At the beginning of today’s Keywords in Video Game Studies meeting on the topic of “violence”, I offered a provocation: that the most dangerous thing about games is not that they provide us ultrarealistic depictions of violence, but that they lie to us about what violence is.
By this, I meant that games encourage us to think about violence as only ever interpersonal and physical — the violence of a gun fired in an FPS or a sword swung in a fantasy RPG. What they conceal are structural violences. And what happens in most discussions of violence in and around games is that this reduction of violence to an immediate physical transaction is reproduced. We fail to see structure — we’re instead captivated by the flamboyance of violent physical acts.
During our discussion, someone brought up the newly-released version of CounterStrike and mentioned that the game features a group of anarchists on the “terrorist” side in one stage. I immediately thought of the ways in which popular discourse on protests always characterizes the actions of “anarchists” — torching cop cars, smashing windows, and so forth — as violence, and thus places it in a realm of moral opprobrium, constrasting it with “nonviolent resistance”, which is understood as the only acceptable form of resistance.
What this discourse fails to do is to take structural violence into account. It can only ever see direct actions by individuals as violence. Racism, sexism, capitalism, and other oppressive structures are never understood as violent. In the context of resistance, violence is always understood as an illegitimate and self-defeating act. Oppressed peoples are instantly stripped of the moral high ground should they choose to enact violent strategies of resistance, a view which utterly ignores the daily violence of living in an oppressive system.
Most games, and most discussions about violence in games, encourage us to think about violence along these lines. We first understand violence as a decontextualized individual act, and from there we either characterize its depiction as either “harmless fun” or as affecting the player in some negative way.
I think this is unfortunate. As experiences created by systems of rules, games seem to me to have an extraordinary potential to depict the logic of violent systems, and not just the consequences of individual acts of violence. Games can tell stories about the kinds of violence that weigh on us daily, the kinds that we are encouraged to inflict on ourselves, the kinds that relentlessly chip away at and ruin bodies and lives. These are the kinds of violent games I’m interested in making and seeing more of.
(image: Gear Wheels by freefotouk, used under a cc-by-nc licence.)