The heart and soul of Madness is homicide, and lots of it. It is as basic and primal as a video game can get.
Multimedia: Madness Interactive
Number of players: 1
ESRB rating: n/a
It was right after I blew off a chunk of Jesus' face with a shotgun that I began to wonder what exactly I was doing. Sure, I've probably killed at least a million computer-generated people in my brief time on this planet, but discharging a 12-gauge shell into the haloed head of the Christian messiah, virtual or not, gave me pause. Even though Jesus himself was firing at me with an automatic assault rifle and his zombie aides were attempting to chop my head off, how could I justify such violence?
I don't really consider myself to be a violent person. I was in a fight in grade six which consisted entirely of me and another boy punching each other's head in a totally ineffective way of inflicting pain on anything other than our own knuckles. Other than that incident, I have no history of any violence. I've never even fired a real gun. I cringe at the sight of actual blood.
Yet, give me a video game controller and I become a rampaging monster, gunning down virtual pedestrians in a Grand Theft Auto game or, just recently, perfecting my assassination skills in Hitman 2. This enjoyment of make-believe murder led me to immediately download the game Madness Interactive when I saw it advertised on a freeware gaming site.
The heart and soul of Madness is homicide, and lots of it. It is as basic and primal as a video game can get. You choose your avatar and then commence killing lots and lots of people in a variety of ways. There are axes and knives to throw, numerous pistols to fire, and machine-guns to gleefully mow down your enemies like blood-filled dominoes. The gameplay consists of picking up these weapons, emptying their contents into the soon-to-be-corpses that attack you, and then moving on to another screen where you do the same thing over again. It may sound overly simple, but that's the point. Madness is like those food pills that people in the future always seem to eat in sci-fi movies -- everything you need boiled down into one easily digestible form.
Madness was developed by Krinkels and Max Abernethy of Flecko.net using Macromedia Flash. The game is quite popular and has attracted a community of fans who create their own Madness-related art and mod the game to include everything from an incarnation of Death to the ability to throw mangoes at one's foes. Krinkels has also created a series of Madness Flash cartoons in which the protagonist fights Jesus and a sheriff and turns their army of faceless drones into graveyard filler. Like the game, the cartoons are very amusing.
But what is it about killing people that is so much fun? And what happens to people who spend their spare time engaging in multiple homicides? I'm quick to dismiss the very spurious connection between video game and real world violence as alarmist rubbish. At the same time, though, I find myself worried at how callously and casually video games present death.
The US military and terrorist groups have both been using video games as training for their troops. The idea is that spending enough time killing pretend humans will numb you to the effect of doing the real thing. It sounds pretty scary on paper (or in HTML, as it were), but people have proven very adept at dehumanizing their enemies since long before we had first-person shooters. Besides, seeing a pixilated character die on your 15" monitor and having an actual human being expire right in front of you are two totally different scenarios. Anyone who tries to conflate the two is making an extremely questionable connection.
Video games may be more successful in numbing ourselves to our own deaths rather than other people's. The real appeal of violent video games may lie in modern Western attitudes towards death. Perhaps playing these kinds of games allows us to confront our fears about our own unavoidable end and turn that terror into something we can control and laugh at. Without religious beliefs to rely on, growing numbers of us are left with nothing but oblivion to look forward to after we die. One way of dealing with this horrible realization is to trivialize it. Turning death into entertainment might be one modern way of coping with our mortality.
This might be heavy baggage with which to burden a little freeware game like Madness, but there must be some deep psychological reason why murder has become one of the most popular forms of amusement in the 21st-century. It's possible that playing games such as Madness is cathartic, allowing us to cope with fears about death that would otherwise plague our existence. It's also possible that these games are just a convenient rug for us to sweep our anxieties under and pretend that they don't exist. I can't make up my mind whether all of this simulated killing is healthy or not. All I know for sure is that it's really fun.