In the days surrounding the launch of Halo 3, the game has been railed by critics innumerable for its "disturbingly violent" content. Some of my favorite examples include CBS questioning whether or not the game is "too violent to play," this site lumping Halo 3 together with the ultra-brutal Manhunt 2, and of course, everyone's favorite Killjoy (no pun intended), anti-videogame lawyer Jack Thompson up to his usual assholery.
They do their best to camouflage it under the guise of various slippery-slope arguments: exposure to violent games could lead to more violent behavior. Weren't those Columbine kids inspired by the shooter Doom? However: a shorter, more honest and far more precise presentation of grievances would encompass but three words. Video games are responsible for Corrupting the Youth.
What does it mean to corrupt the youth? History marks the most famous case of corrupting the youth as that involving no other than the godfather of Western philosophy: Socrates. In The Apology, one of Plato's best known Socratic dialogs, a most unapologetic Socrates stands accused of exactly the same crime, about 2400 years before Nintendo.
Of course, the charges against Socrates were pretty bogus. The higher-ups of the time, embarrassed by their inability to win a debate with the philosopher, and piqued by his growing influence and brazen and irreverent style of questioning, decided to confront him again in the courtroom and thus gain home field advantage. Socrates did not preach the rebellion, treason, or blasphemy of which he was accused, but rather challenged the common wisdom which existed in relation to the spheres of government and religion. In hindsight, the methods he actually taught were in and of themselves more dangerous to the established authority than the charges which were brought against him.
Too bad his enemies failed to see this: their show trial and subsequent execution of Socrates may have silenced the man, but it only lent further credence to the message.
Maybe that's why I think Thompson, and all the other anti-videogame crusaders, have a valid point this time.
Don't get me wrong. The charges leveled against Halo are as overblown as those Socrates faced, and likewise those who seek to discredit the game on account of its violence blind themselves to its consequences of its deeper, more potent message.
There's No Fighting in the War Room!
To simplify the discussion, I'm going to ignore completely the potential negatives online multiplayer introduces. These problems are not specific to Halo, or even to video games in general, but rather affect any activity which takes place on the Internets. Judging strictly from the torrent of abusive language, Xbox Live seems like some sort of haven for oodles of bigots, racists, misogynists and America-haters. However, if those were the only problems, concerned parents could simply deny their children's Xbox's a connection to the Series of Tubes. So enough about that.
My argument here concerns the single-player campaign. Judged upon that aspect alone, Halo 3 is not a violent game.
Well okay, maybe it is. But what it certainly is not, is wantonly, brutally or irresponsibly violent. In fact, I doubt there is a single moment in the entire Halo series which would offend, as they say, 9 out of 10 people.
It might help to contrast the Halo series with another Big Event Game series: God of War. In order to progress in God of War the player is required to kill his own fellow soldiers who have fled combat. Later, the player must sacrifice another soldier to the gods by burning him alive. This is a series with similar extremely high production values, intended for exactly the same audience, presenting a comparable level of stylized violence, which when stood side by side with Halo immediately reveals the disparity between the two.
There's nothing "edgy" about Halo. This isn't a series about stealing cars and killing prostitutes, or seeking existential revenge, where the "good" mob is a fractionally less sadistic clone of the "bad" mob. Halo is about nothing if not good old fashioned heroism. You could tear any of Homer's sculpted demigods out of the pages of the Illiad and drop them into the Master Chief's armor, and---jokes about Spartans vs SPARTANs aside---they'd feel right at home. Oddly enough, put them in the role of God of War's protagonist Kratos, and despite finding themselves in their own time and place (though an admittedly sensationalist version) I doubt they would adopt his fight. The morally of too many so-called modern heroes is lacking. I believe part of the success and appeal of the Halo franchise is a return to the black and white morality so many seem to crave (the same thing that got Bush elected).
In Halo 3, the player is never put into a position of doing anything other than fighting valiantly and selflessly to save the human race, and eventually, all life in the galaxy. Harming the other humans in the game in any way is never framed as permissible. Never in fact, are any humans shown in any state of conflict, or in any light but the most noble and good. Heck, even the swearing is kept in check.
The violence in Halo isn't particularly violent either, compared to its contemporaries. There's blood, sure. Green blood. Blue blood. Purple blood. Get the idea? Reason number 2 why Halo is a successful franchise is the skillful use of abstraction. Imagine a spectrum where at the right endpoint sits a photograph of a man taken with a $15,000 camera, and at the opposite left extreme is your standard stick figure. While many other games endevour to produce the most "realistic" looking weapons, settings, charactors, opponents and death scenes of which the current technology is capable, Halo eschews that approach for a more comfortable in between.
The enemies are named after their function. Elites look and act cunning; Brutes are big, strong and dumb; Jackals offer annoying harassment and Grunts are cannon-fodder. None of the enemy models aim to produce something which could fool the player into believing it is possible. Likewise, the gameplay doesn't try to be "gritty" in the sense of a Tom Clancy game. Halo does a fantastic approach re-creating what a valiant fight should feel like, not what it does.
