Friday, September 9, 2011

Video Games in TV: Law & Order SVU

"Some TV shows just don't get it." Part of a periodical series: Video Games in TV.

In this season six episode, "Game," NYPD detectives work a murder case that appears straight out of a video game. The episode explores the controversial topic of video game violence and does a fairly good job of representing both sides of the debate. But, like nearly every television series out there, they wind up using incredibly stupid-looking game footage, misusing video game terminology, and generally betraying their inept understanding of video games. So let's jump right into it.

The murder in question involves a streetside prostitute, a sports car, and a whole lot of blood. The perpetrator drove up onto the sidewalk, struck her with the car, got out, take her purse, and beat her to death as she crawled away. As the detectives are in the police department going over the evidence, Detective Stabler's preteen son points out that it's a perfect match with what happens in the popular game, Ntencity. Which looks a lot like a Grand Theft Auto clone. 

So the kid starts playing the game to show the detectives the resemblance. And of course, he's controlling the entire game by frantically banging away at the keyboard. He starts describing that particular scene, "I'm driving along, and I see a woman, so I run her over."  He makes it sound like he's controlling the car and everything, but look at this camera angle:

The car comes whizzing around the corner, driving straight at the camera, which is blocked by a close-up of the woman as she walks closer and closer towards it. How in the world is anyone supposed to be able to see what's going on to control the car? There's just no way this would ever happen in a halfway-decent game, unless it were a cinematic cutscene. But the whole point is that it's interactive, that the kid is controlling the car and all his character's actions.

After witnessing the kid run over this woman, get out of the car, take her purse, and beat her, the detectives jconclude that this game is what inspired the murder, that they're mimicking this scene in the game. Now if this is anything like GTA, then this "scene" isn't really a "scene," it's something that players can do freely whenever they want. The player doesn't have to run over a hooker, and they don't have to specifically get out of the car, kick them several times, and take their purse. It's not like beating up a hooker is anything unique to this game, so I don't understand why everyone is so quick to jump to that conclusion.

Not to mention the fact that if Stabler's kid hadn't been in the office, no one would have ever made that connection, and the case would've stopped dead in its tracks. How convenient for them that the kid was there to explain it. Also, they've got a preteen kid playing this mature game. Stabler asks how he knows about it, and the kid says "Everybody plays it." Yup, because all young children play mature-rated games like this.

Let's stop for a moment to look at these graphics. This episode aired in February of 2005. Those graphics look like something from 1999, or some really amateur project. This game is coming out at about the same time as Doom 3 and Resident Evil 4, just to give you an idea of the benchmark games are capable of and how terrible Ntencity looks.

The detectives now think they're looking for a gamer, so they ask the team psychologist for a profile, and he says that "the average gamer is probably male, between 10 and 50 years old." That doesn't sound like much of an average to me, it sounds more like nearly the entire spectrum. Wouldn't the average of "between 10 and 50" be somewhere around 30? Maybe he just shouldn't have said "average." 

Anyway, they go to Tektop Games to find out more about the game. They talk to some guy who says "Yeah I designed Ntencity." As if he single-handedly made it. The detectives ask if he's aware of the murder that's been committed in honor of the game footage, and the developer guy says "Look, our games are cartoons. They're fun. If a couple of idiots take them too far that's not our problem." This studio looks way too small and informal for the developer of the game that "everybody plays," and they'd probably have a lawyer handle these kinds of investigations, not just Joe Shmoe. But I'm also pretty sure that video game developers aren't this blase about murder, so that's an unfair depiction. 

Joe Shmoe then agrees to try to help them and he mentions that that scene was an easter egg. After explaining what an easter egg is to the ignorant audience, he explains that the fansites on the internet have posted all of the easter eggs and how to find them. Detective Munch asks if they know if the fansites are talking about a woman being attacked, the Joe says "We're about to release Ntencity 2, I don't have time to go trolling on fan sites." I don't think even Joe Shmoe knows what trolling means. 

Then they find out that somebody wrote a mod that alters "that scene" in the game, so that the player now rips the hooker's blouse off just like in the actual crime, the description of which was never released to the public. Detective Ice-T asks who could've done that, and Joe says "Could only be one person. Stu Davis." And once again I find it very hard to believe that only one person would be able to do that, but for the sake of convenience let's just roll with it. 

Stu Davis: Stereotypical computer programming nerd.

They eventually track the murder down to three people who were in cahoots, and the rest of the episode turns into the legal prosecution. The sleazeball defense attorney (aka the mayor from Spin City) says to the jury that "A violent video game teaches its players to kill automatically," trying to blame the video game for the crime. He brings the NYPD psychologist onto the stand, asking questions about video games being addictive, and whether they teach people to kill, and whether the game was the inspiration for the murder. But the psychologist is trying to qualify the situation, basically in defense of games, but the manipulative lawyer won't let him talk long enough to explain himself.

I'm not going to counter-argue all of the specific things the lawyer says, because it's just not worth it for a pointless TV show. If you want some more words about the video game violence myth and controversy and how it pertains to real cases, you can read more here

Thankfully, the jury eventually finds the murderers guilty and video games are off the hook. Right before the end credits, Detective Stabler is at home with his kid, and he takes some initiative to be a good parent by talking with kid. So in the end, this episode is nice because people are being responsible with their kids and not using video games as a scapegoat. Even though the rest of the portrayal of video games and the gaming community is pretty bad, I have to respect this episode for not pandering to the ignorant mindset of video games being the root of all evil.

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