Violence in the videogame industry receives more than its fair share of attention. Some people blame the increasing amount of violence and the increasing realism of that violence in videogames are the cause of aggressive and destructive behavior. The studies supporting those claims are far from conclusive. However, that is not the debate being focused on here. Instead, the dialogue I wish to have is one of the purpose and meaning of videogame violence.
The current discussion over violence in videogames seems to come mostly from Bioshock: Infinite. I’ve played through Irrational Games’ newest masterpiece, and I do agree wholeheartedly that it takes violence to a level that would make most people at least a bit uncomfortable. The first kill you get in the game involves shoving a motorized, rotating razor blade into a man’s face and turning the mechanism on. To a lot of people, this is uncomfortable, gasp-inducing and inappropriate. However, I would argue that sometimes, violence in videogames is entirely appropriate.
Much like many other forms of art, videogames have the potential to offend their audiences. They also have the potential to tell stories, convey messages and enlighten their viewers. Violence in videogames is like violence in any other form of visual media in that it exposes viewers to something they would never have seen in everyday life, and does so in a way that does not leave it up to your own imagination. There is a visual manifestation of violence in front of you and you must deal with it. Many filmmakers have used this particular aspect of the medium to deliver hefty social and political messages.
Violence in films, when implemented well, has the potential to open people’s eyes to certain issues. “Crash,” ( 2004) directed by Paul Haggis and “The Hurt Locker,” (2008) direct by Kathryn Bigelow, winners of the Oscar for Best Picture, are two films that use violence and images of violence to expose the viewer to a message or theme that needs images of violence to be properly represented. “Crash” focuses on the volatile issues derived from race. It shows the actions that can come out of hate and ignorance. The scenes of violent confrontation and honest portrayal of bigotry in the film are absolutely necessary to tell the film’s story and convey its message that race is still an issue in America, and that it manifests itself in many ways. The message would not have been as powerful were it not for the visual capabilities film.
“The Hurt Locker” shows what it’s like to be part of the US military troops on the ground during the US occupation of Iraq. While not necessarily a protest-based film, “The Hurt Locker” portrays some stark realities that most people are never exposed to.
The violent scenes in Bigelow’s Best Picture winner include deadly firefights and the incredibly tense diffusing of explosives. The picture’s purpose, which I believe was, at least in part, to portray some of the conditions the US military forces dealt with every day, requires vivid images that depict grim realities.
Videogames also have potential to convey powerful messages. This ability may even be more powerful due to the interactive nature of videogames. Bioshock: Infinite tells a story that is extremely impactful. The overall concept of the game, including the setting, enemies and science-fiction aspects, are not realistic. There are no giant mechanical birds or extra-dimensional “tears” in real life. The game's art style, while semi-realistic, does not achieve the same level of realism as the Battlefield 3, another modern warfare-style shooter. However, the themes surrounding the floating city of Columbia are all too real.
In Columbia, much like through the vast majority of history, the rich white man is king. Any racial minorities, with the exception of one character, are forced to do hard labor and are subjected to racist slurs, beatings and killings. The rest of the city’s people glorify the past and revere their religious and political leader. It is not too far a stretch that Bioshock: Infinite was meant to warn its players of the dangers of revisionist history and blinding oneself to the horrible truths of the world. The people of Columbia view the historical Boxer Rebellion and Battle of Wounded Knee to be stories of their ancestors, led by the charismatic, heroic Father Comstock, fighting against their savage enemies.
Similarly, many historical texts used in schools today portray Christopher Columbus as a hero who discovered the new world. They omit the fact that Columbus slaughtered thousands of natives of the Caribbean islands.
Many books, such as Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” and James Loewen’s “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong,” pull back the curtain of glorification from US History, revealing the gritty, not-so-morally right truth.
Bioshock: Infinite does this in a way books simply can’t. Infinite can deliver its message to wider audience, in a new generation. Infinite is a fantastic game. It uses violence as a means of communicating a message. The violent images are necessary for the delivery of the overall ugly, but important trend the game is trying to warn us about.
Another game that uses violence in a meaningful way is Spec Ops: The Line by Yager Development. At a cursory glance, Spec Ops is a modern shooter by most, if not all accounts. The weapons, setting and characters appear to stick to genre conventions. However, once your play time in the game hits about an hour, it starts to make subtle, yet important deviations. The lines between enemy and friend blur, and your mission changes. Later, the subtlety is dropped and the game is entirely unique in presentation and storytelling. The game becomes a deconstruction of the modern warfare shooter genre.
The game forces the player to commit heinous war crimes. There will be no spoilers, but let’s just say one of those crimes includes using white phosphorous… a lot of white phosphorous. Unlike most games in its genre though, Spec Ops doesn’t just let the player off the hook for what they’ve done.
After the above mentioned scene, the player must walk through the wreckage and see the direct results of their actions. The people at Yager keep up this theme throughout the game, at some points, breaking the fourth wall. In one scene towards the game’s conclusion, a character talking to the player character says something like “ You've done all of this to feel like something you’re not: a hero.” This is directed not at the soldier you've been controlling the whole time, but at you, the player.
I took the message of Spec Ops not as a criticism of the videogame industry, but as a statement about the player. First-person shooters are one of, if not the single, most popular genre on the market. The annual Call of Duty release always tops sales charts. Players have become accustomed to being behind the gun. Spec Ops asks players to think about what that means, which would be almost impossible if the game didn't show the player what that meant.
The videogame industry is saturated with violence. A lot of it is meaningless and draws all sorts of criticism from parents, the media and lawmakers. Games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto always sell well, but their violent gameplay never raises tougher questions or deeper themes. But, much like other forms of art, if used correctly, portraying violence can be a powerful tool for getting a message across. The discussion of violence in videogames, at least among developers and gamers should not be “Is there too much violence?” but “What does the violence mean?”