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
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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump