Why videogames haven’t grown up yet: violence

Killing things has been woven into the fabric of videogaming since its earliest days. But where, Harry asks, can games go from here?

Videogames are getting older, even as we speak. We’ve watched them take their first steps, marvelled as they’ve struggled through those difficult first stages of life, and gone “aww” when they said their first, dribble soaked words. But now, videogames are at an awkward, pustular stage in their life, all gangly limbs and half broken voices.

With that in mind, we move to the latest part of our series on why videogames haven’t come of age yet (we’ve covered sex and drugs over the past few weeks, links are at the bottom), and take a look at the most divisive issue that videogames are going to have to contend with as they stomp towards a new level of maturity – violence.

Violence is the number one bugbear of the mainstream media where videogames are concerned, and the banner beneath which most moral crusades are launched. Be it an implication of guilt in a spree killing, a suggestion of degrading values in society, or of the dehumanising of the victims of gang culture, people are quick to point the finger in the direction of violent videogames.

The reasons for this are manifold, but the one most often cited is the interactive nature of videogames. The medium’s most stringent naysayers call videogames murder simulators, pieces of software designed to train young and impressionable minds in the fine arts of cold blooded slaughter.

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Indeed, the most famous and obsessive of videogame accusers, Jack Thompson, goes further than most, saying that videogames are a tool of the armed forces, who use them to disconnect the action of killing from the consequences, namely the taking of another human being’s life.

There are swathes of scientific studies that back up and refute the claims of both sides of the argument, but in this piece, we’re not really interested in whether or not videogames restrict the growth of children’s frontal lobes. That’s a discussion for another time. What we’re interested in is the portrayal of violence.

Videogames have always dealt with physical conflict. From monochrome space battles to garish, blood soaked brawls, one of the main themes of interactive digital entertainment has been using force to stop an aggressor from realising their goal. That goal may be as simple as caving your face in, or as complex as as taking over the world.

Of course, as protagonist, you have your own reasons for perpetrating hideous physical damage onto a polygonally realised enemy, although quite often, you’ll find yourself in the role of the underdog. You’ll be the lone wolf, heavily armed but massively outnumbered, and out to right some terrible wrong done to you.

In other words, you’re a superman, charged with the eradication of everything that stands between you and the vague plot device waggled in front of your eyes at the start of the game. Carnage becomes its own reward, as you plough through levels of ever more competent bad guys, racking up high scores, achievements and a body count that would make Pol Pot blush.

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This is, of course, an oversimplified generalisation, but in the main it holds true. Enemies are presented as obstacles to be bypassed, and the tools you are given to do that inevitably lead you to kill. Except you’re not killing, not really. Violence in videogames is inconsequential, because the next time you play a particular level, your enemies will be back, in the same place, following the same routines as they were the first time round.

That’s not to say that by repeatedly killing the same faceless drones you somehow become desensitized to real world violence – far from it, in fact. Videogames strip the act of killing of all its emotional resonance, relegating it to the level of an 80s action film. Shoot, quip, move on. Your acts aren’t simply inconsequential, they become anti-consequential – devoid of any contextualisation, taking a digital life is no more shocking than returning a shot in pong.

There are very few moments in videogames that are actually difficult to watch. True, there are some attacks that leave the best of us wincing, or sequences that make us feel uncomfortable, but very rarely do we have to turn away from the screen because what we’re seeing is so unpalatable.

Take the Saw videogames, for example. Far from exquisite in terms of gameplay, the content of the titles is supposedly aimed at those with stronger stomachs. Game mechanics include sticking your character’s arm into a toilet full of dirty syringes, fishing a key out of a vat of acid and beating half crazed humans to death with lumps of wood.

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These are all activities that, were we to engage in them ourselves, would lead to lasting physical and psychological damage. When reduced to combinations of button presses, they become abstract, meaningless half-actions. You’re not commanding a stranger to do something that will cause them harm, you’re attempting to defeat a mechanism in order to progress to the next stage of the game.

In essence, the fact that you’re elbow deep in needles is nothing but window dressing. Of course, I’m not for a moment suggesting that every videogame should set out to create psychological trauma in those who play it, or that the visual theme of a game isn’t important in creating an ambience. What I am suggesting is that the problem videogames have in their portrayal of violence is not the desensitisation of the gamer, but the dehumanisation of the game.

Look at one of the most recent controversies, the No Russian level in Modern Warfare 2. In it, you play the role of an undercover operative, taking part in a terrorist atrocity at an airport. You walk through the terminal, and can, if you so choose, shoot everything and anything that moves, both civilians and guards alike.

You can view the level as shocking, but taken from another angle, it’s simply the repetition of behaviour you demonstrate in every other part of the game. You’re no more slaughtering innocent holiday makers in No Russian than you are gunning down dissident soldiers in every other level. The shock emanates from the narrative context of the shooting, not from the action itself.

Again, all you’re doing is traversing one of the obstacles the developers have placed in front of you. The choice you make as to your own participation in the act is meaningless – it will happen anyway, because it’s an important, although ultimately flawed, piece of the story.

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The problem videogames have is that they are really only able to show violence from one perspective. Most other mediums can elicit empathy and sympathy for their protagonists by showing them suffering, but that’s something that’s difficult to portray in an interactive way. It boils down to a character’s motivation for his or her action, and, in videogames, that justification is often difficult to pinpoint.

Videogames are escapist, they take us away from the humdrum realities of life and transport us somewhere we can perform feats that would otherwise be impossible. Not for a second am I trying to curtail this, but just because there’s a market for Michael Bay-style blockbusters, doesn’t mean there isn’t one for games with a more considered approach to violence.

What’s needed is an arena in which violent acts are more than just bridges between cut scenes, more than just methods of clearing a path between A and B. Anyone who has been the victim of violence understands the deep mark it can make on them, and while there will always be room for the mindless, scattergun approach that’s currently all the rage, if videogames are to move on, the consequences of a violent act, rather than just the act itself, have to take centre stage.

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