Friday, October 17, 2014

On Hatred: Lines Crossed in Videogame Violence

Destructive Creation's honestly titled new game, Hatred, has already achieved infamy in gaming outlets, and I am expecting it to hit mainstream media before the week is out. The trailer portrays a  trench coated psychopath, spouting a grandiose speech about a genocide crusade with growling menace. After that he proceeds to gun down innocent after innocent, unarmed people who are powerless against his arsenal, often pleading for their lives. Not going to link it. I don't blame you for refusing to watch it, but if you want to be part of the discussion, it will help.

The trailer disturbed me because it was carefully design to do exactly that, but also because it took me to a place where I never thought I would be: condemning violence in a videogame without qualification. I think it is a matter of days if not hours before this game is sensationalized, and once again used to typify all videogames and the people who play them. My goal here, is to get in front of the alarmist arguments, and lay out a case for other gamers as to why this game is different than the controversial ones that came before it. First, I want to broadly restate why I have defended and even championed violent games.
Here is the simplest argument: life has violence in it, and allowing us to endure it, or even perpetrate it in a safe way is cathartic and allows us to understand it in a deeper capacity. There is merit (and risk) to do it in games, just as there is in violent literature, violent films, and any other expressive medium (if Art Form is too lofty for you). I've long argued that violent games can be release valves, and have as much potential to diffuse bombs as they do for arming them, even for teens, provided that their parents are informed and exercise discretion. In many games, fights are a canvass; a way to express violence in fanciful, poetic ways that are thoroughly divorced from reality, but still serve as a satisfying outlet for aggression. They can act as metaphors. They can teach you some of the higher minded aspects of conflict, such as tactics, unexpected causal relationships (including collateral damage). Working in a team can work as a bonding experience, or establish a team sport atmosphere.

Why draw the line here, when Grand Theft Auto also lets you shoot innocents and police? When Mortal Kombat has obscene graphic violence? When Hotline Miami forces you to kill room after room of enemies with brutal methods? Ultimately, I think one of the more meaningful distinctions on the value of controversial violence can be distilled down to a quote I really enjoy:

A grim sentiment from the start. And there is also some subtext that needs unpacking. Videogames often have you permanently dispatching foes with their backs turned, weapons holstered; just name any mature-rated game with a stealth mechanic. Halo lets you shoot groups of sleeping grunts. Not terribly honorable. Mal and the rest of the Serenity crew often lay beatdowns on bad guys who can't see it coming (though they do adhere to Mal's code of never killling outside a fair fight). The most important part of that quote though is the sentiment that I let my enemies make a choice. I will only end lives when somebody decides they are going to end mine, or one of my own. Real violence is an ugly thing. I think it is inherent to life and sometimes I think lethal measures are necessary. Following Mal's rules does not even make it right, but there is a justification there that adheres to the terms we have set as a society. As a species. I feel that the further you stray from these principles, the more problematic the violence becomes.

For all its tasteless gore and rage, Mortal Kombat actually satisfies every tenant of this code. Both combatants have made a decision to brawl to the death, down to the fact that they cannot attack until some unseen announcer counts down the fight. This is a game design decision, to allow players to orient themselves, but that seemingly inconsequential mechanic instills an intent of fair play by design. The gore is there to grab your attention; plain and simple. It was sensational. A cheap ploy that worked exactly as intended. But set in a universe populated by monstrous ninjas, cyborgs and mythological gods, the dismemberment, decapitations and over the top violence become comic. There is an appreciable distance from reality there. God of War works in a similar space, and Kratos' butchery is even less cartoonish,  but the franchise has a better thematic excuse: the source material it is working from (Greek mythology) is also incredibly violent. Same with the gratuitous sex scenes present in every game.

Context also goes a long way towards establishing the appropriateness of violence. If the enemies being fought are members of an opposing war, they have made a choice to fight for their nations cause (I have yet to see a game that addresses conscripts in any meaningful capacity). If they are terrorists hell bent on starting a nuclear war (a very popular set-up), there is at least a ham-fisted narrative justification for sneaking into their base and using guerrilla tactics to kill enemy guards unaware. In Metal Gear Solid, (a game cast from that mold) the player must also contend with additional problems, like having to keep quiet, and finding places to hide enemy corpses to avoid alerting others. The game mechanically establishes consequences for violence; not just with the threat of injury, but by making life harder for the player even when he wins. Though now that I reflect, I can't remember what thin excuse Kojima presented to explain why the government's of the world didn't just turn Shadow Moses into a parking lot with a barrage of cruise missiles.

