Ben Kuchera over at Penny Arcade then wrote a piece about how when video games get blamed for violent acts or corrupting our youth or punching the ozone layer in its grill, that, following Quentin?s lead, we of the gaming community do not have to explain ourselves because: ?You don?t have to answer for the work. You can allow it to speak for itself.?
And I agree. But what happens if we do this with gaming? What are games saying when we let them speak for themselves?
Well, let?s listen in. What?s that you say, games??
What I want to focus on in these next three editions of Tough Love are some of the core reasons gaming alienates non-gamers or as I call them, Those Who Bathe Regularly (or TWBRs [pronounced ?twubbers?] for short). So let?s start with topic el numbero one-o:
Just kidding, not really. But, seriously, go shave yourself. You look like a fucking water buffalo in a trench coat.
Let?s talk violence because it?s pretty much always topical in the United States of A because apparently the two things we?re best at are inventing burgers nobody should actually ever eat and shooting up schools and when that shit happens TWBRs invariably go stupid and point at us and our shooty-punchy-stabby games and they cry, ?Lo! And so I hath discovered the source of it all.? And then, in response, we go all, ?What the fuck? People are fuckin? stupid, so stupid, I shoot things in games to get out my aggression not blah blah blah?? Yeah, yeah, yeah. It?s all a very predictable and tragic cycle.
But, yes, it?s stupid. Games don?t make us kill things in real life. I know it?s stupid. You know it?s stupid. Let?s not even talk about it anymore, okay?
But, the thing is, it?s super easy to just get pissy and defensive about our medium, but it?s not like we?re perfect and it would be healthy for us to be more self-reflective. I should note that that Penny Arcade guy also had an article specifically about how we should talk about violence in games, if not defensively and reactively when we get blamed for murdering America, then certainly constructively in terms of how we might change and evolve our use of violence in gaming. (You might notice he even says nearly exactly what I said about how it?s easy to forego self-reflection, but I swear this is just a great minds sort of situation.)
It?s understandable that violence and gaming are so intertwined. The journey in a typical game must be comprised of many smaller challenges and a very natural and obvious challenge is a conflict in which a thing wants to kill you so you kill it. It?s a simple mechanic that we?ve been relying on since back in the Atari days when the things that could kill you didn?t even look like things that could kill you. Many of the building blocks of this medium are based heavily in shooting faces (Wolfenstein 3D, Doom) and otherwise murdering things (Herzog Zwei, Metroid, a million other games). We?re kind of up there with the Puritans in terms of having a violent-ass history. Even the vocabulary used to discuss the most innocuous games frequently has death and murder associated with it, e.g., ?I died, I killed him. I?m dying, I?m dead. I beat the game.? Plus, the language a lot of gamers use online isn?t too encouraging either. ?Die in a fire,? is just one example of a hugely popular bit of phrasing that upon considertion is actually pretty horrific.
Anyway, there are a variety games out there that are nonviolent. But it?s more about what represents us. It?s that a lot of our bigger games?the Call of Dutys, Resident Evils, and GTAs?a lot of what gets the publicity, a lot of what appears on top ten lists, and a lot of the stuff we?d classify as the real ?gamer games? are based on a platform of violent acts and a number of them are pretty intensely graphic. How about E3 2012? So many of the conferences of last year showcased footage of eviscerations and throat stabbings (Tomb Raider, Splinter Cell: Blacklist, Resident Evil 6, to name a few) and all this graphic stuff was warmly welcomed with applause by the ostensibly mostly-gamer audience.
But let me just get out of the way up front that I?m not such a chump as to suggest the eradication of all violence in games (aka The Australia Method). However, that said, I am partial to the thoroughly non-violent analysis of economics and the class system to be found in the 1985 title Donald Duck?s Playground. But, anyway, there are, in fact, examples of violence used well in video games:
The violence in Condemned: Criminal Origins is such a brutal, visceral, disturbing thing. It manages to feel challenging, cool, and thrilling but those feelings are amplified by the fact that getting hurt and hurting someone both sound and look horrifying. (Or maybe I just didn?t want homeless people getting so near me, but that?s a different issue.)
