Nobody Remembers Their First Kill: the importance of video game violence

Violence isn't unique to cinema or games - they're just the latest recruit to the aftermath blame tradition.

Nobody remembers their first kill. It’s not like the high security prison-yards, where they pace just to forget, dream-haunted. When it comes to video games, nobody remembers their first kill. If you can recall your first video game, well, then you’ve a chance of pinpointing the setting (over a blackened Space Invaders’ killing field? Atop a Sonic the Hedgehog green hill? Deep within a Pac-Man labyrinth?). But a name, date and face? Not likely.

It’s not just the troubling number of digital skeletons in the players’ closet that prevents recollection – although from Super Mario to Call of Duty, the trail of dead we game-killers leave behind is of genocidal proportions. It’s that these slayings are inconsequential. Remember the first pawn or knight you "took" in chess – the moment you callously toppled its body from the board? Hardly. Even if the piece had a name and backstory – a wife and children waiting on news back home, a star-crossed romance with an rival pawn – such details would have been forgotten the moment you packed away the board.

Most game murder (and its moments-older twin, game violence) leaves no imprint on the memory because it lacks meaning outside of the game context. Unlike depictions of death in cinema, which can trigger keen memories of the viewer’s own past pains and sorrows, game violence is principally systemic in nature; its purpose is to move the player either towards a state of victory or of defeat, rarely to tears or reflection. Likewise, there is no remorse for the game murder not only because the crime is fictional but also because, unless you’re playing for money or a hand in marriage, there is no consequence beyond the border of the game’s own fleeting reality.

Video games were deadly from the get-go. Spacewar! – the proto-game of the MIT labs played on $120,000 mainframe computers in the early-1960s set the tone: a combative space game in which two players attempted to be the first to gun the other down. From this moment onwards violence was the medium’s defining quiddity. This is no great surprise. Most sports are metaphors for combat. The team games – soccer, rugby and so on - are sprawling battles in which attackers and defenders ebb and flow up and down the field in a clash of will and power led by their military-titled "captains". American Football is a series of frantic First World War-style scrambles for territory measured in 10-yard increments. Tennis is a pistol duel, squinting shots lined up in the glare of a high-noon sun; running races are breakneck chases between predator and prey, triggered by the firing of a gun. That video games would extend the combat metaphor that defines most human play was natural.

The arcades concentrated the metaphor into sixty-second clashes between player and computer, dealing as they invariably did in the violence of sudden failure. This was a financial decision more than it was an artistic one: their designers needed to kill off the player after a minute or so in order to squeeze another quarter out of them. Violence was part of the business model: in the battle between human and machine, the machine must always overwhelm the player. In such games, as the author David Mitchell wrote, we play to postpone the inevitable, that moment when our own capacity for meting out playful death is overcome by our opponent’s. This is the DNA of all games, handed down from the playground to the board and, finally to the screen.

The problem of game violence then – the problem that’s inspired a liberal president to call for Congress to fund another clutch of studies into its potential effects on the player – cannot derive from its existence or even its ubiquity. Violence is a necessary function of the video game. The problem must be to do with the aesthetic of the violence – the way in which its rendered on the screen. It is a question of form, not function – something that moves the conversation into the realm of all screen violence, a style concern.

The date at which cinematic violence began to become violent can be accurately set at 1966, the year that the Hay Production Code (which moderated on-screen "brutality and possible gruesomeness") was reversed and film edged closer to becoming a director’s medium. Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) took the cartoonish invulnerability of old movie violence (the "ox-stunning fisticuffs", as Vladimir Nabokov put it) and splattered the screen with blood and gore instead. Soon movie directors were ordering blood pouches in the thousands, crimson-washing every fight scene, exploring the boundaries of this newfound visual freedom.

Depictions of video game violence chart a similar trajectory from the staid to the outlandish, but it's a journey whose pace was set by technology, not censorship. Early game designers couldn’t spare the graphical processing power needed to render a tubular spout of blood or a glistening wound. They made do with guttural screams to bring the collapsing pixels to more vivid life.

Devoid of censorship and drawn to the potential marketing potency of being dubbed a "nasty", some developers courted controversy with violent subject matter (notably 1982’s Custer’s Revenge, an Atari 2600 game in which players assume the role of a scrawny settler dodging arrows in a bid to rape a bound American native girl). But even the most vulgar scene is robbed of its power when rendered in tubby pixels, like a lewd scrawl in a tittering teen-age boy’s exercise book.

