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If we deplore racism and sexism in videogames, how can we defend violence?

A culture of violence is something that normalises violence and makes it acceptable. Games don’t do that because they don’t feature real violence or anything that feels like it, argues Phil Hartup.

A screen shot from Grand Theft Auto V.
A screen shot from Grand Theft Auto V.

Mobile phone rings.

It’s Roman, the once funny, now tedious, cousin of our hero Nico.

A police cruiser pulls up at the lights.

A choice. Answer the phone, listen to Roman's comic inanity and partake of a rudimentary mini game. Or . . . do something else.

Not much of a choice, is it? Two seconds and two shotgun blasts through the windscreen of the police car later, and I’ve embarked on a rampage across Liberty City.

Soon, there's a trio of SWAT vans on my tail, assorted pedestrians splattered across the hood of my newly stolen truck, and a helicopter buzzing low overhead with the cops leaning out of it putting bullets through the roof of my truck with unerring accuracy. To evade the pursuers I cut through the park, scything through the crowded sidewalk, dropping a couple of grenades out of the window of the truck as I go.

It’s fun.

***

Back before games were ubiquitous, back when they were a minority hobby enjoyed only by the young and the geeky, they were a target. Opportunistic politicians and moral guardians in the media looked at games as being dangerous, as being a corrupter of young minds and tried to have them banned, censored and generally defanged. In some cases these attacks succeeded. Australia still bans games deemed too violent for the country that foisted Mel Gibson on an unsuspecting world.

Those days are mostly gone now, and when the head of the National Rifle Association recently tried to blame video games for the Newtown massacre in Connecticut he was rightly mocked for it. But the legacy of spending years with video games as a censorship battleground has not gone away. In those years violence in games was unquestioningly a good thing, if only because it was pissing off Keith Vaz. But that has led to a culture where we don’t question violence, we’re not surprised by it, we presume that a violent solution is the default that we’ll be offered in games. Games like Portal or Amnesia: The Dark Descent, which present themselves like first person shooters yet don’t feature any player-driven violence, are very rare.

We have started to see gaming culture acknowledge the often rampant sexism and racism within itself, both among gamers and developers, and this can only be a good thing. While not much has actually been done about those ills, calling developers out for their problematic products is the first step and it is likely that the criticism levelled at games of the 2012 vintage will pay dividends with future titles. Mr 47 may well have punched his last kinky nun and Borderlands may not see another "girlfriend mode".

But the question then arises, if we are going to address social ills like sexism and racism in gaming, does that mean that violence too should face the chop? Is violence not a social ill? If we believe that sexism and racism are damaging elements to our culture is the next step to limit the behaviour of characters in games?

I sincerely hope not.

The simple reason for this is that violence, in a fictional context, is fun. It is entertaining. Why? There are a number of reasons. The first is that violence in games gives players agency, power and the ability to influence the world. You can point and click and change the world in an immediate and often satisfying way. To a non-gamer this might sound like a trifling matter - so you’ve bested a pile of pixels, bully for you. However, if you’re invested in a game that sense of having an effect on the world it portrays carries emotional weight. Power, even little bits of it, even in a fictional world, feels good.

Of course this doesn’t have to come from an act of violence; it can come from something as harmless as scoring a goal in FIFA or sorting out the crippling personality disorders that you inflicted upon you character in The Sims when you didn’t know what the buttons did.

It is important to remember that as a gamer you are not passively watching acts of violence in the same way that the viewer of a movie is. You are making them happen. You are more than a viewer; even sometimes more than an actor, you are the author of the carnage. It is an important distinction because you are empowered and you are in control. Or at least you are if the game is any good. A weak game puts you in the role of the audience while a strong game lets you write the script. Skyrim, for instance, can be a game about an elf that lives on a mountain with his spouse and kids and who earns his money picking spuds or it can be a game about a big fuzzy cat person who murders everybody in the world and bats their severed heads around her cave all day.

