An Analytical Discussion of the Industry, Culture, Progress and Nature of Video Games.

September 28th, 2006

In Defense of Video Game Violence

Part I: It's Just A Game

In the past there have been daring attempts by writers and essayists to bend words, rhetoric, and logic to their will in the defense of the seemingly indefensible. Whether trenchant and influential or moronic, these essayists attempt to show what is, to them, a seemingly painful but important truth. I am, in a reverse sort of way, trying to do the same: What I am attempting to do is show as innocuous (at least personally) what is one of our current cultural monsters-under-the-bed. Frankly, I don't think anyone will really listen, but I don't mind, as this is as much an argument I want to work out properly as it is a point to prove to the world.

I did not want to write about video game violence with a psychological or sociological perspective as I am not a psychologist nor sociologist, nor do I have studies to which I may point and say "See? QED." Nor do I wish to talk about it in the industry as a subject of media coverage or public relations, as it has already been covered thoroughly, and again, I am not an expert. This also goes for political and legislative ramifications, although the ad nauseum story of state bodies introducing bills almost guaranteed to be overturned (and in full knowledge of this inevitable outcome) offers no end of amusement for me.

The only way I feel I can discuss video game violence is as I have personally experienced it, as an individual gamer, as someone who has played both violent games and those without a trace of it, and has enjoyed both. I have both shot my friends and helped my friends shoot other people. And, unlike many, I've actually tried to take the time to think about what the implications could be. But again, this is only in the scope of my own experience and knowledge, not an epic survey of the subject, nor a philosophical inquiry about game violence as such. (Okay, maybe a little philosophy.)

In my experience, the scorn heaped upon video game violence is not actually criticism of that violence, but an offense at the newly reached ability of video game violence to be realistic. If you remove the increasing scale of graphical sophistication in video games from the story of their development, one could say the amount of violence in games has actually been rather constant over its history. There were tanks shooting each other on the Atari (moving blocks with small rectangle turrets coming out of them that shot small squares, really), and Ikari Warriors for the NES featured a pair of Rambo-like men slaughtering an entire legion of guerrilas (who, upon being shot, would fall backwards, blink three times, and disappear) so the fact that characters that players control can inflict pain on others is nothing new. What is new is the shrinking distance between what we see in video games and what we see in actual life. If Combat were made by Atari right now, it would feature concussive shells, twisted and burning metal, and the screams of the tanks' pilots trying to get away. Video game critics are now so full of worry because no one really has to play pretend in order to put the gory details into their games' action sequences. However, I, and I think most players, would agree that the new gaming realism doesn't mean that much in moral terms.

I have played video games off and on since I was in grade school. I can attest to having about the same gut reaction to picking off bad guys with headshots and bloodsprays right now as I did killing pixelated Soviets in Rush n' Attack a few decades ago on the NES. Unlike video games' critics,  I seem to have some sort of inherent perception that I am not shooting, stabbing or harming anything other than a graphical presentation of an imaginary bad guy, no matter how many digital polys of viscous digital blood may be spilt, and I think many other gamers would testify to the same.

When I kill someone or something in a game, whether it is a non-player character or something another person is in control of, I merely killed a representation of . . . no, not even a representation. To suggest that a video game character "represents" someone would mean that I could discern something concrete about the person playing the game from the character controlled. After all, what else does a representation do? Other than the fact that this hypothetical person likes Master Chief to have red armor and uses the sniper rifle a lot, what can I learn about him? From my point of view, nothing. Characters in a video game are not representations, they are controlled figures used to manipulate an assumed space within the rules of a game's framework. They are, at this point in gaming's history, toys to play with, not much more. To return to the thrust of this paragraph: When I kill my friend in a game, the delight I take in fragging him is the same delight I took as a child when I defeated my brother racing RC cars down our driveway. The realism of a game is a setting, a premise, an aesthetic pleasure that provides a bit more excitement and a bit more decoration. They can add value and excitement to a game, but if the game itself lacks, it will fail. It's the reason I can equally enjoy playing both Halo and Tetris, because, shocking as this is, they are both good, fun games.

My thoughts and memories about the violence in games that I have played is fairly uniform, in that I don't recall having a reaction of greater or lesser intensity to games with a corresponding amount of violence. Consider this: There is scale in video games that have violence that ranges from cartoonish, as in a game like Smash Brothers, growing more realistic and supposedly brutul, that runs up through Street Fighter to Mortal Kombat, all the way to your Halos, Half-Lifes, and GTAs, to poor games like Manhunt, whose purpose is so much for a guttural kind of ugly, rusty violence that it forgets to have good gameplay. I've run the gamut, so to speak, and I can say that my friends and I have acted the same way to winning and losing in each type, with the same kind of friendly competitive spirit we would have in a game of pick-up basketball. We all, either in our righteous missions to decry violence or blind passion for promoting our hobby seem to forget that these are just games. I think someday they could be art, and they have artistic elements right now, but we play them. And I'll always have fun with them, violent or not.

