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

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.