Why You Should See Spencer Halpin's Moral Kombat (Part Two)

Yesterday, I ran the first of a two part commentary on the recently completed documentary, Spencer Halpin's Moral Kombat, which explores the debates about video game violence. The film has been controversial with both gamers and game critics before its release; I've argued here that it is an important work which deals fairly with all participants and which offers a more indepth and nuanced account of the issues than any I've seen elsewhere in the media. I pick up on that point in the second part of this series. Mainstream media coverage of the debate about video games keeps getting framed as if everyone who was concerned about media violence believed playing games would instantly turn a normal child into a psychokiller or as if everyone who argues against the censorship of this emerging medium was insisting that they had no potential influence on the people who consume them. That's not the case here. Each speaker is allowed to develop their ideas sufficiently that we start to see the nuances in their positions.

The film accurately captures my own struggle to articulate the ways in which games do and do not influence the people who play them:

Everything I know about media as a media scholar who studied media for 20 years says, media is most influential when it reaffirms our existing structure or belief, and least influential when it changes our behavior. Which suggests that if a kid is already aggressive, they already live in a culture of violence, that videogames could conceivably reinforce the level of aggression that they already experience in their environment. But nothing there suggests that a kid who is normal, who's emotionally healthy, who lives in a happy home environment, who has had no prior exposure to violence, is likely to become aggressive simply because they played a violent videogame.

Even those who defend the games industry against government regulation do not feel that it's products should be free from social scrutiny or cultural criticism. They simply are asking that games be treated like any other medium -- recognizing both what they have accomplished and where they fall short of the mark. Here, for example, is Doug Lowenstein, who recently stepped down as the primary spokesperson for the game companies in Washington:

Certainly there are games out there that I don't particularly care for based on my morality and my values, just as there are movies I don't care for based on my morality, and television shows that I don't care for. That is the nature of a pluralistic multicultural society.... I'm not defending specific creative choices that people make. No, that's very different. I am defending their right to make those creative choices.

The problem with the media effects argument, aside from the methodological issues which I have raised elsewhere, is that it seeks to trump any real conversation about values and meanings. For games to grow as a medium, we need to be able to express our distastes with certain products without these expressions being taken as evidence that the works should be banned. We need to be able to talk about what disturbs or discomforts us about some titles without reducing those arguments to "risk factors." Complex cultural questions can't be decided by turning to brain scans and this film makes an important first step towards a more thoughtful conversation of these issues by making sure that all of the key players get a chance to be heard.


In many ways, San Jose Mercury reporter Dean Takahashi functions as the film's moral barometer: sharing a story of personal loss and real world violence and then describing the ways that he worked through his own conflicting feelings about violence in video games. The film mirrors his own intensely personal and yet deeply thoughtful reactions to the issue of media violence and through his eyes, offers us a way to -- if not resolve the conflict than at least -- respect more than one perspective on the core issues. Takehashi has also posted some interesting reflections on the experience of appearing in the documentary. Like others who have seen it, Takehashi sees Moral Kombat as an important work which could push the debate about media violence to another level.

So far, in focusing so closely what gets said in this film, I have not done justice to its own aesthetic accomplishment. The frame enlargements I have been reproducing throughout this series hint at but don't do justice to its complex visual style. In speaking with Halpin, he described his own experiences spending a lot of time in a sick bed watching certain films again and again on video. He shared his desire to create a film which can be watched many times and still give up new nuances. Using state of the art techniques, including an 80 track sound system, Halpin transforms the words of his interviewees into the starting point for a sometimes surreal audio-visual exploration of the mindscape of video games culture. As we speak, images swirl around us, sometimes giving form to our words, sometimes offering up conflicting images which challenge and complicate what we are saying. Sometimes, the filmmakers playfully transform the images of the speakers in ways that add new layers to the argument.


Watching the film twice, I still struggle to make sense of the relationship between spoken words and images. I am certainly aware that the constant images of video game violence may spark a visceral response very different from what the explicit argument of the film seems to be. If one is concerned about the impact of images of game violence, then should one be concerned about the impact of seeing so many violent acts? Certainly the film doesn't represent the full range of video game images which are out there and in some cases, the film removes scenes from their larger narrative context.

Yet, the film also captures the extraordinary beauty and sensuousness of much contemporary game imagery and in that way, forces the skeptical to reconsider the argument about whether games can be regarded as an art form. The visual style of this film will be dissected by classes and classes of film students -- the effect is unlike any other documentary film I've seen before.

Adding even more texture to the work is a soundtrack which, like Peter and the Wolf, asigns a different musical motif to each speaker and uses music to work through the relationships between alternative perspectives. It turns out that I was assigned the clarinet -- someone who knows more about film scores should tell me what to make of that choice of instrument. The music never seems to condemn or vilify speakers, always creating some degree of sympathy for what they have to say.

I am proud to have been included in this important work. I hope my readers will be open-minded enough to check their assumptions at the door, give the film a chance, and think through the implications of what it has to say with fresh eyes.