I went to see what First Offspring was doing the other day, and found he was playing a game on the computer. It’s called ‘Thomas Was Alone’, and the characters in it are different shaped coloured blocks. I’d heard of the game, but not played it, and I asked First Offspring about it.
‘Is it a good game?’ I asked him.
‘Do you feel sorry for that one—’ I pointed at a block on the screen—’when it can’t get to where it wants to go?’
‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘so this one helps the other one. This one is better at jumping than that one.’
It’s easy to dismiss this personification as childish and immature, but even as adults, we identify with figures in stories, whether they appear in games, films, books, or even news articles. We delight in tales of good deeds by strangers, we cry when our favourite characters die onscreen or on the page. That empathy is part of our make-up as humans. If we’re not having an emotional reaction to these characters, then the story lacks depth and authenticity.
In games, the story is part of the immersive experience, along with graphics and characters; they all combine to make up a complete package, and when it comes together, it works brilliantly. I find I can really care about what happens to characters in games—not only the character I’m playing, but even (and especially) the other characters. Despite the fact that I know they’re not real, I’m sad if one them dies in the game, and oddly pleased when I can provide them with armour or weapons to use. It’s the attention to the real-life details which inspire these emotions, and I think, which make the game a good one.
So what happens when you get a game where there is incentive to torture other characters, or abuse animals? How does this affect our immersion, and our emotions with regards to that game?
The Grand Theft Auto franchise by developer Rockstar North is no stranger to controversy, given that their games have been accused of excessive physical and sexual violence in the past. However, their new gen release (Grand Theft Auto V) has led to widespread criticisms about the game and questions about whether it is possible to go ‘too far’ in a videogame.
It’s not that I’m against killing in games. I have camped out with my sniper on top of the tower in the Facing Worlds on Unreal Tournament, and taken great joy in the voiceover announcing that I am, with my excellent aim, ‘UNSTOPPABLE’. I understand that it’s fun to do things onscreen you would never do in real life. But I wonder, at what point, if any, does that become problematic? The characters in Unreal don’t run away screaming as I chase them; they’re there to kill my onscreen character just as I am to kill them. We’re equally matched. Yet in GTA V, it’s possible to bludgeon people to death with axes, to shoot them in the face as they walk down the street, to blow their cars up with rocket launchers. It’s even possible to kill a cat or dog – which many people seem to find even more disturbing and upsetting than killing humans.
Whether or not there is a causal link between videogame violence and violence in real life is not something that I think can be easily proven, but there can be little argument that we are becoming more and more desensitised to violence. Not only through games, but through film, even through news stories. Take for example, the recent videos showing hostages being executed by Islamic State. While I understand that the actual beheading was not shown, the before and after images left no doubt as to whether the people had actually been murdered in this way, and the footage was online and on every news station for all to see. Do we really need to see that?
What’s even sadder in the case of GTA V is that an otherwise beautiful game, with gorgeous graphics and a sandbox world, is tainted by the inclusion of sex and violence which surprises even those who have played the franchise since the beginning. Granted, the central three characters are not exactly examples of upstanding citizens, but does that mean they have to kill indiscriminately? Does that mean they have to torture people? I would hazard a guess that even allowing for creative hyperbole, being a Baddie doesn’t mean you have to resort to outright slaughter.
There’s always the argument that we, the viewers and players, don’t need to watch or play. And we don’t. We can switch off, we can just not click. We can just not play games which contain violence like this. But there is some responsibility from those creating the newsfeeds, and the films and games. Because once we cross a threshold, it’s very hard to go back. And if it has become acceptable for us to play a character who hacks a civilan to death onscreen, or for someone to show even the lead-up to a hostage’s execution on the news, then we’ve played right into the hands of those who would use violence to further their cause.
It’s not that each act of violence onscreen is so damaging. It’s that, cumulatively, they create a more violent atmosphere, and we slowly come to tolerate it, to a point that it doesn’t even shock us anymore. Even allowing for the fact that film and game violence is age-restricted through a rating system, we don’t become immune to its effects simply because we turn 18.
I’m loathe to suggest that we should increase censorship, because I really believe that self-expression in the arts is something which is important. However, I wonder about the ways in which boundaries are constantly reset, and whether it is necessary to have some which we never cross. I’m not sure that’s even possible, but it’s worth talking about.
Perhaps in considering what kind of images we want on our screens, the first step could be asking ourselves what we want from stories. What is non-negotiable to make our experience meaningful? And then we might begin to engage in dialogue with those who are producing and reproducing the images, to see if there can’t be some compromise, some happy medium, which allows for fun, or even poignancy, depending on the situation.
Violence onscreen is not going to go away anytime soon, not unless we fundamentally change our nature as humans. However, by discussing it, and giving feedback to those who sell us these images, we can influence the direction it takes from here, to ensure that we are carefully considering the affect it has on us, as societies, and as individuals.