“I crouched beneath the wreckage, my heart palpating with fear and adrenaline. Sweat trickled down my brow as the scorching sun beat down on this ethereal scene.I vaulted over the edge and fired off a burst of bullets. There were two thuds and everything went quiet. That was the last of them, I thought. I straightened up and took in the surroundings. Beautiful structures lay in flames yet so much of it was reminiscent of its former opulence. The once mighty pinnacle of capitalism and decadence. Enormous posters depicting the perfect lifestyle gleamed in the debris and their once optimistic messages were now deeply unnerving. Graffiti was brusquely strewn on the walls. Welcome to hell. In paradise”
That particular scene was from Spec Ops The Line, albeit minus my added narrative. It’s one of the few games that attempted to tackle the problem of violence in video games. And boy, was it a disturbing ride.
We all love good stories and there’s actually scientific research on this which I won’t delve into for fear of being verbose. Instead, I’ll present a fairly simple example. Man has been telling stories since he first walked the Earth. While we don’t know how they conversed, cave drawings depicting risky hunting scenarios still give us a sense of what they shared around the fireside. And our love for stories hasn’t changed. Stories in the form of books, movies, television are still enjoyed by people worldwide. They touch us, scare us, shock us and when they hit close to home, we keep them in our hearts forever.
The important thing here is the medium they are told in (excuse the pun), whether be it the silver screen or the unassuming paperback. However a new medium has stepped up, the video game.
Games aren’t new but they have evolved a lot from a pixelated ball bouncing across the screen to elaborate stories that resonate strongly with us. We are seeing games that tell beautiful stories. Games that immerse you completely in them. Games that get you, hook, line and sinker.
Today as of now, we are also seeing games that have attempted to deal with adult themes that aren’t pleasant and sometimes, are truly disturbing. These themes can shape riveting, haunting stories when handled thoughtfully but can also become gross misinterpretations when carelessly applied.
I want to discuss one of these themes.
Violence, Killing and War
A disclaimer beforehand. I am not an expert on videogames nor am I am a psychologist. I am a just a person that loves videogames who wishes to share his experiences and reflections on the violence present in video games and hopefully, provide food for thought. Also, I will be discussing mainly the story portion of certain games and hence, will refrain from commenting on the gameplay as much as possible unless it contributes to the story.
Let’s begin, shall we?
Violence in games has always been a touchy subject. The argument almost always goes something like this, “Violent games causes violent behaviour in gamers”. Supporters of this notion often argue that games are responsible for increasing aggression in young people through the depiction and trivialising of bloodshed and killing.
Military first-person shooters like the Call of Duty franchise often put players in the position of soldiers fighting in wars from the Middle East to Europe. In fact, it’s one of the most popular game franchises ever created with each instalment dwarfing its predecessor in sales and player base. Following this growing trend, the level of violence has increased exponentially too with Infinity Ward pushing the envelope of the genre. Game critics and fans alike have often spoken out against its game design choices, lambasting some as senseless violence that offer little of value to the player.
One notable instance would be the “Death From Above” mission in COD 4 which puts players in control of an AC-130 and tasks them with killing or preferably put, neutralising enemies. Throughout the mission, your character can cannot die and there is never a real sense of peril. It makes players feel detached from the death and destruction they are causing because all of it is shown as white specks on the monochrome screen as the gunship crew mock your victims. “Go ahead and smoke them!”, “Ka-boom!”, “Hot damn!”. And when a survivor of your hell-storm tries to make a frantic dash for safety, they goad you to cut him down which you do gleefully.
Personally, as an avid gamer myself, I abhor excessive violence as I find it somewhat distasteful. However, that is not to say I loathe violence in games. Quite the contrary. I make exceptions for tactful and thought-provoking violence in certain games that add value to the story, making the game a more enriching experience.
Some might be questioning why I chose to discuss violence as a means of exposition. Why bring up violence? Why not other forms of exposition?
To answer these questions, I’m discussing violence because violence is present in many video games and is hence, an important part of exposition. While the violence above may not have carried meaning for many, other games have proved that meaningful violence is possible.
For the sake of comparison, let’s discuss the narrative of another military shooter that contains graphic violence and blood.
Enter Spec Ops: The Line.
Spec Ops: The Line isn’t a pleasant game. Its disturbing, harrowing and though-provoking. Its not a game you’ll play for fun. Its a game that makes you question your morality as it shows the blurring of the line between right and wrong and what trying to be a hero entails.
