The pacifism of violence

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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.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “The pacifism of violence

  1. Very interesting. Someone brought up a similar issue a while back (it may have been Michael Abbott or Chris @ The Artful Gamer) that those of us who espouse “games as art” but deny that game violence has any adverse affects on players are wanting to have our cake and eat it too.

    It seems like a related issue, to me, because if we want to argue that “It’s just a game, lol” and it doesn’t mean anything, then we also deny games the power to affect us deeply as well. I think you’re struggling with the same thing – we probably *do* have to turn something off in the back of our mind to let us commit (at times) atrocities! I recently played Saints Row 2 and reviewed it for a website (not published yet) and I couldn’t help but mention the odd dissonance between caring about the life of plot central characters in your gang, and the lives of countless hundreds of other faceless, nameless gang members (not to mention civilians!).

    I think the disconnect in games themselves is part of what enables us to make that mental disconnect, that “it’s just a game” statement, whether internally or externally. When games start to become more internally consistent (more like a real simulation, perhaps?) they will become more challenging and we may indeed have to start thinking about whether or not we are comfortable playing certain games.

    I think Far Cry 2 does this really well, maintaining a much higher standard of internal consistency than other games, and as a result does make you think about these things more…

  2. (Wow, the font for the comment box is really large: I feel like I’m shouting! Or really important. Or something.)

    I’ve been wondering about that myself; I still play games with a lot of violence, but it doesn’t always feel right. Have I changed? Have the games changed? (E.g. by moving closer to photorealism.) Something else? And I see, e.g. trailers for Mad World, and I love the distinctiveness of the art style, but I’m not sure if I have any desire to actually play it. (Though I’m really loving No More Heroes and, to my surprise, not finding the violence there problematic at all. Something about slicing a hundred people in half and having all of them complain about their spleens, I guess.)

    And I’m also starting to wonder if, at least in narrative games, violence works against other goals that game designers have. I’d be very curious to see a game design where there is some violence but at much rarer intervals, e.g. you do something violent once an hour or two rather than several times a minute. (And, of course, games without violence at all.)

  3. I just played through the first half-hour or World at War with a friend yesterday. While not being quite as pacifist as you (anti-war, but tend to feel guilty about not being the one taking the bullets if “need” be), I can tell you that this is a game that isn’t hiding the horrors of war, and doesn’t seem to be trying to glamorize them either. It’s a refreshing change of pace after the Halo-Gears lenses I’m accustomed to, even if it didn’t leave me feeling particularly cheery.

  4. Interesting read…I don’t have those kinds of moral inhibitions but I can see the problem. On a fundamental level, the game is teaching you about violence. Sometimes the plot glamorizes that, sometimes it abhors it. But whatever the case, it is still just teaching you about war and fighting.

    I like to think of it as a starting point, honestly. The first things games are teaching is what teenage males are the most interested in: war. Fighting. Conflict. As we broaden that scope and start to use games to teach other subjects, maybe that disconnect won’t have to happen anymore.

  5. Peter Houlihan

    I don’t quite relate playing videogames to a desire to actually kill someone, the purpose, to me, seems to be as a form of competition between you and the other player (or computer as the case may be). Unless, of course, you *are* actually enjoying killing someone. But even then, its a fantasy. I can’t agree that a fantasy can be considered wrong, it just doesn’t have enough negative effects to justify labelling it “immoral.”

    Incidentally, have you considered the possibility that situations exist where peace can only be won through violence or threat of violence? Or situations where the decision *not* to do a violent act knowingly leads to considerably more violence against others?

    Ghandi’s tactics worked because they appealed to the Brittish public in a way armed rebellion wouldn’t and embarassed the Brittish colonial administration. If Great Britain had been a more callous culture, or censorship were tighter, theres a good chance that the martyrs of Indian independance would have died in vain.

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