Thursday, September 20, 2012

Brutality! A history of violence in videogames.

If you’re easily offended, you can stop reading now.

Yes, this is a piece about violence in videogames. It’s a look at the most brutal, gratuitous and vile things that you can do to your opponents (and sometimes to yourself) in some of the most controversial games in history.

But this isn’t a rant about how videogames are ruining our children, and turning them into mentally unhinged murderers who run amok, cheerfully decapitating bystanders, neighbours, cousins and school principals (videogames don’t do that, but that’s a discussion for another time and place). Oh, no. This is a celebration of very adult entertainment (not THAT adult entertainment. Drag your minds out of the sewers, if you please) provided by the fantasy violence that is the hallmark of some of the finest videogames ever made.

Violence has always been a common theme in games, even in the old days. Take chess, for instance. Nobody ever accused chess of being a bad influence on tender young minds. But it’s undeniable that it is a game about cowardly, pansy monarchs who send out troops to kill the troops of other similarly spineless despots, while they muck about safely behind the lines. With a little imagination, it’s easy to look at a game of chess in progress and see mounted knights hacking foot solders into pieces, evil priests sexually harassing beautiful queens by menacingly circling around them (sometimes hunting in pairs, like fast bowlers) and a battlefield stained with blood, bodies strewn by the wayside. Uggh. I hope I’ve convinced you to pull your innocent children out of those dangerous chess classes immediately. A most vile and corrupting influence, this game. Turns your children into corrupt generals, murdering soldiers and deviant priests. Shudder.

But I digress.

Videogames, in fact, started off fairly innocently. The very first videogame, Pong, was nothing more than a friendly game of electronic tennis. But it didn’t take very long for the corrupting influence of traditionally violent games like Chess to find their way into videogames, and before long, we had spaceships shooting laser beams at each other, crazed gorillas carrying off pretty girls, and then being attacked by plumbers carrying hammers, strange pizza-like creatures defending themselves against monsters by actually eating them raw, and other such gory goodness. But videogames such as Space War, Donkey Kong and Pac-Man were still perceived as wholesome entertainment - because, like Chess, they hid their darkness behind cutesy-pie facades. Nobody looked at Pac-Man gobbling up a monster and saw it for what it was - cannibalism. Without even the decency to cook your fellow creatures before eating them. (I’m personally shocked that Pac-Man did not set off a wave of cannibalism in the United States when it first came out. Maybe there weren’t enough anti-videogame campaigners at the time to spark it off.)

So people did not quite get offended by videogame violence for a while. Not until Death Race arrived in 1976.

Death Race was a game in which you drove around in a sports car and ran over innocent pedestrians for points (this makes it even more cynical than the much reviled Grand Theft Auto, which doesn’t explicitly reward this soul-cleansing activity). To make it worse, every time you successfuly ran over someone, a cross would appear, marking the spot where they once stood. People in America were so horrified by this, they even forgot that it was based on a movie featuring David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone (a most heinous crime by itself), and started complaining en-masse about how the game was ‘sick’ and ‘morbid’, triggering off TV debates on the psychological impact of violent videogames, and raking up all manner of controversy that eventually caused Death Race to sell many more copies than it would have otherwise.

It’s important to remember that Death Race (and other controversial games of the time, such as Custer’s Revenge and Texas Chainsaw Massacre) featured graphics that were extremely primitive, and a far cry (see what I did there?) from today’s games. If you were to watch a game of Death Race in progress today, it’s highly unlikely that you’d find it even in the least bit disturbing. 

However, you’re unlikely to have that problem with Bulletstorm.

The recent first person shooter from Epic, controversially advertised as “the game your mom doesn’t want you to play”, encourages players to ‘Kill with Skill’ - awarding special points for creative ways of disposing off your enemies, such as lassoing them and then impaling them on metal spikes, kicking them on to live wires and electrocuting them, and pulling them off helicopters and then shooting them in the ass before they hit the ground (I kid you not). This game is so over the top, it makes Grand Theft Auto look like a game of tic-tac-toe. It’s re-ignited the debate over violence in games all over again, and given Jack Thompson one more reason to regret that he’s disbarred in practically every state in the US. 
Bulletstorm is hardly the first game to feature gratuitous violence. The famously controversial Postal featured levels where you generally had to run amok, killing everybody in sight. Soldier of Fortune was the first game to feature different animations when you shot enemies in specific body parts. Manhunt featured a feature where you could kill enemies by choking them with plastic bags over their heads (a feature so disturbing, even publisher Rockstar games, not known for being averse to controversy,  debated it for long before including it. But they included it, God bless them).

But the important thing is this - Bulletstorm and its ilk aren’t meant for kids. The Electronic Software Ratings Board (a body that was formed thanks to Mortal Kombat’s famous spine-ripping, neck snapping fatalities) has had the good sense to rate these games ‘M’ for Mature, meaning that only persons aged 17 or above can play it. And if you’re 17 or above, there’s some incredible good times to be had with extremely violent videogames.
Gears of War 2 features a level where you’re inside the belly of a huge monster, and have to wade through neck-deep blood before using a chainsaw to cut your way out from the inside. The Fallout games feature combat where you can decide whether to shoot that hideous mutant in the kneecaps, eyeballs or head - all to the quite surreal background of cheerful classic hits by artists such as Danny Kaye and the Andrews Sisters.Many such delights await the player who is capable of enjoying them without feeling the urge to regurgitate the most recent meal.

And let’s face it - we live in a violent world, and there’s little evidence to show that it’s going to get any gentler or kinder overnight. The make-believe violence found in videogames is simply play - an extension of the bang-you’re-dead popgun play we all indulge in as children. Renowned writer Gerard Jones, in his famous book ‘Killing Monsters : Why Children Need Fantasy, Super-Heroes and Make-Believe Violence’, makes an eloquent, well-researched and convincing argument that fantasy violence actually helps children deal better with the many kinds of violence they face during childhood, and as adults later in life. Indeed, children relate to make-believe violence ( such as that found in videogames, comics, cartoons and films) completely differently from how they relate to it in news broadcasts or when faced with it in real life. And this distinction stays with us through adulthood (at least, those of us who aren’t mentally unhinged), which is why we can enjoy violence without indulging in violent behaviour - why we realize that it’s probably not a good idea to respond to a power cut by ripping off a bright friend’s head to use as a light source, or to react to the high prices of foodgrain by spraying bullets around the local Big Bazaar. 

If you still believe that videogame violence is evil and will make you behave violently in real life -  then a piece of heartfelt advice. Don’t play chess.

1 comment:

  1. My husband actually loved Bulletstorm. Seems to be the only person on earth who did!