You know what I love? Violent videogames about videogame violence. I love the trend over the past few years (and the last year especially) to examine the various ways that violence functions in videogames. I love the way that these games aren’t so much trying to claim that videogame violence is simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but the way they simply want to understand it better, the way they simply want to respect its power more.
Of course, I am talking about games like Bioshock, Spec Ops: The Line, Far Cry 2 and, more recently, Dishonored, Mark of the Ninja, Hotline Miami and the still upcoming Far Cry 3. All of these games, in their own way, ask questions about the ways violence is both depicted and deployed in videogames — the way violence is used against the player, and the way the player uses violence. They want to help us as players have richer and more nuanced understandings of just what violence is doing in these games.
What most of these games show, each in their own way, is that in videogames we will happily perform violent actions unquestioningly. Sure, we know they aren’t ‘real’, and often we’ll even acknowledge how problematic and sociopathic what we are being asked to do really is, but we’ll do it anyway because, deep down, we find it really enjoyable.
Importantly, they aren’t trying to make us feel like we shouldn’t enjoy it. Instead, they want us to realise that what we are enjoying is, truly, complicated and problematic. Not ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Just weird. Weird and complex and deserving a bit of consideration.
But a lot of people seem to disagree. Many people, such as the author of this recent post on Kill Screen seem to think that a violent videogame couldn’t possibly deliver an “anti-violence” message. A lot of people think games like Spec Ops: The Line are hypocritical for trying to say something profound about violent videogames while failing to offer a ‘solution’, for depicting the same old shoot-a-stack-of-bros gameplay.
Well, I think the problem here is, simply, that games like Spec Ops: The Line aren’t anti-violence or anti-shooter or anything like that at all. These games aren’t simply trying to say that violent videogames are ‘bad’ or a problem that requires fixing. That would indeed be hypocritical. Rather, what these games are trying to do is to simply explore what is happening in these videogames where we gun down hundreds of virtual human beings without a second thought. What is going on there? Why do we enjoy it so much?
These are really important questions for games to ask, and for us as players to ask ourselves. Not because we shouldn’t enjoy videogame violence, but because we should be more conscious and critical of what we do enjoy. It’s always nice to be intellectually challenged by the media you are consuming, and games that raise questions about just how and why we are doing the things we do in videogames are a great way to achieve this.
The player’s encounter with Andrew Ryan in Bioshock, for example, gets laughed at a lot these days by critics and players alike who are (understandably) sick of reading articles about it. But I still remember what it was like playing it. I remember just sitting there with my controller in my hands, realising I had never really made a decision in any videogame that the game had not already made for me. It totally changed the way I think about the role of my intentionality and agency in the games I play.
More recently, Spec Ops: The Line had an incredibly powerful affect on me. It didn’t make me want to stop playing shooters. That’s not the point. Instead, it made me realise just how horrific the things depicted in these shooters I enjoy really are. It made me realise that any playable character that has to gun down hundreds of men can never hope to be a ‘good guy’. To be sure, I will undoubtedly still enjoy shooters in the future, but I’ll also be thinking about them in a slightly different way, thanks to my experience with this game.
Videogames are not going to become less violent any time soon. But as players and developers alike grow more mature are critical of what they are playing and producing, it’s crucial that we have games that critique our own media form. These games can’t just pass meaningless, futile value judgements of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Such judgements are terribly boring. Instead, we need games that question and examine. Games that draw attention to the complex and paradoxic pleasures we get out of shooting virtual people in the face, and try to understand what is going on there. This understanding won’t lead to more or less violent videogames, and nor should it. Instead, these games will help videogame violence itself mature into something more meaningful, something more capable of evoking different meanings and emotions through its depiction.
And that’s why I love violent videogames about videogame violence. Far from being hypocritical or pompous in passing value judgements on their own kin, they challenge us to better understand and respect just what we are doing in these games that we enjoy so much. Rather than trying to state that their fellow violent videogames are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, they show us that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are entirely incapable categories for the complex engagements we have with videogames.