I Am Tired of Digital Murder

Because of violence to your brother Jacob, you will be covered with shame, and you will be cut off forever.

– Obadiah 10

I am tired of murder. There, I said it. Is anybody else with me or not? I played through Assassin’s Creed III recently, and I must have killed a thousand people, at the very least. Within the context of the game, it’s surely justifiable to take a life, but why in so many creative and interesting ways? What’s with the slow-down animations so I can see Connor smack the Recoat in the head with a tomahawk? That can’t be entirely necessary, can it?

Do I need variety in the ways of dealing death because I’ve become desensitized to the whole notion? Has my virtual lust for violence finally been satiated? When do I get to stop? Why does every game just have huge swathes of people to kill? Is it really that entertaining after a while? Are these far too many rhetorical questions to place in so many consecutive sentences?

Even when it fits with the narrative goals, there’s only so many ways you can shiv a guy (or gal) before it gets boring. I guess that’s sin in a nutshell, eh? No one doubts the fun at first, but the lack of fulfillment grows and grows. I’m growing to loathe the way developers portray violence in their games for no other purpose than violence qua violence. No matter how much window-dressing you lay over the framework, you still play as a violent person (or thing) whether you like it or not.

Apparently, no one else is, if Dishonored’s stellar critical reception is to be believed.

And it must always be a real person. See, the impact isn’t there when you can’t recognize the face. Bayonetta’s creepy (but mostly faceless) enemies and Darksiders’ demons don’t hold a candle to God of War’s mythological humanoid creatures. Let us see the fear in their eyes before that moment of no return. Pointing it out makes you feel a little dirty, doesn’t it? Yet do we ever stop? Nah. I imagine the psychological affects have something to do with our early ancestors fighting for food and shelter, but we’ve taken it to new extremes in the here and now. We need more of it. Now that we can reproduce the same experience digitally, we can have ourselves a grand old time with actions that would appall the people of the past.

Originally, video games did not represent “ventures into creative violence”. In one sense, they could not present such an environment with their limited technological capabilities. Games such Combat for the Atari 2600 revolved around tanks shooting each other, surely, but the point was the competitive nature of the game’s mechanics. If you had a large imaginative faculty, perhaps accusations of romanticized war would come to pass, but I doubt that. More often than not, two kids were driving around blocky shapes and spewing pellets at each other just to see who would win.

How far we’ve come…not in a good way.

Most of the best games of my childhood didn’t have anything even close that visceral violent experience. My recent fascination with the games of my childhood reinforces these sentiments. How many people dies in Pokemon? No one, far as I can tell. Racing games? No one dies, even in Burnout (then again, do you ever see the driver at all?) Mario, Sonic, any other game company mascot? Are any of them as fun as the game with heaping helpings of ultra-violence? Surely, if not more so. I played Mortal Kombat as well, but the fun was its ironic and humorous nature – the gore and violence was so over-the-top, it was hard to take it seriously.

As you might expect from that particular revelation, I’m not even against violence in video games; chop, cut, shoot, and mince human beings into whatever grisly shapes you want, but aesthetics alone can’t convince me that hitting another guy with a bladed weapon or shooting someone in the head can get any more entertaining. We’ve reached the apex of the divide. Any more realistic, and the game industry will topple over the edge with uncanny valley murder simulators. Any less, and people complain about the “lack of realism”. Either way, we lose. Companies know what people wants, and what they want is this.

To put it more strongly: I’m a proponent of violence in video games, contrary to many of my Christian brethren. I see the possibility for redemptive themes, much in the same vein as John Woo. We don’t need a philosophical treatise or pretentious “dialogue trees” to reach that point. Still, the problem remains: violence becomes a means to an end and an entertaining “side-game” to what’s happening on the screen. In most cases, it doesn’t exist to enhance the mechanical underpinnings in any way, shape or form; when it’s just there, it’s exasperating. Oh, boy, another game where I shoot people in the head repeatedly – this seems very similar to the previous one, doesn’t it? The glut of first-person shooters that play sligthly different astounds me with its breadth and depth. How many variations on a simple theme can we have? Isn’t it time for something new?

I am finding, more and more, that the explicitly shown violence isn’t all that interesting. That is, the violence isn’t used for any particular purpose. If it only exists for its own sake, then it becomes troubling. Do recent games, such as Dishonored, present a particular context for said murder? Absolutely. Does it also provide a way to progress through the entire game nonviolently through stealthy means? Surely, but only as yet another option in a game world. Those wealth of options only allow player choice; it doesn’t mean the programmers, designers, and artists didn’t think of creative ways to murder people at the same time. By giving the player the option in the first place, they allow for the violent murder to take place.

From what I can see, it’s only used for some pleasure in wishing the harm of another. It’s not to help another person,  even if that’s the overlay. Assassin’s Creed narrative promoting “freedom and liberty” involves, well, assassins! How many tyrants and despots have said the same? Medal of Honor and Call of Duty give a militaristic overlay to the same motivation: kill people. Wishing harm upon other people intentionally, even if they’re just symbolic video game ciphers, just feels wrong. Even in issues of role-playing, you can’t escape the interactivity and possible self-deception of video games.

