Let me start with a simple and straight forward statement: Spencer Halpin’s Moral Kombat is perhaps the most important film ever made about video games and you should see it if you get a chance. The film will force people on all sides of the debate about games and violence to re-examine their own positions and ask harder questions.
Spencer Halpin had no idea what he was getting himself into when he decided to produce a documentary about the debates surrounding video games violence. First, because his brother is Entertainment Consumers Association founder Hal Halpin, many reformers assumed that he was producing a blatant propaganda piece for the video games industry and he began to receive death threats from opponents of media violence (Kinda ironic, huh?). Then, he released a trailer for his film, Spencer Halpin’s Moral Kombat, which was widely perceived as taking a strongly anti-video game stance and was on the receiving end of angry correspondence from game defenders, many of whom wanted to censor his work because of what they perceived as its pro-censorship bias (also kinda ironic when you think about it). Now, the film is beginning to be previewed around the country and we are at last given a chance to judge the work for ourselves. Halpin is understandably skittish, not sure whose going to come railing against him next.
I will admit to having had a crisis of faith when I first saw the trailer. It felt sensationalistic and one-sided. Indeed, the backlash against the trailer put me in a rather awkward situation since I was one of only two voices heard in the segment who adopts a stance remotely sympathetic to the games medium. And some gamers were demanding to know why I’d appear in “such a film.” I’ve agreed to appear in a broad array of different documentaries through the years, most of them have come out fairly well, but sometimes I’ve been burnt rather badly. A number of self-declared “gamers” used Youtube and other media platforms to lash out against this film. The fact that longtime video game critic and trial lawyer Jack Thompson appeared to be a central focus poured kerosene on the flames.
When I spoke with Spencer Halpin a few weeks ago, he defended the preview but conceded it was not aimed at getting gamers into the theater. As he put it, he wanted to reach “42 year old women”, who were concerned about the impact of violent video games on their children but who had only a limited understanding of the underlying issues. I told him that many more people would see the preview than would see the film and that presenting such an unbalanced perspective on the issues did a disservice to what he accomplishes in Mortal Kombat and runs the risks of perpetuating the moral panic his film will help to address.
So, don’t judge a book by its cover and don’t judge this film by its preview. Yes, Jack Thompson, David Grossman, Joseph Lieberman, David Walsh, and other longtime critics of the video game industry are featured prominently in this documentary — as they should be if the film is going to accurately reflect the debate about video games violence. But the film also gives ample screen time to others — myself among them — who question the evidence connecting media violence to real world aggression and who have argued for the importance of protecting this emerging medium from threats to creative expression. Indeed, I literally get the last word here:
I think if you look at the games over the last 3 or 4 years, it’s starting to catch on what its potential is. It’s starting to realize that it can be more than it has been up to now. And people are starting to engage with it critically. Here at MIT, when I started teaching here 15 years ago, most of my students wanted to be filmmakers. Now they want to be Will Wright and Warren Spector. They want to be game designers. And I think the smartest brains in America are being drawn toward this industry and they’re gonna do incredible stuff. And if it’s allowed enough freedom to explore its potential…the sky’s the limit.
Now I’ve gone and spoiled the ending. But getting there is half the fun.
Frankly, I have been deeply troubled by those in the gaming community who would seek to silence this film, even if its perspective were fundamentally opposed to our own. Surely, we can’t defend the free speech rights of game designers and players by seeking to silence those who disagree with us. It makes sense to critically engage with works which we feel distort the debate or misrepresent our positions, and I’ve been among the first to cry fowl when I think the media has taken cheap shots or has engaged in fear mongering. But we make ourselves look ridiculous when we rally prematurely against works we have not seen. How does that make us any better than what we are fighting against?
When I start to describe the film, most people want to know “which side” it takes. I see this as both a reflection of how polarized the debate often becomes and also how accustomed we have become in thinking about documentaries as a form of public advocacy. Danny Ledonne, filmmaker and creator of Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, has celebrated this film, saying that Spencer Halpin’s Moral Kombat is “a summarily decisive blow to the anti-game critics of the world…Through it all, you may realize that perhaps the videogame violence debate has already been won; society is simply not aware of it yet. To my mind, this is certainly the case.” Yet some noted games critics have also embraced the film’s representation of their position.
