It’s 10 o’clock on a Saturday night and a man sat on the table next to me in the Manchester Piccadilly Starbucks is shooting people in the face. He’s playing a game on his iPad where you first select from a selection of rifles — hunting, military — and then aim them at medium-poly targets on what looks like an everyday city street. He drags his finger across the touch screen and pinches to zoom his scope at a target. He presses a button and the view switches, the camera follows the journey of the bullet through the air in slow motion. It sails across a road, over the tops of blocky parked cars rendered in simple polygons, and then tears through a man’s cheekbone. His jaw starts to fall off as a low-res cloud of gore blooms. WELL DONE! Says the game. ONE MORE CRIMINAL OFF THE STREETS! And I sip my cold cup of tea and wonder if there’s not something to this reactionary idea of video games deadening us to violence.
The man plays the game without shame or embarrassment, leant back from his table, drinking from his own white polystyrene cup. He pauses the game to check his phone. He certainly doesn’t look like a common-or-garden psychopath (although the rucksack on the chair opposite is half-unzipped, revealing at least two James Patterson paperbacks). What he’s doing when he returns to his game is objectively nasty, morally indefensible, to the point it appears as a gross parody of a violent video game, like bad satire, the kind of platonic evil Jack Thompson imagined all games to be. I found the whole episode kind of disturbing. But I’m a hypocrite: I’ve done a lot worse in games dozens of times before.
When I leave to catch my train the man is messaging friends, presumably not about shooting people in the face. In my 15 years or so of playing games I’ve killed plenty more — with automatic rifles and otherwise — digital targets designed to resemble people but also animals, robots, monsters. I’ve hunted forest creatures with a bow and arrow in Tomb Raider and Zelda, mowed down scores of pedestrians in various GTAs, chewed heads off in Alien Hominid, broken the necks of innumerable guards in innumerable Metal Gear Solids, battered blokes until they flickered into oblivion in River City Ransom, gotten headshots from hundreds of yards away in online shooters. It’s a bodycount John Wayne Gacy would be envious of, were the bodies not those of character models and sprites.
At this point, I must have restarted Dishonored 2 three, perhaps four times. I really want to like it, for all sorts of reasons: genuine wonder at the world Arkane have created, my enjoyment of games which allow players to approach its challenges in whatever way they see fit, the imaginative mechanics, the inclusion of Cara Ellison in the writing staff, the exaggerated body types and faces of the characters, the flawless art design, Rosario Dawson as a one-armed lesbian pirate, the way it evokes PC games I grew up playing. But it just ain’t happening. The first time I elected to begin again from the start, it was due to a disjointed play experience – days or even weeks between sessions, sometimes played alone and other times spent chatting to other people in the room and not totally paying attention – and so, as with the passage of a book which your eye passes over without comprehending, I flipped back to re-read those initial areas of Dunwall and Serkonos.
The idea of playing Dishonored as bloodlessly or murderously as you want is one the game plays up to, giving a regularly updated stat regarding how “chaotic” your playthrough is. Low chaos means you’ve been creeping by guards while their backs are turned, dashing across rooftops unseen, and only knocking enemies unconscious when you are spotted. High chaos means you’ve been firing your pistol into crowds of people and following it up with a few thrusts of your blade, limbs and heads flying off in Lady Snowblood fountains of claret, tumbling to the ground in comical fashion thanks to some particularly heightened ragdoll physics. It was a mechanic in the first Dishonored, too, although its importance is heightened here. Arkane all but cast moral judgement over your chosen play style with the ending you get on completing the game, of which there are multiple. The less people you kill, the “better” (or more optimistic, less bleak) the finale.
That does not at all chime with how the game plays. I’ve started from scratch on multiple occasions because the game makes it way too easy to kill people. A slip of a button from R1 to R2 and instead of just conking a guy on the head, you sever it from his neck and he crumples to the floor in a heap. Worse, the emergent world sometimes means that an enemy dies through no fault of your own — devoured by rats after being hidden unconscious down an alleyway, say, or consumed in a fire you did not start — but it counts towards your “chaos” level. That is insane. Consider that in real world terms; if we lived like Emily Kaldwin or Corvo Attano, we would constantly be poised on the cusp of brutally murdering everyone around us without even blinking, with only a diligent and focussed advancement through the world stopping us from becoming serial killers. A slip of concentration and you’re covered in somebody’s insides, now outside, as if killing is the default and not killing is a constant struggle.
