Shoot ’em up

The whole “violence in video games” thing made an unexpected comeback recently, I guess because “first as tragedy, then as farce” is some kind of metaphysical law now. Anyway, for all the puffed-up pontificating that pervades this issue, no one’s ever really done a proper analysis of it, so, y’know, someone probably should.

Obviously, video games do not “cause” violence for any reasonable definition of the term. The mental hurdles that have to be cleared before a person can make the active decision to arbitrarily murder a bunch of strangers are somewhat extensive. Specifically, “desensitization to violence” has almost nothing to do with it. The reason people mostly don’t kill each other isn’t because they’re scared of seeing blood, it’s because they don’t want to in the first place. And of course spree killings require a whole other level of motivation on top of that, because in that case you’re killing people you don’t know in a way that doesn’t benefit you at all. Indeed, the entire reason spree killings attract attention is that they don’t make sense; most people literally can’t imagine how you would actually do something like that.

The typical tendency to latch on to the easiest available explanation is particularly pernicious here, because the fact that we’re talking about something very far outside of ordinary experience means that any real explanation would have to be extremely complicated. Remember, spree killings are vanishingly rare (which is part of the reason they attract so much attention when they do happen), so whatever “causes” them can’t be common; indeed, it can’t even be just one thing. You’d basically have to take a person’s entire life experiences into account, as which point you lose the ability to simply point your finger and blame one thing. (So yes, even blaming guns here is not really apropos. Spree killings actually provide an extremely weak case for banning guns. The strong case is the combination of the facts that a) most gun deaths are accidents or suicides, so guns really are the proximate cause there (suicides are generally impulsive, so even though there are other underlying issues there, removing the means can still be a decisive preventative measure) and b) individual gun ownership doesn’t have any positive functions.) One can, of course, imagine a situation where some game or other provides the “but for” cause for a particular killing, but everything that would have to happen for a person to get to that point would clearly be the overwhelmingly more significant issue. Basically, if fucking Doom or whatever can convince you to kill people, then literally anything can.

At the same time, it’s implausible to argue that games have no effect on anything. I mean, this actually was the popular argument back in the day: that games are a purely escapist pastime that have no effect on anything whatsoever. This is honestly pretty hilarious, because it’s precisely the argument for banning games: if games are completely useless, if they don’t do anything at all, then you might as well ban them. Nothing of value would be lost. But of course this is nonsense. Games aren’t in any way “fake”; they’re real things that exist in the real world, and engaging with them necessarily has to have some effect on a person simply by virtue of the fact that they’re things. Furthermore, games aren’t just arbitrary amalgamations of colors and noises – what they actually are, usually, is feedback loops. You take an action, you get feedback from it, you modify the actions you’re taking to account for the feedback and get new feedback in response, and you keep doing this forever. This is the style of interaction that is most likely to have an effect on human behavior: it’s the specific thing that the human brain responds to. And we know this is the case because game developers are completely shameless about it. The most prominent current example of this is the “loot box” system, which is explicitly intended to mimic the effects of slot machines for the purpose of manipulating addiction-prone people into dumping tons of money into them. And the reason games like this get made is that they’re profitable, meaning this works. In short, there really is something going on here, and beyond vague notions of “addiction,” nobody’s ever really bother to figure it out.

In order to understand what we’re actually talking about here, we first have to understand what “violence in video games” actually is. It’s not actual violence, obviously, but it’s also not a simulation of violence. People usually talk about it as though that’s what going on, that violence is being “portrayed,” but it’s clearly not, because if it is, it’s the worst portrayal ever. Two people holding weapons and clicking on each other until one of their life numbers reaches zero is about as far as you can get from an accurate portrayal of violence. I mean, this is usually a joke, like in Street Fighter or whatever you have two people punching and throwing fireballs at each other and they’re perfectly fine and uninjured the entire time until one of their life bars runs out, at which point they suddenly fall over, completely incapacitated. The joke is precisely that this is absolutely nothing like a street fight.

