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.
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.