Bloody, sociopathic protagonists populate popular video games

Redmond Carolipio, Staff Writer
It's never been a better time to be bad - if you're a gamer.
While moviegoers, TV addicts and music lovers have grown to root for the bad guy, flawed characters have also earned a special place in the hearts of video-game players.
The heroic landscape once ruled by bouncing plumbers and speedy blue hedgehogs has been changed by the arrival of demon hunters, mentally tormented cops and most recently, gangsters.
Eric Elder, who heads the Game Art and Design program at the Art Institute of California in Los Angeles, links the shift to darker characters to the classic "Superman vs. Batman" discussion.
"In the '50s, people's idea of the ideal American was good and wholesome, like Superman," he said. "But then in the '70s, '80s and '90s, people just couldn't relate to something like that, because it's not realistic. Batman is more interesting - he's heroic and loyal, but he's got issues. There's different shades to him."
Elder also mentioned key characteristics that an anti-hero must have in order to appeal to the audience.
"First, you have to give him one really good attribute - he loves his family, he loves what he does, things like that," he said. "Then, when he does the bad stuff, you have to believe he's doing it for the right reason. It's his mission."
The concept of heroes and anti-heroes wasn't prevalent in the early days of gaming because there wasn't any technological room for it, said Keith Robinson, president of Intellivision, one of gaming's oldest companies.
"Back in the late '70s and '80s, the games didn't have all the pixels and the size to allow for personality. You'd have a game like 'Pitfall Harry,' but all you knew was that his name was Harry," Robinson said. "Now, you have cinematics and other things that create these almost living and breathing characters."
While it's difficult to find a game that "started" the move toward grittier, darker heroes, there's certainly no problem finding them now. Many of today's more popular games feature protagonists that range from dark and brooding to bloody and sociopathic.
For example, there's Max Payne, a skilled but chronically depressed police officer constantly haunted by the deaths of his wife and baby. One of the most awarded games of 2005, Sony's "God of War," featured Kratos, a former Spartan warrior whose skin is covered in the ashes of his dead family - whom he killed with his own hands. There's also Agent 47 of the "Hitman" series, a blank slate of a man who excels at the art of contract killing.
Gaming's darker side has drawn plenty of public ire, especially when it comes to the concept
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of street violence.
A favorite target is the 'Grand Theft Auto" franchise, which places players in the roles of various thugs, all of whom enjoy a violent freedom that has been well-documented and often decried.
The game currently in the cross hairs is "25 to Life" from Eidos Interactive. It pits police officers against gangsters.
Players assume the role of a gang member who's trying to leave behind his life of crime. But much of the action involves the main character shooting scores of police officers to survive.
Upon the game's release, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund launched an online petition to pull it off the shelves. According to the fund's Web site, the petition has amassed more than 200,000 signatures.
"We've obviously touched a vein in society," said Bruce Mendelsohn, spokesman for the organization. "With the reaction we've gotten, we might try to bring even more pressure."
The Rev. Reginald Beamon, a San Bernardino community activist and a one-time gang member, said games like "25 to Life" don't do anything to illuminate the real struggle against gangs.
"It secures the stereotypes of who these gang members are, what they look like, as well as their activities," he said. "It could also bring a sense of value - get them thinking, 'We're getting recognition for who we are.' We need to make sure the young people playing these games get an education."
That's the plan for Roderick Woodruff, co-founder of the Urban Video Game Academy, which educates inner city kids in the basics of game design - meaning plenty of math and writing.
Woodruff manages the school in Washington, but there are other academies in Baltimore and Atlanta.
"We're trying to create a new crop of storytellers," he said. "What we're seeing now with some characters is that it's all about misogyny and killing. There's nothing to emulate. We're out of the age of Superman."
Elder, of the Art Institute, said we're probably going to stay there.
"There's definitely going to be more variation in the future," he said, "but I can't see us going back. Society would have to move backward."

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