[Writer's Note: I held off on posting this for a couple of weeks because of the recent tragedy in Connecticut. However, I've decided to go ahead and publish it after reading Leigh Alexander's post on violence in games and Ben Kuchera's insightful Tweet, "I'm always uncomfortable with the way we give every bully a platform while denying games are powerful when we're under attack. ... We argue games are a powerful art form that contain important messages, and then we're in the spotlight claiming they're pure entertainment." So instead of keeping this buried somewhere out of fear that it will be criticized for being exploitative or poorly timed, I'm simply going to go ahead and present as intended: as a rumination on my uncomfortable relationship with virtual violence.]
I was 9-years-old when I beat a man to death for the first time. I did it with a red crowbar. I was standing on a craggy cliffside; my victim, a nameless solider wearing a gas mask, lay prostate, his head awkwardly sticking out over the edge like a diving board. I hadn’t meant to dispatch him in such a brutal manner. I had simply run out of ammo moments before and been left with no alternative but to cave in his skull.
I stood still for a couple of moments, my hazard suit shrieking that I should seek medical attention immediately. Instead of progressing toward the level’s end, I knelt down and smacked the body with the crowbar. Thuck! I giggled and slapped the body again and again, and pop! The soldier exploded, showering the arid desert below with intestines, limbs, and a goofy-looking half-skull whose one remaining eye stared at me as it plummeted into the sandy abyss.
I watched in awe and then reloaded my quicksave so I could do it all over again.
Four years later in Liberty City, I sat behind the wheel of a Blista Compact. Out of the alleyway emerged the guy I was supposed to kill. He was surrounded by his entourage of armed thugs, so instead of rushing the group with guns blazing, I decided to take the tactical route: I ran them down with my car. I managed to kill the target and two of his bodyguards. Then, I quickly turned the car around and took care of the stragglers.
I briefly wondered why I went back for the men who posed no threat to me. I reassured myself that they were enemies and that I was supposed to kill them — a weak excuse that satisfied my younger self, but even so, that same excuse doesn’t float for the thousands of pedestrians I have shot, stabbed, kicked, and blown to pieces throughout the Grand Theft Auto series. These are people I’ve tormented just because they’ve populated the world.
I tell myself that I’m not a violent person, and real-world examples seem to suggest that I’m not. I’ve only ever been in a handful of scraps, and the most harm I have ever done to another person was when I accidentally busted someone’s lip with my elbow. Yet there’s something about enjoying this kind of wanton artificial violence and mutilation that has me grappling with these presumptions.
But it’s just a game. That’s always the defense. These people are not real. They do not draw breath; the men I massacred were simply lines of code. No harm done, right?
Every once in a while, I’ll reinstall Hitman: Blood Money in order to replay a single level: “A New Day,” which has Agent 47 infiltrating a suburban neighborhood in order to kill a well-guarded FBI informant. I’ve completed the mission at least three dozen times now. I know the simplest way to kill the man without raising any suspicions or hurting anyone besides the target. I also know all the corners and hedges to hide behind and can predict what the enemy A.I. will do if I draw them into a firefight. This is often the route I go simply because it’s more fun.
It doesn’t end there, though. After I’ve slaughtered every agent, I move on to eliminating all the other people in the area, including unarmed civilians. They’re witnesses, I tell myself — which is actually somewhat relevant to the gameplay in Blood Money since witnesses cause Agent 47’s notoriety rating to rise and make future missions more difficult to complete. However, even with the practicality issue taken into the account, there is still the knowledge that I consistently choose the path that will end in bloodshed even though I’m well aware of the other, less deadly paths to my objective.
Am I just bloodthirsty? Do other gamers also have ridiculous amounts of fun gunning down virtual people and then feel guilty about it later? And I don’t mean the kind of comedic acknowledgement where one chuckles and quips, “Yeah … I’m a bad person,” with a smirk. I’m talking occasional waves of sincere guilt — not necessarily thoughts that keep me awake at night but moments where I stop and think, “What the hell is wrong with me?” Of course, they’re instantaneously swept out of my brain as soon as the next level of fun-filled carnage finishes loading.