When the technology caught up and games had the opportunity to begin to present the game violence and murders in a truer to life form, the uncanny valley effect continued to render them inefficient. 1997’s Carmageddon, a game in which players attempt to mow down policemen and the elderly in a car was the first game banned from sale in the UK, but this was due to a back-fired marketing stunt (the developer unnecessarily sent the game to the censors hoping for an 18-rating to increase the game’s notoriety, and found its sale prohibited) rather than sober deliberation or genuine public outcry.

Real violence, the non-violent among us suppose, is unlike Hollywood’s screen violence (pre or post 1966), being less dramatic, less graceful and quicker in character. Few video games, even today with their obsession towards a sort of "realism", attempt to present anything approaching a realistic depiction of violence. It’s all comic book, high-contrast spectacle, designed for maximum feedback, maximum excitement: a multiverse of Michael Bay overstatement. It’s all stylised in the extreme.

That’s not to say that video games don’t have the capacity to depict violence in its grim, real-world horror. Indeed, they are the optimum medium, with their unreal actors and easily fabricated tools and effects of violence. But few game-makers currently appear interested in exploring this space. In part this is because the independent game movement, which drove Hollywood’s interest in truer violence post-1966 is more interested in non-violent games. When violence is the staple of the mainstream the subversive creative space is in creating games devoid of the stuff. One of 2012’s most highly regarded indie titles, Fez, was created to specifically without a single on-screen death. Not even Mario – gaming’s Mickey - with his Goomba-defeating head stomps can claim as much. In a medium soaked with inconsequential violence, the counter-culture exists in the creative space that exists away from the metaphorical battlegrounds with their headshots and KOs.

The concern about game violence recently became America’s concern-du-jour, an addendum (suspect?) to the post-Sandy Hook gun control debate. In December 2012 Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, accused the games industry of being “a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells and stows violence against its own people.” Then, in January 2013, representatives from Electronic Arts and Activision - the publishers behind the Call of Duty and Medal of Honor series - were called into a conference with vice-president Joe Biden to discuss the relationship between games and real-life violence. Subsequently President Obama has called for more studies to investigate what links tie game violence to real violence, while US senator Lamar Alexander provided the extremist perspective in claiming on television that “video games is a bigger problem than guns”.

Overstated depictions of violence are not unique to video games and cinema. Shakespeare’s theatres were awash with blood, and directors routinely using goat’s entrails to add verisimilitude to a gory scene. If the realistic (or exaggerated) depiction of violence in art leads to real world mimicry, then it’s been happening for centuries. As the British comedian Peter Cook drolly put it, when referring to the supposed copycat effect of screen violence: "Michael Moriarty was very good as that Nazi on the television. As soon as I switched off the third episode, I got on the number eighteen bus and got up to Golders Green and... I must've slaughtered about eighteen thousand before I realised, you know, what I was doing. And I thought: it's the fucking television that's driven me to this."

Video games are the latest recruit to the aftermath blame tradition. And, like all new mediums, they provide the right sort of looking scapegoat, enjoyed as they are by a generally younger demographic (at least, in the cultural perception), from whose ranks America’s highest profile public-killers appear to step.

There is perhaps only one factor that separates games from other screen media: the interactivity. It’s here that the generational mistrust of the medium is allowed to blossom into full-throated critique. The games are killing simulators, they say. They allow the unstable to act out their murder fantasies – something the cinematic nasty could never do. This argument ignores the truth that violence in all games is primarily functional, always within the context of a broader aim, the conflict between the player and the designer. The interactivity may place the player in the role of a killer, but only in the same way that the chess-player is cast as the ruthless general.

And yet there is truth in the statement too. A disturbed mind could ignore the vital function of violence in a game, and instead fully-focus upon its form. The crucial ingredient is not the game itself, but the disturbed mind with its dreams of sadism, fantasies of mortal power, obsession with trauma, not to mention its brokenness and depravity. Even within this context, and with an inability to discern what is earnest and what is play, a lifetime of violent games is unlikely to affect anything but the style of a subsequent atrocity.

In the aftershock of an act of madness some seek prayer, others revenge – but most seek sense in the senseless moment. In the hours following the Sandy Hook massacre a news outlet erroneously reported that the shooter was Ryan Lanza, the brother of gunman Adam Lanza. Poring over his Facebook profile, many noticed that Ryan had ‘liked’ the video game Mass Effect, a space RPG trilogy created by the brothers Dr Ray Muzyka and Dr Greg Zeschuk. Emboldened by an expert on Fox News drawing an immediate link between the killing and video games an angry mob descended on the developer’s Facebook page declaring them "child killers".

Despite the absurdity of the logic, a chain effect was set in action, one that’s toppled up to the White House. Video games are the youngest creative medium. What literature learned in four millennia, cinema was forced to learn in a century and video games must now master in three decades. The issue of game violence and its potential effects may seem like an abstract, esoteric issue, demanding of scientific study to make clear what is opaque. But game violence has logic and precedence and is always an act of play, not of sincerity. The worry is then with those who cannot tell the difference, from disturbed high school student to the US senator.

