Thursday, January 28, 2010

Trigger Pastime

by C.T. Hutt

Politicians and concerned parents often criticize video games for encouraging insensitivity towards violence. Children should not be allowed to play violent video games and it is incumbent upon parents to make sure that they do not do so. That being said, it is an undeniable fact that action, and often violent action, is the central mechanic of many video games. Without a dragon to slay, a cause to fight for, or a horde to overcome, many video games would be too boring to play. This precept might explain why the romantic comedy genre has not yet found a place in the popular gaming market. Action games such as Uncharted, Half-Life, Mass Effect, and Gears of War are among the most popular games in the medium and all rely on the challenge of being an effective killer and survivor. Developers are receptive to the player’s desire for realistic action, but are also fairly sensitive to growing concerns that kill crazy violence with no moral compass is not well received by mainstream media (please see every news story ever written on GTA). As gamers we want to square off against the most dangerous prey, humanity, but also want to believe that our characters are the good guys. As such, violence in action games is usually directed at enemies which walk and talk and fight like people, but for whom we feel little pity when blowing away en masse, such as:

Automated human beings are the optimal target for ethically clear mass murder. Unfeeling machines probably don’t have children back at home and, better still, they can’t even register injury on an emotional level. If you blast the arm off a Geth in Mass Effect, not only will it not feel pain, it won’t even take it personally. So long as developers shy away from issues like programmed self awareness and virtual personality, a robot is nothing more than a toaster with a gun. Gamers can sleep very soundly on a pile of dismembered cyborg limbs without so much as a nightmare (well, they would probably have a few).

In Gears of War, gamers are called on to do a whole lot of killing. Since pushing a chainsaw bayonet through the chest of a screaming human being might be considered mentally scarring to anyone, the Cogs in Gears of War square off against an army of human-like (but not quite human) monsters called Locusts. In Dragon Age: Origins the protagonist slaughters their way through thousands of demonic Darkspawn to reach their goals. Whether you are facing off against orcs, aliens, or genetically engineered freaks, what you are really fighting against is a personification of the dark side of humanity.

Dehumanizing one’s enemies is a propaganda tactic as old as war itself. So long as we can refer to our enemies as outsiders, whether we label them as a separate species or use a racial slur to describe them, we can justify taking their lives without feeling as though we have done anything wrong. Video games let us take this idea a step further and change the actual image of adversaries rather than just our perceptions of them, allowing us to pull the trigger again and again without stopping to ask why.

Now we’ve made the cross over from inhuman to human, but zombies just barely fit the category. When you put a bullet through a zombie’s rotting brain you are really doing it a favor. They are not, in the strictest sense, alive to begin with. As such, re-killing them is not only an action done to preserve your life, but to restore the natural order of things. No matter how many of the shambling corpse folk you mow down, the actual number of human beings you’ve killed will always remain at a family friendly zero. A zombie is, for all intents and purposes, a skin robot, and all the same robot moralities apply. The rag tag survivors in Left 4 Dead don’t need to say a Hail Mary for each of the infected they destroy; they are in the clear.


Since the end of World War 2, Germany has gone to great lengths to live down its recent past. Every nation on the planet with a shred of decency or ethics must eventually come face to face with its share of national shame. As leaders in the international effort to secure transnational peace and liberalization, I’m sure this feeling is especially acute for the citizens of modern Democratic Germany when games like The Saboteur and Call of Duty are released to serve as a reminder of the terrible events perpetrated by the National Socialist Workers Party under Adolf Hitler. As the current U.S. president is fond of saying, the Third Reich was on the wrong side of history. Whatever a protagonist does to a Nazi in a video game seems justified because the people playing the game are presumably aware of the atrocities the Nazis committed during the war. Hypothetically, when you shoot a video game Nazi you are working to prevent or punish an unseen video game holocaust. Developers use a similar mentality in almost all games where you are up against some kind of army or paramilitary force. The Inglourious Bastards standard of ethics in video games (i.e., anything I do to you is alright, because you will always be worse than I am) has been an industry standard since the original Wolfenstein.

