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No Violence Please, We’re Gamers

Red Dead Redemption violence

Turned my back and grabbed my gat
And guess what I told him before I shot it:
‘If you don’t quit, yeah, if you don’t stop, yeah, I’m lettin’ my gat pop’
Cause it’s 1-8-7 on an undercover cop

That chilling threat came over my headphones, backed up by a sinister bassline, while I was waiting queueing for some trivial purchase in a shop. Jarred by the disconnect between the prosaic setting and the shocking sentiments I was hearing I wondered: why did I find the rap unsettling, while the fact I killed twenty men in Red Dead Redemption the night before cause not a flicker of emotion?

This happened a while back, well before Michael wrote his Rethinking Mass Murder column on violence and gaming. But we’ve all reflected on these issues from time to time. Personally I disagree wholeheartedly with his assertion that there’s any link between media violence and social nihilism. These moral panics have accompanied every incremental media change since popular novels 200 years ago and never amount to anything. The gulf that separates thought and deed is too wide to step over without conscious choice. The evidence, such as it is, supports me.

No well constructed, wide ranging social science research has ever demonstrated a connection. Violent crime in US and Europe has been dropping for two decades. Respect and tolerance for other points of view and ways of life, as measure by polls, has been rising over the same period. The perception of an increasingly uncaring society has been fostered largely by a sensationalist media. But it’s a myth: we may be more scared of violence than ever, but we’re safer on the streets than we’ve been for years.

But that’s not what this column is supposed to be about. I just felt strongly enough about the issue to want to rebut that claim, and this seemed a good place to do it. Rather I wanted to look at why violent gaming feels qualitatively different from much of that presented elsewhere in the media, films and music in particular.

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To cut to the quick the answer is presentation. Anyone who plans to portray a piece of violence has to make conscious decisions about the context in which it will be shown. Build up sympathy for the victim, linger on the suffering and the act will condemn itself. Glamourise the protagonist, anonymise the antagonist and focus on the fireworks and the violence will be thrilling. Lessons so obvious they were learned in early theatre, centuries before the first violent film.

The relationship between modern video game design and cinema is easily close enough for these points to be applicable to both. Gamers could easily be encouraged to reflect on the consequences of their violence rather than glory in it. So the question becomes a why question: why do game designers choose almost exclusively to present their violence in a glamorous way rather than a condemnatory one? Why do game players nearly always choose to eschew more thoughtful pieces in favour of the thrill?

There is of course a close connection between what gamers want and what designers deliver. But in the instance of violence, I’m beginning to think that it’s a rare case of a gap between the two, a disconnect between the perception of what’s wanted and the truth. Add a grain of laziness on the part of studios, or perhaps more charitably the valid concern over multi-million dollar titles experimenting and flopping in the marketplace and you’ve got a recipe for trouble.

Consider. One of the very few mainstream titles to actually present the player with a harrowing version of violence, Spec Ops: The Line, garnered a lot of interest and critical praise and seemed to sell reasonably even if it was below the publishers’ expectation. Another rare exception, the infamous “No Russian” level of CoD: Modern Warfare 2, again got a lot of coverage and was certainly no impediment to sales.

Spec Ops: The Line

Meanwhile non-violent games have been one of the great success stories of this hardware generation. Family games, casual games, puzzle games, dance games, sports games have risen and risen, fueled at first by the early success of the Wii, then later by mobile devices. There may only be a small overlap between this market and that which consumes more violent fare, but plenty of action gamers have found pause for thought in peaceful, reflective indie titles.

It seems to me there’s actually quite a considerable market for anti-violence action games like Spec Ops. All that’s required is for the package to be delivered correctly. Firstly, it must be remembered that while it’s a sizable segment, it’s still a minority. That should come as no surprise: pandering to the lowest common denominator has long been a recipe for sales success across all media. Games are no different.

So it was perhaps unwise to have commissioned Spec Ops: The Line with an AAA budget and the accompanying weight of sales expectation. But pitch it right and there’s a market there, providing you can design a game to suit. That’s where the accusation of laziness holds a little water. Designing an action game around violence is relatively straightforward, with so much history to draw on. Building one that either draws a player into violence and then has them dwell upon its repercussions, or which tows the protagonist along in the wake of violence committed by others is much harder. But still entirely possible.

The lack of negative portrayals of violence, relatively common in almost other art forms, is unfortunate in video games. It plays into the hands of those who seek to censor or ban games by manipulating public perceptions of a link between gaming and antisocial behaviour in the face of all available evidence. But it’s not as inevitable as some might have you think. Not so long ago gaming was an immature format, practised largely by minors. But as the audience grows up, so will the subject matter. It’s about time we learned to expect, and to demand, better.

