The Art of Video Game Violence

By Brendan Keogh
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By Brendan Keogh. This article is part of a series on human rights and video games.

Videogames are art. Anyone who says otherwise either doesn’t know what videogames are or they don’t know what art is. Videogames are creative works produced by creative people trying to express something. It’s that simple.

Just like all forms of art, videogames feed into contemporary culture just as much as they reflect it. This means that videogames deserve the same respect afforded to all other forms of art and, crucially, they demand the same scrutiny. It’s vital that videogame creators are afforded the same creative freedoms as other artists.

If we are going to insist that videogames are culturally significant works of art, we need to lay them bare to all the scrutiny that artworks deserve

This is something Australia is still trying to figure out, but we are finally taking steps in the right direction with this year’s introduction of an R18+ rating for games, bringing them in line with films. It has taken many years for the R18+ rating to eventuate as both politicians and lobby groups blocked its introduction to parliament for many years. Before this, the highest a game could be rated was MA15+, meaning that every game was either deemed appropriate for anyone over the age of fifteen, or banned outright.

This meant consenting Australian adults were banned from accessing media deemed appropriate by other countries. At the same time, some media that was rated “adults-only” in other countries was released here with a MA15+ rating. The introduction of the R18+ rating brings Australia up to speed with other nations. The rating protects younger audiences from unsuitable content while also allowing access for consenting adults.

But an adults-only rating – and legislation generally – isn’t the be all and end all of how we should talk about videogame violence. It’s crucial that we are able to understand and scrutinise how videogames might be perpetuating negative and harmful aspects of our society. Violence against women, homophobia, stereotyping of non-Caucasian ethnicities – these all occur regularly in videogames and need to be called out. Over the past year, there have been several criticisms of these issues coming from within the maturing videogame industry. But, by and large, videogames have able to continue perpetuating homophobic, sexist and racist stereotypes, as public discussions on videogames focus on non-arguments – like how videogames teach children to use firearms.

The way that videogames normalise a range of violent behaviour demands more scrutiny. But “scrutiny” is not what we see in the public conversations surrounding videogame violence. Instead, we usually get simplistic scaremongering and calls for stricter censorship and content bans. There is no shortage of people lamenting the supposedly corrupting effect of videogame violence on young children and broader society – whether it is the National Rifle Association in North America (who use videogames as a distraction from the fact you can legally buy military hardware at Walmart), or groups closer to home like the Australian Christian Lobby.

It’s ridiculous to think that videogame violence is directly responsible for real acts of violence any more than violent films, literature, theatre or music. People – typically those who have never played a videogame – like to refer to the “interactivity” of games as something that makes them more dangerous. To be sure, there is something unique in the way that videogames require the player to use their body to engage in the text – be it waving arms or just pressing buttons—and this is worth understanding. But “interactivity” is not something unique to videogames. All media, in some way or another, requires an active engagement from the audience.

In its most absurd form, the interactivity argument says that shooting games like Call of Duty or Medal of Honor literally teach players how to use a firearm. Anders Breivik himself claimed to have spent time “training” on Call of Duty. But the truth is, on the purely practical level, you can’t learn to fire a gun from playing Call of Duty or any other videogame. There is no widely popular videogame that is interested in teaching people how to actually use a firearm beyond the simple idea of “pull the trigger and bullets come out”. Reloading is reduced to a single button press. Every gun is always perfectly accurate with very little recoil. You just point it where you want to fire, and pull the trigger.

The first time I fired a real rifle, I was actually shocked at how unlike a videogame it was. This leads to a valid criticism of shooting videogames that has been made before: they often fail to teach respect for guns and for violence. If anything, videogames are not violent enough. Shots are fired and faceless enemies are forgotten about before their virtual corpses even disappear. Perhaps games normalise violence far too much; they make it too inconsequential. This is a valid concern, and one that applies to the depiction of violence in all media.

Some recent videogames have tried to counter this ambivalence by helping the player confront what they are doing. Yager’s Spec Ops: The Line, for instance, sets itself up as gaming’s Apocalypse Now, and is centrally concerned with the ways in which we have become desensitised to violence in military-themed shooting games. Similarly, Dennaton’s Hotline Miami wants players to feel uncomfortable about what they are doing. These games are still very violent, but they are using that violence in interesting and provocative ways.

Videogame violence isn’t the problem, but maybe uncritical videogame violence is. Games that don’t think about what they are depicting and normalising can be harmful. Call of Duty and Medal of Honor are never really going to teach players how to fire a gun, but they do glorify Middle-Eastern military occupations, drone warfare and US gun culture. There are also games like Hitman Absolution that unashamedly exalt violence against women. None of these games are problematic simply because they are violent, but because of the ideas that particular violence perpetuates. We need to remember that videogame violence is often used as a scapegoat to divert from real issues.

It is worth remembering that there are countless videogames out there that don’t ask the player to be violent, even in the first-person genre. Portal, for instance, is one of the most critically-acclaimed games of all time. The player has a gun, to be sure, but it doesn’t fire bullets. Instead, it shoots entrance points to space-twisting wormholes. Fire one at that wall and one at this wall and you’ve created a new way to move the space. Alternatively, there is The Unfinished Swan on Playstation 3, which asks the player to throw balls of black paint to bring a pure white world to life. Both of these games offer breathless experiences that are only possible within videogame art.

Videogames are a diverse and rich art form capable of countless new expressions we could never have achieved in previous art. But they are also capable of propagating the same problems. At the end of the day, we simply need to talk about violence in videogames the way we talk about the violence in all art.

I say “simply”, but there is of course resistance to this from both sides. On the one hand, the lobby groups and the older politicians refuse to consider the artistic merits of videogames at all. On the other, those most invested in videogames refuse to acknowledge they might have any negative impact. It’s not unheard of to see someone within the industry champion the positive contributions games can make to society, but then make the defense “it’s just a game” when someone brings up the possible negative effects of videogames.

For the conversation to move forward, each side has to move closer to the middle. Those that are anti-videogame violence need to actually learn something about how videogames work. They need to understand that “interactivity” isn’t going to teach people how to use guns, and that the representation of violence in games is no more or less problematic than in other media. Likewise, videogame enthusiasts must be less defensive. If we are going to insist that videogames are culturally significant works of art, we need to lay them bare to all the scrutiny that artworks deserve. There is, after all, such a thing as bad art.

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