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Rethinking Mass Murder

The above panel is from issue #25 of Grant Morrison’s phenomenal run on DC Comics’ Animal Man. The pale guy is actually the author speaking directly to the character he’s written for two years at the point and the statement he is making is specifically about comic books and the state of the medium circa 1990. It’s a reflection on how grim, dark, gritty, and graphically violent comics had become in a rush toward feigned maturity and mainstream acceptance. It’s a statement about how the gee-whiz wonder and optimism of the Golden and Silver Age had been washed away by writers and artists over-eager to Frank Miller everything up, to darken the vibrant palette of comics to reflect the real world. I read this issue over the holidays, not long before the Connecticut school shooting.

Of course, neither that tragedy nor Animal Man have anything to do with violence in the real world, regardless of the pundits and opportunists that would have us believe that media is a causative factor in increasing the number of murders or violent crimes that we see on the news. People make choices, people have problems. Consumer media doesn’t make those or create those. Ironically, even the bloodiest, most brutal video games are less socially harmful than any given car commercial that promotes an illusion of American affluence or a reality show that celebrates crude, unbecoming behavior.

Between reading Morrison’s rather profound, simple statement against the darkening tone of the comics medium and thinking about twenty- twenty– children shot to death, I’ve been thinking heavily on violent video games content and in a way that I never really have before. Maybe it’s something to do with getting older, maybe it’s something to do with being a parent. Writing as someone who has never had an issue with violence in video games, movies, or any other kind of entertainment, I’m rather shocked to find that for the first time in my life I’m really kind of sick of being entertained by mass murder.

Brace for unpopular opinion. The anti-video games crowd isn’t entirely wrong about violence in video games. They’re wrong because they don’t understand that games aren’t non-stop slaughter-fests oozing with blood and rape. Most of the people that make comments about video game violence have barely played the games they’re talking about, if at all. It’s the exact same situation as with the Video Nasty, Satanic Panic, and Gangsta rap controversies in the 1980s The moral watchdogs don’t understand that video games have finer literary qualities like narrative context, signification, satire, and metaphor.  And that they are entertainment, and that it is OK to be entertained by darker, more questionable material. They don’t get that video games are an artistic medium that can- and in fact should- represent all aspects of human life including violence and death.

But what they are, at least in part, right about is that it has become too pervasive and there is a certain climate of brutality, nihilism, and devalued human life that games (along with other media) are promoting in the larger cultural spectrum. Witness any number of games released in 2012, where the primary action is killing somebody or something. Witness any number of games where the environments are broken, destroyed, or otherwise ruined. Witness any number of video game covers where the central figure is a “chin down, eyes up” killer of whatever stripe. Witness the aggressively macho, roughneck tone, sound, and visuals of many games. You cannot possibly claim with any degree of credibility that video games do not glorify, reward, and celebrate the taking of simulated life. Achievement unlocked, there’s pixelated blood on your hands.

Lionizing murder is one thing, but stripping death of all of its finality, meaning, and immense power is another. Video games are practically founded on frivolous representations of death without consequence or meaning, barring games such as Dark Souls that make dying an important mechanic in the game. But rare is the game that comes along saying to the player “hey, maybe killing all of these people was a bad idea”. Spec Ops: The Line did that in a particularly chilling way. The victims of a white phosphorous attack are revealed to be innocent civilians, not enemy combatants. I can’t think of another game that really shows the player what happens when they press a button and lots of people die. People that shouldn’t have died.

Video games have always been criticized for violent content. I recall reading a video games magazine sometime around 1983 or 1984 that had an article about what could happen if video games were made illegal because of their violent content. At that point, the most violent game you could play was the old Death Race arcade game. Decades on, and slaughter has become casual and in fact expected of the medium.

To some degree, it’s natural. Simulated violence is one of the key elements of any kind of play. When animals play, they mock fighting, competition, conflict, and aggression.  And people have always been entertained by violence from the gladiator arena to the Grand Guignol. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, and I do believe that there should be violence in video games because they, as art, should necessarily reflect who we are as a civilization. I’m still going to play shooters, because I love them. Violent video games are entertaining. But I do find that I am questioning why there are so many games that put the player in the role of a mass murderer- regardless of context, cause, or justification. Why is it always about killing?

