Let’s start by observing two important and (hopefully) relevant things.
1) Recently, we celebrated Memorial Day here in this lifelong party we like to call America.
That means that “The Troops” are on everybody’s mind, a fact which I am not at all lamenting. Rather, I am harnessing it, taking that thought by the hand and saying, “follow me, new friend, to a group of people that might want to get to know you a bit better.”
2) There are a lot of violent video games.
Some attempt to address violence in sophisticated ways, some in straightforward ways, some in intentionally troubling ways, and others in unabashedly unempathetic ways. The majority of video games don’t really even “deal” with the topic, at least not nearly so much as they simply feature violent action as a narrative impetus.
These two observations combine to form a brainchild in my brainwomb. I think interactive experiences that feature violence as a central mechanic are an incredibly unique chance for us to think deeply about violence itself, especially when those experiences come in a virtual manner.
Watching films that feature violence — or reading a book that does the same, as long as the media is passive — is a somewhat legitimate way to encounter violence, and sometimes even brutal displays on screens are enough to push one’s tolerance. At best, a non-interactive piece of media displays some horror, and causes you to feel some sympathy and — if it’s quite well-done — empathy along with it. A non-interactive story can display something tragic in an emotional fashion, and make you think about the effects of those tragic acts.
I’m not saying static stories can’t be dramatically effective. Books like The Yellow Birds and films likeThe Hurt Locker have dramatically changed the way I think about war. I’m saying that Mass Effect 3made me think about violent conflict — and mortality itself — in a more profound and personal way.
Games are experiences that require agency within a set of rules. They are active moments in our lives, not passive ones. Many games — even thematically “violent” games like Risk — require conflict, competition, and confrontation. Whenever I play Risk, I want to win it by “killing” the overwhelming opposition. But “killing” those armies gives me the same feeling as taking virtual people’s virtual currency in Online Poker. I never feel as though I’ve committed something violent; I’ve simply committed an act that granted me superiority. I’ve won.
When the subject matter is on-screen, violent, and interactive, things get hairy. When you have to make a decision between two groups of virtual beings, killing one cluster and saving the other, you have the opportunity to put yourself in the shoes of the imaginary humans that would make those choices. If you choose to sacrifice the one important gun to save a thousand children and risk losing the war because of that decision, you have to at least rationalize a bit, since you are stepping into a role. Likewise, if you choose to save the gun and sacrifice the babies, you’ll have to rationalize all that blood on your hands. When a decision like this is presented to me — and it’s a common one, at least in essence — I rationalize both, as I can only assume at least a decent amount of people do. I weigh pros and cons. I picture future strategies. And yes, I “gamify” the decision, since I am actively gaming.
However, the grim reality of these decisions — and how difficult they are to make — is accentuated in the right interactive moments, especially those that involve horrific acts of violence. Don’t get me wrong, here. I am absolutely not saying that games in which you get to pull people’s spines out are good games because they are games in which you can pull people’s spines out. Rather, making ME do the spine-pulling is really what has the potential to teach me about the horrors of violence, either in an illustration of desensitization or an induction of squeamishness. For me, Telltale’s The Walking Dead was filled with the latter.
If a piece of media makes me make the decision, I’m more likely to be able to see both sides.
If a piece of media makes me commit the violence, I’m more likely to be disturbed by it.
If a piece of media makes me walk through a bunch of bodies that I chose to set ablaze, I’m infinitely more likely to feel personal regret.
Of course, none of these things even come close to teaching me about the reality of human violence. I will never assume that. Virtual interactivity is just another way that we can grow towards appreciating / appropriately fearing the human animal. So, next Memorial Day, I want you to sit down, play a violent video game, and think.
[This post was originally published on Plus10Damage May 28, 2013.]