Friday, May 21, 2010

Violence Is Not the Problem

by Daniel Bullard-Bates


Fair warning: the following post contains descriptions of brutal violence, as well as spoilers for God of War 3 and the movie Irreversible.

We return, time and time again, to the problem of violence in video games and other media. Does watching a gory movie make the viewer more comfortable with gore? Does murdering countless innocents in a fictional airport inspire real-life terrorism? Can a bit of the old ultraviolence permanently scar society?

When the media turns its gaze to the violence in video games, it is usually the acts themselves which are labeled as disturbing, gratuitous, and unfit for public consumption. What is most disturbing and potentially harmful, however, is the way that violence is treated by the individual characters in the games. Mostly it is not seriously considered by the characters at all. Enemies are merely there to be killed, and their deaths mean nothing. This may have been suitable in the time of Space Invaders or even Wolfenstein 3D, but as video game characters and graphics become more realistic, our response to violence must become more realistic as well.

Attempts at censorship in video games have frequently been misguided. Manhunt 2 was given an Adults-Only rating due to its extreme violence, but allowed to be published as a Mature-rated game after a filter was applied to the game’s brutal execution scenes. While these scenes were extreme in nature, perhaps the most disturbing element of the game remained: The player was rewarded for skill in the stealth portion of the game with more elaborate execution animations. A player who presses the attack button at the first opportunity might merely hold a bag over someone’s face until they die of suffocation, whereas a more skilled player who spends longer lurking in the shadows is treated to a more elaborate murder.

This element of rewarding players with gore is not new; a headshot in most shooters is considered a sign of skill, and usually results in an impressive spray of blood or an exploding skull. Extreme violence is even a selling point for franchises such as Gears of War and God of War. Despite their similar appellations, neither of these franchises have much to say about the nature of war and none of the protagonists seem affected by the things they do. Quite the opposite: Dom and Marcus congratulate one another on headshots and the creative use of chainsaw bayonets. These men should be riddled with PTSD and guilt; instead they joke and congratulate.

Visually speaking, the murder of Hercules in God of War 3 is one of the most gruesome acts of violence I have ever seen in a video game, being reminiscent of an infamous scene from the film Irreversible in which a man is murdered by repeated blows to the face with a fire extinguisher. Irreversible is a profoundly disturbing film, but this scene is not played for the enjoyment of the viewer; I have never met someone who finds violence of that caliber amusing, nor would I want to. The witnesses, both in the film and without, scream, run, and panic.

There is no such recognition of the horror of Kratos’s actions in God of War 3. Kratos is no longer a character by the third game; he is a monster worse than most of the foes he faces. Whatever sympathy was possible in the first game is completely obliterated by the third, in which he is singlehandedly responsible for the deaths of almost every living being on Earth. Make no mistake: Kratos is the villain of God of War 3, and there are no heroes. But still the character is glorified, and the violence with him.

While the destruction of Hercules’s face and skull is the most gratuitous act of violence in the game, the most disturbing is a simple moment in which Kratos allows an innocent woman to be torn to shreds by a machine simply because he needs to open a door. Do we really want our protagonists to be monsters like Kratos and Marcus, who think nothing of the violence they perpetrate?

Similarly, Nathan Drake of the Uncharted series would be one of the most likeable characters of all time if it were not for the fact that he is also a mass murderer.

I don’t think it is too much to ask for realistic characters in video games, and part of that is coming to terms with violence, shell shock, and post traumatic stress. There is a moment in the opening portion of Alan Wake where he mentions his fear that he may have just killed a man for the first time in his life, but it is merely narration. He doesn’t pause. He doesn’t think. He doesn’t sit and cry. Where are the characters who understand what they are doing? Where are the men and women who wonder whether their enemies had families or futures?

And yet here comes Bulletstorm, a game which promises to take itself even less seriously than most modern shooters and to reward players with points for particularly gruesome kills. How long can we fall back on the excuse that only unbalanced minds turn to violence as a result of video games? Are we ready to completely discount the idea that praising the player for causing violence might harm the psyche? Can we really put all of the blame on the parents? All of it?

If violent video games are damaging society, it is not with the level of gore or the realistic simulations of terrible acts. It is the uncaring gaze of the killers we call heroes that encourages the audience to take violence less seriously. Not every video game hero can be a role model, but shouldn’t most of them be better than this?


17 comments:

  1. I've not yet played any game with the type of violence you describe here (and I can't imagine I would want to) - but it's even been niggling at me while playing Final Fantasy XIII that killing the random monsters is treated the same as killing soldiers, especially when one of your characters was one of those soldiers up to the day before the game starts and another one of the characters is at some vague pre-or-early-teen age. Some semblance of psychological realism in some game somewhere would be nice.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Lynette, and thanks for commenting!

