Addicted to Pain

Bang! You’ve been shot in the arm, but it doesn’t hurt. Bang! You’ve been shot in the head, but you’re not really dead. You stare at your corpse. You wait to respawn. You say into your headset, “Ouch.”

Videogames offer us a release for our violent urges we rarely get in day-to- day life. They let us vent by keeping the killing on the screen, and therefore out of society. Sure, some people are still uncomfortable with in-game gore, but where else can you safely, and legally, snipe innocent passers-by with a long range weapon, set off grenades that send bodies flying or simply attack your friends with an enormous sword?

That’s one of the things that makes videogames so addictive – our ability, our right even, to inflict pain. Whether videogames egg on our propensity for destruction, or just reveal our innate bloodlust, we keep coming back.

The confusing thing about in-game violence, though, is it isn’t real. No one is actually being kicked, wounded, marred, or annihilated. Bullets pass through avatars, not people. Yet it satisfies our urges. We are sated by virtual blood.

But real-world violence isn’t just about body counts, it’s about pain. Whether you’re dropping an atomic bomb or pinching your little brother’s arm, it’s inevitable. Videogame characters, on the other hand, can’t feel pain. A fireball to the chest, even if there’s a real player behind that chest, will never hurt. So, what does it mean to inflict pain on someone who can’t feel?

Some people say it’s a good thing. Society keeps its acceptable violence release valve, and no one gets hurt. Where else can we turn for a (constructive) pain fix? Hunting kills animals; karate breaks bones. But, in games, all carnage is temporary, reversible with a few clicks of a button labeled “erase” or “reset.”

Other people say destruction without suffering can cause harm. It encourages players to engorge their trigger-happy alter-egos, to learn about violence without ever learning about its consequences. A child, for example, picks up a videogame where shooting a hooker isn’t a moral dilemma, it’s a wise economic move. He doesn’t have to watch her die, slowly, grotesquely. He’s escaped both her pain and his own. Players lose their grasp of real-life danger when they become accustomed to in-game immortality.

So the thinking goes. To whichever line of thought to you subscribe, the fact remains: Something’s missing, here. As we translate more and more of our human experiences to virtual worlds, we are coming to see some things are universal. Games can inspire love, arousal, anger, remorse. At the same time though, we’re realizing that some things are ultimately non-transferable. No game, no matter how interactive or enaging, can reach out and cause physical pain.

Yet there are many ways in which the addiction to pain persists in videogames and videogame culture. Pain derives from physical violence, or, in a broader sense, destruction. And destruction of some sort is a selling point in almost all genres – from war games to racers to simulators. Firing a bazooka is an obvious example of in-game violence, but so is smashing your vehicle into a water tower, or building a sim house with no windows or doors and lighting a fire. We love these things. They’re what pushes a game from good to fun. They get our blood pumping.

Some people love destruction more than others, like griefers, the ultimate videogame sadists. They kill and they kill and they kill – just for a laugh, for the thrill. Of all the missionaries of in-game violence, griefers come the closest to causing actual pain. Though they may not inflict suffering the same way a bullet would, they do inflict serious inconvenience. Plus, they bring up the wholly-unexplored question of videogame masochists: people who take it, and come back again, and again, and again.

Really, though, there’s no such thing as physical pain in videogames. Inflicting true pain requires two present subjects, someone to give and someone to receive. Whether or not all parties are consenting, this creates a dialectic. Physical body interacts with physical body. Pain is given; pain is felt. Without both of these elements, pain is not actually present, only its pornographic shell, the performance of pain.

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In the case of videogames, though, it seems we’ve broken the dialectic. We have plenty of painful intentions, plenty of real-life players casting virtual blows, but no one to receive them. We’re throwing our sadistic energies out into the entropy of space.

In the real world, there’s no lack of suffering. So, why do people still seek out the impossible – effectual in-game violence? Maybe they don’t. Maybe they couldn’t care less whether it hurts when characters bleed. Maybe videogame violence is about something different entirely. Because, when you remove physical pain from violence, you’re left with one thing: power. Videogame violence is about being in control.

Research has closely linked griefing to bullying. Not that there isn’t an element of simple sadism in bullying, but it more commonly symbolizes a reminder of power, an enforcement of schoolyard social class. The difference in videogame griefing is it empowers a whole new type of person, the skilled gamer. That’s exactly the type of person who, previously, might have found himself the object of bully torment. So, griefing lets the underdog reclaim control.

Even the simple joy of destruction is a matter of power. Destruction is an extension of your power to influence the world around you. Whether you use that power for construction or carnage is up to you. Of course, destruction’s adrenalin rush is more immediate. People, albeit game characters, can die because of you. Even the most famous case of virtual sadism was permeated not by the pleasure of physical pain, but by a love of power. Mr. Bungle didn’t force his body on others, he forced his will. He made other players do things, instead of doing things to them.

In a way, all videogames are about control, about our ability to shape life through interactivity. Perhaps that’s what we love about them, what we become addicted to: our own power – our position of unprecedented dominance. Where else can we hold such sway, can we affect the universe so profoundly? That’s what makes destruction fun, our own self-importance.

Which brings us to the question of videogame masochism. Masochists, in giving up control or the right to bodily well being, don’t lose power – they gain it. Often, tendencies that are considered masochistic – like cutting and anorexia – are closely tied to control, to the need to gain power over existence. Videogames allow us to do exactly that: gain power over existence, to micro-manage to the point of self-redemption. Are we, then, all videogame masochists, sacrificing our subjectivities, our personhoods as real-life people, for the power endowed to us through game? Here may be the truly addictive pain of gaming: our own.

In turning to the issue of control, however, we’ve forgotten physical pain. Physical pain, though it can be understood through power, can never be reduced to it; such pain necessitates a real physicality that will forever be missing from games, at least games as we know them. If there is, indeed, an unbridgeable divide between virtual and real-life existence, physical pain embodies it.

The thing we don’t yet know is what we lose when we give up physical pain. Videogame violence has its place, its purposes, and its worth – and it’s addictive qualities – but it can’t replace actual human suffering, neither in our understanding or our own experience. Pain, on its own, is not a bad thing or a good thing, it is only a real thing, a thing ultimately unknowable beyond our bodies. Feeling it requires putting something truly destructible on the line. And as the saying goes, “No pain, no gain.”

Bonnie Ruberg is a videogame journalist specializing in gender and sexuality in games and gaming communities. She also runs a blog, Heroine Sheik, dedicated to such issues. Most recently, her work has appeared at, The A. V. Club, and Gamasutra.

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