Obadiah preaches a simple message: treat others as you’d like to be treated or face God’s wrath. We see this in Obadiah 11-15:

11 “On the day that you stood aloof, on the day that strangers carried off his wealth, and foreigners entered his gate and cast lots for Jerusalem— you too were as one of them. 12 “Do not gloat over your brother’s day, the day of his misfortune. And do not rejoice over the sons of Judah in the day of their destruction; yes, do not boast in the day of their distress. 13 “Do not enter the gate of My people in the day of their disaster. Yes, you, do not gloat over their calamity in the day of their disaster. And do not loot their wealth in the day of their disaster. 14 “Do not stand at the fork of the road to cut down their fugitives; and do not imprison their survivors in the day of their distress. 15 “For the day of the Lord draws near on all the nations. As you have done, it will be done to you. Your dealings will return on your own head.

I find the parallels to video game violence uncanny in this sense. What else do we do but kill everything in sight? Perform exactly the duties which the game requests? But we suspend our moral inclinations because, hey, it’s a video game, right? Anyone reading this has done these exact things an infinite amount of times to both foes real and imagined. The pure love of the game doesn’t direct our motives, but the narrative’s justification for our actions. The drift from these mechanics to a more experiential model has brought us to the current juncture, and there’s no way out than to play games that are games, not just experiences.

Games have power to empower, engender feelings of success, and present challenges to overcome. Why should murder remain a part of the equation?

Sorry, Godfrey – it does get old.


About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • sortiv

    One of the reasons I like Dishonored was the ability to not kill. Nevertheless, you can kill in far more ways than you can restrain. And there is a certainly a glorification to the killing. The revenge element of the plot and for Corvo I think makes a bloody narrative more plausible, but I still think it will get repetitive.
    I also enjoyed nonlethal means on AC3. I wish there had been more optional objectives that stressed nonlethal means, but again the tilt is in favor of killing. I think we should try and highlight that we enjoy not killing in games (even action games) and demonstrate that there is a market for this. There is no intentional moral statement being made by publishers or developers, they’re just trying to do what has sold in the past. Perhaps by talking about these things, we show, and further instigate, a change in appetite among the gaming base.

    • @sortiv  As far as Dishonored goes, maybe that’s why Thief (the first or second) is probably a better game overall – your character can’t fight his way out of most situations, which means stealth without killing anyone is the best option.
      On ACIII, I was using unarmed attacks when I saw the game actually counted them as “kills” on a number of synchronization mission things. I’m not sure whether that has any subtext to it or not.
      I would hope there’s a change in the gaming audience, but I doubt it. There’s no reason for them to stop making these games – they make money and are popular. Having less violent in a mainstream setting would require a massive cultural shift that, so far, doesn’t seem to be happening any time soon. How do we show that we demand such games other than not buying them? But there’s plenty of people to replace our dollars any way you look at it.

      • @Zachery Oliver  @sortiv It’s interesting that you cite Thief as being potentially better than Dishonored. Have you played Thief recently? It controls atrociously. And as for the escaping and preferring that over violence? That’s how I felt the game slanted. But that’s entirely subject to my worldview. So I’m not entirely sure…

        • @Mjoshua  It controls like a game that came out a decade ago – it’s an FPS, lol. Yeah, it has some weird convoluted thing in it, but it does emphasize the stealth element more than anything else.

  • spankminister

    So I buy the complaint that too many games turn too quickly to “kill or be killed” as the primary conflict and the way to resolve it.  Where I disagree is that
    1) “Wishing harm upon other people intentionally, even if they’re just symbolic video game ciphers, just feels wrong.” 
    You mentioned the issue for you was not the violence– but if it’s simply the morality of inflicting violence game cipher, that raises some questions.  While visually very distinct, stealth killing an enemy in Assassin’s Creed, and taking out a row of Goombas with a single kicked green shell are conceptually identical.  For that matter, why is scoring a point in fencing a sufficient abstraction of “violence?”  Is wishing virtual harm to virtual entities worse than wishing virtual harm to a real entity?
    2) “By giving the player the option in the first place, they allow for the violent murder to take place.”
    In the beginning, games gave no choices, then games started to give choices, and now we have games that either present the illusion of choice or deliberately take choice away from you in order to make a point.  I’m with you on the point that games that encourage nonlethal runs like Metal Gear Solid or Hitman should be supported. But I also welcome games that feature violence specifically so they can contextualize it and send a different message than “well, isn’t this fun.”  The tragedy doesn’t work if the audience gets to pick the ending they’d prefer.

    • @spankminister I don’t doubt that they are conceptually identical – they’re both game mechanics, after all! Hence, why I “feel” like it’s wrong, rather than “think”. That’s a rather large distinction to make, I’d wager. I find the aesthetics have modified, in a way, the visceral experience of playing video games.. If Mario’s jumping on a Goomba caused it to explode in buckets of gore, I imagine I would be troubled all the same. On a base level, you are absolutely right – but on how I feel about it when it happens, therein lies the distinction.
      I want my violence to have purpose. And you second point raises how it has been and could be done effectively without making it purposeless drivel for the sole purpose of making that psychological association between the things done in the game AND the visceral excitement of what occurs on the screen.
      Still, I don’t mind the “Michael Bay” game experience as much as it seems from this particular article.

  • I dig this post. Though, you might have sold it better without mention of Dishonored and it’s critical reception.
    Similarly, I believe that non-lethality has greater merit when there are options to play otherwise. Without a violent option, it wouldn’t be a choice. It would be conditioning. I would still applaud it. But as a game, it would have suffered.

    • @Mjoshua You know that I find moral choice in games to be the moral choice of the designers. Maybe that’s why I feel like I can’t invest in those experiences. They force me to choose between “two” options “good” or “evil” that don’t reflect what I would do in the situation. The immersion immediately drops. And furthermore, knowing it’s a game means I am self-aware of the consequences, so I’ll play in a way best suited to get the game results I want.