From where I sit, Halpin has produced a fair minded film which takes seriously a range of different perspectives on the issues, allows key players to present their arguments in their own words in fairly lengthy segments, and provides the visual evidence all parties require to support their claims. In our conversation, Halpin made it clear that he learned things in every interview he conducted, that each speaker made him think about the issues in new ways. That curiosity and respect for his subjects comes through in the final film.
Halpin doesn’t see video game violence as a simple black and white matter. Indeed, the film may be most powerful when speakers qualify more extreme claims or critique their own arguments. I’ve comment before that I can sit down and have dinner with a media effects researcher, if not with some of the moral crusaders, and end up agreeing on about 80-90 percent of what we discuss, yet the differences between us get stretched to the breaking point whenever we enter a hearing room or the cameras start turning. For once, everyone seems to have lowered their guard a little and shared some of the complexities of this topic with a thoughtful public.
Halpin has been able to get a number of leading video games industry insiders, including some leading game designers, to speak on camera about the issue of media violence. What emerges is a diverse and complex picture of how the games industry sees itself, its medium, its consumers, and its critics. The legal and political climate around games means that these people often do not feel free to express disagreement or doubt (or for that matter, much else given the ways company lawyers gag many of these people from speaking to the press on this topic.) The absence of game designers in public discussions of game violence allows stereotypes about who they are and what they think to gain traction. Some of them come across well here, some don’t. Some seem reasonable and responsible, some sound indifferent to critics’ concerns, but we are all served by getting a taste of the complexity with which these matters get discussed behind closed doors within the gaming world.
Lorne Lanning: Violence is a mechanism that draws attention. And everyone who wants to draw attention, shows violence: The news, movies, novels, the newspaper. We’re attracted to it. Look at what happens on a freeway accident. The accident happened on the right lane but traffic’s backed up for 5 miles on the left lane. We just need to watch. We need to see what happened. It’s in our human nature. But how can we use that so that we can send positive messages even if people are attracting to it initially for possibly just the violent aspects.
American McGee: You know, when we were working on Alice I actually fought to get a mature rating because I felt that I didn’t want an Alice product to hit the shelves at Christmas and confuse parents into thinking it was for their kids. Looking back on that, I wish that I had not fought for the M rating because I think that the violence in the game never really warranted it. I think that, as long as an industry is self-regulating, and I think as long as individuals take responsibility, the government shouldn’t have to step in to regulate entertainment.
The film takes seriously the proposition that video games might be regarded as an emerging form of artistic and social expression, not simply a product like cigarettes, but for that reason, the film asks us to think more deeply about whether it has achieved its full potential:
Jason Della Rocca: We have creative vision, we have things we want to express, ideas we want to explore, and we keep hitting roadblocks. We keep hitting negativity. We keep hitting government that wants to censor us. We keep hitting parents that don’t understand what games are and they’re fearful so they’re trying to boycott or ban. And as a community who understands the games and who creates them, sometimes it’s baffling to us why we hit those barriers.
Doug Lowenstein: We will have our Citizen Kane‘s. We will have our great games. We already have great games. We already have- It’s remarkable, if you look back at the creative history of this industry, how many extraordinarily great, entertaining games we’ve had. And we’re gonna keep making ‘em. And we’re also gonna keep making games that are lousy. Because we’re a creative industry and, inevitably, there’s going to be plenty of product out there that sucks.
As an artform, games deserve constitutional protection, but as artists, game designers have a responsibility to take seriously what they are saying through their work and how that message is being received by their audience.
Greg Ballard: I don’t think it’s possible to allow publishers to completely escape their responsibility in this mix. I remember during Columbine that when the fingers got pointed at the videogame business we became very defensive and claimed that we had certain First Amendment rights as publishers to put anything on a console that we wanted to. And in fact I was one of those who adamantly defended the right of videogame makers to make whatever game they want to. But there’s a difference between your right to make something, and your moral or ethical right to make something. The government may not be able to tell you not to do something, but as a publisher you still have editorial responsibilities. The New York Times can print whatever they want to print, but at the end of the day the editor has to make a decision about whether what he is writing, or she is writing, is correct or ethically correct. And the same thing is true of publishers of videogames.
Next Time: A focus on the innovative visual style of the film