The Virtue of Violence

If I mention the name of the games developer, Rockstar, what comes to mind?

If you are not a gamer, the answer might be, “Nothing”… or… you might be familiar with the media hoo-har surrounding the release of their latest, Grand Theft Auto IV… or with the virtually unparalleled controversy and legal shenanigans surrounding Manhunt 2, which, I believe, has just been approved for release in the UK.

I’ve played a few Rockstar games… my latest acquisition being Manhunt, the predecessor to the above, which, you may not be surprised to hear, was also released amidst a storm of media hoo-har, was threatened with banning and has been accused of inciting violence amongst the players thereof. I don’t want to bore you with the details, mainly on account of the fact that if you put “Rockstar” and “Manhunt” into a search engine, you’ll probably be swamped with heated commentary on either side of the fence on which is painted the words, The Manhunt/Rockstar Debacle… and I don’t want to bang on about freedom of speech and censorship and suchlike… well maybe a little… but what I do want to talk about is…

Artistic merit.

And social relevance.

Both of which, I happen to believe, generally speaking, Rockstar games have in spades.

My personal experience of such consists of the following…

I have partially played…
Grand Theft Auto 3
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
State of Emergency

And I have played and completed…
Max Payne
Max Payne 2: the Fall of Max Payne
Canis Canem Edit
– which is otherwise known, in its later, non-PS2 incarnations, as Bully

So inasmuch as I haven’t played everything Rockstar have ever made, I hope you will agree that I am experienced enough in their works to have a reasonable inkling as to what makes their games, as it were, “tick.” To whit…

They are generally pretty violent.

They are generally pretty morally dubious… and when I say “dubious,” I mean that their main characters tend to have, shall we say, “wavering” moral compasses.

I would like to suggest, however, that the above two points make for games that are socially relevant, artistically accomplished and, in the fact that they force us to confront the darker, seedier sides of existence, are games that we need.

Hang on…

“Need”…?

Isn’t that a bit of a strong word/implication for items of interactive entertainment?

Well okay, if we’re going to get philosophical about it, what in life do we actually need, apart from food, water, air to breathe…?

Let me clarify, therefore, and say that I think Rockstar’s games are (generally speaking) important… in the sense that anything in the field of media/entertainment which makes us question/confront issues which we may not otherwise question/confront is important. Let me first of all take the way that physical violence is represented in Rockstar’s games…

It tends to be pretty visceral. There’s no getting away from that. “Brutality, blood and bullets” is, I would say, a pretty good summation of the kind of violent content you would expect to find in a game made by Rockstar. There are, of course, variations from this norm – there are, for example, no bullets to be found in Canis Canem Edit, what with it being set in a school and all* – but on the whole, Rockstar games are not all about prancing around in fields of daises, having pleasant conversations with pixies and gnomes, and bouncing across lily pads on glistening ponds.

So how (you may ask) can one morally justify the inclusion, in a game, of violence which is often of a pretty extreme form? By way of response, I would like to present to you a card on which is scrawled, in thick gore-flecked blood, the word, Realism. That’s not to say that I just want to throw out an all-encompassing “Well it’s realistic, innit?” kind of an answer, but I would like to respond to the question which I put in your mouth with another question…

Is it not better (more useful; more… um… “educational”) to witness violence in all its painful, gory, horrific detail, as opposed to how it is represented, for example, in one of numerous generic, colourful sci-fi shooters, in which you can cheerfully stroll into a room and take out dozens of enemies as if it was nothing? The latter may be said to be more fun, more game-like, but isn’t it potentially more harmful for our “young, impressionable children” (and the like) to witness and take part in (albeit in a “virtual” world) acts of violence where the full, terrifying consequences of such are not seen, not heard and/or are glossed over in a pixilated splash of colour, to the accompaniment of meaningless blips and bleeps and orchestral blasts?

It is an unfortunate consequence of the diversity of human nature that there will be people out there who will take pleasure in the fetishistic nature of extreme violence, particularly when it veers into torture territory** – and who will even feel the urge (whether or not it is sated) to act out what they see in a game or on a film… but isn’t it likely that the vast majority of people – e.g. the players of Rockstar’s games – will actually not want to bring horror and violence into their lives, and will in fact be less likely to do so if they are aware of the terrible potential consequences of such? Could one not say, therefore, that having Rockstar’s (mostly) ultra-violent games in the world is, overall, beneficial to society?

Please do feel free to disagree, as strongly as you like, with any of the above!

I just want to finish by saying a few words about the psychological/moral characters of the protagonists of the Rockstar games I have played…

Max Payne, for example, is a deeply troubled rogue New York cop, whose wife and child were brutally murdered at the beginning of the first game… the Max Payne games are dark and (you guessed it) violent journeys through a man’s psyche… blood-spattered journeys of vengeance and the desperate yearning for justice… a justice which, although ultimately meted out via several thousand bullets, is never truly felt in the heart of Payne…

Jimmy Hopkins, the star of Canis Canem Edit, is also somewhat “troubled”… he is the bane of his teachers and his parents… he is not exactly the friend of authority… and yet… through all of his scuffles, his taking the side of the drunken teacher, his bunking off class and his insinuating himself into the various factions of the school, there is no doubting that he has a deep moral centre… everything he does, he does (in his mind, at least) for the good, for justice, for the “little people,” and in an attempt to combat the corruption and bullying that goes on directly under the noses of those who are supposed to be “in charge”…

