A fascinating article found at GamaSutra got me thinking yet again about the conundrum of video game violence. Yeah, Project Natal has moralists collectively pooping in their pants at the technology, much to Microsoft's likely glee. But it always irks me when people start navel gazing about video game violence, because it's the province of arrogant elites.
Any student of history, or, frankly, current world politics, realizes that human beings have violent natures. Boxing, after all, is considered a gentleman's sport. UFC is continually gaining ground because wrestling is ‘fake'. The masculine is idealized, and the feminine both feared and fetishized.
Take one look at what's happening in Xinjiang, or Sri Lanka, or Sudan; the way militias are bludgeoning civilians in Iran; a football game in the UK brings out a hooligan's inner savage. Violent tendencies are constantly at our doorstep, threatening to de-evolve us.
It wasn't that long ago in the scope of human history when things were going to hell in Vietnam; when terrible atrocities were being committed in Europe parallel to World War II. Slightly further back, we find the American Civil War, and the Terror of the French Revolution.
Most Critiques of Pure Gaming Reason focus on the morality of violence and only violence, removing from the equation the social norms of society. I believe that's missing some of the key appeal of games about life and death situations. When stuff's exploding all around you, and your buddies are falling in battle, a player knows the difference between right and wrong. That's a far cry from business sense and company policy, and other such BS that taints the moral grey area we constantly inhabit in the real world.
Let's face it: modern morality is screwed up. The cloak and dagger emotional power politics we're forced to navigate in our jobs is a shortcut to madness. In this day and age, it's "okay" to cheat on your wife if your mistress is better looking. It's desirable to lay off thousands of employees to please a board of twelve investors. Kids in a schoolyard aren't allowed to punch a bully without getting expelled, but it's okay to declare a public witch-hunt on anyone with inadvisable ideas and bury them in legal bills. We don't assassinate presidents anymore. We destroy them as symbols by exposing their trysts with emotionally damaged interns.
The politics of blood and death are far simpler than the politics of dollars and cents. That's the brighter side of violent games that a lot of people miss. Halo's slogan of "Combat: Evolved" was a brilliant cover for the true appeal of the definitive console shooter: its formula of an everyman soldier, biblical references by the dozen, a pseudo-girlfriend literally hard-wired to be a loyal care-giver, and a war with a clear enemy that's dehumanized to the point that they bleed green. It's the 1950s with a fresh coat of nano-tech infused paint. Evolved, my ass!
Is there anything wrong with that? Of course not. It's a healthy sign that modern people still desire that everyman's morality where good wins 51% of the time. Even those who prefer to play evil-aligned characters know they're being evil, which mitigates against being unhealthily influenced by the material they're consuming.
Furthermore, there's another moral angle to consider on this issue that tends to be overstated and oversimplified, but it's valid nonetheless. IT'S NOT REAL! Not only do we know that these virtual people aren't real people, but the death doesn't look like real death, not thanks to subpar graphics, but because it's stylized. It's Hollywoodized death, which, in its choreographed, vaguely orgasmic approximation of the real thing, gives us a Promethian thrill of stealing fire from the gods. We puny little mortals are giving ourselves a momentary thrill of invincibility by turning our inevitable end on its ear and making it entertainment.
If you've ever watched police training videos or really graphic news footage, you know that the death we see in movies and games and real death are worlds apart. No matter how many alien heads I curb stomp, I still get a sense of sickening cold when I see real violence. In a healthy adult, fake violence and real violence aren't even close neighbors. When violence happens in real life, soundtrack music doesn't swell, and slow motion doesn't kick in. That's just for starters.
I can see kids and teens having trouble seeing that difference until they're older, but that's why we have rating systems, protecting developing minds from the horrors of mature games while they watch Harry Potter characters drop like flies as the film series concludes. Yeah, that was snippy, but death is death, and what's the difference between a laser gun and a magic wand when you really think about it?
I wonder, too, if there's an effect from kids' realities being so divorced from the schoolyard fights I knew as a kid: they don't see how ugly real violence is. I'm fairly certain having my head smashed into a wall in the fifth grade by a kid twice my size had a profound effect on my views regarding beating people up.
Am I advocating letting school kids beat the piss out of each other? Of course not. But we've become so neurotic regarding violence and direct aggression that even playful roughhousing is seen by some as a sign of a problem. That sort of play was such a huge part of my childhood experience: my friend Vera and I bashing the snot out of each other pretending to be Thundercats helped me realize physical limits. I'm not sure what does that for kids nowadays.
Is gaming going to change as technology creates increasingly better graphics? Of course. But if film is any indicator, really twisted stuff is going to stay on the fringes where it belongs, unless there's a tragic shift in our society that makes us what to see real lions eating real people in a coliseum, instead of giant robots beating each other up aided by Megan Fox's glossy pouting. As long as the giant robots keep capturing our imaginations, we'll be okay.
PS: Read some history. It's good for you. Or the bible: it's full of sex and violence.