The Latest Ham-Fisted Tabloid Hit-Piece on Video Games Contains a Kernel of Truth

By Rich Stanton on at

The UK's Mail on Sunday newspaper is a distinct entity from the more infamous Daily Mail, published throughout the week, though the two share a website. That's a necessary prelude to saying that the Mail Online has today republished a story from the Mail on Sunday that takes aim at Detroit: Beyond Human, the upcoming game from Quantic Dream helmed by David Cage.

As you can see from the header and straplines, the Mail Online's approach is fairly straightforward. It presents Detroit as something that is using child abuse for the purposes of amusement and (an oft-used word in the article) 'fun.' The Mail's journalists sought comment from various individuals, but it is abundantly clear that all of them have odd ideas about both video games and Detroit's content (several don't even mention the game). The Mail also produced an infographic showing one way in which the scene plays out.

Thing is, the above is hard to argue with. Yes, you could point out that the Mail Online is presenting one of Detroit's branches as the whole game. And the above scenario is also unlikely to occur in most playthroughs, because it is the outcome of the player's complete inaction. But it can happen.

Which means that, before going on to the talking heads, we have to admit to an uncomfortable truth. This Detroit trailer, first shown at the Playstation Experience at Paris Games Week, was controversial within the games industry for many of the reasons that underlie the Mail's report.

The player is not participating in the domestic violence scene but an observer, the android Kara, 'unable' to act and intervene. It is a disturbing scene to watch play out, even when the observer is not controlling Kara. To be blunt about it, no-one really wants to see children in distress. Reactions within the industry showed that many people felt the same way, with some questioning whether David Cage in particular was the right kind of creator to be dealing with such a topic. Cage's own responses, in an interview with Eurogamer, are often less than satisfactory.

You don't choose to talk about domestic abuse. It's not like I was like 'oh, let's write a scene about domestic abuse'. It's not how it works. When you're a writer you talk about things that move you, that you feel really deep inside you that's something that moves you, and you hope it'll move people too. You know there are two ways you can do this - 'oh let's do something cool and let's have someone beaten by a man', that's one way of doing things, because people are going to write about it and it's going to sell my game. That's one way of doing it.

But you do actually choose to write scenes about domestic abuse. That's how it works.

It is perhaps worth reminding ourselves of exactly what is going on in the scene, and the effect it is trying to achieve. The scene features a young girl and her abusive father, who's in a rage and at one point gets out his belt to beat her. Kara is a home-help android who is observing. One of Detroit's themes is self-determination, the ability to make choices, and this scene centres around whether Kara / the player decide to break out of her programming and try to help the girl. The trailer goes to great lengths to show the amount of possible intervention points, and the way the story can branch off – including the above route where things go badly wrong.

Does the game succeed with this? I may have my doubts, but the truth is I don't know. Neither the writers of the Mail's story nor any of its interviewees appear to have played the game either. That's not to say we shouldn't have an opinion on it, but these things matter – without the full context of this scene and Kara's own story, we just don't know a lot about where the game is going.

One thing that is striking, however, is that the Mail on Sunday conflates the actual experience of the scene – that is, the perspective of Kara and the player – with the other events taking place in the scene. It is clear from the interviewees' responses that they have been led to believe that this game features domestic violence in which the player participates.

The Conservative MP Damian Collins, Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, says this:

It is completely wrong for domestic violence to be part of a video game regardless of what the motivation is. Domestic violence is not a game and this simply trivialises it. I worry that people who play this who themselves have suffered abuse will use this game to shape the way in which they deal with abusers.

It’s dangerous to plant the seed in people’s minds that the way to deal with abusers is to use violence against them. It’s counter-productive and could put them in even more danger.

It is amazing that someone holding Mr Collins' position could be so ignorant and reactionary about video games. "Domestic violence is not a game" may sound like a clever quote but in this context it's a misrepresentation of Detroit, which he then goes on to imply will inspire revenge attacks against abusers. "It is completely wrong for domestic violence to be part of a game" – shall we ban Brookside? The idea that playing games makes you violent underlies Mr Collins' points, but there's no evidence to show this is the case – or that players are mindless mimics, who play GTA then go and nick cars. Mr Collins is drawing a very direct link between an unreleased video game and real abuse. That does not seem responsible.

The journalist and presenter Esther Rantzen offered her perspective in an offset op-ed.

But I’ve never heard of little girls being beaten with a belt as part of a game. That, in my view, is not just savage, it’s seriously damaging.

Who would play such a game for fun? People who are impervious to the suffering of children.

[...]

We never want anyone to believe that beating a child to death with a belt is the stuff of entertainment. It should never be trivialised or turned into a game.

I call upon Sony Interactive Entertainment to think again and withdraw this game, or at least remove this scene where a virtual child is put in life-threatening danger. If you don’t, real children may suffer.

Again, Rantzen is not accurately describing the game – she believes that the player is an active participant in the domestic abuse. What follows are extreme words from someone who clearly doesn't know much about Detroit beyond what the journalists interviewing her have told her. Rantzen's suggestion that anyone interested in this game is "impervious to the suffering of children" is outrageous – you may as well say this about anyone who reads Lolita or watches Don't Look Now. Her call for Sony to withdraw the game is an embarrassment. 

Child abuse is not a joke or something to be treated frivolously – but it doesn't seem to me that this is what Detroit is doing. Rantzen's ultimate position is that child abuse should be a taboo topic for the most important entertainment medium of our age, which from the founder of Childline seems mind-boggling.

There's an unspoken double standard underpinning such peoples' opinions, which is that video games cannot contain 'serious' topics. That's what they all boil down to saying, before the inevitable half-disguised cries for censorship. The article's authors have done poor research, including misrepresenting the Hot Coffee scandal as something worse ("In 2005, one version of the game, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, caused outrage after it emerged that it contained secret sex scenes that players could unlock.") This is not small stuff: the Mail on Sunday and Mail Online have enormous reach both within the UK and globally, and however poorly reported this story is it could still have a big impact on Detroit.

Generally I'm no huge fan of David Cage's games. But I respect Quantic Dream's work, and the intentions behind much of it: that drive to deal with topics other games don't, that refusal to be cowed by people who say 'games should do this', and that willingness to throw its bread on the water. Both domestic violence and child abuse are the kind of topics that require a special level of care and consideration before being incorporated into any work. It could be argued that this Detroit trailer, in some respects, failed that test – perhaps it's as simple as using this scene in a marketing trailer, rather than leaving it to be discovered by the game's players.

If there is a failing on Quantic Dream's part, and that remains to be seen, it will be a failing of nuance and context. But there is a far more obvious failure here on the part of the Mail on Sunday and its talking heads, who are calling for the censorship of a medium they don't like or understand – and are misrepresenting the subject to do so. It's perfectly legitimate to call out Detroit. But if you think banning certain topics from video games will solve anything, the only ignorance on show is your own.