    That's a great point about Final Fantasy XIII. The characters, especially the younger ones, come to terms with the fact that they are going to have to kill people at an alarming rate. FFXIII does make a few attempts at dealing with the psychological ramifications, but they are few and far between.

    I'm a big fan of the idea that human beings in video games (and movies, novels, etc.) should act something like actual human beings. How can we possibly sympathize with characters we can't understand? Psychological realism doesn't require that the rest of the game be realistic at all: Many of the most enduring stories are about realistic characters responding to unrealistic situations.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Very well-said, Daniel, and an angle I hadn't considered. A lot of games use the trick of dehumanizing the standard enemy (like the Locust) in order to make the post-headshot high-fives more palatable. And sometimes extreme gore can fit a game; for example, the gore in Dead Space is extreme, but it fit with the horror theme and works just fine, at least for me.

    But dehumanizing is dicy - it was something that kept coming back all the way through Alan Wake (even though I totally enjoyed the game). But how, exactly, did Alan know that the hundreds of loggers and hunters he was killing were beyond saving? His narration makes the excuse that they're too far gone, but there doesn't seem to be any evidence of that in the game, no scene in which he traps a "taken" prisoner only to realize that they really are zombies, soulless and gone.

    So how come they're still evil after he burns the darkness off of them? Given the nightmarish quality of the game, it would've been easy to explain them as spectres, not real people, but the game never goes that route. It seems pretty clear that they're missing people, possessed by the darkness. And then killed by Alan Wake.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I think it has been proved that violent videogames are only a trigger for people who are already violent. Since you mention Wolfenstein, I must say I returned my copy of the remake because it was very much insane killing non-stop. Id Software just doesn't bother anymore.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hey -- interesting article, especially your refreshing observations of Kratos: I always thought that guy was a bit too batty to be worshipped!

    Not sure if you played Crysis: Warhead, but there's a cutscene towards the end of the game where Sykes, the player character, does exactly what you describe in the Alan Wake paragraph: flying off in a rage, Sykes brutally murders a Korean soldier, the likes of which you've been killing with nonchalance during the course of the game. After killing the soldier, though, Sykes sits down and puts his head in his hands, sighs, and visibly thinks about what he's done. The animation and timing of the scene are pitch-perfect, and it's easily one of the best cut-scenes I've ever seen in a game -- and nails exactly the thoughts you described in the aforementioned paragraph.

    It's good to see at least some games with an inkling of conscience, eh?

    ReplyDelete
  6. There's a strong case to be made for the silent protagonist in violent video games, since they allow the player to decide how to react instead of taking cues from the speech and response of the character.

    Kirk's Dead Space example is a good one: The violence is extreme, but it's a horror game, the enemies are aggressively evil and inhuman, and Isaac Clarke doesn't weigh in on the situation. All of these factors serve to ameliorate the disturbing images and explain them, making the game both more believable and more responsible in its treatment of gore and violence. The player decides how much this is affecting Isaac, though the writers guide the player to believe that the results are psychologically catastrophic by the end.

    Similarly, Gordon Freeman of Half-Life is every one who's ever played him. Maybe for you he's in love with Alyx and fighting for humanity's freedom because he believes in the goodness of his cause, while my Gordon Freeman is a shell-shocked survivor barely clinging to his sanity with the help of a few close friends and familiar faces. He helps them because they're all he's got.

    As soon as the protagonist is given a defined, consistent personality in an action game, that personality immediately becomes suspect. After all, what kind of person can keep it together in any action (or horror) game scenario? Most of these games involve the systematic killing of a hundred or more enemies.

    Which character is more believable: Ripley, who is permanently mentally scarred from her initial encounter with a single, horrifying alien, or John McClane, who kills human beings left and right and keeps his cool no matter what?

    ReplyDelete
  7. dfa - The "remake" of Wolfenstein was done by Raven(though they have been in the shadow of Id Software for years).

    I'm actually excited about Bulletstorm exactly because it's takes itself less seriously than modern shooters. It looks quite fun, and reminds me of my days of playing DOOM and Quake as a kid. I never needed to sympathize with the characters or even have a very good reason to kill the enemies of these games (that's not entirely true. DOOM wouldn't have been the same if you're not the sole survivor of a demonic invasion trying to get the hell out of the moon base and get revenge on the demons the killed your buddies).

