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The Case for Mindless Violence

Kim Fu | 18 Apr 2012 14:00
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I've kicked a guy in the head.

We were in a ring, and a panel of judges assigned points to each strike, tabulating those points to determine a victor. We had exactly two minutes in which we were allowed to attack each other, wearing gloves, pads, and mouthguards, before returning to the regular societal rules that prevent people from hitting each other for no reason.

Stop me if you've heard this one: a handwringing outsider insists videogame violence must be having a detrimental effect on young people.

It's great fun. And it's not just winning that's fun - the challenge, the points, the strategy, and the psychology of an opponent. It's not just the game. There is a sheer, visceral pleasure when the front of your foot collides with someone else's temple. Yet I would not enjoy kicking a stranger in the head on the street, unprovoked.

Stop me if you've heard this one: a handwringing outsider insists videogame violence must be having a detrimental effect on young people. Gamers rush to point out that violence is often a necessary part of narrative, just as in movies and books. The old chestnuts come out: older gaming demographic, youth violence at record lows, blah, blah, blah.

This argument is so familiar and dated that it's easy to believe the war is over, and we won. Jack Thompson has been disbarred. State "sin tax" bills on videogames keep getting defeated, and the Supreme Court recently ruled that videogames qualify for first amendment protection. Psychological studies on videogames and real-world aggression either fail to find a connection, or come under fire for faulty methodology. But here's the thing - those bills keep getting filed. Those studies continue to be funded. There remains a significant segment of the general population who continue to see videogames as a real public danger.

When a debate reaches this kind of head-banging stalemate, it's worth looking at the underlying axioms-the assumptions so fundamental that no one bothers to argue them.

Both sides assume that we need additional motivation to enjoy violence. Gamers say that motivation comes from story - even the barest story, like "aliens are invading, shoot them," or the least sympathetic, like a psychotic obsession with a victim. The anti-gaming rhetoric revolves around youth being taught to enjoy killing. In other words, that the enjoyment needs to be taught. The much-studied concept of catharsis versus "murder simulation" or "murder rehearsal" assumes that violence is fun because of preexisting aggression; we're angry at the world, and acting out our fantasies will either make us feel better or teach us how to make it a reality.
What nobody wants to admit is that violence is fun in and of itself. It's hard to isolate, because in nearly every game, it's muddied and improved by context. We're not just killing, we're avenging our slain wife, saving the townspeople from area monsters, or blasting through zombie hordes to reach the rescue helicopter.

Enter Saints Row: The Third. The reviews of SR3 reveal what we actually believe, how we talk within the community where we don't have to defend ourselves.

In the first Saints Row game, I thought of my mute protagonist as someone who just fell in with the Saints, one of the wayward youth of the city who follows orders because he doesn't know what else to do with himself. No matter how often someone referred to me as "Julius' right-hand man" my character's silence required him to go along with whatever the Saints' lieutenants and random lowlifes around town told him to do, without contributing any ideas or objections. You can project anything you want onto a nameless, voiceless cipher; I figured his silence actually stemmed from a deep, reluctant faith in Julius' dream-the dream of blood-soaked dictators everywhere-that the only path to peace was through wiping out all of his enemies. When only one gang remained, there could be no more gang warfare.

Imagine my surprise, then, when the protagonist finally opened his mouth. In Saints Row 2, your character reassembles the Saints with himself as the leader. We learn that his endless thirst for action was actually the biggest obstruction to Julius' vision of a peaceful, gentrified Stilwater. When presented with an elaborate plan to rob a casino with a minimal body count, he pulls a Johnny and opts to bust in through the front and kill as many people as possible. He gets bored when a rival gang doesn't seem to be doing anything, so he breaks into a power plant and steals nuclear waste in order to have it injected under the skin of the gang's leader. He murders hordes of scrawny homeless people and destroys their shantytown while they say things like, "How does it feel to kill an unarmed man?" To make a little petty cash, he dresses as a cop on a reality TV show and uses a chainsaw to split skateboarders in half. In Saints Row, I interpreted the mission objectives (use an RPG on those cops!) as orders from higher-ups in the gang, things my protagonist did with steely, silent resolve; in Saints Row 2, as gang leader, that text becomes your own decisions-you feel personally responsible for the piles of dead, unarmed hobos.

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