Friday, May 7, 2010

Mythologies of Violence in The Modern Video Game

As I mentioned on twitter, I recently started reading Roland Barthes' Mythologies for a class I'm taking on Popular Culture, and it's a text after my own heart. Rather than droning on about his ideas through pages and pages of recondite abstraction, Barthes approached philosophy by analyzing various elements of French bourgeois society (covering everything from soap to striptease) and discussing their associated cultural connotations, or Mythologies. Essentially, he did what I do here, only with more class, sophistication and academic merit. He was French after all.

While I pretty much leave you to draw your own conclusions about my analyses, Barthes' concludes his book with a comprehensive essay called "Myth Today," where he makes the case that myth is a language. A language of languages in fact. Using Saussure's semiological concepts of the signified, signifier and the sign, Barthes presents myth as a system where the sign of language becomes a signifier in and of itself. Honestly, it's a hell of a lot easier to understand if you look at the picture:

The nifty thing about myth and it's recursive structure is that it allows for an infinite chain of self-reference. Objects can exist simultaneously as objects and discourse on themselves. A similar sort of recursion; this 'object existing as an action' phenomena, is present in video games. Games exist as a composite of predefined computer programming, graphical design and computer hardware, but they also exist as dynamic processes; realized through dynamic exchanges between player and computer. Games and myth share this capacity for metaphorical recursion. Given this similarity, I thought it would be particularly fascinating to briefly analyze the mythologies and myth-making processes associated with modern videogames.

Most of the Mythologies surrounding video games pertain to violence, which is unsurprising as the vast majority of video games are essentially platforms for virtual violence. Like Barthes, I am generalizing. In fact, I am speaking even more broadly, as I am describing the trends of an entire medium. That said, I believe the chief mythology of modern videogames is the presentation of violence as an acceptable solution to almost every problem. This is particularly prevalent in fighting and shooting games, where players' abilities to interact with the virtual world are exclusively limited to movement and acts of violence.  

More mythical videogame lessons, linked from I also consulted IGN's list of 101 things we've learned from videogames

Even when the player's control over his avatar is suspended, violence dominates the narrative.I can't think of a better scene to illustrate my point than this scene from Gears of War 2. After spending years searching for his wife, Maria, Dom finds her a broken, tortured husk of a human. He looks to his comrade in arms, Marcus, who tells him gravely, "It's okay" and just as little Travis squeezes the trigger on Old Yeller, Dom kills his ruined wife. Now, I realize that some wounds never heal, and that mercy comes in many harsh forms, but I think the phrase "It's okay" and the action "shooting your tortured wife dead" should never co-habit, even on the battlefield. But that's most video games for you. Could you turn Maria's tedious psychiatric evaluation into a game? If you could, would it sell better than blasting aliens with assault rifles?

Even titles from studios like Bioware that emphasize diplomacy and negotiation regularly throw players into situations where violence is the only recourse. Violence is a means of wish fulfillment. It's a simple, and for my part, tremendously gratifying solution to a lot of problems. But in real life, violence is rarely so clean and convenient. There is a myriad of lesser mythologies that support the central myth of violence as a solution. When you kill or destroy things in a games, they disappear or transform into something useful. Many games are arranged to ensure that a fair fight is in order; balancing your avatar's might with an onslaught of weaker foes just waiting to be brought to justice. Perhaps most important of all, life and death are things of little consequence in video games. Life is a thing which is not only objectively quantifiable, through gauges and extra lives, but a thing that is commoditized.

Consequently, I would argue that the modern video game promotes a visually-idealized abstraction of violence rather than real violence. The virtual cruelty they present is endlessly creative (if brutal), but it is also sanitized and inconsequential. In games like World of Warcraft that force players to kill X amount of Y enemies to receive rewards, mass murder becomes mundane, and indeed, even tiring. Competitive Multiplayer games are a step closer to actual combat, but even in those virtual death matches, the goal is abstracted to a numerical goal; players must gain more points than their opponent. Just as Barthes asserts that French striptease is more a sport than an actual sexual act, I would argue that games are more sporting than they are violent. In a certain sense, they co-opt the imagery violence as a convenient and compelling short-hand for adversity.  Somebody would have to be an absolute maniac to take the bombastic mythologies of video game violence seriously; not that I think it hasn't happened before or that it isn't impossible.

Unlike the socially accepted mythologies Barthes discusses, many videogamers are well aware of the mythologies they are buying into. One does not attempt to double jump after playing Mario. Or if they do, they spend a couple weeks recovering from their injuries and never attempt to do it again. By and large, I would assert that gamers are consciously aware of the mythologies they buy into while playing games. Some of the subtler mythologies, like the hyper-masculinization of protagonists, or the sexual-objectification of female characters, or the commodifying habit of trying to accrue more points will inevitably rub-off on players' behavior, though those myths are pervasive in modern society as well. The myths of violence and behavior however are generally appreciated as part of the game's rules and not rules of reality. As a result, these violent mythologies occupy an even deeper semiological rank than the one Barthes' presents: They are myths that are conscious of their own mythological context.

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