Violence and Video Games (Part 1)

The approach Naughty Dog has adopted for The Last of Us sets the game apart from its predecessors, but it isn’t alone in its style. A surprising number of games on the horizon seem to have latched onto a similar philosophy of lending gravity to the violence so casually integrated into most games — surprising, and also gratifying. Lost Planet 3, Metro: Last Light, Tomb Raider and a number of other games represent a shift toward more meaningful conflict in games. For these titles, the standard video game set up of “us versus them, go kill” has given way to slower, more measured conflict surrounded by narrative elements that attempt to contextualize and, inasmuch as possible, justify the medium’s endemic brutality. Of these games, though, The Last of Us makes the strongest impression.

Now, if I were a bit more cynical, I might dismiss the idea of “contexualized violence” out of hand as something morally reprehensible. But I think the author of this piece, regardless of this, has made a few errors in regards to the idea of morality and violence within video games.

All violence in games is contextualized; what I think we’re talking about is “morally justified” violence, justified from the standpoint of our society, not that of the game’s setting. The same could be said of any work of fiction; when you look at a zombie apocalypse, for example, is it every man/woman/child for himself? Does one help the least of these even if the survival of the human race is at stake? These are fascinating questions, certainly. But we are still dealing with a fictional narrative. The author can place any kind of moral framework he/she desires.

In addition, there is always a divide between the morality of the person playing a video game, and the video game avatar’s actions. Divide seems harsh; disconnect probably conveys the idea in a more nuanced way. Let’s say Naughty Dog succeeds with The Last of Us in creating two engaging, interesting characters who we grow to like. Does the fact that I like the character justify their actions? Certainly within the game world, but within myself? That’s a very different question. The Last of Us, obviously, seeks to create a setting that derives from our own social context, so this isn’t as much as issue as it would be in a game related to an entirely new world. They would, in some sense, have a completely different view of reality, let alone concepts like egalitarianism, or violence, or justification.

Whenever you play a game, you’re playing a role of some kind (which has always made me wary of the title “role-playing game”, which honestly seems a vague designation). When I play Bayonetta, I play Bayonetta – an Umbran witch with magical powers who can attack enemies using her magical hair. She’s made a deal with the inhabitants of Inferno to collect the souls of those she kills from Paradiso in exchange for her powers. Now, in this situation, what kind of moral judgement could I possibly make? I might believe in tradtional Christian theology, but I’m pretty sure the “deal with the Devil” that so often appears in pop culture isn’t a real thing so much as a metaphor. Can I judge Bayonetta’s morality (or Cereza, for the purists) even if the the game remains entirely hilarious and light in its tone? It’s a light-hearted adventure, but still a very gory one. Is she bound to the constraints of my moral worldview even though the history and metaphysics of that particular world, and thus its moral order, are completely different from our own?

These discussions on morality and video games are something I never understand. It carries quite a few assumptions that something created by humans would, inevitably, represent those same moral categories. The idea that we are a bundle of influences, desires, and products of our past rather than any personal will seems to have taken hold in the video game journalist side as much as anywhere else. In modern American society, mathematical physics had removed the concept of value from the world, framing the conversation in terms of inertial forces whereby objects continue their motion until deflected by another object in motion. Thus, the perception of human beings began anew from the same scientific , valueless point. One could say that individual subjectivity is intentionally directed inertial will, conscious or not. So we are all bound to the whims of instinct and pleasure, whether we like it or not. So are the developers of video games. They can’t create worlds abstracted from their own morality, their own religion, their own personal experience. It’s all about my feelings, an uncontrolled mass of inertial forces on my psyche.

Nobody’s going to justify the medium’s “endemic brutality”; it’s only brutal if you want it to be brutal, rather than “contexualized”, as it has been since the medium’s beginning. Could I blame it on an American lust for violence, or love of 24-style fascism? Sure, why not? That’s the easy answer. The tough and difficult choice is to accept the game’s world at face value, and then look further to see if the violence in its world truly makes sense in context.

You don’t need a whole lot of justification for violence when the conflict at hand is immediately visible and understood by its audience. Take Star Wars: the conflict is justified by virtue of the Sith and the Empire being evil, and it is put in no uncertain terms that the audience should side with the Jedi and the Rebel Alliance/Republic. So it is with violent video games.

Of course, that’s not a judgement on the lack of creativity in video games, with a constant focus on violence as its selling point, but that’s not the argument at hand. I just find such articles and statements stand as a poor commentary on human nature, at least from this theological perspective.

Continue to Part 2

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.