Now, Dishonored 2 — with its fantastical setting, slightly-cartoonish character models and the fact that it’s a videogame — is not real life. But still: in real life, the majority of the population avoid killing…well, that’s not quite right, is it? The majority of the population do not kill each other, do not even consider it to be something within their power. For the most part, it’s not within our power! We’re not a world of powder kegs ready to go off, exerting a huge amount of will and self control to stop ourselves from firing buckshot into each other heads or leaping from great heights with swords drawn. It’s the polar opposite of Dishonored, or really any number of triple-A games, where killing is the default and not a challenge. In reality, the default mode of being is not one where the majority of the public are murderous psychopaths, and those with the desire to be so are hence pathologised, and/or are subject to grief, regret, and post-traumatic stress as a result of what they’ve done.
This has long been a pet peeve of mine in “open world” games, which suggest at a verisimilitude both of environment and of interaction. Not only is there this entire, intricately-realised world to play in, but you choose what you want to do in it as well! Except you can’t really; whether we’re talking Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto, the game design is geared towards mowing down enemies. It’s impossible to complete those games pacifistically. The Elder Scrolls series throws tonnes of weapons at you, and even driving down the street in GTA without a few hit-and-runs is borderline impossible, thanks to a control scheme that favours chaos (which became an issue when the exact same physics and controls were used for LA Noire, where a straight-laced LAPD detective toppling lampposts and bloodying his wheel arches is an immersion-breaking feature). The world is open, but your manner of interacting with it is not in the slightest.
Which is the point of those games! And I’m not necessarily calling for a game which would be a complete, realistic facsimile of the world as we know it. As Jonathan Coe noted in his biography of the author BS Johnson, if the writer had ever managed to achieve his dream of throwing off the shackles of narrative fiction and perfectly replicating the complexity and chaos of quotidian human existence, it’d be fucking boring: it would be people milling about, having thoughts which are profoundly lacking in profundity, and writing shopping lists. However, there is an argument to be made against killing-to-win as the dominant form for mainstream games, for which they have (partly) earned a reputation for increasing aggression in those who play them regularly, and are often trotted out as scapegoats after incidences of youth — and sometimes adult — violence.
That is how it’s been in games since the beginning, though. Kill or be killed. Our inputs are limited to often solely eliminating enemies. That’s partly due to the nature of games, in the tradition stretching decades further back than the video kind, where the goal is almost always to eliminate an “enemy”, whether it’s another person you’re playing against or a win-state that demands your complete dominance of the table. Checkmate! Solitaire! Yahtzee! How did we get here? Well, if the default system of video games is descended from non-virtual tabletop games, then it is also a direct descendent of wargames.
The so-called “Kriegsspiel,” created in the early 19th century, was designed as a training tool for members of the Prussian and German armies, to impart lessons regarding military strategy. It was sort of like Risk, although infinitely more complex, and not broken to the point that conquering Australia early in the game meant your victory was certain. It did, however, feature dice and pieces to signify troops, a special compass for measuring movement, moulded terrain, and a bunch of complex systems meant to simulate things like the fog of war and communication difficulties. This is the foundation upon which modern wargaming is based upon and, subsequently, action video games as a whole. From a game instigated in 1812 to teach military strategy. So, naturally, (wargames which begat tabletop roleplaying games which begat, more or less) video games inherited the default win state of “domination.” As you win in a wargame by crushing your military opponents, so to in a video game do you earn points and achieve the eventual desired win state by killing everyone; or, at least, killing everybody who stands between you and the win state at the end of the game.
Spacewar!, widely considered to be the first video game, had you shooting alien targets on a radar screen, something which has remained a stalwart of arcades to this day. Pac-Man consumed his enemies (who, admittedly, were then spat back out to continue stalking the maze you shared, since they were already ghosts). In Asteroids you exploded floating space rocks or they exploded you. You ploughed thousands of blasts to obliterate the seemingly endless waves of enemies in Galaga. Breakout was all about destroying things. Even the mechanics of coin-ops themselves implied a kind of violence, shaking you down for your money like a low-stakes, semi-consensual mugging, the high difficulty levels a ploy to get you to spend cash for more continues, heightening your desire to crush your digitised enemies.