The means through which the player must accomplish the game's missions are certainly violent. However, as in any case where violence is being applied, the questions of acceptability and proportionality must be posed and pondered. I doubt many adults, if they would but pause to consider Halo's violence inside of the game's context, would have a problem letting their children encounter it. Opposing a relentless interstellar horde bent upon the destruction of Earth is hardly a difficult choice. (Because I want to teach my children not to oppose alien invasion, on moral grounds? What kind of twisted morality is that?) Successful premise number 3: offer a universally just cause.
The Only Thing Worse...
I believe all these parents' groups, opportunistic politicians, fearmongers and self-proclaimed defenders of decency who rail against Halo are completely oblivious to something which would be considered much more controversial, polarizing and many times as objectionable than the violence by the vast majority of people.
That something is religion. (After such a build up, it had to be either God or sex.)
The Harry Potter franchise got a lot of attention from these same sorts of people because it supposedly led children to witchcraft. Yet Halo, despite containing blatantly anti-religious messages, is attacked exclusively for its violence.
The epic sweep that is Halo's storyline involves humanity's final hours. To quote some backstory from the first game's instruction manual:
...this was humankind's first encounter with a group of aliens they eventually came to know as the Covenant, a collective of alien races united in their fanatical religious devotion. Covenant religious elders declared humanity an affront to the gods, and the Covenant warrior caste waged a holy war upon humanity with gruesome diligence.
The language alone is telling. Apparently humanity was just minding its own business, cavorting through space doing its Neil Armstrong thing, when all of a sudden it gets slammed by a jihad with little warning and no provocation. Never is an explanation provided for the Covenant's initial hostility and willingness to launch their assault other than "(alien) God wills it". Most games involving interstellar conflict at least offer up the flawed and tired resource war cliche.
In the sequels, we come face to face with the Covenant's leadership. I think it's fair to say these leaders personify the very worst traits of religious fanatics. The three in particular around which the story revolves, the Prophets of Truth, Mercy and Regret, are shown to possess none of these traits, but rather seem to embody every negative stereotype of the pious ripped straight from one of Nietzsche's vicious diatribes. They refuse to admit a single grain of fallibility, branding all who oppose their command as heretics and marking them for death.
In sharp contrast to the Covenant, the actions of the humans in the game are always presented as a rational response. Mission objectives are explained to the player. Every action you are asked to perform is coupled with a plain and understandable motive. The only time any human mentions god is mid-profanity. No human in the game, it appears, is tainted by any Faith.
When the true nature of the Halo is revealed (it turns out to be the uber-Doomsday device) it is the rational aspect of the protagonists which enables them to set aside existing conflicts and commit themselves to focusing on this new threat. In the series' second installment, it is the Elite's rationality to which the humans appeal to convince them to join forces---as soon as they lose their faith, they immediately move from bad guys to good guys. (I suppose that makes an orbital insertion into Halo's atmosphere the anti Road to Damascus.). In the final volume, said rationality allows yet another brief alliance with a former foe born of desperation. The Covenant would never stand for such a thing.
At one point late in the game, a couple of enemy Grunts rush the player holding lit grenades on both hands, emitting a battle cry that's a cross between Xena: Warrior Princess and a rabid llama. In the context of the struggle, there is only one possible interpretation for this. I don't believe it is crass or superficial at all to suggest the similarities between Halo's portrayal of the Covenant and the average person's understanding of Islamic terrorism.
And just how blatant is it that the Covenant's supreme leader, named nothing other than the Prophet of Truth, turns out to be the biggest bullshitter in the Universe? Is there any chance such a name could be anything but an intentional jab at religions which claim sole possession of Ultimate Truths? Is it an accident the human hero is a product of the same genetic engineering most religions strictly proscribe? Even the award winning atmospheric soundtrack contributes to the anti-religious theme. There is a sadness suggested whenever the Covenant seem about to win: a requiem for all who fell fighting against a delusion. Or for all those who believed, and died in vain.
Only the Good Die Young (In An Interstellar Apocalypse)
The final nail in the coffin is hidden in plain sight. Throughout their campaign of bloodshed, the Covenant leadership are seeking to begin what they refer to as The Great Journey, which they understand to be a miraculous, transformational process which will only permit the True Believers. Every sermon their priests emit contains plenty of references. The Great Journey is near. The righteous will embark and all others will remain. Do not lose hope.
What the player learns soon enough, is that to begin The Great Journey involves activating the doomsday machine that is the Halo. In sharp contrast to what the Covenant believe will occur, such an event would damn sinners and saints alike to a most inauspicious death. Whether or not the Covenant understand they will die when the Halo is lit is never expounded.
The metaphor is obvious. Many religious martyrs have believed when they die fighting the good fight their reward is an express train to heaven. People who don't share their creed dub them monsters or fools. The Great Journey, at the center of the Covenant's faith, fills exactly the same role.
