The Romans turned maiming and killing into the highest and most gory form of art. In the early years of the first millennium AD, gladiatorial combat was the era’s biggest spectator sport, and in the ancient world, Rome’s Colosseum was the greatest venue for the maiming and violent termination of humans and animals. The emperor Trajan is said to have celebrated a victory in Eastern Europe with contests that involved the deaths of around 10,000 gladiators and 11,000 beasts, among them ostriches, bears, elephants and tigers imported from Africa.
Wandering around the tortured remains of the Colosseum in 2010, with its soaring columns and tier after tier of tired, crumbling arches, it’s worth noting just how much technical and artistic ingenuity went into creating what was essentially an arena for live slaughter.
Some 2,000 years later, and you could argue a similar case, to a lesser degree, for videogames. Minds adept at physics, maths and computer science are applied to the creation of computer programmes where people run around shooting and hitting each other. Just as the Colosseum required once cutting edge engineering and mathematics to build, 21st century videogames require the combined intellects of dozens, sometimes hundreds of learned people to create.
The human race is collectively moving away from its violent past by degrees, but its ancient bloodlust remains. Hunting and killing is a part of our evolutionary heritage. It’s why we have eyes on the front of our heads, why we have sharp teeth, why we eat cows. However we dress ourselves up, comb our hair and bleach those sharp little teeth, we’re all still hunters at heart.
Which is why hunting and killing continue to form a huge part of what we call entertainment. We may not be sitting in colosseums, wearing togas and watching gladiators stab bears for our viewing pleasure, but we’re still fascinated by blood, death and violence.
The videogame, comparatively new as a form of entertainment, has had death and destruction at its core since its humblest beginnings. Whether it’s obliterating nefarious bricks in Breakout, or decimating aliens in Space Invaders, we’ve been killing things on a screen for over three decades.
I remember a time when, in the mid-80s, my mother was appalled by a ZX Spectrum game called Beach Head II, where you controlled a gun emplacement which shot at tiny stick men as they climbed over walls. It wasn’t particularly graphic even then, but there was something spooky, at the time, about how well-animated the little stick men were, particularly as round after round of gunfire (actually little more than individual, moving pixels) hammered into the scrambling ranks of men, who crumpled precipitously to the floor in their final throes of agony.
By the mid-to-late 80s, improving graphics saw soldiers die with greater and greater realism. The death animations of Green Beret‘s tiny antagonists (who turned to blackened skeletons in the wake of your flamethrower) gave way to the vast sprites of the ultraviolent Operation Wolf, where headshots saw enemies clutch their faces in mortal horror, and most disturbingly, nurses carrying stretchers were mercilessly struck down by your stray bullets.
Then, of course, came the first-person shooters of the early 90s, and all bets were off. Like Operation Wolf, the newly forged FPS genre allowed you to enjoy the guilty thrill of staring down the barrel of a gun at your quarry. But where rail shooters saw you fixed helplessly to a single, slow-moving axis, games such as Wolfenstein 3D, arguably the first fully fledged game of its type, though games such as 3D Monster Maze and Battlezone arguably displayed echoes of Id Software’s newborn invention, allowed a greater sense of realism, and even a modicum of tactical depth, as you lurked around corners and hid behind the safety of closed doors.
Wolfenstein saw its hero B.J. Blazkowicz offing Nazis in both jerky and bloody fashion, while Doom‘s nameless protagonist had the option to dispatch the game’s army of darkness with an unprecedented arsenal of guns, as well as the toothsome might of a chainsaw.
Since the 90s, younger developers have taken up Id’s mantle, and shooters have appeared with an ever greater dedication to the gory details of striking down your fellow man. You only have to glance at the 2009 remake of Wolfenstein to see just how much more detailed and graphic videogame deaths have become. Where the Nazis of the mid-90s disintegrated in a heap of red pixels, their post-millennial counterparts can be dismembered, blown up in a shower of giblets or shot to pieces with a variety of horrifying ordnance.
While anti-games lobbyists would argue that videogames have become increasingly violent, the truth is that, from a philosophical standpoint, they’ve remained much the same. The deaths in games such as Wolfenstein or Modern Warfare 2 may be more convincing from a visual standpoint than they were two decades ago, but the essential object of these games remains the same.
Whether you’re playing Space Invaders, Wolfenstein 3D circa 1992 or MadWorld, we’re still, as videogame devotees, scratching a biological itch that is as much a part of our heritage as our hair colour or our pathological hatred of Marmite.
So, while critics may argue that killing in videogames is gratuitous and unedifying, we can at least say, in our defence, that it’s a step up from watching gladiators stab prisoners of war or ostriches to death in a crowded Roman arena.