Hi! I’m a gay dude who lives in Australia. That means that I’m not allowed to marry the guy I’ve been with for six years in my home country. It’s depressing – and genuinely embarrassing – how my country has fallen behind on the issue of marriage equality. Whether me and my partner would choose to get married tomorrow, ten years from now, or not at all is entirely irrelevant – as of right now, it’s a choice that has been made for us.

But being in this super gay, long-term relationship has brought a woman into my life – my partner’s mother. While she and I aren’t legally family because of our government’s bigoted stance on same-sex relationships, after six years of her being in my life, she is my mother-in-law.

I know her well, and she’s no puritan. She doesn’t shy away from, shall we say, colorful conversations, particularly on days that happen to end in a ‘y’ and she’s enjoyed several whiskeys. This is the woman who sat next to me in the theatre to see Gone Girl, and after a shockingly violent scene, casually appraised the blood-spattered decor of the scene’s apartment. Clearly, graphic film violence is no deterrent to this woman’s ability to evaluate plush furnishings.

So I don’t know if that makes the following situation better or worse. I’m still trying to figure that out.

Also, just don’t watch that movie with anyone in your family, at all. 

gg

When E3 was coming to a close, I was catching up with all the news, announcements, and opinions that had swooped right past me. I was watching a YouTube video from Jim Sterling, who was emphatically defending his right to take a cynical dump on the entire event. Towards the end of the video, he turns his attention to the upcoming horror title, Friday the 13th: The Game. He runs some video of the game – a tribute to the classic slasher franchise – while awarding it some tentative praise. Then my mother-in-law appeared, propped herself against the doorframe, and sipped her tea. She arrived just in time to see Jason Voorhees enthusiastically smashing a young woman’s skull into a wall, over and over and over. “It looks really fun,” says Sterling. His words aren’t in response to the on-screen brutality, but the two combine to form an uneasy sentiment. She struggled not to choke on that last sip of chai, while I fumbled with the control pad in a panicked attempt to cut short the hellish, uncomfortable display.

She was clearly disgusted, and I felt embarrassed for myself, and embarrassed for video games. For a moment, I wished that it had been porn up on the screen. At least there’s usually a straight-forward explanation for porn.

“Did you see that?!” She asked me, and I realised that we weren’t going to pretend this didn’t happen.

“He’s breaking her face against a wall and this guy here’s saying it looks fun?!”

I couldn’t come up with a valid justification, so I didn’t say anything. But my internal dialogue went something like: Yes. That is exactly what we saw just now. This is video games at their most repugnant, and I think they’re so great that I write words about them.

How the fuck do you justify that kind of extreme violence to someone who doesn’t ‘know’ video games? Especially in a world where heinous atrocities are perpetrated against real people every single week? I just don’t know if we can anymore. Maybe for now, let’s try a broader approach:

How the fuck can you justify this?

Of course, we all know that video games are so much more than mangled flesh and brutalised corpses, but that’s the stuff that sticks in the mind of the casual observer. Right or wrong, the darkest instances of video game nastiness create a certain impression of what video games are all about. You can’t really blame the people who buy into that perception; it’s not like the spiritually enriching bond I forged with my Journey companion was ever the top story on CNN.

So you might be thinking: “I’m pretty sure the Friday the 13th films were fracturing skulls circa 1980, so that kind of violence has existed in pop-culture for at least 36 years, who even cares?” Well yeah, that makes sense on paper. But video game violence is not equal to film violence, and that’s down to gaming’s inherent difference from other mediums. It’s the thing we love most about games, as well as the thing that regularly sees them sat in the naughty corner. Come on, you know this one.

Once more, with feeling: Player agency.

In video games, particularly where mechanics and narrative are interconnected, we have a degree of influence within a game’s world, and with that comes a sense of ownership over how we chose to experience that world. The accountability for the things that happen there is on us, and that kind of responsibility just isn’t present in passive media; our actions mark a game as our own. We don’t just watch passing footsteps, we are the footprints.

I can only offer my own example of how effective this heightened investment can be, but I’m sure you’ve felt it in similar ways, too.

I have no problem with horror movies. I’ll watch ‘em alone in the dark, during a thunderstorm, while using a Ouija board as a coaster, and still get a solid eight hours. But horror games? No. My fragile nerves cannot deal. My hands sweat buckets, every sound induces panic, and I shriek in terror more readily than a views-thirsty YouTuber. In a horror game, it’s ‘me’ who is being hunted, and that makes all the difference. This is basically scientific evidence that games can engage us on a deeper level. And in that space, we’ll play in whatever way we’re pressed to.

Screenshot-HotlineMiami2-4Now, I’m not saying that because of that engagement we shouldn’t have violent games. And I’m definitely not saying that game violence breeds violent acts or aggression – we’re done with that conversation, right? But it does no harm to simply be conscious of our actions in video games, especially when violence is involved.

The thing is, we can’t even sense how numb we are when it comes to inflicting digital pain. As players, we’ve long been exposed to a wide variety of gaming experiences, violent and otherwise. That makes it harder for us to realise that all facets of video game violence have slowly but steadily escalated; from its frequency and severity, to its near photo-realistic presentation. Since violence in video games is basically something we grew up with, we don’t have the clearest view-point to see just how far the boundaries have shifted. Sometimes it takes an outside perspective to set that back in check.

Let’s be real, some of the shit we do in games is heavy, and it’s healthy to be reminded of that once in awhile. Not because we should all fear the spontaneous collapse of our ability to know what’s real from pretend, but because we might actually benefit from it. By simply acknowledging that “this would really not be cool irl” we become better equipped to maim as we please, because we’re maintaining an objective awareness of what we’re enacting. We may be enabling the violent acts, but we aren’t condoning them. Maybe, it’d even help us be more mindful of those who probably shouldn’t be exposed to our murderous pulp – like kids and tea-drinking senior citizens.

manhunt-2009-10-17-01-37-43-601

When it comes to the many, many games that’re built entirely around perpetrating violence – Hotline Miami and Manhunt being apex examples – the only way to keep our hands unbloodied is to not play at all. Most of us, though, will chose to crack the skulls wide open. Why? Because it’s the objective, because it’s part of The Rules? Because it’s ‘visceral’, ‘cathartic’, or some other industry buzzword? Because, dare I say, it feels good to do it?

Maybe we’re all so irreversibly desensitised to bloodshed that we’ll never truly understand the reasons behind our lust for it; or care about how someone outside the circle can find it so sickening.

Maybe we’re all just a little bit fucked up.

So if all of this was meant to conclude in a satisfactory response to my mother-in-law’s concern, here it is, I guess: Yes, Helen, obscenely violent murder-simulators are supposed to be fun, and they quite often are. What can ultimately be said, if anything, about the people who enjoy them remains unclear. But the reason as to why we so willingly mutilate, disfigure, and dismember in the first place is actually pretty simple, and it needs no justification: We do it because we can.

About The Author

As an Australian, Simon enjoys paying slightly more for games, and occasionally isn't allowed to have the really naughty ones. When he isn't writing about video games, he studies journalism so he can actually one day be good at it. He also experienced an existential crisis after writing in the third person.

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  • A better explanation would be that Jim Sterling (the speaker) is a fan of horror movies (which you can debate with your mother-in-law; I’ve never understood the appel of slashers or movies that glorify criminality myself) and for Jim, as a fan, he’s interested in playing with the movies, more or less as a kid would play with action-figures, enacting scenes, in a way that is arguably a creative act; even if it is esthetically indefensible on some grounds for some people.