Resident Evil 4 is nasty as hell but at least it has a consistent tone with its disturbing muscle-y creatures and convulsing thingies. And with all the gross violent junk going on it gives the player a fear of impending violence which is a really amazing thing that we manage to lose sight of frequently in gaming. How about that chainsaw guy? That guy rushing you and lopping your head off remains shocking for the entire game.
Limbo is also shocking. Its somber, but still innocent storybook style belies the goriness that accompanies your character?s deaths. They?re brutal enough to feel like a punishment that you hope to avoid in the future, making for a pretty thrilling little 2D puzzle-platformer.
The Silent Hill series creeps you out with disgusting organic characters that are weirdly familiar, looking like humans trapped in a second skin and a strong guy with a radiator on his head. It?s all very melancholy and at times strangely beautiful, which makes it all feel sadder, closer to reality, and therefore more disconcerting. I mean, you kind of feel bad for Pyramid Head. He may be a mannequin rapist but he?s stuck in that thing and he has to drag that heavy knife everywhere.
And, beyond all that, I?ll admit that, yeah, sometimes violence is just viscerally satisfying on a weird gut level ,which, coincidentally, is something Tarantino also once said in an interview. In response to a question of why he puts so much graphic violence in his films he bluntly proclaimed, ?Because it?s so much fun!?
But, to go back a bit, in those examples I brought up, there are more dimensions to the violence. The violence is tied to an emotion. And these dimensions aren?t at the expense of these games being engaging or fun or cool. In fact, this stuff is more impactful because physical violence in real life is never not tied to something psychological.
But these examples of good violence usage are exceptions. More often it?s the oversaturation of violence, the piling of violence of violence, because we can?t think of anything more novel. I get why, in God of War: Ascension, we get to make Kratos cut open an elephant?s head to expose its brain. Remember in the first God of War when you had to burn that guy in a cage alive? Well, now we?re seven games in. What are we gonna do to up the ante? CUT OPEN DUH ELEPHANT?S HEAD.
This is not the right way to do it! Violence plus violence just cheapens the violence. We get desensitized and react less to it or even clap and cheer for it at E3 conferences like a bunch of weird, bloodlusty sheep!
And the problem at this point is to people who aren?t gamers this makes us look like monsters and for gamers like me it?s just getting fucking boring. I?m not even affected by this ultraviolence crap; I?m just disappointed and sleepy.
Also, yes, over-the-top violence can be used as a statement but the violence in gaming is so often over the top already that that statement can easily get lost in the blood-soaked shuffle. Spec-Ops: The Line is a good example. Though I don?t deny the effort of it, Spec Ops seemed designed to prove to people who played games like it that, surprise!, they had been playing horrific orgies of disturbing violence all along. Game journalists that reviewed it basically just said of the violence, ?Hmm, fair point, well made.? But when someone from the New York Times reviewed it (Chris Suellentrop) he said the game lacked subtlety and ?By the end, it felt like a snuff game.? What I?m saying is that we?re at the point where we?re so violent that we have to make games just to prove to ourselves that we?re violent. And past that we still have to get less violent and then prove to TWBRs that we?re not so violent. Man, are we screwed.
We could do with some new approaches to violence or, hey, fewer games on the whole focused on murdering things. That would mean we?d get different types of games which would make gaming more interesting and, most importantly, make me less sleepy!
But we have a long way to go as we don?t just glorify violence, we fetishize it. Like, a LOT. Some examples just scraping the surface are Skullgirls, Bayonetta, Hitman: Absolution, and (to go a little older school) Fear Effect 2. And more of this sort of stuff is actively being developed right now. A day or two before I even sat down to write this piece, I completely by happenstance stumbled upon a top story at N4G.com showcasing some new promo art for Drakengard 3 featuring a girl covered in blood holding a sword right between her legs.
Hey! Remember that time a little while ago Dead Island developer Techland released images of a pre-order item for Dead Island 2 of a bloody, headless female bust, thereby basically creating something that, by definition, is a LITERAL FETISHIZATION OF VIOLENCE?
Anyway, this is my segue for the next Tough Love so, uh? wait for me to finish that one.
Or if you?re reading this in the future and the new one is already done, go check it out now and also please donate to the charity made in my name that puts money toward researching lethal addictions to Doritos Locos Tacos.
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