The second thing that makes violence a staple of gaming is that opposition and destruction lead to conflict and chaos and these are inherently interesting things in a safe environment. Conflict gives us a challenge, a test of skill and strategy to be overcome. Chess is a violent game. Sure, you don’t see the pawns get clubbed down with maces, but it’s a simulation of conflict, and it’s great. Meanwhile chaos provides dynamism and a sense of the unpredictable, like a child knocking over their tower of building blocks and watching how the blocks tumble down the gamer gets to see the world react to what they are doing. The success of the Angry Birds series is a testament to the simple joys of knocking things over, watching them fall and squashing smug pigs.

The next reason that violence is entertaining in video games is that it’s liberating. Our avatars in video games don’t have to respect the same laws, be they legal or physical, they don’t have to fear death or pain and if they do die they can just reload from the last save point. This is not to say that gamers secretly desire to inflict massive violence upon the world and are only prevented from doing so by fear for their lives, but it is therapeutic to be able to play by a different set of rules every now and again. Most games still have rules, whether it’s GTA where you meant obey the laws of the land lest the police descend upon you or the Hitman series where you are supposed to avoid dropping bodies all over the place, but the rules are different to real life. Players, even of violent games, are not playing them like wild, uncontrolled beasts, they mostly still follow the rules and the change in what’s allowed and what isn’t provides a feeling of liberty similar to a holiday. Not a particularly exciting or gratifying holiday, granted, and if you try to show your friends your holiday snaps you’re going to find yourself either with fewer friends or at the centre of an intervention, but the principles are similar. You’re a different person, you’re allowed to do different things and nobody at home will find out unless one of your mates brings a camera out with him.

Lastly of course is the business of telling a story. A great story needs high drama and to get high drama in a game there really is nothing better than violence. Here is a bad guy, here is his army conveniently deployed in order of weakest to strongest, fill your boots. It would be great if this were not the case and if games could offer more diversity but some things games just can’t do. For example games have never been able to address the topic of love and sex in a meaningful way, few games have even attempted it barring some creepy Japanese imports, later GTAs and some Bioware RPGs. The subject is difficult to do right due to the fact that games are, naturally, gamey and this makes the process of wooing a character even more ridiculous than killing the ten rats in their basement or beating the hell out of them over the best of three roads. It’s easy to be carried along on a story where you want to bring down the evil overlord and liberate the people but it’s more difficult to create a bond between the player and an artificial significant other.

Often games focus on the accumulation of wealth, or the construction of great works, and this is fine if that’s what floats your boat, but the big two of human drama are sex and violence and we can’t blame games developers too much for largely operating within their comfort zone of explosions, shootings and car chases.

Some might argue that all these things that make games great, the drama, the agency and the challenge; they could all be included in a non-violent game. Perhaps they could, but it would make for a much less diverse art form. As a society we don’t seem to believe that cinema or literature needs to be non-violent. So this then begs the question why not have violence? When you’re killing fictional characters how does that hurt anybody?

When a game is sexist or racist then it can be said that it is a part of a culture of sexism or racism because the game itself is a part of our culture in the same way as a book or movie. Games often need to be called on their problematic content just as a film or book would be. But when a game depicts violence is it part of a culture of violence? No, it is a part of a culture of sitting on something comfy and looking at a screen for hours. A culture of violence is something that normalises violence, makes it acceptable, games don’t do that because they don’t feature real violence or anything that feels like it. A game could incite violence; you could have a game that tries to provoke people into killing one another through its message or content but the mere act of shooting characters on a screen isn’t going to do that in itself. It could be argued that something like Call of Duty or Medal Of Honour makes the slaughter of foreigners in the name of Uncle Sam seem palatable and noble, but it seems fairer to say that US culture in particular already sees officially sanctioned army killings as palatable and noble, and that the video games jingoistic tone is more a part of that culture than the game play.

Players do not see the violence as real, nor do they respond to it as such. It has been observed that the pilots of military drones can be susceptible to PTSD but this has never happened to a gamer and all tired Resident Evil sequels in the world won’t change that. Gamers can become addicted, they can drop dead from deep vein thrombosis, they can learn to hate everybody on Xbox Live, but they won’t ever think that the fake people they are murdering are real.