I mentioned before how Halo uses abstraction to moderate its level of violence. Likewise, Halo uses abstraction here to great effect. The Covenant Prophet's garb is not Catholic, or Jewish, or Muslim. It is a blend of elements of each. No single real life religion involves a Great Journey, but many involve heaven, or reward those who cling to their faith in spite of its inconvenient truths. The tone of Covenant's sermons suggest the latest sound bytes from populist Islamic clerics in Iraq, yet the names of their spacecraft represent the higher Christian ideals. The designations of their vehicles (the Ghost, Banshee, Wraith, Scarab and Spectre) offer a supernatural, New Age vibe---while the humans' fighting machines are named after very tangible animals. These factors combine with the previous points to solidify Halo's anti-religious bent as being not against any one particular faith, but rather opposed to religion in general.
I wonder if this is the 4th reason for Halo's success. The message certainly fits the times, and melds with the media's rhetoric of a good secular West in a clash of civilizations with a bad believing East. Aliens in video games---actually let's expand that to include most visual science-fiction---used to represent the perils of fascism. Space Nazis sought to enslave humanity, or to tyrannize and plunder Earth's natural wealth. With Halo the root of such imaginary conflicts have finally caught up with the headlines: there is no prize both sides are fighting over, there is only the prospect of staving off catastrophe.
The State of the Arts
The violence in Halo is always presented as noble and appropriate, and is veiled under a cloak of abstraction. American boy culture has always involved play violence. Cowboys vs Indians, Cops vs Robbers, Axis vs Allies---few would suggest that engaging in these pursuits as a child cripples the ability of men to later reason or empathize. Why is Humans vs Aliens somehow different? Finally, for any who suggest that Halo 3 glorifies war to no end, I'd suggest you go youtube the game's ending. It'll only take 5 minutes.
Simultaneously, every aspect of the game which touches on religion furthers Halo's theme: religion is a bad thing. Seen side by side with the framing of the violence in such a positive light, Halo's hidden message may very well be that force is sometimes justified to deal with hostile believers.
I just heard about a church using Halo 3 to attract new converts. As one Newsviner aptly commented:
Isn't Master Chief a soulless abomination created through genetic engineering? And aren't the antagonists religious zealots with an apocalypse fetish? Exactly which side is the home team here?
Putting aside the ethics of luring young and impressionable boys to church with the promise of HD gaming, wouldn't it be more effective to do this with a different game? Halo rules and all, and sure it's the big thing at the moment, but there are other games out there just as fun which send neutral, or even positive messages about religion. I know there are, I've played and enjoyed them. But right now it's the Army which ought to be recruiting with Halo
Don't get me wrong. I'm about the biggest Halo fanboy there is. Anyone who enjoys playing games should pick up Halo 3, regardless of whether or not they count themselves among the devout. The game is simply top-notch.
But those who ignore the reality of Halo's message are doing both the game and themselves a disservice. Kind of like all those wannabe rappers out there idolizing Tony Montana from Scarface. (Have you guys ever actually seen that movie? The dude winds up miserable, alone, and finally dead, after killing everyone he loves---hardly worth emulating.) Any church using Halo as a recruitment tool is guilty of the same wanton ignorance.
Oddly enough, I can recall a handful of other video games with similar messages (Grandia and Morrowind jump out at me right away). But I can't for the life of me recall hearing anyone raising the same level of fuss about it that seems commonplace whenever the latest blockbuster game involves shooting a gun.
And here is precisely where the problem lies.
If we take the time to apply the most superficial media analysis to Halo, these interpretations because obvious. For better (if it keeps quality content like Halo on the shelves) or worse (if it provides yet another facet of their children's life experience for parents to remain ignorant of), Halo and an increasing number of other popular games, conceal complex themes and articulate positions about contemporary issues under a veneer of formulaic point-shoot-repeat action.
Part of the concern is that it is doubtful many parents will have a spare 20+ hours to vet games like Halo 3 to discern just what their many takes are. And even if they did, how many non-Generation-X adults are willing to engage Halo, or any other video game, as a work of art which has a point to make? As something which, in addition to being a fun way to spend an evening, allows us to see the world through a certain lens?
As a statement.
Maybe we're not quite at that stage yet. But we have undeniably left the point where all games can be said to be thematically alike, or worse: neutral. Halo's themes demand consideration, if not judgment, by parents, who will or won't end up supplying the game to children; by adults, who will seek to condemn or applaud the game; and by its players, who will find that Halo's themes most certainly will have an impact on their experience with the game. Personally, I found Halo's eschatological sub-texts to heighten the intensity of the storyline in a very positive way. But Thompson is right to rail on Halo: if a game contains such a potent stance on such a hot-button topic I wouldn't it influencing any children under my watch---without my first being aware of it.
So if we read "corrupting the youth" to mean "posing challenges to the set of beliefs with which a culture has filled people", than Halo 3 is undeniably a corrupting influence. Of course, that fact that the game can even be revealed to have such subtleties provides yet further credence to the proposition that video games have become a new art form.
And under that definition, is there anything truly more corrupting to the youth than the arts?