Think about it. How many digital lives did you end last year, not including online multiplayer opponents whose on-screen personages map directly to a live human being? How many over the entire time you’ve played games? For my part, I can’t count that high. If the world of Tron were a reality, I would be a Hitlerian figure of evil. And so would you. Yet I’ve never once flinched at a headshot or a backstab. Have you? Why aren’t we shocked by decapitations, dismemberments, throat-cuttings, eyeball piercings, or evisceration? It’s all become so powerless, inert, without impact.

This adherence to a standard of killing as core design element is one of the key things preventing, I think, games from progressing as a medium. We- the people that buy and play these games- have set a very, very low standard that appeals to the basest instincts and desires, valuing murder fantasy over creativity, exploration, and transcendental reflection. We got tired of killing living video game people so we started re-killing video game people that are already dead. It just goes on and on, and it’s sad that there’s no end in sight.

There are exceptions, and they are important. Games like Catherine, Journey, and Little Inferno. Games that are about other aspects of the human experience than killing other people. Over the holidays the game I played the most was Waking Mars, an IOS title about exploring Mars. It’s a science fiction game, but there isn’t a trace of the kind of xenocidal, Aliens-influenced bug hunting that characterizes an overwhelming percentage of all the science fiction games ever made. Instead of shooting the place up, you observe lifeforms and learn about the ecosphere.  Yet it’s compelling, fraught with danger, and offers challenges far beyond killing everything and then shooting a boss in its glowing bits. What if Mass Effect did away with all of the shooting and instead was a game about exploration, discovery, and the pioneer spirit? Did Bioshock really need to be a FPS to tell its story or convey its message?   Why can’t more video games follow the example of 2001: A Space Odyssey instead of fucking Pitch Black?

Think about an alternate reality where mass murder in video games wasn’t acceptable- or demanded- by the audience, where creators understood the power of depicting death economically and with meaning. Imagine Assassin’s Creed in this world. Instead of cutting down hundreds and hundreds of random enemies, your character would spend the entire game gathering intelligence, observing, and preparing for ONE murder in a 20 hour game.  How awesome- and more profoundly thrilling- would that assassination be? Imagine more games like the original Rainbow Six, where one shot kills, every bullet counts, and the goal is to complete a mission- not just kill everything in sight as you walk through a shooting gallery toward an “objective marker” to press X and flip a switch and trigger a cut scene that serves as a phony justification for the actual gameplay and actions depicted.

There’s a reason that casual gamers flock to games like Farmville, Angry Birds, and the like. They’re going to games that DO NOT reflect the real world, they aren’t escaping like “hardcore gamers” are into a world of persistent, continual, and endless violence. They aren’t using silly excuses about “blowing off steam” or “getting out some aggression” to participate in this kind of simulated mass murder. They just don’t want to see it, and I don’t think that’s wrong. I think that’s actually more normal than locking in for two hours of constant death and killing during a Call of Duty session. And I don’t want to hear developers whining that games without guns and shooting don’t sell. Because they most certainly do, as evidenced by any number of games that aren’t about shooting versus Body Count, Inversion, Homefront, Syndicate, et. al. It’s just that there are a very small number of killing-centric games that have dominated the AAA market.

But why, developers, do you keep shepherding us down this road where mass murder is the overarching theme of the video game medium? The irony is that these games are rated “M for Mature” when they’re more often than not anything but that. Is there even a possibility for us to have a Cannibal Holocaust moment in this medium where people say “OK, that is taking this kind of entertainment killing and death worship a little too far.” I don’t know that there is, and as much as I like games about fighting, shooting, stabbing, punching, and blowing things up I find myself asking if those things are actually entertaining anymore. Mass murder has lost its thrill, and I’m more excited by a game where I’m watching how water affects a subterranean organism on Mars than I am by a good K/D ratio.

The pale guy up there, one of the best writers that comics has ever seen, says it all but I’m going to quote with liberty.

“They’ll stop at nothing, you see. All the suffering and pain and death in the video game world is entertainment for us. They thought that by making the video game world more violent they would make it more “realistic”, more “adult”. God help us if that’s what it means. Maybe for once they should try being kind.”