Can We Talk About The Joy Of Violence Without Sounding Like Complete Psychopaths?

In a fit of frustration over Hotline Miami and the way gamers discuss violent games, I ended up talking to game critic/provocateur Cara Ellison. She adores Hotline Miami, you see.

Originally I meant to consult her about a different article, but our conversation was much more interesting than what I wrote. So we're publishing our correspondence instead, which touches on the bullshit surrounding the discussion of violent games (which has gotten even more complicated lately), whether or not we confuse loving winning to loving digital murder, and more.

From: Patricia Hernandez
To: Cara Ellison
Subject: murder

Cara, something I read last month is haunting me. I keep returning to it. There's an article on Midnight Resistance where Liz Ryerson dissects hyper-violent Hotline Miami and its reception. In it, Ryerson asks "how can you rhapsodize at great lengths about the joy of violence in a videogame without sounding like a complete psychopath?"

The article is compelling—she doesn't suggest that violence shouldn't be in games, but she does urge us to take a look at why it's there and how it affects as as folk who probably aren't about to go commit murder. And for once, this discussion isn't being anchored by the suggestion that games will corrupt us forever... just, that we do an awful job at examining what the violence does or mean, even though we'll go at great lengths at describing how enjoyable it is.

I think it's worrisome that we don't talk about this stuff. We're so sure that the value in the mechanics of these games is self-evident enough that they don't warrant examining—really examining. Like, beyond the idea that it feels good to kill someone. That part is the easy, obvious part.

I can't stop thinking about Ryerson's question though—can we, do we sing praises of the joy of violence without sounding psychopathic? I decided to check out reviews of Hotline Miami and found that by nature of having to explain how the game works—which involves playing as a killer-for-hire— sounding unhinged is an inevitability. The more a reviewer likes the game, the more true this is. What's up with that?

There was one review that pinpointed the game as a ‘murder simulator,' but stressed that playing the game doesn't make you a bad person. Insecurity?

What's curious about this is that many people pose that there's little time to think while playing, but that in-between missions, or after you shut the game off, that changed. But by the time reflection finally came, well... who knows?

Maybe Hotline Miami doesn't have to make a statement, that's fine. But we can. I want to hear about what the reality of what we're doing is and what it means in the wider societal context in which it exists, or what it might say about us, and not simply a mechanical breakdown. I come to you, as resident Hotline Miami lover.

I find myself frustrated when I read much of the discussion around the game, because there are no statements, no conclusions. How valuable is an unanswered question? When we don't make statements about what the game makes us consider, how, in effect, is it different from a game that doesn't make us think at all?

Lovingly murderous,

Patricia


From: Cara Ellison
To: Patricia Hernandez
Subject: re: murder

Dear Patricia,

This is an interesting question, moreso as it is something that I have never found myself worrying about. I actually think that the more stylised you make the violence the further you separate yourself from the game's imagery, and the less important violent actions or themes are. The more abstract you get, the less you are attached to the actual idea of what is happening. Hotline Miami's violence is almost a post-process realisation that you are murdering people. The characters are not people you identify with—they are abstracted, little top-down dudes. Hotline Miami is extremely stylised, and does its utmost not to be hyperrealistic.

Hotline Miami is a beat, a rhythm, a process, a series of tiny challenges to overcome. It is only after the control is taken away from you by the game, and you throw up, then the realisation really connects with you that you are controlling a guy whose job it is to kill people, and the pleasure that you are getting from the crunch of a baseball bat is that of an assassination.

Hotline Miami's job is to present a a room full of guards to you and have you puzzle out how to solve the problem of them. You get a sense of achievement from offing those guys one by one like you would being Mario bopping Goombas on the head in quick succession—and after, you think, woah. The game is trying to tell me that I am not just a puzzle-solver here—I am a murderer. The cutscenes emphasise it—"Why are you doing this?" The cutscenes make you think about what you have done in a way that pushes me to feel like I am in the mind of a killer, when really I feel like it is a strategic puzzler at heart?

Why is Hotline Miami framing me for murder after the fact?

Yours bloodlustily,

Cara


From: Patricia Hernandez
To: Cara Ellison
Subject: re:re:murder

Cara,

Speaking of sounding unhinged: framing you for murder, huh? Heh. That's curious—because, as you said, the game makes sure to remind you you're a murderer with the cutscenes, but it also it tries to distract you from that idea with its stylization. In addition to that, it detaches you from the situation when it suggests that you're not in complete control of your actions—that you're being controlled by a shadow organization.

I feel conflicted. Much of the discussion about the game lauds the fact that it asks us whether or not we enjoy hurting people. THAT is psychotic: so what we're saying is, most games don't make us think? ....we have to be prompted to think? That idea doesn't reflect very well on us. That's funny, considering how easily we get mad when the media/non-gamers look at these violent games, and how easily we can say that they're not looking closely enough.

