change sparked by the French Revolution of 1789. Just as Burke sought to preserve his society, in videogames the protagonists very often defend living people and existing institutions from traitors, usurpers or invaders who threaten the most radical change a society could ever face: its own destruction.

We see the conservative impulse to preserve even in such early games as 1978's Space Invaders, where the player controls a mobile gun turret as it mounts a defence against an infinite onslaught of alien attackers. The defence motif, on which videogames' conservatism is built, persists in videogames right up to the present. Even Doom, the game talked about by the Columbine killers, has its hero defending a human outpost on Mars from demons teleporting in from Hell: the massacre certainly was not a replay of the game's heroic premise.

The games that most arouse the ire of politicians, judges, journalists and parents in Australia and overseas are, in fact, uncommonly rebellious and transgressive. Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto series, which began in 1997 and to which the controversial San Andreas belongs, has players guiding the games' protagonists as they rob, assault, murder, car-jack, and trade in illegal drugs. Yet such games, which put the player in the villains shoes for the sake of novelty, are atypical of videogames in general, and they revel in rebellion not out of any political radicalism or desire to corrupt, but rather because playing the bad guy is a novel and welcome change for players more frequently involved in world-saving heroics. …