Violence Considered Harmful
This is not me “weighing in” in a long-considered, chin-stroking manner, by any means, but I felt inclined to write something small about videogame violence this evening, so here I am writing it. Actually I was talking on Sup Holmes and Jostle Bastard and its relationship to Hotline Miami came up and I said I found game violence “distasteful”, I think, so consider this an extension on that thought, in my usual whirling, not-edited, write-a-blog-post-quickly way.
I’m not a fan of violence in games. I very rarely play games that involve it any more. But to be more specific I’m not a fan of “senseless” violence in games. The kind of violence that is “just” the mechanic of the game say, that is taken for granted, that you “just do”. So that’s stuff like Half-Life 2, say, where you just slaughter Combine soldiers endlessly, or Red Dead Redemption where you slaughter everyone and everything endlessly. And so on. (You can kind of tell from the datedness of my examples where I started giving up on games like this.) And, yes, you have “reasons” for killing those people (mostly) in those games, but the game itself, the game-as-game is just leveraging killing as a form of entertainment and fun and frisson, something that we’re supposed to enjoy and not think about. (None of this is news to any of us.)
The thing that bothered me today was returning to think about the great discussion that someone like Anita Sarkeesian provides of depictions of woman in videogames in Feminist Frequency. As she says, it’s okay to enjoy media you also find problematic, but it’s important to notice that it’s problematic. I guess I want to ask: is it okay to specifically enjoy the problematic bits of these media? Continuing with Sarkeesian’s example, then, it’s okay to enjoy, say, Hitman, even though its depiction of women is depressing and upsetting, but is it “okay” to enjoy specifically enacting the degradation/abuse/murder of women in that and other games? My instincts here are telling me that it’s not so okay (I could be wrong.) I’m not saying it’s somehow “Cosmically Not Okay”, I don’t believe in that sort of thing, but I think it seems deeply problematic to specifically enjoy and relish, say, having sex with and then murdering a prostitute in Grand Theft Auto. Again, not to condemn the entire game or claim you can’t “enjoy Grand Theft Auto” – but I feel worried if you are really, really enjoying that specific act. Getting specific, I feel worried if I enjoy or seek out that kind of act.
Bringing me back to violence in general. Depictions and actions of violence are endemic in videogames – this we know. We kill a lot of people. But killing people (in our day to day life) is A Bad Thing. I’d say it’s just as bad as the objectification, mistreatment or abuse of women, for example (in real life). Yet other than over-reacting people who want to burn videogames to the ground, i don’t feel like I hear a lot of thought about whether it’s problematic that so many of us are enjoying that part of games? Like, if it would be worrying to enjoy abusing or even “just” objectifying a woman in a videogame (and I do find it worrying), isn’t it worrying to enjoy murdering people in a videogame? Or to enjoy killing hundreds and hundreds of creatures, human or not, in a video game? To really specifically be relishing it, head-shots in slow motion, blood spray, statistics, all the pornography of combat? Even if the narrative says it’s “okay” somehow? Should we feel okay about specifically liking that?
Now obviously, obviously “it’s a game” and we know that and liking violence in games doesn’t mean we’re a bunch of psychopathic killers in real life. I don’t think there’s some sort of causal link from violence in games to violence in life (I’d be surprised if it was so simple).
But I think I do think that there’s probably a connection (in both directions) between violent videogames and violent cultures and beliefs? And that I do think that enjoying and relishing enacting violence in videos worries me a bit. Because I have enjoyed it myself (and I bet I still would).
And I don’t think that’s A Good Thing. At the very least not something that should go lightly unexamined.