I'm not even sure that Hotline Miami is so different from just about any other violent game—if we stopped to actually think what's going on. It's not necessary to have hazy, vague cutscenes between levels of a game asking you if you enjoy killing to dare to wonder on your own. The fact that we've needed to be asked, to me, is alarming.

Can We Talk About The Joy Of Violence Without Sounding Like Complete Psychopaths?

Granted, it occurs to me that most games work hard to make sure we're distracted from what we do. I mean, they have to, right? It would be horrifying if we felt the weight of every single murder in the games we play.

But now that you brought up how Hotline Miami goes back and forth on reminding you and distracting you about being a murderer, I feel that much more conflicted! What is the game trying to do? I can't tell if it's a purposeful tension or the sign of a muddled game. My cynicism gravitates me toward the latter.

If the game is framing us for murder, why do you think that most people endlessly praise how good digital murder feels? Are they actually talking about something else they enjoyed with the game without realizing it? Assuming we're actually being framed, the game sure tricked everyone into thinking that they're guilty.

Conveniently innocent,

Patricia


From: Cara Ellison
To: Patricia Hernandez
Subject: re: re:re:murder

Patricia,

I don't think Hotline Miami is a good game because it is violent—it is pure mechanics working to give a chemical response in my brain that is the rush I get when I feel achievement. I find it difficult to connect my knifing a guy in Hotline Miami to the idea of doing it in real life—there is an interface that is giving me feedback that creates that abstract feeling of winning when some pixels collide.

I tell myself I have completed a task with my hands, and my brain gives me a biscuit (or a cookie, as it is there in the States). There is an obvious progression to reward in the framework of this virtual painting, whereas most well adjusted adults know that there is no excuse for violence in the framework of real world society and there is certainly no reward for it. The opposite—there is serious punishment and great societal distress. Knowledge of the rules is important wherever you are.

The cutscenes in Hotline Miami are interesting, because they are actually there to remind you that the game is about horrible murder lest you forget that it is about horrible murder. Why?

The cutscenes in Hotline Miami are interesting, because they are actually there to remind you that the game is about horrible murder lest you forget that it is about horrible murder.

Because it's based on the film Drive and stylised violence can be made to look cool. But really, the process of winning or the mechanics that underlie that game are nothing to do with violence. You could have a totally abstract set of squares and triangles bumping into each other, exploding, sort of like a slappers-only Geometry Wars, and the same satisfaction would pop out. Am I making excuses? I hope not. I am just trying to analyse my own brain's processes.

I think when people talk about the glory of the violence in Hotline Miami, they are confusing it with the joy of winning and projecting the frame back onto the game. It's interesting to note that I personally also confused the feeling of winning with what the game wanted me to feel was the glory of murder—when actually it is the same feeling you get when jumping on a Goomba (which I guess is still murder but wouldn't traditionally be thought of as that).

Lots of people in Hotline Miami reviews have done that. I actually dance more around the issues of violence completely in my preview here because I don't think I saw enough of the cutscenes to press the 'violence' frame on me. I wrote more about the rhythm and music back then.

In our Rock Paper Shotgun Verdict the violent style seems much more praised, as I'd played it for a long time by then. Note the contrast—and we still have very little to say about what it actually says about violence because the game's mechanics are primarily our fascination.

Note also how we all get het up and excited and confuse the rewarding mechanics for a judgement on our penchant for violence. At one point I say I love the 'purity of the knife', which is to say, that I like how the knife mechanic functions in the game, and then say that I am worried it makes me look psychotic. This is what the frame of the game narrative wants me to think.

Then later I get so excited talking about the game that I ask for camomile tea. The remaining part of the euphoria of this game is in the 80s neon art and the exceptional soundtrack. It is easy to confuse all of these for a fetish for violence, because the game constantly asks you to actively confuse your pleasure of the game for the pleasure of murder, and then a cutscene points to you and says 'THAT IS FUCKED UP'. And you don't disagree. Or...

Can We Talk About The Joy Of Violence Without Sounding Like Complete Psychopaths?

We come back round to this: if I am worrying that it is making me look psychotic, that is a good thing right? But if I am not, perhaps I need to worry about my attitude to violence. Is that what we are saying? Are games then, just what we personally read into them? Aren't they just a mirror of ourselves? If you are a violent person, would you look at this game as a come on or a dampener? I don't know. I played GTA from age 12 and I have never been tempted to be violent towards anyone.

Busted,

Cara


From: Patricia Hernandez
To: Cara
Subject: re: re: re:re:murder

Hey Cara,

Aha, here we come to the big hangup when it comes to this conversation: personal responsibility. I suspect we as a community shy away from this discussion because the assumption is that we're trying to crucify each other or feel guilty about what we do—that the apex of this conversation is "should I feel bad or not" or "does this make me a potential murderer or not."