This gets into some fairly shaky ethical territory; all war is morally ambiguous to the people fighting in it. Again, children should not be playing these games and before anyone picked up a title like this I would encourage them to at least become acquainted with the basic history behind the game. Modern political discourse is littered with ham-fisted references to fascism and Stalinist communism on the part of both the major parties in the United States. Telling impressionable people in one area of society that it is okay to kill Nazis and telling them in another area that “the X party are a bunch of Nazis” could lead to some very foolish consequences.

Someone Wearing a Mask
If developers feel that they absolutely must include a mass of antagonists who are dead to rights human beings (and not goose-stepping swastika jockeys) they often at least have the decency to cover their faces. You may have used an X-wing to crush swarms of storm troopers in Star Wars: The Force Unleashed but they all wore their giant face covering helmets so you never saw the fear or anguish in their eyes as you did it. Similarly, the full plate mail worn by the knights in Demon’s Souls robs them of all character and individuality. You also can’t see them spit blood when you stab them. Hell, they could be smiling under all that steel for all you know. Whether you are fighting ninjas, knights, terrorists, assassins, bank robbers, or whoever, more often than not developers will cover their faces with something.

Sometimes, instead of a literal mask, developers choose to pan away from the worst of the violence taking place or, as in Empire Total War, make the characters so small and ill defined that we cannot make out their individual expressions. We are not the Joker, we don’t savor the little emotions in an opponent’s face when they expire.

This guy is just asking for it

No matter how developers dress them up, the hundreds of bad guys we waste in video games are representations of human beings. Since this is fairly apparent to anyone who stops to think about their gaming experience for a moment, one might ask why developers even bother with such elaborate disguises. I find the answer rather heartening. I believe that developers have come to realize that, while violence is often a necessary part of the action in many games, most people feel put out at the prospect of ending other peoples’ lives, even digital ones. While there are plenty of games that don’t adhere to the general categories I mentioned, most do. It’s the action and excitement of a scenario that draws us in, death is usually just an unintentional byproduct, but even so some effort is made to separate the gamer from what would be the terrible consequences of their actions. Developers do this because we are, despite what so many political blowhards and half-wit news anchors would have us believe, sensitive to violence in the real world.


  1. Ah yes, Hellboy's evil masked robot zombie nazi foe. Good thing he took care of THAT guy.

  2. You missed "the mercenary" or "the expendable minion".

  3. Andrew,

    I feel this was pretty well covered in the “Nazi” section where I said "Developers use a similar mentality in almost all games where you are up against some kind of army or paramilitary force" and like I said, most of those minions or mercenaries we blast away at in games are either not human in the strictest sense, or at least wearing a mask of some kind.

  4. I think your last point bears some thinking about. In games where I have the choice to kill someone or not (RPGs) I almost always take the peaceful, non-violent way. However I still enjoy a game of Halo, even knowing that the Elites I am mowing down will one day join my side. Why? Because I certainly don't enjoy the death, I enjoy the actions I'm committing which afford me feelings of power, prowess, coolness, triumph, accomplishment and often comraderie. Unfortunately the major activity our culture associates all these things with is killing.

  5. I'm not sure this as much developers catering to our sensitive tastes of violence as it is them being afraid to take a risk. I agree with all your points; dehumanizing is the key process here, and it helps us sleep at night, but think of how many generic action movies feature real, undisguised people that die in fantastically large amounts (Die Hard, Rambo, Steven Seagal movies). It's enough for these movies to say, or give good reason, that these people are "bad" and no extra dehumanizing needs to occur.

    I don't think just because we are the ones pulling the trigger it should really affect us more than seeing this kind of violence on TV. More designers should strive to put people in ambiguous situations, where the baddie ISN'T as clear cut and comfortable as what we are always used to. It feels more like a cop-out than being particularly sensitive to an audience.


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