24 Jul

I’m borrowing a phrase from Stanley Kubric’s Clockwork Orange and spinning off of yesterday’s post about ultraviolence in God of War, talking about the current trend and probable future of videogame violence. Interestingly, there’s a followup to the God of War thing from Kotaku, where Stephen Totilo articulates the point I’m making here: namely, that gamers do have a threshold for too much violence, for ultraviolence. By “ultraviolence” what I mean, in essence, is that not only will the violence become increasingly violent (you don’t just shoot your enemy in the head, you grab them and curb-stomp them), the depictions increasingly graphic (slow-motion shots of a head-shot), and the graphics increasingly realistic, but that we will be seeing it more and more often in games, and in quantities that are much higher.

In short, the trend in games seems to indicate that horde mode (when you face wave-after-wave of enemies, particularly of the zombie variety) is becoming increasingly popular as a multiplayer form of gameplay, the violence we see in becoming more grotesque (in Gears of War 3, for instance, the player receives an achievement for finding all the possible curb-stomp executions, rendered in gory detail), and the engines running games will become much more realistic just in basic graphical terms. Next-gen consoles will make this even more obvious as they reach a new level of graphical capabilities.

This post is not condemning videogame violence. I play Gears. I got that curb-stomp achievement, and laughed while each scene played. But there are limits to my tolerance. Gears doesn’t bother me, Left 4 Dead doesn’t bother me, because the enemies in those games are completely Otherized – they aren’t human. Violence perpetrated against aliens, monsters, and zombies is violence against something that isn’t real and isn’t human, for all that they often have profoundly human characteristics. It’s one of the reasons why videogames released in Germany have to use green blood (instead of red) – it makes the targets less human.

I do get a little squeamish when I have to kill humans – especially innocent ones – and their deaths are gory. Maybe that’s hypocritical, maybe it’s a natural product of in-group/out-group psychology. I didn’t like that level in Modern Warfare where I was supposed to help shoot civilians in an airport – which is not to say that I think they should not have included it. I think they did something very interesting by deliberately including it, and I will defend their right to do so. I just didn’t feel comfortable about it. I didn’t feel comfortable harvesting the little sisters in Bioshock, despite their creepy inhuman glowing eyes. I’m made really uncomfortable by Saint’s Row (despite its clear sarcasm) and Grand Theft Auto.

To be fair, I didn’t like shooting many of the alien species in Mass Effect, either, because they had been de-Otherized – they were speaking, feeling members of the galactic community of which my character was also a part. They were “like me” in the important senses, where zombies really are not. Especially Nazi zombies, who make appearances in several games.

But the point I want to get to – and one which my industry-working husband made the other day – is that while we will see a surge in this ultraviolence in the next few generations of games (and with the next-gen of consoles), we will also likely see a drop-off of ultraviolence except among a small contingent of fans. People love to kill things when they don’t feel bad about it – monsters, zombies, and hordes of insectoid aliens just don’t evoke empathy. They allow for cathartic violence that doesn’t require us to consider the implications of that violence.

Similarly, multiplayer games with respawn remove the “realism” from even the most realistic games. Modern Warfare multiplayer, for instance, ceases to be about eliminating your enemies (as human as they and their avatars are, since you are playing with and against actual people), and becomes more about tagging them, in a way. They come right back, whether in seconds or at the end of the round (in elimination deathmatch).

Games are also not really fully realistic – they grow more graphically complex and “real” every day, but they’re still clearly not “photorealistic.” You don’t mistake videogame graphics for live-action (with people)… yet. But we’re rapidly approaching a generation of consoles with the technological capacity to make that person we’re shooting at look like a “real” person, instead of a pixel-generated avatar. Add in more realistic in-game physics, and games will be able to accurately simulate what shooting a live human being would look like.

So what are the consequences of such Otherized violence? Do games like these make us more inclined to commit acts of actual violence against one another? What happens when ultraviolence becomes more commonplace?

I think my husband is probably right, and Stephen Totilo from Kotaku agrees. I think we’ll see a wave of games that showcase ultraviolence that is also realistic, and that they won’t do as well as we might think. I think people will be amazed by the technology, but they’ll want to go back to Team Fortress‘s cartoonish violence with exploding confetti in birthday mode. They’ll want zombies and aliens instead of humans, and they’ll want the cartoon-ish “style” of their old games, because it’s just so much harder to enjoy catharsis when you’re feeling terrible about what you’ve just simulated. And I think most people will feel bad – most people don’t enjoy watching excessive violence (think the Saw movies). Yes, some people do enjoy so-called “torture porn,” but most don’t. And some people will enjoy hyper-realistic ultraviolence in videogames, but most won’t.

Will playing ultraviolent, hyper-realistic videogames make us more violent as a culture? No, I don’t think so. Using a console is a profoundly different experience than holding a real gun, and people understand the distinction. I would not advocate letting a five-year-old play Modern Warfare, but I’m certainly no more likely to physically harm someone for having played it myself as an adult (nor am I more violent for having played Duke Nukem as a teenager). As with all things, videogames are age-appropriate and should be treated as such, but they are no more likely than any other form of entertainment to encourage socially deviant behaviors. So while yes, I think we will see a surge in hyper-realistic videogame violence, I don’t see it as a cause for concern. The industry will balance itself out, as with all forms of technology, and we will find an equilibrium that I think will return us to a more distanced, Otherized form of the genre.

What this tells us about the role of games as potential vectors for leadership is simply that people, generally speaking, want to help people. If we can find a way to consider others as part of a global in-group, we can mitigate our violent impulses. Is that likely? I don’t really think so, although I would like to think it could be. The question becomes whether, as with games, we will need a new global enemy (first contact with an alien species?) in order to move our current human Others into our in-group. Human beings are violent creatures – we enjoy violence in our entertainment and react with violence to perceived threats in our reality. Perhaps there is a way to surmount this, and, if so, videogames may cease altogether to be violent. But I’m not really seeing that as realistic.