Questioning Our Moral Boundaries in Video Games

I watched Jackie Estacado grab a man by the feet and then literally rip that man’s spine out through his anus, and I think I liked it.

I watched Jackie Estacado grab a man by the feet and then literally rip that man’s spine out through his anus, and I think I liked it. Afters hours of playing The Darkness II, I have disemboweled and torn to pieces so many screaming men that I fear for my sanity. Have I grown so accustomed to wanton slaughter that ripping someone in half evokes only a momentary shock before fading into the backdrop of video game violence? Now might be a good time to reassess that question of video game violence and gore in particular before we let gradual technological progress sneak moral questions past us while we remain fixated on the light show in front of us.

To be fair, there is a comical element to the ludicrous dismemberment portrayed in The Darkness II. Enemies all look like clones of each other and therefore lose their semblance of humanity pretty quickly. The mutated and mask-wearing opponents also distinguish themselves from regular human beings, making their messy and violent passing a little less disturbing. The game is also rendered in non-photorealistic cel-shading, giving everything a sketchy comic-book feel, distancing itself from our own moral universe.

Its art style and over-the-top violence places The Darkness II in the realm of exploitation cinema, using its ludicrous gore to elicit shock and laughter. Digital Extremes, the developers behind The Darkness 2, should feel honored to have their game compared to the likes of Kill Bill or Dawn of the Dead.

Of course, The Darkness II has nothing on the brutality of the Saw franchise and the remarkably popular sub-genre of horror known as torture porn. Frankly, I find the Saw series, and by extension Final Destination and films of that ilk, repulsive and completely unrewarding. They lack any of the clever juxtaposition of themes established by slasher films like Psycho and Friday the 13th. Of course the violence in The Darkness also fails to establish any intimate connection with the game’s narrative. Why then do I find one more appealing than the other?

Do you think that the Romans found gladitorial combat entertaining for the same reason that I might enjoy ripping a helpless gangster apart in The Darkness, or for the same reason, that some game players willingly purchased Saw: The Video Game? At one point in mankind’s history, we gladly watched men and women killing each other for sport. For the most part, these gladiators were low on the social hierarchy. The best warriors died a “good death,” welcoming the killing blow and dying honorably. They showed viewers the proper way to die, a death they could admire. Yet even in death, gladiators were treated as socially pestilent. Their bodies generally ending up in cemeteries separate from others, most without tombstones to mark their passing.

There are no good deaths in The Darkness, no final redemption for the hordes of disposable enemies. Perhaps in the violent eradication of so many digital lives, our own troubles and lingering fear of death becomes trivial, silencing for a moment the persistent call of et in Arcadia ego. These horrific but frivolous deaths could be healthy.

Or the psychological numbing could do more harm than good.

Even the glory of gladiatorial sport reinforced the era’s political and social hierarchies. The games were lavish affairs in which money was made, political power was flaunted, and diplomatic relations were consummated along with all the seduction and the deception that that implies. There is money in the violence of games as well and norms that we reconstruct and come to expect. To what extent am I becoming a consumer of blood sport? Gladiatorial combat was once popular and is now detestable, can we shift back just as easily?

I ask this question here not to join the tired and misinformed fear mongers in the media and in the conservative community that are concerned about video game violence, but instead, to make some time and space to reassess the moral implications of the violence that I so readily -- and hungrily -- consume. Considering the pace of technology, I can easily foresee a day when my Kinect recognizes my “thumbs down,” and I watch with a thirst the three-dimensional splatter of a photo-realistic warrior’s final moments. If that day comes, I want to know if I made the transformation critically and self-reflexively, without abandoning moral questions in favor of passivity.

I know this issue of violence in games is an ongoing and controversial subject, so much so that many of us just ignore questions of violence and morality all together. Regardless, when engaging in extreme digital violence, we brush up against our own moral boundaries. I have no qualms about playing The Darkness 2, and I would never suggest that those who love gore are morally bankrupt. However, I know that I have a personal moral line and that this line is not set in stone. My boundaries and opinions shift constantly and subtly. Given the pace of technology and the ongoing role of violent media in our culture, I fear that this line will be pushed ever closer towards Roman-era spectacle without my notice. If any form of violence in media raises moral questions, then we should confront these moral questions now and never let this subject rest easy.

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