NEXT WEEK: Creativity, Conflicts, Contradictions, and Other Problems.

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October 1, 2006

Zombie City Tactics, the Impending Zombie Insurrection, and You 

With the rising popularity of genetically modified food, the growing threat of the killer mutant drug-resistant viruses, and the continued use of primates in animal testing, it’s just a matter of time before a race of zombies rises to take control of the world. Fortunately, for people not currently interested in brain-munching, there are a number of resources to prepare you for the impending insurrection. Of these, the most important tool is probably Max Brooks’s The Zombie Survival Guide. However, there’s only so much knowledge you can get from a book. Potential survivors should also spend their time with the newly released zombie attack simulator, Zombie City Tactics (ZCT).

Don’t think zombies exist? Scoffing at the idea of a zombie attack? Then I suggest you look briefly at some anthropological literature on the subject. Wade Davis’s work on the subject of zombification and voodoo, The Serpent and the Rainbow and Passage of Darkness, is probably the most oft-cited and well-researched work on the matter and, while demystifying the spiritual and cosmological elements of zombification, suggests that there is a chemical and biological strategy for the creation of a “zombie”. Other researchers doing work in the Caribbean have written about the pervasive nature of voodoo and have even documented people convinced they are in a zombified state. Even a member of my thesis committee has written about witnessing a dead man come to life. Honestly, are these zombies anything like those in Resident Evil or Dead Rising? Err, no. But it’s interesting context when you finally sit down to play ZCT. (And I wanted to add something relatively intelligent to this otherwise goofy post.)

Current strategies on battling zombies generally involves retreating to a location stocked with useful supplies – like a Walmart or Costco. It also involves fortification, the use of blade-weapons (guns need reloading), choices in armor that favor speed over heavy protection, and multiple escape strategies. 

But all the protection and planning the world won’t protect you forever. While you’re hunkered down between greeting cards, lawn chairs, and mismatched shoes, the zombies are looking for a way in – and they will eventually find one. After playing ZCT, I’d like to suggest a few more strategies for people interested in staying non-un-dead for as long as possible:

Choose you job wisely.

When the zombies finally get through that poured concrete wall you built over the Walmart exit, you’re going to have to pick a personal strategy of attack. You’ll have three choices: Militia, Soldier, or Slayer. Militias and Slayers concentrate on melee attacks and, after destroying a zombie, move into the physical space once owned by the un-dead. This may sound awesome, but when you’re fighting a group full of zombies, you can easily get surrounded. Getting surrounded = death. Being a soldier, which gives you the ability to kill a zombie without moving further into the fray, can be slow goings but it’s a safe strategy in early levels.

Ditch the red shirt.
Red shirts make you incapable of doing anything. Ditch the shirt. You’re in a freaking Walmart. Just head over to the Fruit of the Loom display and pick out something blue or black.

Find the generator.
And you thought the zombies were the result of the Umbrella Corporation's experiments in pharmaceutical development. Nope! Zombies are being portaled into this world through a zombie generator! It’s unclear who is in control of this generator, but it’s clear that you need to shut this puppy off. Get to it.

Walk diagonally.
It’s faster. You can even walk through corners if you do it diagonally. Slayers can seriously book if they go diagonally. Be careful, though: Zombies know this strategy, as well. Don’t get fooled!

Expect a battle.
Fighting zombies is not a quick process, so don’t be discouraged if it takes you 50 turns or more to eradicate all of your enemies and capture the generator. Zombies are the most deadly killing machines next to bears, and your caution will be rewarded with victory.

You can’t save everybody.
That militia member is toast. When there’s a giant throng of zombies slowly lumbering toward your position, and you thrust out one lone militia member, he or she might take down a few, but the next zombies in line are going to crack open that poor militia skull. Stop crying about it. It just means more non-perishable food items for you once you take care of the zombie menace!

And finally, Embrace death.
Statistically speaking, there are more zombies than you. And with the generators intact, there are just more being bolted from Dimension Z with every turn. The odds are poor for survival, and when the numbers are coupled with the fact that you’re regularly fighting zombies on multiple fronts, you’ll begin to foresee your eventual succumbing to the horde. When this happens, don’t let it get you down. You’re going to a much better place.

That place, of course, is the restart screen.

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