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.
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?