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The Case for Mindless Violence

Kim Fu | 18 Apr 2012 14:00
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The official gameplay trailer for Saints Row: The Third pointedly contained no mission gameplay at all. Instead, it demonstrated all the toys you would be given to wreak havoc upon the innocent bystanders of Steelport in your free time. Saints Row 2 made it clear that the protagonist is a sadist and a psychopath; the selling point of SR3 is that the manifestations of that madness are entirely up to the player.

There's no in-game logic for keeping track of how far we can fling a pedestrian.

Most formal discourse about videogames still takes place in the form of reviews. SR3 received almost universally positive reviews, but reviewers were quick to dismiss vital aspects. Gamespot gave it an 8.5 while the opening paragraph of its review contains this sentence: "The Third won't impress you with knockout visuals, move you with an absorbing story, or engage you with challenging combat." IGN's endorsement reads, in part, "When you just want to indulge in some mindless violence and sexual depravity, this will more than suffice." Their reviewer allows that the "amoral mass murderer" that is the protagonist at least "cared about her friends." (It would be more accurate to say that there are a handful of people whose deaths bother him/her just slightly more than the deaths of thousands of other people.)

The Escapist's own Greg Tito is more charitable, suggesting that the game might "shin[e] a light on the very real issues of sexism and violence in our culture today," before continuing, "Either that, or the guys at Volition are just screwing with us. Honestly, I don't care, I'm just glad they let us along for the ride." Following a long list of criticisms, the official PlayStation magazine admits, "What Saints Row: The Third is made for though, and where it really excels, is just messing around to your heart's content. Okay, perhaps not your heart - maybe the heart of some homicidal lunatic with a fetish for molluscs." Edge magazine puts it bluntly: "Saints Row trims as much context as possible from its carnage."

Here is a game where the core argument for violent videogames falls flat. Reviews are written by gamers for gamers, and gamer-to-gamer, we confess to loving the game while being upfront about it having almost no redeeming artistic or narrative merit. Even the CEO of publisher THQ describes the difference between the Saints franchise and the GTA games is that "GTA is [...] serious and character driven." Imagine if a book publisher said that about one of its author's rivals.

To each other, then, we can admit that we enjoy virtual violence for its own sake. SR3 incentivizes and rewards players for violence for no reason at all, and nearly every major outlet review compares it gleefully to a toybox or an amusement park. There's no in-game logic for keeping track of how far we can fling a pedestrian.

If we were willing to admit that in public discourse, it would-ironically-undo the underpinnings of the opposition research. The question of whether games teach us to enjoy violence comes apart. Humans are hard-wired to like violence, just as we're hard-wired for the empathy that prevents us from enjoying it in real life; the games didn't "teach" us anything.

With this admission, games like Saints Row: The Third, games we play just for the violence, work for us instead of against. It separates them from other games to be examined. We celebrated SR3 for its absurdity and spectacle. No reviewer commented on the conventional guns. When we feel like some mindless violence, we prefer a dildo bat, Apoca-Fists, infinitely generated hover jets, a gun that fires mind-controlling squid - things that could not exist in the real world. We prefer our targets to be incoherently varied, from armored space-age soldiers to zombies to hulking, mindless clones. In SR3, shoving a person on the street often results in them exploding bloodily on a far wall, while another person can take a full round of machine gun fire to the face.

A game that sets out to be a violent playground also strives to be as unrealistic as possible. This runs counter to intuitive assumptions about videogame experience that have long been the basis for psychological research. If we enjoy violence because we want to enact our fantasies or release the aggression we have towards the real world, why would we want it to be so ridiculous?

I was able to enjoy violence through kickboxing because the protective equipment and rules that decreased the realism. I have enjoyed games with realistic violence because of their dramatic power or roleplaying immersion, and I have enjoyed SR3 because its lack of realism allowed for the base, human thrill of destruction. If gamers were as honest on the public stage as we are to each other, such categories of games could be studied separately; researchers could give up on misguided premises and start asking the right questions, and this debate could rise out of its ugly, polarized stagnation.

Kim Fu's essays have appeared in a variety of journals and have been nominated for a National Magazine Award. Her first novel is forthcoming from HarperCollins Canada and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2013. Visit her at http://kimfu.ca.

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