The uproar surrounding the February "discovery" of the Japanese game RapeLay, which had largely subsided, erupted again last week with the news that the Japanese PC game rating agency had decided to ban "rape games," and then again the next day when it was revealed that the games hadn't actually been banned at all. Internet forums glowed red with back and forth debates about cultural norms, freedom of expression and women's rights, and while nobody was prepared to argue that rape isn't a horrific act there were a few people who pointed out that it wasn't necessarily the worst thing a person would ever do in a videogame.
The truth is that we've all committed our share of virtual killing and in terms of heinous criminal behavior, the argument goes, that's awfully hard to top. And not just killing - I recently wrapped up Dead Space, in which I spent a good chunk of time stomping the remains of the fallen into goo. Yet while painting the walls with the blood of my enemies is an M-rated escapade at best, I don't think even the most ardent supporter of creative freedom for the videgame industry would suggest that a rape game be given anything less than the strongest Adults Only rating possible.
A handful of folks have argued that rape is in fact a "worse" crime than murder because of the severe trauma it inflicts. I can't imagine any sort of trauma much worse than death and I suspect that if you asked most rape survivors if, in the aftermath, they'd rather be dead, they'd probably reply in the negative. But in a certain context I'm willing to accept that rape is worse than murder; or perhaps, more accurately, that killing isn't necessarily as bad as rape.
Simply put, it's a question of context. The vast majority of killing in games is in the service of a greater good; from Wolfenstein 3-D through Doom, Half-Life, Halo, Killzone 2 and everything in between, the slaughter is a more-or-less justified means to an end. Whether it's ridding the streets of rampaging criminal scum, striking a blow for freedom or struggling against some otherworldly horror with the very survival of humanity hanging in the balance, the body count may be high but there's almost always a good reason for it. We're not shooting faces and hacking limbs for shits and giggles; we're doing it because the alternative is far worse.
Imagine for a moment a game called Dachau Tycoon, a Holocaust simulator in which players design camps, manage train schedules and, oh yes, send thousands of Jews to the gas chambers. Without context, the acts perpetrated in the game - which is to say, mass killings - are no worse than those portrayed in the 2003 shooter Freedom Fighters. Yet where that game earned a T rating from the ESRB, one putting players into the boots of a Nazi concentration camp commandant is so far beyond the pale as to be virtually unthinkable.