Published on February 5th, 2013 | by David Chandler8
Video game violence, the media, and a thing called ‘realism’
I know what a gun sounds like. It’s not nearly as impressive as one would think after seeing Michael Bay style shoot-em-ups or playing a round of Call of Duty. Up close, it’s pretty loud, even if the shooter wears hearing protection. But a bit of distance turns the sound from an expected full bang to a surprising pop. It was jarring the first time I heard it from my friend’s AR15 that he bought after coming back from one of his tours of duty, I forget which. Later that year, my friend and I had a few drinks at a bar, and it was only after a few rounds that he spoke briefly about what he had seen, the bizarre oppressiveness of combat and the strange life-affirming way it called him back. A few beers deep into the conversation myself, I don’t recall exactly what all was said, but I know it was nothing incredibly graphic. I won’t forget, however, the noise that day at our makeshift range and how it changed depending on where I was standing.
Like damn near everyone else who enjoys video games, I’m a bit brassed-off at the NRA, politicians, and pundits who all too eagerly use games as a scapegoat for recent gun violence. It’s nothing new, of course. I could point out the hypocrisy of the way media outlets blame games for glorifying violence while pictures of and stories about recent killers flash across the screen, or the fact that no psychology studies have proven a direct link between virtual and actual murder. But it’s a song you’ve heard before, and to be honest, the refrain is a bit tired. Instead, I want to talk about realism, or at least what is being touted as realism, in violent video games. The truth is, I’ve never played a game that offered any sense of realistic violence, and I posit further that gamers really don’t want realism in our violent video games at all–the results would be far too disturbing.
Politicians have thrown around the terms “realistic” and “realism” in the discussions surrounding game violence with annoying flippancy. Back in December of last year, Senator Lieberman (CT) insisted, “The violence in the entertainment culture – particularly, with the extraordinary realism to video games, movies now, et cetera – does cause vulnerable young men to be more violent.” This statement along with reactions by the NRA, the study on game violence proposed by Senator Rockerfeller (WV), and the recent words of Senator Lamar Alexander (TN), all add fuel to the political fire raging against violent video games often by explaining that games offer realistic simulations of violence–never mind that such complaints were lobbied against the heavily-pixelated sprite-filled games of the 1990′s. If it is the realism in games that cause such alarm, though, I find their fears misplaced.
Like many boys in Mississippi, I grew up around guns. I had a BB gun before I could handle a real firearm, and I was almost a teenager when I learned how to shoot a rifle. I spent years around my uncles and cousins during our annual family dove hunts, collecting the birds we would knock out of the sky and then cleaning for cooking that evening. I’ve only killed two deer, but I’ve been out in the cold woods tracking them more times than I could remember, my rifle slung over my back. I still go to the shooting range semi-regularly.
When I was around 10, my father taught me how to shoot his shotgun. I remember hoisting the heavy 20-gauge to a firing position, shakily aiming and the target, and then feeling the sharp kick against my rapidly bruising shoulder after I pulled the trigger. What I remember most clearly, though, was his frankness about the terrifying reality of what a gun does. He told me that whatever I line up in my sights, I better damn well be sure about pulling the trigger and ending its life. “If you ever point any gun at anyone,” he said, “then you have killed them, whether it’s me, your momma, your sister or anyone else. So don’t mess up.” That was the responsibility that came with gun ownership: knowing that at any point it could take a life due to your error. I can still hear the sternness in his voice, and my aching shoulder didn’t nearly feel as painful as the heavy burden of knowing I could potentially kill someone.
That is a weight I can’t carry digitally. I don’t just mean the obvious, physical differences between firing a handgun and squeezing the trigger on a controller; I mean the inherent violence of the action of causing a projectile to pierce anything at speeds high enough to kill. Even when you shoot at a paper target, the action is brutally cold. A bullet tears through the target so quickly and efficiently that it’s appropriately jarring. When I shot my first deer, I was struck by how understated the whole incident was. I lined up the crosshairs over her heart, squeezed the trigger, and watched as she bunched up, staggered, and ran maybe thirty yards before dropping. There was no blood spray, no gaping wound. There was just an echo of a shot, a small hole in a dead animal, and a carcass to clean before the meat spoiled.
Video games (for the most part) lack such bizarre subtlety, and it’s right they do. I have yet to play a game that captures the surprisingly muffled smack of a real fist against someone’s face or the eerie calm that follows a gunshot. Even the hyper-realistic military shooters like Call of Duty or Battlefield mix in a fair degree of cartoonishness with their gunplay in terms of how digital bodies move and how blood sprays in a shower of red pixels. Some games, like the sincerely underrated Bulletstorm or even to a degree BioShock make killing into an operatic display of creativity, offering incentive to use different bizarre methods to eliminate your enemies that could not be further away from the realism feared by politicians and news media. One of the most brilliant shooters of last year, Max Payne 3, transformed scenes of graphic violence into a virtual danse macabre with Max’s ability to turn every encounter into a blood-soaked ballet of bullets.
These games and others like them offer something different than realistic violence; they offer spectacle. In some games like God of War or DMC: Devil May Cry, spectacle serves mechanical and narrative purposes; the more stylish and brutal the kills, the more experience the player earns to put toward upgrading his/her character. In most military shooters, violence provides the backdrop for astounding set pieces like a collapsing Eiffel Tower, a nuclear bomb detonation, or a dramatic breach to clear a room full of enemies. These moments ratchet up tension to a degree of ridiculousness for aesthetic or mechanical reasons, emphasizing visual flare over realistic simulation.
The complaint levied against these types of experiences are largely of the “they desensitize players to real violence” type. Given the gulf of distance between what these games show and the real violence of tragedies like the Sandy Hook shooting and the mass murder committed by Anders Breivik, I’m hesitant to buy that argument, at least to the degree that games alone can cause such mental instability. Meanwhile, the jury’s still out about whether or not games can desensitize players to real world violence, though they may increase aggression during play. Since such studies reveal different results, I happen to be in favor of President Obama’s call for more research involving the effects of violent video games. The more we know about the games we play, the better we can defend them.
The argument that games provide too much realism, however, is one any of us can put to rest. Violent games provide many experiences: power fantasies, outlets to “blow off steam,” dazzling aesthetics, sheer entertainment, or maybe even a healthy way to tap into some recessed aggression without harming another person. They do not, however, provide realistic simulations of violence, and, since studies are still inconclusive, I can only rely on my own limited experience to juxtapose real and virtual violence: a few fights, some target practice, and couple of animals I’ve killed, cleaned and eaten. Maybe one day there will be a game that captures the cold, understated reality of violence. It’s possible a game could replicate exactly what a speeding bit of metal can do to a human body, the pitch-perfect scream of a wounded person and the brutal truth about what it could possibly mean, if anything, to end a life. It’s possible. It just won’t be a game I’ll want to play.