An Animal Rights Supporter About PETA And Cruelty In Games
Those of you that have heard of the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals or PETA for short through gaming channels, probably haven’t seen them in a positive light. With outbursts that condemn Mario 20 years post date for cruelty towards raccoons or Pokémon for the mistreatment of animals, it’s hard to take such an organization serious. This time they’ve returned with a campaign for Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm, where they’ll try to make players think about their treatment of the Zerg race and in that line about their interaction with animals in general.
It’s safe to say that at this point, PETA is running with being the bad guy by default and instead offers satirical parodies to create awareness for their cause. It’s like mock news network The Onion, but for the benefit of animals. No one is going to give them serious credibility for a promotion around a fictional race, which resembles a parasitic life form more than anything else. The Zerg are created to destroy all in service of the hive; that’s like giving a deadly disease a free pass for the sole reason of sentience. Even bleeding hearts need to make a divide at some point.
Peeling Away The Layers
Still, PETA’s actions often remind me, as an animal rights supporter, of my behavior in games. Their ludicrous Mario protest happened at the same time as the release of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, where the first thing I did when I entered the world was to kill 2 snow foxes and a passerby. This got me thinking why my subconscious instinct would immediately be to kill, not only wild creatures simply because they’re available, but also the first person I meet. I didn’t even check if they were friendly; I went right up and murdered them. They could’ve been a friendly travelling merchant, to whom I could sell my freshly torn fox pelt, but now they’re dead. If anything, my go-to reaction in games would resemble that of a sociopath in real life, while in the actual world I don’t even kill spiders, because I respect their existence.
There is a two part solution to this; more self-evident than anything. The first is that, despite our best efforts, games aren’t real. Controversial journalist Jim Sterling touched on this difference in his “Desensitized to Violence” piece, though due to the graphic nature of it, I won’t link it. I advise looking it up for reference anyway. The article shows that even if games take the realistic course, they’re not in any sense real and therefore are of little consequence in the outside world. When faced with real violence, most people will still react uncomfortably on some level. When shown footage of slaughtered animals, most will at least have a displeasing sensation due to its graphic nature, before realizing that this is what needs to be done in order to get meat for consumption. So, even if games like Mario have you pleasantly destroying wildlife by the hundreds, no rational being will link this to crushing turtles at the local pet shop.
What PETA sees as glorification of animal cruelty is in fact just an alternate reality altogether. It won’t contribute, not in great lengths, to the mistreatment of animals with balanced people; meat eaters or otherwise. Those that do sink to atrocious acts, such as dog fights or even hunting, can hardly be blamed for their lack of empathy, solely due to playing a game or two where such a thing was acceptable. These acts don’t come with the same levels of gratification as in a game. No points are scored, no shining lights are displayed and no squishy sound effects make us hunger for more. There will probably be much larger issues in upbringing that abide by the age-old Nature versus Nurture question. How much of this is inherent in a person’s DNA and how much of that was indoctrinated by their local culture? With this question, the responsibility lies within the person and the PETA issue can stop right then and there. Violence in games doesn’t cause violence in real life and never will. These responsibilities are within us all as people and the choices we make.
Propaganda Goes Both Ways
Still, the second part of the solution touches upon the previous and is one that is interesting to further think about. This indoctrination; how much of that is present in games? As mentioned, I immediately thought that anything in Skyrim was “fair game” to murder as I saw fit. No additional thought was even required. Even in games with morality filters, I’ll always play the good version, due to my nature, but I will occasionally resort to atrocities with no other reason than “because I can.” Part of this reasoning is the lack of consequence, which is inherent in games. Even on game-breaking issues, no real life reaction will follow a killing spree. It might be irksome to restart, because you butchered a village with remaining quests in Skyrim, but you won’t get fined by the police for your digital crime. Still, you see very little people outside carrying bows and shooting pigeons at random. Strangely enough, you’ll only be fined for carrying a forbidden weapon and not murdering living creatures, but it still withholds people from doing it.
That’s because there is such a thing as social control. There is no reset button in life, so you’ll be less inclined to partake in low consequence actions in any sense. Once a stigma is set, you can’t reload to make it go away. I’m sorry, but you won’t be shooting pigeons today.
We Built This City
On the other hand, game tropes have mostly been built on instant gratification for obvious entertainment purposes, which makes us proactive when it comes to murder and obscenities. Those foxes I wouldn’t kill in real life are walking loot in the universe of Tamriel and many others. If I don’t murder them, I won’t get rewarded. In games, murder is a reward, not a punishment. Even in games like Fable you at least get the gratification of severing that mean person’s head before being arrested. This is a part of PETA’s message I can follow. Maybe this needs to change. Maybe we can “do better” than just resort mostly to instant gratification. There are several ways to feel like we’ve been entertained, it doesn’t need to be ingrained in us all that we achieve it by actions we’d otherwise find deplorable.
Perhaps this is what David Cage wanted to touch upon in a recent, ill-fated speech at DICE 2013 where he condemned games for being “too violent,” while at the same time producing violent games. Yes, games are violent, but they could also be more than just a fleeting pastime. If that’s what PETA and Mister Cage want to convey, then I’m all for it. I feel terrible after butchering creatures in virtual worlds, yet I’m not stopping because they can gratify me in any sense. If we shift focus on violent games to more consequential gameplay, to more pensive afterthought, we can improve, deepen, enrich our own entertainment. I, for one, am an adamant fan of that message, not the “Mario is a bad man, for shame” message.
Indie feature Hotline Miami created such haunting thoughts by providing a high contrast between graphic massacres and being forced to walk through your path of destruction. Games like Proteus, where nothing really happens, do something similar. These types of games, though not perfecting a different gameplay style, are trying to change how we think about our entertainment. As violence is one of the key elements to be tackled in our virtual world, changing this will also be the biggest challenge. However, with time, who is to say what we can achieve. If Hotline Miami can make us think, surely a huge development studio will eventually be able to bring us closer to nature and sedate PETA’s issues with games.
Despite PETA, perhaps willingly, missing the point to serve their propaganda, there are some thoughts to be taken with a grain of salt. I’d like to close by stating that I by no means condemn those that do partake in the meat industry and I bear no ill will towards games that do use violent imagery. As always, vote with your wallet: If something is against your principles, whichever they may be, don’t buy into it. Don’t demand they change for your sake, simply be that change yourself. If game creators follow suit through suggestive action, then all the better, but everyone is free to express themselves in whatever way. I just don’t need to be a part of it. I don’t need murder on my plate in real life to satisfy me. I can still do that in games. Maybe I’m not ready to give it up just yet. It’s an eternal dilemma.