I should probably make clear here that I am no shrinking violet. I was gifted with an adolescence wherein both the local video shop boasted almost the entire Tartan Extreme catalogue and my mum was surprisingly laid back in renting things certificated far beyond my immature years. I played a lot of games, too, including the entire GTA series, Goldeneye, TimeSplitters 2 (about which I have another piece for this blog in progress), the Resident Evil games. All violent to varying degrees, but all very much dependent on killing to “beat” the game. As graphical technology improved, those enemies became less abstract, and so too did the damage you did to them. Nowadays you still have the track of Mario games where you squish colourful characters, but more frequently, you have human — or humanoid — enemies that you’re gunning down, often in brutal and bloody fashion.
Of course, there’s the argument for accepting the logic of game worlds. Were we in positions such as Emily Kaldwin or Corvo Attano, or any number of protagonists from action games (or films!), we might be compelled towards violence. Dishonored doubles down on that by giving us protagonists who are in a certain position of power: Emily an Empress, Corvo her father and Royal Protector, each of them afforded supernatural abilities. They have both a social and literal advantage to the people they encounter during the game, and unexamined power is something which isn’t really addressed during the game’s plot. Still, it pretends at offering a binary choice of “killing” or “not,” and rarely makes good on that, owing in part to the occasional malfunction of the systems which tie together this emergent world.
Which is, again, an issue we do not face in real life incidences of conflict. Think of the times you have been faced with the possibility of violence, whether verbally abused in the street or actually set up, or else just sharing a train carriage with some furiously drunk rugby fans. You do not have the power to knock them out or stab them in the neck, true, but nor is there the risk of accidental suffocation after stacking twenty unconscious bodies atop one another in a dumpster. In stealth games like Dishonored especially, games do well at simulating the rush of adrenaline when faced with combat, but the options it gives you are rather more limited. Like the moment in Teju Cole’s Every Day Is For The Thief, when the narrator is faced by a group of “area boys” threatening him and members of extended family at a Lagos shipping yard
“We are unsettled…I feel like a tuning fork, vibrating with an unfamiliar will to violence. There is nowhere to run to and I have no desire to run. I can no longer bear the violation, the caprice, the air of desperation. If they attack, I say to myself, I will crush their throats. I think of myself as a pacifist, but what I want now is to draw blood, to injure, even be injured. Crazed by the situation and by the need for an end to it, I no longer know myself.”
The narrator finds himself faced with the possibility of violence, and prepares to react in kind, his emotions and hormones running away with him, a primal part of the brain which releases adrenaline in anticipation of action. In the process, however, he experiences a sense of depersonalisation, of losing himself, of those baser instincts momentarily overriding his more developed, mature and thoughtful sense of self. Most games operate entirely on the baser instinct. That’s nothing something which has really been addressed in games — the oft-cited Undertale and Spec-Ops: The Line notwithstanding — and when such questions are posed, such as the infamous Edge review of Doom which hypothesised a different model for the game where you could negotiate and potentially team-up with the fire-breathing hellspawn instead of simply killing them, they tend to be ridiculed. That’s just what games are, says the straw man average gamer, the one who resists attempts to expand the form whilst simultaneously bemoaning the establishment’s own resistance towards deeming games “art.”
As with the argument, from a psychological stand-point, that horror movies give us a safe space in which to experience fear, now we are no longer neanderthals having neurotransmitters activated when we notice an apex predator out of the corner of our eyes, perhaps there is an argument that video games provide a similarly safe outlet for these primitive hunting instincts (more so than, say, actual hunting; I realise in writing this that animals hunted for sport are often referred to as “game”). Except when it’s the rule, rather than the exception, that the majority of video games are about living out violent power fantasies, I find something somewhat troubling about that.
Earlier in life I had knee-jerk reactions to the knee-jerk reactions to video game violence which appeared predominantly in more conservative, largely right-wing media, who were all too willing to blame a brutal murder or crime spree in Manhunt 2 (as they had previously blamed the Video Nasties and gangsta rap I also loved) rather than accept the reality of the state’s failure to address underfunded mental health treatments, social inequality or disturbingly easy access to weapons. They pretended those things didn’t exist. The games Rockstar produces do, you can see them on shelves on shops, and they’re being sold to your kids! I’m still low-key sceptical about drawing direct causal links between consuming violent media and reenacting violent behaviour, but I find it hard to deny that the default of games being one of dominance, through murder or any other means, has no effect at all.