Death and Ethical ViolenceS

It is no secret that much of the world sees our beloved hobby as a nothing but juvenile, ultra-violent, and ultimately irresponsible. Some have gone so far as to coin the term "murder simulators" for first person shooters and titles like Grand Theft Auto.

These statements are often met with either blind rage or immediate dismissal by the gaming community (at least the part that follows industry news). This is fair. More often than not, those making blanket statements like these are entirely uninformed. However, I have come to the realization that while I do not believe violent video games to be the cause of real world violence, there have been enough noble attempts and genuine progress made in the area of taking death and the act of killing a little more seriously in games lately to warrant a discussion on the matter.

For me, the biggest problem a game can have is a disconnect between myself and those I am being asked to ruthlessly gun down. I like to know why I am killing that guy or blowing that building up. If I am thrust into the body of a character and tasked with a very serious act, one that I would morally oppose in the real world, I am extremely turned off if there is any confusion as to why. It can be something as simple as "These guys are invading Earth!" or "Your kidnapped daughter is in there!". Sure, I would prefer it to be something a bit more meaty and original, but without any proper context behind the violence, for me, the immersion is immediately and irreparably broken.

I would like to preface the remainder of this article by saying that I am a longtime player and lover of all video games, many of which could be considered incredibly violent. As with all entertainment mediums, I have no issues whatsoever with the use of violence in games as a central gameplay element or a narrative device. Nor do I take issue with others who bask in the glory of a head shot or squeal with delight at the death screams of a grunt you just lit on fire. This article is meant to examine an emerging trend in video games in which the player is asked to take the act of killing more seriously, and consider the moral implications and consequences.

Ever since I was granted infinite time to pull the trigger at a certain heart wrenching moment in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, I have truly valued being given a little time to stop and think when tasked with serious ethical decisions in games. To me, "its just a game" has never flown. No. This does not mean I think all games have to be completely realistic and utterly serious. I for one have no issue at all with the violence levels in many of the most highly criticized and controversial titles. Plowing through a dozen innocent bystanders in a stolen 4-door coupe in GTA isn't fine with me because "its just a game". Its fine with me because Rockstar Games presents the scenario (to all but the most stubborn onlookers) with a palpable sense of absurdity and satire.

In more universally accessible and popular forms of entertainment, senseless violence is not tolerated if presented in a such an inconsequential manner. Over the top gore and dismemberment is reserved for specific genres, often presented with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Either that, or when the violence is meant to be unpleasant - bringing the viewer into the atrocities or war, for example. When there seems to be no reason or justification behind the violence, or no self-aware or comedic tones, the violence is viewed as irresponsible - both morally and artistically.

Certainly then it is possible for a game to be irresponsible with its use of violence, especially with it's handling of player-controlled killing. Why should video games get to slip by without considering such things? With guns and death a part of nearly every major studio release, there are a rare few moments when we are asked to actually think about our actions. Pulling the trigger has become second nature. Its no longer about taking a life, but clearing the next checkpoint. Here are a few recent examples of games that take a moment to shine a light on the decisions they are asking their players to make.

Death and Ethical ViolenceS

Modern Warfare 2 - No Russian
Arguably the most controversial level in any game of the past few years. When news first broke of this levels inclusion in the game, I began to feel almost guilty about what I was going to have to take part in. After finally playing through it, while it did leave me rather unsettled, I felt that the developer's intent was clear. Could the same information been given in a cutscene? Of course, but I do feel that the emotional impact for players willing to take the scene seriously would have suffered. Infinity Ward took a very big risk allowing players to take an active part in a massacre of innocents. At the same time though, they were giving players the chance to play it passively, walking at deliberate pace, taking in the savagery around them. For those willing to see the level as more than "just a game", I think there was something pretty powerful to take from that. Was a Call of Duty game the ideal venue for such a statement? Perhaps not. Nevertheless I find such a compelling attempt at bringing real world ethics into play commendable.

