A few months ago I played through Spec Ops: The Line, and for a long while afterward, it changed my view on violence in videogames. That was of course the purpose of the game, and why it’s been so critically lauded since its release, but after the credits rolled and I had to make a decision as to what to play next, problems arose.
I was going to move onto a replay of Bioshock (as I hadn’t played the game since launch in 2007), and I had just picked up Max Payne 3 for five dollars, but suddenly both games seemed incredibly unappetizing. The Line had hit me with such a violent reaction to the violence we perpetuate upon virtual targets in videogames, that the thought of engaging in more violence was a little reprehensible to me. That’s when I loaded up Final Fantasy VII. I mean sure there are humans as your enemies, but most of your foes are monsters and robots, and with the whole ATB system, you’re quite removed from the process. My explanation is justified!
I started to tell others the effect of The Line and how problematic I found the act of killing in videogames, and it wasn’t till a discussion with a former professor of mine that I realised just how far to the end of the spectrum I had travelled. I would like to discuss his rationalizations here.
There are very few videogames that exploit murder. The majority of the shooters we play are in a military setting (or sci-fi/horror), and upon fire, the enemies drop, maybe with some blood or disfiguration, but mostly ragdolling around comically. Violent detail in both the act and the consequence is a rarity. It is relegated to the Manhunt series or to aspects of a game like the melee kills in Bioshock Infinite. Those who don’t play games most likely see the violence in these games like the fatalities from Mortal Kombat, but in actuality they are more like the blows of Street Fighter II.
Essentially, the majority of killing in videogames can be likened to a target practise range. In cover shooters especially, you pop out of your hovel, fire off a few shots (possibly with an aim assist), the targets drop, and you either move your crosshairs to the next target, or move forward to your next spot of cover to repeat the process. Often the enemy is a ways away, and since you are so disconnected from the violence (and even with today’s graphical capabilities, the whole experience is still somewhat abstracted), it really is little more than hitting the target and watching it fall over.
Now I still believe the whole concept of game violence is problematic, but this view on things has helped take me back to an almost middle of the road position on the matter. I’ve been playing Saints Row: The Third and there is plenty of wanton violence and destruction in it, but maybe because of the ridiculous nature of the game and its ragdoll effects, the act of committing violence when I pull the trigger is furthest from my mind during play. Even the recent Tomb Raider with its roots more in horror and exploitation cinema than the adventure films the original games took inspiration from does little to fetishize Lara’s killing of hundreds of cult followers on the island (the game does take a pleasure in delivering violence on Lara, especially in some of her death scenes, but that’s another matter entirely).
To use another cinema analogy, a lot of action movies (the James Bond franchise especially) have high body counts without much graphic violence. Little thought is given by the viewer that these action stars are murdering hundreds of people, because of the entertainment and spectacle in the movie (and that the consequences or graphic nature of the violence is rarely shown). Perhaps it’s why horror movies revel so much in gore, because for a lot of the audience (at least those who haven’t desensitized themselves to it), such visions trigger an adverse reaction.
I think as we play these games that contain violence, we should be cognizant of where this line lays. What constitutes exploitation, and where does the act of shooting at targets become something more sinister and disturbing (and was this included for that effect, or just to shock and tantalize)? I can rationalize my playing of these games again, a while after having such an immense reaction after playing The Line, and I am finding just how shaded and multi-faceted the concept of videogame violence really is. It’s a refreshing change from earlier this year, when my position was, “Of course it’s not a problem!”.
Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you all next week on the Game Corner.