So if that’s not it, then what is it? What it is is a metaphor. “Violence in video games” is an aesthetic layer that exists to help us understand the underlying computational phenomena. What’s actually happening in a fighting game is that each player has a set of spatial coordinates that they can move around and project other sets of coordinates from, and if one player’s projected coordinates intersect with the other’s fixed coordinates, then the counter belonging to the intersecting player gets decremented by a certain amount, and the player whose counter reaches zero first loses. The problem is that that sentence makes no sense; if you actually had to explain games to people in this way, nobody would ever be able to figure out what the hell was going on. So what you do is you draw a picture of a street fight, and then people are immediately like “oh, I get it, I’m supposed to punch that guy.” This also, just as importantly, provides that player with a motivation for what they’re supposed to be doing. We don’t just understand “fighting” in mechanical terms, we also understand what you’re supposed to do when you get into a fight, which is to win it. So while the metaphor isn’t mechanical, it’s actually the more important part of the design: it’s the thing that the players are actually interacting with pretty much the whole time (in fact, it’s probably the thing that the developers were interacting with most of the time, too).

But the thing to note about metaphors is that they’re always somewhat arbitrary. The mechanics are the thing that’s actually happening, and you can always put a different metaphor on top of them. For example, in a RPG the two sides typically have different “attacks,” which are portrayed as things like swords and guns and fireballs, and their counters are portrayed as “life,” so the win condition is that one side eventually runs out of “life” and “dies.” But you could just as easily present the exact same mechanics as, for example, a debate, where instead of “attacks” you have “arguments,” and instead of “life” you have “credibility,” and the side that runs out of “credibility” first “loses” the debate. The game would work exactly the same way. So if violence isn’t a portrayal, and it’s also not a necessary consequence of the mechanics, then this is where we arrive at the real question: why do almost all games use violence as a metaphorical basis when doing so is completely unnecessary? Even in something like a Mario game, which is supposed to be all cute and family-friendly, there are still “enemies” that you have to “defeat,” and the climax occurs when you face off against the biggest enemy and boil him alive in a vat of lava. What’s really going on here?

The question can be answered in one word: dominance. This is the real underlying dynamic. A game might contain more or less explicit violence, but the thing that you’re supposed to do in every case is to “beat” it. This is actually clearer in single-player games: we sometimes talk about playing “against” the “A.I.”, but this isn’t really what’s happening, because the game as an overall system controls your actions as much as it controls your “opponent’s.” What’s actually happening is simply that you’re interacting with a computerized rule system. You’re not really “beating” anyone or anything when you “win” the game, you’re just placing the system into a certain state. But since this is difficult to understand on its own, we explain it to the player by means of ideological content. Everyone knows what it means to “beat the bad guys,” so presenting this situation provides an immediately comprehensible entry point into any set of underlying mechanics.

But explanation isn’t really the main purpose here. The purpose is motivation. Dominance isn’t just understandable, it’s morally significant. The purpose of establishing a “defeat the bad guys” scenario is to make the player want to do so, because it’s the right thing to do. And it’s this aspect that is truly pervasive, far more so than explicit violence. Portal, for example, is notable for being a first-person shooter that doesn’t have any violence in it, but it still presents you with a “bad guy,” and you ultimately “beat” the game by blowing them up. And even in abstract games like Candy Crush or whatever, you’re still presented with a series of “challenges” that you have to “overcome” by getting a “high score” – the game’s metaphor isn’t violent, but it’s still dominance-based.

And of course as soon as you notice this you notice that this happens everywhere. Movies, for example, often don’t have a lot of explicit violence (less so now that we’ve devolved to producing nothing but superhero movies, but still), but the plot almost always gets “resolved” by a symbolic assertion of dominance. There’s often a contest or sports match or something at the end where the good guy winning it somehow solves the interpersonal problems that the movie is supposed to be about. A classic example occurs in Back to the Future: the story of George McFly’s lack of self-confidence gets resolved by him punching someone in the face. What’s funny about this is that it doesn’t even make sense. George obviously doesn’t know how to throw a punch, and punching someone doesn’t generally render them instantly unconscious. But while the situation doesn’t make sense in factual terms – the movie would be a failure if the point of it were to portray violence – it does make sense in ideological terms. What the movie is telling us is that the symbolic assertion of dominance is the most important thing in the world.

And it’s far from the only thing telling us this. Indeed, we frequently hear this message in even more explicit terms from such sources as, oh, I don’t know, the entire United States government.