Spec Ops: The Line in Review

You might have heard some critics comparing Spec Ops: The Line to Francis Ford Coppola’s surrealist war-horror masterpiece, Apocalypse Now. It’s not an invalid or misguided comparison and the game is at least loosely homage to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the inspirational material for both that film and this game. There’s been a lot of talk about the game’s more sophisticated, psychological depiction of wartime violence and the moral toll of conflict. That too is not invalid or misguided, because it’s definitely there by intent. There are some genuinely chilling and truly horrific beats throughout the game’s six hour linear story progression as well as some compelling subtexts and an amazing setting that itself questions what gains are to be made in fighting for democracy and capitalism in the Middle East.

Nolan North- who I’m convinced is actually the name of every character he voices other the Penguin- and a pair of fellow Delta Force operatives are sent into a post-catastrophe Dubai to look for survivors of a massive, apocalyptic sandstorm that has literally buried the city’s incredible- and incredibly ostentatious- architecture. It’s fascinating, even in a video game environment, to wander the wreckage of this oil money-funded metropolitan monument to mercantilism. Abandoned supercars litter the streets. Signage for jewelry stores and designer boutiques clash with threatening graffiti and charred corpses. There is a surrealist bent that is well-appreciated. Walk over a sand dune and suddenly you’re on the ledge of a skyscraper overlooking ruins. It’s a paradise of profit laid waste by the red wrath of God.

Like the Kurtz character in Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness, there’s also a military hero that’s gone rogue and has holed up in the city’s tallest building. Apparently the American 33rd division has done so with him, practically taking over the ruined city. The CIA is involved. Civilians that have not been evacuated are in the crossfire. It’s a surprisingly complicated, detailed story that almost makes you forget that the game is a by-the-numbers, completely uninteresting third person shooter that induces headshot fatigue less than halfway through its runtime.

There’s no need to enumerate mechanics, control methods, AI and whether or not the graphics look good. You’ve played this game, from the pop-and-shoot gunplay to the rudimentary turret sequence where you’ve got to defend a guy doing something. It’s a competently made, completely uninspired and un-innovative example of its genre once you peer past the exceptional writing and attention to context. Regardless of its high-minded framing, it’s just as much a machine gun massacre as a Serious Sam game is.

While I was playing the game, wondering why it took so many shots to fell the bullet-sponge bad guys (which are more often American white people than the normal Evil Brown People that antagonize these kinds of games), I found myself questioning the validity and earnestness of the game’s message more than anything regarding war or morality. It’s edgy. But it’s not as if the intended message is a particularly profound one. I’m pretty sure that by now we all know that war, yeah, it’s real bad man. It makes people do some pretty crazy stuff. No new thematic ground is broken here.

But what’s more damning are the limitations that participation imposes on conveying anti-war, anti-violence messaging in a video game. The medium itself forecloses on the creators’ authority to communicate the “war, yeah, it’s real bad man” message. You still get a friendly “ding” when you earn achievements and trophies for shooting people, and you’re rewarded with story progression for killing the bad guys. And of course there’s a full multiplayer suite that undoes any pretense or intention of not glorifying war and killing.

It’s hard to take the game seriously once you step back from some of its more effective moments, like the aftermath of a white phosphorous attack that should effectively end the “awesomeness” of impersonal slaughter-sequences like the ubiquitous AC130 gunship trope, and realize that it is just another middle-of-the-road shooter. This could have been a dramatically subversive, incredibly progressive game that puts the player in the physical and psychological aftermath of modern warfare and the mistakes that are often made in defense of freedom or other agendas masquerading as freedom. But it isn’t. It’s a mediocre action game that just happens to have had a better-than-average writing staff that thought they could elevate the subject matter to something closer to Coppola’s film or Conrad’s novel. But participation- the key differentiator in the spectatorship of games versus films or novels- undermines what they were trying to accomplish.

Regardless of the handful of binary moral decisions, bodies hanging from street lamps and the PTSD nightmare that closes the game, this is still one where a meter tracks your headshots and there’s plenty of cool, Michael Bay-class set-pieces and machismo on display. While some may walk away from this game haunted by some of the grisly imagery and questions of morality, I’m walking away from it haunted by the question if the medium of video games is incapable of effectively carrying messages about violence and war while rewarding players for playing along.