A headshot is a delicate thing to get right from that distance. Is it the cold of the Siberian winter, or is it my nervousness with the high velocity rifle? It’s not so much that I’m afraid of not hitting the guard. It’s just that these are hardened men and women, and I know from experience that a gunshot to the abdomen or arm or even chest won’t necessarily prevent the individual in question from running around and alerting his or her fellow soldiers, in the process bringing all hell down on yours truly. A single shot to the head is just a much more elegant way of proceeding. Therein lies the immediate challenge. Therein lies the ethical conundrum.
The game is Time Splitters 2, Eidos’ superb sequel to an okayish high-concept first-person shooter involving cartoonish humans and zombies. Like its predecessor, Time Splitters 2 charges the player with having to collect a series of Time Crystals from a variety of historical locations. Unlike its predecessor, Time Splitters 2 employs the console’s processing power in this instance, Nintendo’s GameCube to excellent effect. Playing the GameCube version is equivalent to interacting with one of those contemporary B-movies where all the money has been blown on the special effects budget and none on the actors and in the context of this sort of video game, perhaps any sort of video game at this point in the form’s evolution, that really is high praise, indeed.
So I take aim, concentrate, fire, and heavens be praised my would-be assailant crumples, realistically, to the ground. I move forward, still crouching, to a slightly more exposed position, but don’t yet leave the relative safety of the cave where I began my adventure. Beyond the crates full of explosive materials and through the wire mesh of the enemy headquarters I see another guard, patrolling. I have to be quick this time, as past experience tells me this particular guard will not hang around waiting to be shot like his colleague. Another gunshot rings out, and another facsimile of a human being crumples to the ground.
Now, and this is the thing of it, I’m not an aggressive guy. I have only ever once been in a fight, when I was 11-years-old, with my friend Michael Eley. We fought over who knows what. We were totally evenly matched and I fear the ensuing struggle as we pinioned each other on the patch of waste ground must have looked fairly ridiculous: a writhing mass of prepubescent fury, all blue school uniforms and pink ferocity. My subsequent thankfully limited experience of potential conflict situations has been characterised by a long and vibrant yellow streak of which I have become increasingly proud. And if I’m a coward, I’m of the opinion that other people deserve a chance to avoid conflict, as well. I went on the Anti-War Demo through central London in the middle of last year for that very reason. And getting a wishy-washy liberal like myself to commit to something anything, in fact takes some doing, let me tell you.
When I happen to mention to the inquisitive stranger at, say, a dinner party, my professional and personal interest in video games, discussion inevitably, often immediately, turns to the relationship of violence and video games. It’s not difficult to see why: non-gaming adults might fondly remember the bright colours and abstracts shapes which characterised their gaming youth. But invariably their knowledge of contemporary examples of the form stems either from their consumption of media outrage at the latest ultra-realist, ultra-violent outing for the PlayStation 2, or by appalled snapshots of their own offspring indulging in apparently random acts of violence against the unwitting inhabitants of such games.
Of course such a view is a little misleading: early video games were hardly what we would recognise as paeans to pacifism. Space Invaders never posited a situation that could be solved around the negotiating table; there was never any likelihood of a peace accord between Pacman and the ghosts; the spaceship in Defender spat lethal laser beams rather than leaflets advocating mutual, peaceful co-existence. Even supposedly non-aggressive games like Pong or Tetris are ultimately about mastery over something, be it your fellow player or the machine. In a game, someone triumphs and somebody or something loses: we laugh with good reason at the absurdity of the Caucus-race in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when the Dodo concludes that, “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes”.
The difference now, as I’ve written before, is that many contemporary games eschew more fantastical settings in favour of the gritty realism of the crime genre, like the already infamously violent Manhunter, or the milieu of the espionage/subterfuge thriller, like the Metal Gear Solid series or Splinter Cell. For many players and non-players, overtly violent or aggressive games characterise the contemporary video game: not for them the myriad charms of Super Monkey Ball or Pikmin or the Disney-gone-ever-so-slightly-haywire outing of Dog’s Life.