    And then there's the new Medal of Honor, where several people are talking about the new trailer where we hear a soldier calling his family back at home. How it shows that games are getting closer to Art. How it'll elevate shooters to something higher. What a fucking joke. I just know you'll be killing hundreds of generic modern terrorists with generic modern weapons in generic modern setting before you're thrown a "touching" scripted event before you go on killing hundreds of more generic modern terrorists until the end. After you think about that event for a minute or two, you'll jump online and kill your friends thousands of times.

    But it won't matter that you're killing just as many people as you did in past games, because plenty of gaming blog posts will mention that one time in the game when you felt sympathy for your character. And that'll make it a little better than those games where you *didn't* feel any sympathy.

    But you are right - Violence is Not the Problem. But neither is it the characters of violent games. I'm confident Bulletstorm won't make me desensitized to violence any more than all the games I've played as a child just because the character doesn't stop for a manly shoulder to cry on when he kicks people into flesh-eating plants.

    ReplyDelete
  8. As video game characters and graphics become more realistic, our response to violence must become more realistic as well.
    Really? Because I thought these are video games. For entertainment. Having a "realistic" approach to violence is all fine and well if the story calls for it, but it's not like it's generally important or desireable.

    These men should be riddled with PTSD and guilt; instead they joke and congratulate.
    Kind of like real soldiers, then. You wanted realism, right? Well, it doesn't matter. GoW isn't meant to be realistic.

    I don’t think it is too much to ask for realistic characters in video games.
    What's unrealistic about sociopaths and mass murderers?

    Part of that is coming to terms with violence, shell shock, and post traumatic stress.
    Not everyone suffers from PTSD or is troubled by killing people. Even if they did, so what? We're talking about video games, here.

    Where are the characters who understand what they are doing? Where are the men and women who wonder whether their enemies had families or futures?
    Putting aside the fact that this is ridiculous, in most games such considerations would be completely immaterial and/or out of place anyway.

    How long can we fall back on the excuse that only unbalanced minds turn to violence as a result of video games?
    For as long as we want to. Because it's, you know, true.

    Are we ready to completely discount the idea that praising the player for causing violence might harm the psyche?
    It's never been proven that video games make people violent.

    If violent video games are damaging society, it is not with the level of gore or the realistic simulations of terrible acts. It is the uncaring gaze of the killers we call heroes that encourages the audience to take violence less seriously.
    Aren't you completely ignoring the fact that for decades we have had movies where the heroes casually employ violence and think nothing of it? Did John McClane break down and cry because he killed a terrorist who maybe had a family somewhere? No, he just said a witty oneliner. And society hasn't gone crazy with bloodlust.

    ReplyDelete
  9. ghost4,

    As I mentioned two comments before yours, John McClane is another excellent example of an unrealistic, dull character. That doesn't mean his movies aren't fun, but I definitely consider him in the same category of characters we are discussing here.

    I thought that I made my opinion fairly clear, but let me summarize:

    Most video games and video game characters do not deal with violence realistically.

    I don't think that every game needs to be realistic.

    I do think that more games should be realistic. Realistic characters are more interesting than unrealistic ones.

    I don't think that society will go crazy with bloodlust if we don't make more realistic games, but I do think that on some level extreme violence with no narrative purpose damages the psyche.

    For the future: We much prefer comments intended to spur discussion, not end it. You're welcome to be as ornery as you like, of course, but it is more interesting to discuss an idea that is well-supported and thoroughly articulated than one that is intended to refute an argument point-by-point.

    For example, I would be interested to hear more about why you think that considerations of an enemy's family or future is immaterial or out of place. Do you really require scientific proof to make observations about society? Why should video games not aspire to be something greater than they are, with more societal commentary and relevance? Tell me more!

    ReplyDelete
  10. I do think that more games should be realistic. Realistic characters are more interesting than unrealistic ones.
    The kind of "realism" you propose is completely unwarranted and pointless.

    I don't think that society will go crazy with bloodlust if we don't make more realistic games, but I do think that on some level extreme violence with no narrative purpose damages the psyche.
    And what is this based on? There's no evidence to suggest that people become damaged as a result of violent video games any more than they become damaged as a result of Die Hard.

    For the future: We much prefer comments intended to spur discussion, not end it. You're welcome to be as ornery as you like, of course, but it is more interesting to discuss an idea that is well-supported and thoroughly articulated than one that is intended to refute an argument point-by-point.
    I keep running into this meme every once in a while, and I just don't get it. Do you complain about point-by-point replies because you can't think of anything else to complain about? A point-by-point reply is concise, simple and functional and easy to read and respond to. What is the problem?