Death and Ethical ViolenceS


Heavy Rain – I'm No Killer
About two thirds through Heavy Rain, one of the protagonists is tasked with killing a complete stranger in order to receive valuable information. This plot device is not new. Countless games feature execution missions. In Heavy Rain though, the severity of the task is always on the player's mind. At first, I was disappointed that my character even walked out the door to go begin the mission. It seemed to go so strongly against the nature of how way I had been playing up until that point. During the mission itself though, Quantic Dream's intentions became evident. At the height of the drama, I stood there, gun pressed against a man's head. Did I have the guts to pull the trigger? For a change, I didn't have to.

Death and Ethical ViolenceS


Bioshock 2 – Savior: 25 G
Having some degree of a morality system is practically mandatory for all current generation RPGs (or role playing shooters). Giving the player the option of good and evil allows us at home to feel like we have even more control over our avatar than in more linear titles. Honestly though, these choices, more often than not, amount to little more than doing what is morally the "right" thing to do or being a comic book style villain. Sure it can be fun to take the dark path, but being "evil" in a game with a morality element hardly ever feels like a realistic path.

At a few key moments in Bioshock 2, the player, after being informed of various key bits of backstory, is offered the opportunity to kill a character. Through brilliant use of unreliable narrators and contradictory advice, these decisions can be truly difficult. We are left with our gun pointed at a quivering man or woman, at their most vulnerable. With the information at hand, are they worth being kept alive? We are given all the time we need to make out choice. Pull the trigger, or just walk out the door?

Death and Ethical ViolenceS


Brutal Legend: A Fallen Friend
I know. This is one of the last games anyone would expect in a list like this, but there was one moment in particular that really stuck with me. It came after the entire story was over and I was just roaming around the open world. I came across the grave of a character that played a major role in the game until his untimely death in battle. Exiting my car, I walked over to the monument. When I got close enough, it triggered a change in camera angle that pulled back, revealing a gorgeous landscape view as my character knelt down and paid respects. For as long as I didn't touch a button, this angle would remain, allowing me to mourn and reflect on all the life lost in the battles that got me to this point. Overall, the game carries a very light and comedic tone throughout, but by giving us the chance to stop and take a breath, Tim Schafer and his crew allow the player to think back on everything they just experienced – a very rare and very special moment.

An important detail about instances like these is that they do not all end in the player deciding to be morally "right" or "good" and putting down the gun. It is when I am asked to take my own morality into consideration before pulling the trigger, and I still go through with it, that I am truly surprised. When an in-game decision teaches you a little bit about yourself, that is a powerful moment that no other entertainment medium can provide in quite the same way.

There will always be those who miss the point and exploit a game for less honorable means. Graphic imagery will always trump artistic intent for a certain section of the population. That should not, however, be seen as the fault of the artist. Game developers who look to progress the medium, like all artists who do so, should be commended for bringing a bit more significance and weight to the stories they tell. Violence, when used properly can be an incredibly strong narrative tool. It is only when proper artistic intent is absent that a problem arises.

From allowing the player to develop a deep understanding of their soon-to-be-dead enemies, to trusting in the emotional impact of being asked to pull a trigger only once rather than thousands of times, game developers are advancing their treatment of death in the medium. As technology improves how realistically people and faces can be rendered, it is important to improve how realistically serious acts of violence are represented. To me, nothing is more immersive than having actually pause the game and think about the tasks I am being asked to carry out. Not because we "must please think of the children", but because it makes for a richer overall experience.

Feel free to share your thoughts and favorite moments like these in the comments below.

Reprinted from The Geek Beast: It's Just a Game with permission of the author.

Daniel Carbone (Female Orca) is a filmmaker and writer living in Brooklyn, NY. Co-creator of Geek Beast (www.thegeekbeast.com) and lifelong lover of video games and all things interactive, he hopes to play even the smallest part in further elevating the medium to the level of respect and attention it deserves. He can be contacted at danielpatrickcarbone@gmail.com or geekbeast@gmail.com.