Simon Parkin is a journalist and author who has written for The Guardian, Edge, Eurogamer - and now the New Statesman. He tweets @simonparkin

Do you remember the first chess piece you "took"? Violence doesn't just occur in digital games. Photograph: Potamos Photography on Flickr via Creative Commons
ZACHARIE SCHEURER/NURPHOTO/ZUMAPRESS
Show Hide image

What can a new book of Holocaust testimony tell us about the Third Reich?

Laurence Rees has probably interviewed more people who lived through the Holocaust than anybody else.

“The first authoritative and accessible account of the Holocaust in three decades”, proclaims the publisher’s blurb about this book. But wasn’t Saul Friedländer’s prizewinning classic Nazi Germany and the Jews (in two volumes, in 1997 and 2007) authoritative and accessible? Perhaps the publishers think that Final Solution, the thousand-page epic published posthumously less than a year ago by the late, highly readable historian David Cesarani, wasn’t authoritative? Or maybe Peter Longerich’s Holocaust (2010), which nobody could reasonably say wasn’t authoritative, in some way wasn’t accessible?

These are not the only serious and approachable accounts of the Nazi extermination of Europe’s Jews between 1939 and 1945. The Holocaust is one of the most intensively studied subjects in history and the publishers are misleading potential readers when they imply that somehow it isn’t.

What new insights and material does Laurence Rees bring to the table? Rees made his name in the 1990s as a television producer, making numerous outstanding programmes. He was editor of Timewatch, the BBC’s flagship series of historical documentaries, and then became head of history at the BBC while continuing to produce his own programmes, including The Nazis: a Warning from History (1997) and Auschwitz: the Nazis and the Final Solution (2005). These and other programmes were notable for their depth of research, their accuracy and their awareness of the latest thinking by specialists on the topics they covered. Rees has won numerous accolades for his work, including a Bafta and two Emmys. He has done more than anyone else to raise the standard of historical documentaries and to spread to a wide audience in a gripping fashion the findings of academic research, above all on the Nazis.

But he grew dissatisfied with television’s insatiable demand for new methods and perspectives. In 2008, he resigned from the BBC to set up a multimedia website about the Second World War, although he returned to television work with his independent company, with programmes such as The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler and Touched by Auschwitz. One hopes that he will continue making documentaries for many more years.

Rees has accompanied a number of his television documentaries with products of an even more traditional character: books. Auschwitz: the Nazis and the “Final Solution” (2005), a tie-in with his television series of the same name, became a bestseller. Like his others books, The Holocaust reads rather like a television programme put down on paper in an expanded but, in essence, unaltered form. The text is a kind of voice-over, written in plain and simple language that often verges on banality.

Television documentaries depend above all on visual images. The room they leave for spoken words is very limited; hence the need for simplicity and concision. However, a book of more than 500 pages demands a different kind of approach – the employment of stylistic grace of the sort that one finds in Friedländer’s magnificent volumes – and it is notable by its absence here.

Among Rees’s great virtues as a producer of documentaries about the Nazis were the assiduity and ingenuity that he displayed in searching out eyewitnesses and persuading them to speak to the recording camera. Often their testimony was gripping, moving and disturbing. Who can forget the blank denial of an elderly German woman confronted by Rees’s team with a denunciation that she had written to the Nazi authorities at the age of 20, reporting the “suspicious behaviour” of a neighbour who failed to give the Nazi salute and seemed to have a Jewish friend? The Gestapo always investigated letters such as this, and all too frequently the story ended with the arrest of the person denounced and their imprisonment and even death.

Over the years, Rees has probably interviewed more people who lived through the Third Reich than anybody else. For the television series he produced, hundreds of interviews had to be boiled down to a few fairly short excerpts. In The Holocaust: A New History, he presents a further, much more generous selection, marking it as “previously unpublished testimony”. Thus the book reproduces the documentary format of interviews linked by commentary.

Much of this testimony presents detailed evidence of the sufferings of the victims of Nazi anti-Semitism across Europe. Rees quotes at length an interview with a Frenchwoman who was taken with her family at the age of nine by French police as part of a round-up of Parisian Jews in 1942. They were kept in appalling conditions at a holding camp in Beaune-la-Rolande, south of Paris, and then their mothers were taken away, to be murdered at Auschwitz, although the children did not know their fate.

