I’ve been meaning to write on this for some time now, and with Owen Good posting a remarkably clear-minded commentary on the latest and truly horrendous Call of Duty: World at War trailer over at Kotaku, there doesn’t seem to be a better time.
I often stop and wonder at my own ethical contradictions. I have very strong opinions on a variety of political issues, but now will rarely attend protests simply because I’ve been turned off by several bad experiences at them. I’ve been a vegetarian since birth, and have never eaten meat, yet I sometimes turn a blind eye to animal products like rennet in cheeses and sweets.
I also consider myself to be a died-in-the-wool pacifist. I have never been in a fist-fight in my life, and I do not believe that war is ever a desirable solution, even in extreme cases. When I was sixteen, I read Gandhi’s The Story of My Experiences with Truth and fell in love with the man and his idea of Satyagraha. I truly, utterly believe that if ever conscription was introduced in this country I would rather go to prison than serve. I have also often imagined what I would do if I were threatened with violence, or if my family or loved ones were. Would I fight to protect them? Ultimately, I imagine I would, but I don’t believe I would know until faced by such a situation.
The contradiction that has been worrying me lately is therefore clear. As well as claiming to be a pacifist, I regularly play and gain pleasure from violent – even extremely violent – videogames. I’ve often wondered about that trial I might face for claiming exemption from military service on conscientious grounds, where the government lawyer brings up my dark and seedy past as a videogame writer. “How do you reconcile such recreational violence with your so-called ‘beliefs’?” He asks.
When I was younger I did have some sort of position on this; when my friends played Battlefield Vietnam at LAN parties I refused to play along. When I was finally persuaded to sit in, I simply would not play as the US forces as I did not believe in the conflict being portrayed.
So how can playing violent, war-based videogames sit with pacifist beliefs? The obvious answer is that they simply don’t, but it isn’t quite that simple. As adults, I believe that the media we consume does not necessarily reflect on our beliefs or us as individuals. Just as I can adore Close Encounters of the Third Kind and not share an inner urge to meet extraterrestrials, I can love a jingoistic, racist, sexist and neo-colonialist series like James Bond and remain opposed to all those concepts.
But is it the same with videogames? Although it’s been improving over the last few years, war and violence in games isn’t usually treated particularly intelligently, as reinforced by the Call of Duty trailer. How does this look to the ‘outside’ world? Take a look at this video on one Australian politician’s objections to an R18+ classification for videogames:
If you are anything like me, it was difficult not to cringe at the examples of violence shown in this context. Why would you want to blow someone up like that? In fact, why on earth would you want to shoot someone full stop? Really, why would anyone want to slice someone in half with a chainsaw, Gears style, or drill out their brain with the Cerebral Bore? I live close to the CBD of Melbourne and occasionally there are muggings and worse around my area. Late in the evening, I heard what I thought was a gunshot. It wasn’t, but I had imaginings of what I would do if I looked out my window and saw someone brandishing a firearm. I shrugged it off and went back to the video I was watching on my computer of GTA IV. The player pulled out a gun and started firing into the crowd. I couldn’t keep watching.
The answer I usually come up with here is that games, like everything else, are filtered through our own prisms of experience. I can play GTA and not want to actually pull a real firearm on a real crowd, right? Of course. The events within my gaming console aren’t real events. They are mediated experiences, just like film, literature and music.
Does it even go further? I once wrote that war waged through videogames is “experience so we don’t have to.” I still believe that. Videogames can provide a different kind of deterrent that we don’t get through All Quiet on the Western Front or the writings of Gandhi. Just because I enjoy being in Chernobyl in Call of Duty 4 doesn’t mean that I actually ever want to go there. Just because I enjoy being part of a Normandy Beach landing in any other Second World War videogame doesn’t mean that I ever, ever in my darkest dreams want to have actually experienced it.
Part of me, though, says that this is just a soft excuse, a way of explaining my bloodthirsty habit to my ethical alter-ego. This side of me says that regardless of how I might interpret singleplayer, fictional-historic experiences, I still enjoy the consequence-free violence of multiplayer deathmatch.
Maybe multiplayer is just like paintball, or similar war-games. It could be argued to be consequenceless in more ways than one: no-one is really hurt, and us males get to let out our uncontrollable genetic desire for violence and competition. It’s the ludic element that we enjoy here; of being able to pit our skill against others in a ruled environment. The violence is mediated through the rules of the game.
I find this answer promising, but flawed. The fiction is still tied to our enjoyment. If it wasn’t, then why do we bother putting in blood and not paint? Why go to extreme lengths to emulate real conflict instead of just bringing paintball into our homes? The only answer is that we must enjoy, on some level, the gratuitous killing of our enemies.
There may be some answers here. There may not be. This topic remains deeply, deeply disquieting for me on a number of levels, and I suspect I still have more questions than I can answer.