Hanging up my guns again


tl;dr: I feel uncomfortable about videogame violence.

From time to time I play videogames. I finished Watchdogs last night, churning through the last missions chiefly because I have the kind of personality that wants to finish things, and also because (as I’ve said) I enjoy driving cars to places I’m told to drive them (Uber: The Game?). Watchdogs is one of those games where a  very substantial amount of your time is spent whipping out a gun and killing people, and so I did lots of that over the past weeks as I made my way through the game’s (underwhelming) narrative.

I often think about ‘videogame violence’ and its place in the larger world of videogames I find myself attached to. Clearly I’m not so rabidly anti-gun violence in games as to never play those games, but each time I play one of these things, I’m always taken aback and disturbed by the activity, and tend to stay away from them for months afterwards. It’s not that I’m over-sensitive, weeping as I take each digital life, it’s that I see and feel how easy and rote the action of killing with a gun becomes and I feel distinctly worried by it being a taken-for-granted form entertainment and pastime.

Now, I definitely enjoy shooting people in videogames. There’s a distinct satisfaction to the kinaesthetic mastery involved, the graphical flourishes, the evocation of doing something powerful, the taboo being broken, and on and on. There’s no question that killing is a deep-seated part of, I suppose, being an animal, and that videogames allow us to tap into that ‘safely’. But when I’ve played these games I can’t shake the feeling that it’s really, really not good, and all the apologetics I’ve read for this kind of stuff just doesn’t make me feel any better. It’s gross to enjoy killing people, even if it isn’t real.

But of course killing like this is so integral to entertainment media, and especially certain genres of videogames, that it’s not even “just killing”, it’s enhanced so many ways. In Watchdogs you get little pop-ups like social media alerts telling you when you get a headshot – as in, you shot someone in the head and they presumably died instantly. Or if you “neutralized” someone by shooting them in the knees, say. I’m sorry but that’s hideous. The fact that the design of these games is hugely premised on what we, the players, like suggests that this is the kind of thing we want. This is who we are. We are people who feel good about shooting someone successfully, and great if we shot them in the head. Sad! (Sorry, couldn’t resist that Trumpism.)

And it seems pretty gun-specific, too? Gun culture and gun-based killing seems to be much more acceptable than it should be. You could run the thought experiment of imagining a game just like Watchdogs except that you have an arsenal of different knives and you run around the city stabbing people to death (and, sure, imagine they also have knives and are trying to stab you too, so it’s ‘justified’). The level of the personal introduced by a stabbing (or a strangling, perhaps, or beating people to death with a bat), changes the dynamics, I think? At least, when I run this experiment in my head I find it significantly more disgusting. I remember in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas you could stab people, which felt weird, but could then continue to stab them while they lay on the ground. This crossed some line for me – I found it deeply upsetting both as image and action.

But why on earth is that the line for me? Why would it be fine to relish and seek out headshots, but then find brutally stabbing people distressing? Guns seem to allow us to transform the very personal (killing) into the impersonal, a transmutation I just don’t seem to be able to understand. And yet I literally feel and experience it when I play these games. Intellectually I think they’re abhorrent, but as a player I don’t deny the pleasure. When and how did the line get moved to the point where much or most virtual killing is basically fine and harmless, with some outliers that are “actually wrong”?

The typical argument I see excusing this contradiction is that it’s “okay to like problematic things”, and I can believe that in certain contexts that’s completely fine. But isn’t killing people something more or less objectively bad that we absolutely would rather not have in the world? And even if killing is necessary in the world (it probably is, right?), shouldn’t we at least feel incredibly disturbed that a huge part of daily entertainment for many of us is enacting the killing of scores of people? Is it really, actually okay to like it?

It doesn’t feel okay.

15 February 2017
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