Before we delve into the major themes of this intriguing game, we need to understand the setting. Below is a short excerpt from the Wikipedia article on Spec Ops: The Line which I have made minor edits to.
Six months before the game, Dubai is plagued by the worst spate of sandstorms in history, causing the wealthy elite and politicians to evacuate the city, leaving innumerable Emiratis at the mercy of nature. Colonel John Konrad , the decorated and respected commander of the fictional “Damned 33rd” Infantry Battalion of the United States Army, was returning home with his unit from Afghanistan when the storms struck. Konrad volunteered the Damned 33rd to help the relief efforts, then deserted with the entire unit when ordered to abandon the city and its refugees. As the storms intensified, a massive storm wall Dubai for miles, disrupting surveillance and communication, air travel, and all but the strongest radio broadcasts. The 33rd declared martial law, and struggled to maintain order amidst 80 mph winds, riots, and diminishing resources.
You play Captain Martin Walker, leader of the reconnaissance team sent to investigate and confirm the statuses of Konrad and any survivors. This is an important piece of information that will be instrumental when interpreting the issues raised by the game.
You were sent to investigate, not to play the hero.
As the story unravels, Walker slowly becomes consumed by his desire to save the inhabitants of the city and to unearth the truth about Colonel Konrad, the man who saved his life in Kabul. The game chronicles his descent into insanity and depravity tastefully by highlighting his apathy to killing through his emotionless facial expressions and increasingly coarse kill confirmations.
Walker pushes the blame to everyone else but him because he’s the hero that is going to save Dubai while Konrad is the villain of this grisly fairy tale. The atrocities he commit are brushed aside and swept under the carpet despite his teammates’ increasingly verbal disagreements.
The turning point in the game is the scene that will be of interest in this discussion is the controversial white phosphorus scene.
The scene has you preparing to mount an attack on an area called “The Gate” which is swarming with soldiers of the Damned 33rd, along with civilians that are suspected to have been kidnapped by them. Faced with these insurmountable odds, your squad discovers a trump card — white phosphorus, which burns victims in excruciating fashion. Your men are divided on whether to use this devastating weapon. Lugo objects while Adams says you might not have a choice. You decide to go ahead anyway much to the displeasure of Lugo.
Walker emotionlessly selects targets on the computer, with little regard for the lives of his soon-to-be victims as white clouds balloon on the screen. His reflection on the screen gives a brief glimpse of his indifference which alludes to how military shooters detach players from the games by not showing them the consequences of their actions. They dehumanise enemies, turning them into faceless targets at a shooting gallery instead of human beings. This is what Spec Ops: The Line subtlety condemns with its subversive critique of the shooter genre.
You walk silently among the carnage and death you’ve caused as wounded soldiers lie dying. One repeatedly asks, “Why…why?” which you coarsely reply to, saying “You brought this on yourself”.
Then comes the shock. Among the wreckage, there are dead civilians that you’ve killed. Lugo and Adams argue over the morality of your actions but you are not listening. You insist that everyone should move on, ignoring the atrocity you’ve just committed. It’s not your fault, you say. It’s Konrad’s fault, not yours. After all, you are supposed to be the hero.
Thus begins Walker’s tumultuous spiral downwards into insanity as the game helpfully reminds you that “Cognitive Dissonance is the unsettling feeling caused by holding two conflicting beliefs simultaneously.”
What makes this example different from the first? They are both controversial and involve the death of civilians but where do the similarities end?
For a start, you as a player, feel the weight of your actions in the latter. You experience the emotions felt by your character and it hits many hard. When Yager Development invited volunteers for testing, many could not complete the stage and it was toned down because they needed to make sure that people would actually play the game. For me, I had to put down the controller and only continue the next day which is a testament to the how emotionally evocative that scene was.
The former, unfortunately pales in comparison because it just feels meaningless and senseless. It doesn’t feel important in the establishing of the story and doesn’t provide any form of exposition. It’s just another shooting gallery that you have to clear to progress but then so is the white phosphorus scene. Again, the difference between the two comes down to the consequences incurred by your character. One absolves you of any responsibility and encourages your gleeful killing while the other forces you to acknowledge your victims as human beings that have families and people they care about. It makes you question the morality of your actions.
At the end of COD 4, I felt pumped and ready for another round. On the other hand, after playing Spec Ops: The Line, I was utterly drained emotionally and I couldn’t touch any FPS games for two weeks. It was that hard-hitting.
That’s the difference.