Hatred and the Catharsis of Violence


Hatred is an upcoming game where your goal is to slaughter as many innocent people as you can before turning the gun on yourself. It’s dark and it’s violent and it’s extremely graphic. The game was even pulled from Steam, then restored shortly after. Some people hate it, some people love it, and there are at least half a dozen different debates going on about its content, tone, purpose, and right to exist.

Which means we’re having yet another conversation about video game violence. It’s something of a breakthrough for the medium that this time around the conversation is less about “Ban this sick filth!” and more a questioning what the violence is for and what the cultural context is. It’s less saying this game shouldn’t exist and more asking why it does. It’s less reactionary and more artistically critical. This is progress.

One of the main arguments over the game is centered around the question of, “How is Hatred any different than Grand Theft Auto? Or Postal? Or any other game where you can slaughter people indiscriminately?” To answer that question, I want to talk about Nerf Guns.

My mother never let me have toy guns as a kid. I really disagreed with this. My friends all had squirt guns and cap guns (Nerf guns weren’t really a thing yet in the 70’s) and they weren’t any more inclined towards violence than I was. So when I became a parent I let my kids have whatever toys they wanted, as long as they didn’t use them to hurt people. My son took a liking to Nerf weapons, and now he has quite an arsenal in his room. For a long time, he just shot at targets. We never made a rule that he couldn’t shoot people, but he kind of sensed it wasn’t a nice thing to do. So he’d set up some cans in his room, shoot them down, and then go back to playing Minecraft.

Nerf gun war

Then one Christmas he got an automatic Nerf gun and he quickly discovered that it was really unsatisfying to knock down plastic targets when you’re shooting two high-speed Nerf bullets a second. It offered very little challenge and made a big mess. It was actually the least satisfying weapon, simply because of how powerful it was.

So he was standing there in the living room holding this giant orange cannon, trying to explain this dilemma with the halting uncertainty of an 11-year-old when he said, “I feel like I kind of want to shoot somebody with this.”

I got what he was saying. Now, I could have been a dork and said, “Go ahead and shoot me.” He would, and I’d stand there like a dummy, and the bullets would bounce off, and it would be underwhelming for everyone.

So instead I said to him in a taunting playground voice, “TOO BAD, BECAUSE YOU SUCK AND YOU’D NEVER BE ABLE TO HIT ANYONE, YOU LOSER!” I’m one of those annoying gentle hippie dads who never insults his kids, so my son knew I wasn’t serious. He understood what I was doing: I wasn’t just giving him permission to shoot me, I was daring him to shoot me and giving him an incentive to do so. Hitting a moving target is fun, but hitting a moving target that’s taunting you so that it shuts up is even better. This began a tradition that whenever I saw him wandering around with his gun, I’d taunt him until he ran me down and pelted me with bullets. Good times.

And this is a big part of why video game violence can feel good. Our foes often work as metaphorical punching bags for the annoyances and terrors of life. I’d never want to hurt (much less kill) other drivers, but traffic jams are still annoying and it feels good to “solve” one in GTA using a grenade launcher. The various thugs in Batman are designed to embody the worst sort of brutish cruel simpleton not because snapping ribs and dislocating shoulders is a good way of dispensing justice, but because it gives the player a way to (symbolically) punch crime itself in the face.

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Grand Theft Auto deaths

In Grand Theft Auto, the civilians are often painted as ignorant, racist, shallow, self-absorbed idiots. They embody the worst of American culture and the game is practically daring you to drive down the sidewalk. If you do, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or that you want to run over real people. You’re beating up on the annoyances those characters represent, and that’s where the catharsis comes in. My son is gentle and he cringes at the mention of real violence, but he still enjoyed shooting his dad. In the same way, it’s completely possible to be a good person that doesn’t like hurting people, but still enjoy mowing down GTA’s strawmen representations of self-righteous arrogance, consumerist greed, thoughtless corruption, and clueless preaching of trivial causes.

You can find this in other games if you look at them through the right lens: These guys in turbans probably don’t represent actual men from the Middle East in the minds of the player, but instead are the embodiment of terrorism itself, giving you a way to punch back at one of the great fears and frustrations of modern times. (Personally I find this kind of over-simplification sort of off-putting, but if you’re able to enjoy it, then that’s fine. We all deal with stress and anger in different ways.) In Mass Effect, you can punch Khalisah al-Jilani, not because attacking the press is good, but because she represents the worst sort of fact-twisting, agenda-driven journalism and most people find that really irritating. In Saints Row the citizens are empty celebrity-crazed consumers who worship your crew even as you run them down in the street between jobs. In Postal 2, the citizens are all various flavors of obnoxious obstructionist idiots. In short, games are a place where we can punch or shoot our demons in the face, and that’s actually perfectly healthy.


The problem I have with Hatred is that it doesn’t offer us anything like this. Instead of making your victims irritating and unlikable, it does everything it can to build empathy for them. They don’t look like cruel stupid people. They have families and homes and they beg for mercy. In fact, the trailer focused heavily on executing people that were weeping for their lives as if this was a major selling point of the game. This isn’t gleeful, like the Joker running amok. It’s not playfully evil like Dungeon keeper. It’s ugly and cruel, like a real public rampage shooter. There’s nothing to make us care about the protagonist and everything to encourage us to have empathy for his victims. When I see the trailer, my first instinct is that I want to play a game where I can put a stop to the “protagonist” of this one.

Another important difference is that while you can kill civilians in GTA, there’s no in-game reward for doing so. (And no, the fact that people drop 12 stupid dollars when you kill them isn’t an “incentive” in a game where you accumulate millions.) You can blow up all the cars and gas stations you want, but this behavior is never recognized by the story. It’s not the point of the game, it’s just a possibility that emerges when you give the player guns and freedom in an open world setting. In Hatred, slaughtering innocents is the entire point of the game. So no, it’s not the same thing at all.

On the flip side, I don’t see any reason to get worked up about the existence of Hatred. I imagine the appeal is going to be extremely narrow. Despite being named “Hatred”, the game doesn’t seem interested in making you hate your victims or in giving you a reason to want to kill them. These people aren’t symbolic stand-ins for the frustrations of life, which means the game can’t offer any sort of catharsis to the player. (Assuming the player doesn’t enjoy the idea of pointlessly butchering harmless and empathetic men and women.)

Maybe you’re one of the people who wants to ban the game. Or maybe you’re one of its fans. That’s fine. But it’s important to note that Hatred isn’t “just like GTA” because they both let you kill civilians. The context is radically different, and context is everything in these kinds of discussions.

Shamus Young is a programmer, critic, comic, and crank. Have a question for the column? Ask him! [email protected].

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