What this is saying is precisely “this action was illegal, and it killed people, and it didn’t accomplish anything, but it was still the right thing to do, because it was a symbolic assertion of dominance.” This isn’t a pathology or a mistake or a bad trend. It’s how our society works. Spree killings get politicians super hard for the opportunity to put on their serious faces and play-act moral indignation, but when the government decides that some other country is impeding its geopolitical goals, then suddenly unleashing an orgy of omnidirectional violence is the only rational choice.

So you can see where the last dot is now, right? Spree killings don’t make sense in functional terms, but they do make sense in symbolic ones – they are precisely symbolic assertions of dominance. The reason the mental health dodge is a dodge is because it’s trivially true: a person capable of deciding to murder a room full of strangers is by definition not what we mean by “mentally healthy.” It’s not a explanation; it’s a tautology. But the thing that it’s dodging is the fact that the underlying ideology of spree killers is in no way deviant from the general ideology that society constantly pushes on everyone. Indeed, the problem that spree killers have is simply that they take this ideology too seriously. What they’re supposed to do is release their frustrations in socially acceptable ways such as hating foreigners or bullying their subordinates at work or beating their wives. They’re not supposed to act like they really mean it.

In case you care, though, video games still suck. The fact that they’re not important enough to matter when compared to everything else doesn’t change the fact that they’re almost universally doing the wrong thing. There’s still a strong distinction between the general form of engagement offered by video games compared to other forms of media. Other forms of media often rely on symbolic assertions of dominance as a emotional crutch, but the general case when playing a video game is that symbolically asserting dominance is the only thing you do.

If you’re reading a book, for example, you have to work with the language you’re reading it in, which is a social medium created by the interactions of everyone in the society, over time, and you have to consider what effect specific word choices have and how they convey the things that the book is trying to convey, which requires accounting for social context and psychology and all kinds of other things. All of this stuff comes into play even when you’re just reading some juvenile action novel like Harry Potter where there’s an evil wizard who gets blown up at the end. This is why reading and seeing movies and listening to music are all generally healthy habits to have, even when their specific content isn’t all that great. At the very least, their basic structure connects to things that matter. Engaging with them forces you to be a person.

Indeed, pretty much the only activity you can engage in that doesn’t work like this is playing a video game. Ironically for a medium that prides itself on “interactivity,” gaming is frequently a completely thoughtless activity. You figure out – or, more often, the game just tells you – what action you need to take to “win,” and then you just do that over and over again. Engaging with a video game forces you to be a robot.

This problem is so endemic to the medium that its influence is overwhelming even in cases that are explicitly trying to do the exact opposite. I’m not sure if people realize this,  but Final Fantasy 7 is actually a prime example. The main character is your typical stoic mercenary coolguy, but the plot twist is that this is a facade. He’s actually a dropout loser whose dreams of grandeur end up manifesting as a severe inferiority complex, such that he has to pretend to be a big strong hero in order to see himself as a worthwhile person. This is an explicit repudiation of the whole idea of the “hero” being the most powerful person who beats up the most bad guys; what the game is saying is that people who need this kind of assurance are delusional children. Except that then the game ends with a one-on-one macho shirtless swordfight where the hero uses his super cool sword attack to beat up the bad guy. What’s amazing is that even within the context of the story, this doesn’t resolve anything: the denouement concerns an entirely separate issue that doesn’t have this sort of easy resolution, such that the game actually ends ambiguously. But the people making the game literally could not think of any climax other than a symbolic assertion of dominance, even though they had written an entire plot about how that sort of thing is stupid bullshit.

So the real problem with the “violence in video games” angle is aesthetic: it’s the wrong criticism. Violence isn’t the thing causing the problem. Indeed, one of the ways to make progress here is precisely by taking violence seriously as a concept. What violence actually is is a constraint: it physically prevents you from doing something. Furthermore, violence is not just one thing. It’s not just about “winning”; there are a lot of different ways you can deploy it. A game that was really about violence would precisely not be a simplistic fetishization of dominance. So in this sense, video games actually need to become a lot more violent. They need to start imposing real constraints.

But the defensive reaction to this criticism is ultimately just denialism. Criticism is always an opportunity to do better (or, at the very least, in the case of bad criticism, to refine your approach such that you don’t attract bad criticism), and games are capable of doing much, much better. Still, it’s correct to point out that this line of argument gets nowhere near the real problem. The real reason that games don’t cause violence is that all the damage a game could potentially do has already been done, far more effectively, by almost everything else in society. If you think banning games is going to help anything, you’d better start by banning the military.