Among the graphic details supplied in the narrative, the interviewee describes how suddenly the children went to the camp latrine, and said, “Oh, come look, come look” – at the bottom, mixed with the excrement, there were many brilliant, shiny things. They were wedding rings that the mothers, having been told to surrender all their jewellery, had preferred to throw away rather than give up. Her father, who was away at the time of the raids, eventually succeeded in using bribery to free the girl.

At a Nazi death camp, one former prisoner interviewed by Rees had escaped immediate gassing by following the cryptic advice of one of the inmates: “Say you’re a carpenter.” He quickly learned the trade on the job and describes how when the women arriving at the camp had their heads shaved, they “gained hope, for if they are going to have their hair cut, it means there is going to be some life after . . . for hygiene is necessary in a camp”.

The interviewees provide vivid descriptions of the horror of the evacuation of the camps as the Red Army approached, with the SS shooting anyone on the “death marches” who failed to keep up. One interviewee, whose job was to sort the clothes of murdered Jews, remembered: “When I marched out of the camp . . . I was very well dressed. I had a Russian hat, a fur hat, with a heavy coat, and good shoes. And the only thing is, I don’t know what made me do it, but I had my pockets full of lumps of sugar. Why I did it, I don’t know – other people took meat. The sugar and the snow [mixed together], I survived because of that.” Often Rees’s subjects evoke the state of mind they were in at the time, ranging from dull despair to terror, while those forced to help the SS suppressed their feelings in order to survive.

All of this is effective and often it is powerful. The question to ask, however, is whether relying so heavily on such testimonies is the right way to go about putting together a book, as opposed to a television series, on the Holocaust. There is no denying that the interview material on which Rees focuses is largely compelling, always illuminating and on occasion very moving, and Rees and his team clearly took great care to sift it for inaccuracies. Taken as a whole, it adds considerably to the detailed picture we already have of the Nazi persecution and extermination of the Jews. Still, it gives the book a rather partial character. This is not a complete history of the Holocaust and much of the most compelling evidence is left out because we have read it somewhere before.

Rees does incorporate written material in some quantity but he nonetheless privileges his interview material because, as he argues, when you talk to the people who lived through it, the history still lives. That is the view of the television producer; for a historian who spends almost all of his or her time ploughing through mountains of documents, history lives through the written word far more than it lives through interviews, because the written word can have the immediacy that comes from being contemporary, rather than being passed through the sieve of decades-old memory.

In its narrative structure, this is a fairly conventional chronological account of Nazi anti-Semitism. The first eight of the book’s 18 chapters describe the origins and spread of anti-Semitism in Germany and its consequences in practice once the Nazis assumed power. It is noticeable here that there is an overwhelming focus on Hitler, who is portrayed as almost the sole driving force in the Nazi persecution of the Jews. It’s a pity that Rees didn’t devote more attention to other leading anti-Semites in the Nazi leadership, from Goebbels to Alfred Rosenberg, or to the question, much debated and researched in recent years, of how far and in what way the Nazis’ hatred of Jews was shared by the bulk of the German population.

Persecution slid into murder in a process that Rees correctly portrays as occurring in stages and linked to Nazi plans for the creation of a new racial order in Europe that involved the murder by starvation and unchecked disease of millions of “Slavs”, “Gypsies” and other supposed racial undesirables. At this point, Hitler becomes much less prominent in the narrative, in a way that is surprising given his centrality in the first half of the book. Perhaps this is inevitable, in the light of Rees’s admirable determination to range across the whole of Nazi-dominated Europe, taking in the persecution and murder of Jews from Belgium to Belarus, but it again throws into relief his relatively narrow focus on Hitler earlier on.

The late David Cesarani deliberately extended his narrative of what the Nazis called the “final solution of the Jewish problem in Europe” – a “problem” that was entirely of their own making and a “solution” that was a euphemism for brutal, unrelenting extermination – beyond the end of the war, up to 1949, because, he argued, the suffering of the Jews did not end with the collapse of the Third Reich but continued in displaced persons’ camps and in what remained of Jewish communities in Poland and elsewhere in eastern Europe. Rees stops abruptly in 1945, however, and we don’t learn enough about what came after.

This isn’t, therefore, the best book about the Holocaust, nor is it the first authoritative and readable account in decades, but it does add to the mass of testimony and evidence accumulated by other historians. Like all of Rees’s work, it is accurate and carefully researched, and the combination of a clear, simple style and powerful transcripts will ensure it a wide readership.

Ironically, in view of the scepticism that led its author to abandon his job in television because he thought that the future lay with the World Wide Web, it is perhaps a history not for the internet but for the television age.

Richard J Evans’s books include “The Third Reich in History and Memory” (Abacus) and “The Pursuit of Power: Europe, 1815-1914” (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge