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.

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.

A screen shot from Grand Theft Auto V.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle