Social Worlds in 100 Objects, Themes and Ideas

The video game: a legitimate art form?

Dr Vincent Campbell from the University of Leicester’s Department of Media and Communication examines the violence inherent in modern video games. He questions whether they are vulgar and tasteless or in fact evolving into a provocative and authentic form of media.

Since their first appearance in the early 1970s as large machines occupying dark corners of social spaces, video games have become a pervasive feature of everyday life. The video game market is now worth over $50 billion a year, with individual games costing tens of millions to produce and capable of making hundreds of millions in sales. As a result it contributes around a billion pounds to the UK economy each year.

In roughly the same period, the discipline of media studies has also developed dramatically, and the University of Leicester has been at the forefront of the field since the establishment of its Centre for Mass Communication Research in 1966. Today it exists as the Department of Media and Communication. Traditionally focused on the conventional mass media (print, broadcasting, film), media sociology has expanded dramatically to encompass developments in a variety of new media technologies like video games.

As is typical of many new forms of media, public debates about video games are dominated by concerns over their influence, concerns that are never far from newspaper headlines. Video games have become convenient scapegoats for a variety of society’s ills. Sociological analysis of video games has begun to reveal how the game development is not just a question of increasingly visceral graphics depicting ever more gruesome violence, but also advances in narrative complexity and depth. Some games, like the Wild West based Red Dead Redemption and the Greek mythology based God of War 3, reward the player on completion of those games with the unavoidable death of the protagonists. Others, such as Heavy Rain, The Last of Us and Bioshock: Infinite, give players choices that affect how the narratives unfold, and whether characters live or die.

And even more conventional “shoot ‘em ups” are being affected by this new trend, which arguably creates scope for the player to reflect on their actions within the game. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, for instance, included a mission depicting a terrorist massacre that led to calls in Parliament for it to be banned. The player’s character, a US special forces solider undercover within a terrorist group, has little option but to join in with an airport massacre, which is seen by critics as a tasteless use of terrorism as entertainment. However as I discuss in the book Controversial Images: Media Representations on the Edge, the criticism of this mission fails to recognise the emerging potential for video games to do exactly what we expect other forms of media to do- to make audiences think, and reflect on their perceptions, beliefs and actions in challenging and often provocative ways.

There may still have a long way to go before they are seen alongside other media as a legitimate art form, but as they continue to evolve and occupy more of our time and attention, video games are unquestionably worthy of continued sociological scrutiny.

Dr Vincent Campbell

Research interests

  • Journalism and new media (e.g. citizen journalism)
  • Political Communication, especially election communication (particularly in the UK, EU and USA)
  • Science documentary and factual entertainment television
  • My research activity has occurred mainly in these three areas, as can be seen by looking at my publications, but I have also published research in other areas, such as my work on videogames in my co-edited collection Controversial Images: Media Representations on the Edge (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

Supervision interests

  • Political communication and media regulation and policy, in countries such as Malawai, Tanzania, Ghana and the HKSAR
  • Topics within any of the declared areas of research listed above

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