And the characters in both the GTA’s I have (partially) played, although they get drawn and entrenched into a life of crime, are never 100% what you might call “into it”… they continually question the missions they are sent on, the “orders” they are given, and you do tend to feel that, ultimately, they would much prefer it if everyone would just “get along”…

There’s a theme here… a theme concurrent through the stories, the characters, the constant questioning of appropriate means to appropriate ends… there is no black and white in the games of Rockstar… no good and evil… there is only examining one’s own moral centre, one’s own gut, one’s feeling of who deserves what and how far one is willing to go to achieve his desires and what feels rights and to fulfill some kind of sense of justice… there is the pushing of boundaries, which makes people (especially casual observers and the popular/populist media) feel uncomfortable and want to rant and rage and ban anything which explores the dark, dirty, bloody, morally questionable aspects of society…

But feeling uncomfortable is at least feeling.

Horror and death and violence are here, in this world, and we’re not going to be able to effectively deal with it if we aren’t aware of the true extent of it. Rockstar games go some way to showing us the true extent of it. Shouldn’t we therefore be applauding them and celebrating them, rather than trying to ban them?

Over to you, my readers!

———- 

* That’s not to say, in these violent times in which we live, that in the real world guns are never fired in schools, but in the context of the game it wouldn’t make sense to go around peppering your fellow students with lead… being a Rockstar game, however, you can get into a pretty brutal schoolyard brawl.

** And I would suggest that perhaps we should be more worried about the recent spate of torture-porn films, rather than Manhunt 2.

 

 

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4 comments on “The Virtue of Violence

  1. Brenda says:

    Let me begin by saying I’m a wimp. Furthermore, I’m not in the game developers’ target demographic. I do, however, love racing games as they’re great for motivation while I’m on my exercise bike. So I’m familiar with Grand Theft Auto … enough to be alarmed. My favorite game is the considerably milder Downhill Domination. (So now I’m proving I’m a wimp!) Its violence is limited to harassing remarks, water bottles that double as weapons and the odd kick or two. If I’ve had a rough day at work, MAYBE that type of violence serves as an outlet for frustration. More likely, it just makes me feel agitated. And I cannot imagine the physical violence of GTA: I have to witness that stuff on the nightly news, so why would I want a game with that? Games are still supposed to be fun, right? I guess there are some sorts of realism I just don’t need … or understand.

  2. pepsoid says:

    My girlfriend and I had a bit of a conversation about this the other night… as you might imagine, it is an issue of some contention, both between us (not too much, as we are pretty good at comunicating our viewpoints, but, you know, a little) – as well as in the wider context. My aim in writing the above, longer than average piece, was more to ask questions that the popular media don’t seem to ask, rather than to out-and-out state that “Videogame Violence is Good!”… so I hope it came across that way!

    What I was intending for it to boil down to (and again, I hope it came across this way) was the question…

    Is it actually *worse* to witness games (as well as films etc) which portray violence as some fun, inconsequential thing (e.g. joyfully blasting little colourful blippy low-res aliens), rather than seeing the full, gruesome, horrific reality of it? – which Rockstar games tend to show.

    I don’t know, I may be wrong – the other half suggested that people who immerse themselves in this kind of very visceral, horrific violence actually become *affected* by it – she said that if she ever plays a particularly violent game, it even affects her… and I have to admit, I kind of feel something… um… *change* in myself when I play a particularly violent game for a long period of time. Thankfully we are both aware of this, so tend to compensate with more cheerful activities – and we are generally predisposed to be peaceful, non-aggressive, etc – but if even we can feel the effects, what about folk who are perhaps more veering that way in the first place?

    Anyway, like I said, asking the questions… it’s too easy, I think, to jump on the media-fuelled bandwagon of “Videogame Violence is Bad,” and to not even consider that the opposite may be true.

    Then there is also the issue you mention that games are meant to be fun! Which is another thing entirely… I’m afraid I’d have to delve deeply into my psychology head to attempt to come up with an answer as to why average, normal, sane folk might find an ultra-violent – perhaps even sickeningly violent – game fun. You may be pleased to hear, however, that generally speaking I prefer games which are more positive and light-hearted in tone… my other half and I are presently deeply immersed in “The Sims 2: Castaway” – which involves much hugging of chimps, collecting fruit, making clothes out of palm fronds, etc… the most violent things we have done so far are fishing and catching a chicken! 🙂

  3. Brenda says:

    I do agree that these are questions we SHOULD be asking … and I think you did an excellent job of setting the stage for discussion. Myself, I don’t automatically assume that the violence in all of these games is bad, but it is a concern. I don’t know if psychology has answered all the questions about our exposure to to violence impacts us, but I know that exposure to only saccharine sweetness wears a little thing at times, too … and doesn’t necessarily make me any more prone to being nice! In real life, I’m a bit more judgmental. I believe that violence begets violence and hatred breeds hated. In gaming? My jury is still out … so keep asking the questions!

  4. pepsoid says:

    *Real* violence begets *real* violence, but virtual violence… can perhaps serve as a kind of therapy? A “letting off of steam”? A means of releasing one’s natural, primal, violent instincts in a “safe” environment?

    Or it *could* incite real violence.

    It’s a difficult one…

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