Violent video games are a hot topic, or at least they really were six months ago. Well, here’s the thing: video games aren’t violent. Angry bears are violent. Video games aren’t. That said, there is violence in video games. The thing is, the portrayal of violence in video games is as varied as in books of film.
Can video games glorify violence? Sure. Look at Army of Two: Devil’s Cartel. You play as two mercenary-commandos sent into a cartel-run town in Mexico to escort/rescue/defend a mayoral candidate. Like any action movie with a similar pitch, Devil’s Cartel is light on the thought and heavy on the guns and explosions as you blow limbs off cartel members. Is it violent? Yes. Is it fun? Yes. Is it clearly fictional? Yes. Despite some tidbits in early loading screens, the game is completely detached from any semblance of real-life cartel warfare. It’s a video game; the characters even call out some of the more ridiculous aspects of the game. Like The Expendables or one of the GI: Joe movies: it’s over the top and meant purely for entertainment. Being unable to distinct differentiate a game like this from reality is a problem that lies not with the game itself.
But video games with violence aren’t all senseless and flashy with blood flying everywhere. There are games out there that attempt to address or at least justify the violence in the game. It could be Elizabeth calling Booker out on his ease of killing in BioShock Infinite or Snake forced to walk a ghostly river populated by everyone he’s/you’ve killed thus far in Metal Gear Solid 3. They’re often just in passing as the game’s focus lies elsewhere.
At first blush, Spec Ops: The Line seems like your standard military shooter. Captain Walker and his squad are sent into Dubai months after its been ravaged by a massive sandstorm in search of John Konrad and the 33rd Battalion. Then you realize it’s been called Heart of Darkness: The Video Game and it starts to set in. Sure, in early combat you’re shooting faceless middle-eastern men like many other shooters. Then you meet members of the 33rd. And you find out they’ve gone rogue. And now you’re shooting American soldiers.
It’d be a ballsy move in any form, but in a genre and medium where more often than not you’re Sergeant American gunning down terrorists, nazis, or soviets, seeing the familiar American ACU in your reticule is especially jarring. Spec Ops: The Line revels in this discomfort and uses it again and again. Sneaking around a building you see two soldiers at the foot of the stairs, one asking the other for a stick of gum. Not only are they not wearing balaclavas or any kind of face mask, they’re speaking English — with an American accent. You have to kill them. The game does not give you a choice.
The Line has a feature where any explosion causes the game to briefly switch into slow-motion. In most games it’d be a cool little gimmick where the player gets to delight in their destruction. The Line isn’t much different: you get to watch your target — more often than not a familiar American soldier — get blown apart or lose his legs by the grenade. Then suddenly you’re reminded of wounded veterans and any sense of empowerment quickly dissolves. At another point you might, out of reflex, shoot someone running towards you only to realize immediately after your target was an innocent woman running to safety. You will encounter soldiers and civilians burned alive by white phosphorus. You will become a monster. You’re not playing a hero here; you’re doing horrible, terrible things. The game doesn’t let you forget it either. There is little glory in the violence of this game.
Similarly, The Last of Us will never let you glibly take a life. Whether if its you as Joel sneaking up on a sobbing Infected — are you executing her or putting her out of her misery?— or Ellie swearing as you blow a man’s head off with a shotgun, The Last of Us will not let you forget the consequences of your actions. You will wound a man and fire the killing blow just as he begs for his life and exclaims he has a family. You see the effects of violence on the relatively naive Ellie and as it chips away what little that’s left of Joel’s soul. The Last of Us is the only action game I’ve played where I’ve wished I could continue the game without having to shoot anyone else.
Games like Spec Ops: The Line and The Last of Us force players to think about the violence they deal out. There is violence in video games, and the violence can be gruesome. But it’s not always mindless. There are games out there that give violence its due diligence and those that revel in it, just as there are movies or books that do. To write off video games as a whole because of their violence is a thoughtless disservice to the medium.