Part of me knew that games like Hotline Miami and Spec Ops: The Line were on the way — games that pull a Peckinpah and make the player’s enthusiasm for violence a thematic focus. We’d already seen this prototype in the Metal Gear Solid series, which has consistently presented ham-fisted commentary about violence and war in order make the player mull over these topics, often with mixed results. The example that immediately springs to mind occurs near the end of Snake Eater, when Snake is forced to traverse a river strewn with the ghosts of soldiers the player has killed throughout the game. What sounds like a great idea turned out to be a tedious minigame that frustrated me more than it encouraged me to think about the violence I had committed. (“You give me all these weapons and hapless guards, and you don’t expect me to kill them? Asshole!” was my adolescent line of reasoning.)
Hotline Miami (pictured at top) bothered me in a big way. There is technically a plot in the game — a sorta-kinda reason for why you’re butchering a seemingly endless line of faceless henchman. But the narrative just feels tacked on and flimsy. The game’s multiple hallucination scenes suggest that there is something much bigger going on — some joke the developers are having at the player’s expense: “All we have to do is give you a context and you’ll kill anyone and anything left and right, won’t you?”
Why, yes. Yes, I will. Does that make me a potential monster? Hotline doesn’t ever answer. It’s content to simply smile from the dark. This isn’t a huge departure from the twist in BioShock, but this one affected me on a personal level, poking and prodding my concerns about my love-hate relationship with virtual violence. Logically, none of that makes sense. This is a game. It has no ill intentions, nor does it have the will to dog its players and make them feel disgust. The fact the Hotline affects me in this way says more about me that it does about the game, but the same holds true for novels and film. This doesn’t make one’s experience with the game (or the gamer’s self-realizations) any less valid.
Hotline was a cakewalk emotionally in comparison to Spec Ops: The Line. Instead of teasing me with playful ambiguity and pixelated bloodshed, Spec Ops is much more aggressive in its assault, taking every available opportunity to rub my face in the gory mess that I’ve made throughout the game’s Heart of Darkness-inspired journey. There’s an early segment where the player wanders through a hallway filled with rotting bodies. In his book-length critical reading of game, Brendan Keogh briefly considers the possibility that this hallway is a “metaphorical hell” for the player, the pile of bodies representing all the people that he or she has killed through the game so far. I had a similar interpretation during my first playthrough except that the bodies were not merely representative of this game’s victims but those from my entire time as a gamer: from one end of the room to the other, the bodies of all those dead pedestrians, the FBI informant, and perhaps even of the skeletal remains of that solider from the cliffside. Again, utter logical nonsense. (For one thing, there aren’t enough bodies accounted for.) But Spec Ops spends so much time psychologically assaulting the player and critiquing violence as a form of entertainment that I find myself unable to dismiss the interpretation regardless of how much it’s fueled by my own anxieties about the whole business.
A couple of days ago, games journalist Ian Miles Cheong tweeted, “I don’t think it’s some kind of double standard to be OK with video game violence against not-real-people, and not be OK with real violence.” I share the sentiment, but I still find myself unnerved by just how much I enjoy killing people who aren’t real. (Frankly, I’d be kind of embarrassed to let you in on how much time I spent using spring razors to dismember the guards in Dishonored just to carry their limbs around as distraction devices … or to treat their decapitated heads like soccer balls.) I am not in any way trying to state that Spec Ops or Hotline Miami work as a gauge or predictor for someone’s capacity for violence. Instead, this is more about how both these games hold a mirror up to the player. In my case, I don’t like how they reveal just how much I fucking love violence.
Is it true that I’m more likely to have a favorable opinion of a game if it has gore or an amusing ragdoll system? Yes. Do I absolutely despise a developer’s decision to feature gunplay in a game but not bloody, ragged bullet holes? You bet. And am I ashamed of all of this? A little, but I’m more unnerved than anything else. As someone who characterizes himself as a pacifist, the cognitive dissonance created by this clashing of my real-world ideals and my love for simulated bloodshed is disconcerting.
Ultimately, this anxiety probably won’t change my gaming habits. The majority of games I play are violent in one fashion or another. Tonight, I’ll be gutting pirates all across the Rook Islands with my trusty knife. Tomorrow, I’ll continue trudging through the metro tunnels of post-apocalyptic Moscow, gunning down bandits. Perhaps I’ll even fit in some time to backstab guards in Mark of the Ninja. And on and on it’ll go.
More bodies for the pile.