While I don't discount the value of figuring that stuff out, it's too easy to hand wave. People go "well I'm not a bad person, so as much as I might pause, I'm not going to change my opinion that these things I enjoy reflect poorly on me/say something awful about me."

There are other ways of discussing what violence means or says in a game. I put forward Liz Ryerson's own conclusions with Hotline Miami:

"Games like HLM cut to the core what of what a pretty big chunk of life in the modern world is about. People feel that they have no control over their own lives. They want to be able to exercise that control somehow, somewhere. They want some sort of release—otherwise they feel like they'll just explode. videogames have come to fit the desire for release like a glove. Games have done this so well, in fact, that they've created a significant culture of people who use playing games for the sole purpose of feeling in control over the rest of the world."

They're puzzles, as you said, which we solve. This reading makes sense to me.

As other examples, I think of how Merritt Kopas has written that the way games can lie to us about what violence is, because they only focus on the physical kind—not the structural kind of violence (sexism, racism, etc) that we cannot always perceive on a granular level.

I think of Cameron Kunzelman discussing how XCOM's usage of torture reveals that many of us have normalized the behavior, rationalized torture in our heads before the game even starts—so when the engineer spouts his lines about us losing our humanity and the way many reviewers took this to mean the game was critiquing something, it falls flat.

Can We Talk About The Joy Of Violence Without Sounding Like Complete Psychopaths?

"I knew immediately that I was going to have to torture aliens and genetically modify my soldiers in order to play that game. The possibility for cooperation was always-already closed off, though I can't articulate why. I just knew. There is no question. The ethical question, then, is a beautiful failure. Why have the debate in game? Why pretend like there is some kind of grey area that the player is having to navigate? Is is supposed to make me ask questions?"

These are the types of discussion about violence that I want to see—screw whether or not games might make us bad people. We're too close to that discussion to really be able to say something critical, we repeat the same platitudes over and over, and I don't think we'll ever really 'solve' that issue. We never move on from it though, if we talk about violence at all.

I'm curious, though: if what we're doing doesn't matter because it's simply the frame, then why do games like Dyad—absolutely, positively not 'violent' in the traditional sense—package their games under the same language? Rowan Kaiser notes that the terms for what we do in the game are really combative: we lance things, we hook things, and so on. The game looks like you're on drugs for christsakes.

It seems to me the packaging is either important, or somehow along the way we've forgotten how to think about things outside of that framework.

Violently troubled,

Patricia


From: Cara Ellison
To: Patricia Hernandez
Subject: re: re: re: re:re:murder

Patricia:

I think you hit the button when you said that it is the packaging.

Our culture is obsessed with looking at games, this interactive medium, as if it were the interactive part that corrupts us, when in fact it is in a long line of media that we have worried over. When novels first appeared, they were a corrupting influence—women's brains would overheat, they said—and anyway, newspapers and journals were the only thing worth reading. And then it was movies, rock and roll music. A short time ago, rap music was the thing that was going to kill me.

Games do not exist in a vacuum. The biggest problem, as the end of Hotline Miami attests, is our predilection for, or perhaps our lack of concern over, violent media. Of any kind. Violence is so prolific in our entertainment these days that it's becoming an important question: why are we seeing so much of it? And why, such as when the Rockstar Hot Coffee debacle happened, are we more outraged by being shown an act of love in a game, than we are by someone being shot in a game—an act of hate?

I think the packaging is a symptom. It is a mirror we are gazing into. It is telling us we are already sick.

We are just seeking cathartic shelter from it, a way of dulling its poison by working through it in Hotline Miami.

You can make the symptoms go away—remove violent games from supermarkets, take away rap music and gangster films. Burn copies of Puzo's The Godfather on a pyre. You can do all of those things—I mean—if it really is those that are at fault. For a violence free society—sure—burn the fucking lot. I never want to see it again if it created this mess.

But as long as there is fear, resentment, neglect and a weapon on the table, people will hurt other people. Either we take away the fear, resentment and neglect in society, or we take away the weapon.

Games are a distraction. From the horrible real world, and from where the actual discussion lies.

Cara


From: Patricia Hernandez
To: Cara Ellison
Subject: re: re: re: re:re:murder

Cara,

Video games aren't the only things to be criticized as agents of corruption you're right, they just happen to be the flavor of the era. And yes, this conversation is much larger than video games, and should be pursued in that larger stage as well. We just happen to be game journalists!

Even so, I hope that in the future we don't need a game blatantly prompting us to think, or a tragedy doing the same. Well, no. You've probably noticed how many people have posted similar sentiments recently, about the necessity to reflect.

As I said earlier, there is no use in an unanswered question ("what does the violence mean/reflect?") I hope we actually voice what it is we're thinking about.

You know, everyone keeps telling me games are a distraction. It feels important, almost, to convince each other that they are distractions. But when I'm playing, ah, I don't feel distracted at all.