The problem for both the creator and the analyst of video games is the same problem that characterises other forms of art. One paradigm of “good” narrative art posits the idea that an artist should make us care about a character before killing him off: then we can reassure ourselves that we as readers of the text have witnessed a morally contextualised form of violence, rather than the gratuitous fulfilment of humankind’s innate schaudenfreude.
It is this that we might see as differentiating say, Gus Van Sant’s latest movie, Elephant, from the work of Quentin Tarantino or John Woo. Elephant, thankfully, presents a complex account of the influence of violent video games on the perpetrators of a Columbine-style high school massacre. One of the would-be assassins plays Beethoven on the piano while the other guns down virtual bystanders. By implication, Van Sant conflates the two activities, and we see the difficulties in attributing the causes of real-life violence to one instance of cultural engagement. The film’s captivating mix of documentary realism, interrupted by occasional cinematic playfulness, creates a sense of excruciating impending doom with which it is all too easy to identify. When characters die, such as the James Deanesque photographer kid or the gawky bespectacled girl, we genuinely care.
An explicit account of such an approach can be found in the work of the late scriptwriter Douglas Adams, who sought to engage with the possibilities of the video game medium and whom, incidentally, we might see as a contemporary Lewis Carroll. In his masterpiece radio comedy for the BBC, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Adams created the character of a sperm whale which is inadvertently brought to life, for reasons too complex to explain here, falling through space above a planet. We hear the whale excitedly coming to terms with its existence, starting to name the parts of its body before it’s obliterated, in heart-rending fashion, on the planet’s surface. As Adams explains in his footnotes to the radio scripts (published by Pan), he was tired of watching television cop shows in which passers-by would be despatched haphazardly as the hero continued on his mission with merry abandon. The whale was Adams’ attempt to make us care about a character: a loveable, engaging whale, that Adams then apparently inadvertently but actually with absolute intention kills.
Whether we need Adams’ approach in order to identify with expendable characters is debatable. Why do we laugh in a Tarantino flick when an unsuspecting bystander is gunned down? Maybe it is the aforementioned schaudenfreude kicking into play. But in order for that to be true we, as readers of the text, would at the same time have to identify on some level with these minor characters. In fact the affective, guttural response perhaps resides in our latent knowledge that it is these characters we most readily recognise: the heroes or heroines which power such plots, the characters which screenwriting theorists tell us we most identify with, are only one part of the empathetic equation. These other characters are reflections of the innocent Joes or Josephines that are, as the 21st century has already taught us, the second casualties of war; the first casualty being, of course, Truth.
In the nascent, nebulous, oxymoronic environment of the “interactive narrative” of which video games seem to be the most popular example, we seldom mourn the death of characters. More often than not interactivity is expressed in the maxim “Kill or be killed”, my guiding principal as I attack that base in Siberia. But, though I may not mourn these soldiers, the experience proves so effective (affective, indeed) because on some level I empathise with the enemy. Differently but similarly, though they present no threat to me, the killing or brutalisation of pedestrians in the milieu of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City appals and appeals precisely because these seem, at some level, to be real people. In fact, in their ability to teach us about the nature of violence through the action of committing it, video games may yet be seen as useful rather than harmful tools for understanding violence and aggression.
What’s so funny (peculiar) about peace, love and understanding is that it’s possible to advocate it in the real world without practising it in the realm of the video game. In fact, in their ability to teach us about the nature of violence through the action of committing it, video games may yet be seen as useful rather than harmful tools for understanding violence and aggression.
If I can work through the pent-up fury gifted me through the vagaries of 21st century living by delivering an elegant shot to an unsuspecting virtual soldier’s cranium in Time Splitters 2, then perhaps I’m less likely to take my anger out on the real world. If the grand guignol violence of Vice City makes me rethink my attitudes to violence, then so much the better. If the terrifying stampede across Omaha Beach in Medal of Honour: Frontline gives me some glimpse, however, mild and mediated, of the horror of that situation, then games really might be agents of peace, love and understanding.