Specific Violence

How does one refer to this discussion? It's the one we have all the time, in the blogs and in the design pits-- the one about maturity, about meaning, gravity, the medium mattering. About how all we do is let players shoot each other in the face and how we could be so much more. The one about our potential and how we fall short and what we can do about it. The one about how we're a bunch of little boys who want to grow up but don't know how. That one.

It strikes me that we discuss these things in vague and airy terms, but we don't know what we're looking for. Maybe we know what we're not looking for-- "I want a game where you don't have to kill things all the time"-- or what accolades we desire-- "for games to be considered art"-- but we don't have the concrete, mid-scale examples of what trips us up, or exactly what we need to achieve. We're missing a measuring stick.

Hold that thought.

It bothers me that people demonize violence in video games as a concept. I understand that it's because violence is so wildly overused, and often so luridly fetishized, that the instinct of those of us immersed in the medium is to swing 180 degrees to the other side of the spectrum: no killing! no guns! no blood! But violence-- and I'm not trying to be apologist here-- is an integral element of drama through the ages. The question is in its application. Violence can and should be powerful; I argue that video games rob violence of its power by making it lightweight, pedestrian, throwaway, meaningless-- by making it de rigeur, the violence no longer matters: it is made mundane.

Again, put that one on the back burner.

The comics author Alison Bechdel focuses on feminist and queer issues in her work, and is perhaps most widely known outside of alt-comics fandom for establishing "The Bechdel Test" for film. The criteria are:

  1. The film has to have at least two women in it,
  2. Who talk to each other,
  3. About something besides a man.
I assume that this test followed a number of protracted discussions among friends regarding film presenting a largely male perspective, and failing to treat female characters as legitimate individuals; that mainstream film tended to dehumanize women in them, and that only certain movies were tolerable, but what exactly was the dividing line? And so the Bechdel test was born.

All together now:

Violence in film, literature or on stage can either be meaningful or meaningless. When it is meaningful, it resonates with the audience; when it is meaningless, it is largely (and rightly) derided. Consider the death of Shakespeare's Hamlet following a duel, or of Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, or of Evelyn Mulwray at the end of Chinatown, versus, say, the nameless mooks mown down in Rambo II or Commando or Hard Boiled. The killing by the protagonist of those without identity devalues human life in the work, and thereby robs the violence of meaning (it being perpetrated upon human forms with no value.)

And so a metric for games comes to mind: violence performed by the player in a video game is only legitimate if the victim is a unique and specific individual.

The metric becomes a constraint on content: don't remove the violence-- remove the faceless masses of "enemies." If every character the player interacts with is a unique and specific individual, then any act of violence committed by the player is invested with some amount of meaning: individuals have families, homes, jobs, friends, and most importantly, relationships with other characters in the game. The player's act spiders out from the individual to those that surround them, even if that social web is for the most part only implied. There are no more broad swaths of generic violence, then; there are only discrete acts of specific violence, each of which has the potential to matter.

The metric becomes a constraint on scale: if the player is able to commit violent acts, and they may only visit violence upon individuals, then every character the player meets must be unique, and therefore the approach to making the game-- the scale of environments, the construction of the cast, what the player does-- must be considered differently from the ground up. The end product cannot be the same.

At that point, maybe violence in games starts to mean differently.


Notes and examples:

* This obviously shares some overlap with Warren Spector's theoretical "one city block" game. If a game took place entirely within one city block, then clearly every person in the game would be an individual with a face and name, and any violent act performed would instantly reverberate through the entire block (or have to be very carefully concealed.) Maybe this is an idea whose time has finally come.

* One extant example that takes a somewhat more abstract form would be Shadow of the Colossus. While they aren't human, there are only sixteen enemies in the entire game (no filler fodder to wade through between Colossi) and each has its own unique appearance, environment, and behaviors. When you kill one, you have killed the only one of its kind, and the act carries with it a sense of sorrow and regret. The killing is a transaction between the player and another individual; and so, the violence has meaning.

* SPOILER: Consider BioShock. At the climax of the story, Andrew Ryan is killed by the player. This follows the deaths of hundreds of Splicers, deranged freaks that attack the player on sight and are eradicated en masse ("it's the same guy!") And yet, despite the numbing effect that this shredding of fodder should have on the player, Andrew Ryan's death still means. And it means not because of the fact of the parentage twist, but because Andrew Ryan has been built up over the course of the game as an
individual, with an intellect and a history and a set of ideals. Such is the power of violence against the individual, that its ability to mean survives despite any devaluation of human life that precedes or follows it.

* Similarly, embracing fodder in film generally relegates the work to genre status, but not always: think kung fu films. Masses of foes fall to the heroes, and the works are considered niche and lightweight. Then along comes a film like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, that wraps a compelling human melodrama around kung fu fighting at the height of its grace and theatricality, and it moves us as any great piece of human expression might. But it is the exception, not the rule. Alternately there is a whole genre of film-- the slasher film, like Friday the 13th or Saw-- that is composed of nothing but individual, named characters being killed, and these films are almost always dismissed as trash. The problem of course being that these individuals are introduced for no other purpose than to be killed in spectacular ways (and maybe to get naked.) Point being, removing fodder is no magic bullet.

* There are games now that are both character-based and have no generic fodder characters: games like The Sims, Animal Crossing, or most point-and-click adventure titles. Notably, they almost never feature any potential violent interaction at all (or if so, introduce more generic targets to the game for this express purpose: think of the bike duels in Full Throttle.) The mixing of the two seems to be largely taboo, possibly because it's really hard to support.

* A character doesn't have to be lavished with tons of backstory, a fully-fleshed-out family tree, or even a name to be a unique and specific individual: we might not know the name of the cop who's tortured and killed in Resevoir Dogs, or the men killed by Travis Bickle at the end of Taxi Driver, or the female Viet Cong killed at the end of Full Metal Jacket, but they are nonetheless individualized, and their deaths are meaningful in context. The specifics known about individuals are scalable, whereas fodder is only fodder.