    For example, I would be interested to hear more about why you think that considerations of an enemy's family or future is immaterial or out of place.
    Because when you're shooting terrorists or aliens that want to destroy the world, it doesn't matter. They're bad guys that must be stopped, and that's that. That's what the game is about. Neither the player nor the player character needs to think about it any further than that, unless the story specifically demands it (and even then it's really unlikely to matter). I mean, let's take Rainbow Six Vegas for instance: terrorists want to fuck everyone's shit up because of various nefarious reasons, and you have to stop them. It's really as simple as that. It would be hysterically funny if the team started questioning their mission because - gasp - the terrorists might have families. Who cares? What does it matter?

    Do you really require scientific proof to make observations about society?
    Yes, you do need some kind of proof to claim that violent video games cause psychological damage.

    Why should video games not aspire to be something greater than they are, with more societal commentary and relevance?
    Having the player character break down in a fit of PTSD every time he kills someone (because that's exactly how hardened combat veterans behave) does not make the game gripping social commentary, and certainly not a good game. I also do not have a great degree of confidence in the ability of video game developers to provide social commentary when they appear to have no experiences outside comic books, fantasy books, dumb movies and other video games. Video games are also not a very effective platform for "art."

    ReplyDelete
  11. Video games are also not a very effective platform for "art."

    It was nice meeting you! I don't think we're going to be good friends, but that's okay. Just because your opinions are different from mine doesn't make them unwarranted and pointless, but it is difficult to talk about a complicated, important topic if you can't even agree on a few basic assumptions.

    ReplyDelete
  12. They are unwarranted and pointless because it makes no sense for hardened combat veterans to spend every waking hour anguishing over whether or not their faceless redshirt video game enemies who are trying to destroy the galaxy/planet/country/city have families somewhere. It also isn't something that players are interested in.

    This topic may seem complicated and important to you, but I wonder why that is? I am reminded of something someone once wrote about new game journalists:

    These people have at last come to crave some degree of seriousness and profundity in their lives, some depth of feeling, some measure of spirituality; as human beings it is almost a biological necessity for them, and definitely a sociological one (this is the origin of their bad conscience -- the pressure to "grow up"), and since they have not bothered at any point to take an interest in, say, history, literature or philosophy -- fields of human endeavor which would have quenched the thirst for depth and spirituality of even the most spiritually thirsty human being, leaving him now with the opposite need, a need for frivolity, shallowness, playfulness, in short, a need for games -- the only place they can look for spirituality now is in the only place they know. And if they can't find it there, if it turns out that it simply doesn't exist there, that will in no way prevent them from miraculously discovering it -- by inventing it.

    This then is the psychological process which leads people to write ten-page essays on the cultural/political/artistic significance of Metal Gear Solid or whatever (or, to be more precise, that of its cutscenes).

    And no, video games certainly are not very good for making "art." There are too many problems and complications that get in the way. Even most movies, which do not have these problems and are made by people far more competent in the art of story-telling and drama, fail at being particularly meaningful.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Hi Ghost. I just wanted to weigh in on the article you quoted. It seems to be saying that the need for frivolity (shallowness, etc) is created when someone has not studied or engaged his/her mind in deeper thoughts (history, literature, etc). I find this logic flawed. Personally, the need to "play" and be frivolous came back to me when I was in college - studying, examining, theorizing. I needed a break from that. So my need to be frivolous often stems from needing a pause from seriousness and profundity. But I say "often;" I don't think it's always a causal relationship. Maybe I just go through spurts in which I want to be frivolous and spurts in which I want to be profound.

    In college, I learned about history, literature, philosophy, etc - but I also learned how to learn. In order to learn and grow, I need to have an inquisitive mind. Therefore, there is always merit in examining life around us, especially in examining an activity that takes up hours of our lives. I can see that many people would find this important, although you may not.

    ReplyDelete
  14. As the Quakers say:

    Friend speaks my mind.

    ReplyDelete
  15. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Now you're just being rude. Please take your negative attitude elsewhere.

    ReplyDelete
  17. It doesn't even have to be violent. I played Aion recently, and one of the quests is to kill Mosbear cubs for leather to make some guy gloves. The Mosbear cub hangs around with an older mosbear. Kill the older one, and the cub just runs away for a bit while you beat on it. I got the sense I was killing kittens to make someone a fur coat, and I avoided mosbear cubs whenever I could after that.

    I don't think you can go from this to damaging society because of it: we've always killed in fantasy, being shooting other kids as cowboys and indians. It's just more graphic now. But I do agree very much that we need heroes in game to act like heroes, and to not feel our sole purpose in games is to pile corpses like stacks of wood.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.