Dishonored, another stealth game where you can kill swathes of enemies unseen, has a better narrative explanation, as it occurs in a burgeoning industrial setting with dark magic leaking out of its dingy cracks: there are no weapons of mass destruction. More importantly, it gives you a choice. You can beat the entire game without killing anybody. And the lower your body count, the better shape the dismal world we be in when you are done. It makes the game harder. Players who want to take a bull in a china shop approach have a ton of very creative options. That range of experiential possibilities is art, and it is also gives the lie to Destructive Creations shameful, compulsive yet cursory excuse for creating Hatred: "We wanted to create a pure gaming pleasure," and "It's just a game." The implication being that the purest pleasure in gaming is killing people, and that games don't matter. Screw those fags trying to turn our fun into art! This is the argument of an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying a sub-juvenile understanding of the world.

But onto bigger fish. Grand Theft Auto. Shooting cops. Killing hookers. Running over pedestrians. First of all, two of those activities are optional things you can do in the game, and all three have mechanical repercussions. Conflict with cops is no different than in heist movies; news outlets sensationalize that by presenting viewers with the fallacy that the game is for kids because all videogames are for kids. But they are not. When I am a parent, I will not allow my kid to play Grand Theft Auto until she or he demonstrates elsewhere, that they can appreciate and explain the satire present in it. Because every game is laced with humor that viciously criticizes society. It rarely offers any deep insights, but it undercuts the seriousness of the violence. Anybody who pays any attention to it will understand you are playing in a caricature of our universe.

The general themes of the story also demonstrate that the main characters are miserable, and the violence that typifies their lifestyle is often a primary contributor to their misery. The franchise started to take itself a lot more seriously with GTAIV, and Rockstar actually backed off the solemnity for the franchises most recent installment. In many ways, GTAV's third POV character, Trevor, is a satire of what a GTA protagonist would actually be like in real life and the answer is an ugly, volatile, borderline nonsensical, psychotic drug dealer (even after his actions are eventually given some narrative context). Should the player decides to go on a rampage, people do not plead for mercy. They do not cower on the ground, validating their murderer's power trip as they do in the Hatred trailer. That said, GTAV's mission featuring "enhanced interrogation techniques" made me walk away from the game indefinitely. I'm curious to see how the story turns out, but that mission killed my momentum.

Another important question to ask of violence in any fiction is "what does this accomplish?" What is the point? The game I have felt guiltiest about enjoying is Hotline Miami. Even though the art style is abstract and very pixelated, its violence is utterly savage, and there is almost nothing else to the gameplay. There are surreal interludes between the game's frenetic, improvised fights, which employ everything from traditional weapons to appliances and the environment. There are hints of a very dark story. The thing that kept me playing is the brutal difficulty; and the gameplay that makes combat feel almost like a puzzle, but with far more nuance and variability than a Nintendo boss fight (which are puzzles). The only positive lesson you can scrape from it, is that it emphasizes how improbable an actual massacre is. You will die. Constantly. Over and over again. This is what would happen if you tried to fight even three people at once. But that good does not outweigh the desensitizing effect, where you no longer see the blood, and just start looking for the patterns. It is not only illicit but genuinely perverse. I think there is still a place for that in gaming.

Hatred's trailer exhibits none of this. The trailer does not show a creative variety in combat, or stylistic filter to temper and inform its violence. There is no broader purpose behind your actions (as there was in the also shamelessly controversial 'No Russian' mission in Modern Warfare 2). It fails to convey even the puerile thrill of crushing enemies. That may be buried in the game, somewhere, but the trailer is framed to emphasize that these people are helpless victims. One cut, one that I can't wash out of my head, is delivered with the same sexually sadistic tone as rape. Your goal, is to kill as many people as you can before the cops gun you down. The core tenant of Mal's grim, but ultimately noble promise: these people did not get to make a choice. Neither does the player.

Polygon claims that this game is powerless. That shock culture is dead, and this seems comical. Funny then, that it is the third article they've written on the trailer in as many days. Their editors realize that they cannot ignore it; they feel a pressing need to thoroughly address it. But they don't know how. I firmly believe that trying to laugh this one off is the wrong call. When school shootings are so common that they don't always warrant news coverage, a game that un-ironically worships at the altar of suburban gun massacre is dangerous. It will give credence to an argument that has been false more often than not: I can easily see future shooters using this one to practice.

Why should we care? Why give this any more attention by addressing it? Because it is going to erode the meager amount of perceived maturation gaming has accrued in recent years. It's going to breed a new generation of Jack Thompsons. The whole thing reeks of straw, like a politician has secretly financed the project to illustrate how depraved we are. But I am smelling what I want to. The detail in the animations are the product of a considerable budget and hours of work. This is real. Like school shooters, these people want to cause as much violence as they can, and be deified by the attention it demands.

So what should we do? I think the ESRB should take their Adults Only rating out of the glass and persuade retailers to cast this one out. I hope gaming journalists and critics use this as an opportunity to take stock of our industry and examine our medium's increasingly troubled reliance on violence and hype. I call upon fellow First Amendment champions to concede you can do some truly heinous shit with Freedom of Speech. We can't and shouldn't stop Destructive Creations from trying to make Hatred. But we as a community can point at them and say "See those guys? They're The Westboro Baptist Church of game developers."

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