Video Games

Isolation and Connectedness of Video Game Violence and the Real World

Violence in video games has always been a hot topic, but don’t fret, this article will not deal with the accusations of video games. What I will try to do is bring two specific aspects of video game violence forward – one: the isolation of video game violence and real world violence; and two: the connectedness of video game violence with its real world counterpart. This essay focuses on two distinct ways of portraying violence and uses two games for each constituent.

The first part of this article will focus on the isolation of video game violence from the real world through the analysis of Max Payne.

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In the Max Payne Trilogy we find the embodiment of the power fantasy. This fantasy is established through gameplay and narrative that follows the thread of the “antihero” Max Payne as well as reinforcing the notion of the fantasy through its gameplay.

Vladimir Lem: “Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present Max Payne. New York’s Finest, with the biggest mobster bodycount ever. Dearest guests, prepare to die…” (Max Payne 2: The fall of Max Payne – Chapter 3 “A Criminal Mastermind”)

Throughout the game we are slowly but surely coming to love Max and his quest for vengeance through the narrative structure which breaks up an extremely violent gameplay experience to establish the motivation behind the murder. Nevertheless, these killings are also portrayed in a “fantasy” kind of way through “bullet time” which draws the player into the game but not the killing itself. Max Payne has indeed an impressive body count with 660 in the first game, followed by about 700 in the second and close to 800 in his last outing; resulting in a staggering cca. 2200 dead people throughout the trilogy.

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Although violence is more than prominent in the trilogy it is still in a separate space both mentally and physically from our world. Max Payne: “I’d killed more cops than cholesterol and still no sign of Becker.” (Max Payne 3)

Max Payne as a police officer has killed in the line of duty as well as outside, but has nevertheless retained that fantasy element because of the combat which is impossible to believe. Violence in Max Payne occupies a completely different mental state than killing in the real world. This is reinforced through the game mechanics and narrative by way of introducing otherworldly elements such as bullet time and portraying Max himself as a righteous avenger.
Max has set out to reinforce “justice” which is immediately sympathetic to the player and everyone can identify. This is used to retract from the notion that the player is actually committing murder beyond the line of duty and has no right to do so. The power fantasy leans heavily on the on the power aspect and needs to be established through gameplay even more than the violence which needs to be divided from common societal views. So we find Max Payne to be a superhuman capable for standing alone against assailants in vastly superior numbers. Such as the 660 in the first game. This notion of being unbeatable and righteous is also reinforced through Max having no sidekicks and being almost exclusively alone in his murdering endeavors. In more than one instance in all three games Max is pinned against more than two dozen assailant who the player is able to dispatch without regret, remorse and even a restart if one is a good player.

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Max Payne further derails from the experience of murder by being generous with checkpoints and saves, where in the first rendition you could save at will and the second two had checkpoints before every major encounter. The player was never taken out of the experience because upon restart it was an immediate immersion back into the action of killing assailants.

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Furthermore, the narrative structure follows a carefully woven plan that establishes how Max is forced to protect himself rather than assaulting directly. Max has never initiated the attack at the beginning of any of the games and was always forced into combat; be it the death of his wife and child, and attack on his premises or lastly the kidnapping of one of his clients. His hand is always forced into combat and the game design relies heavily on a thick representation of him being reluctant to kill or even enjoy anything in life, earning him a dark reputation.

The power fantasy hinges heavily on there being as little guilt as possible when playing, and focuses on bringing the main character closer to the player by way of immersion and understanding. We can sympathize with Max Payne and all his actions seem trivial when compared to his motivation.

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The gameplay also boasts responsive controls and playing is not hindered by any flaws in the gameplay itself, making Max Payne 1 to 3 as smooth as possible. This as well retracts from the real world and moves towards the fantasy part because killing with such ease is never real and should not feel real. The player is supposed to feel like an unstoppable force. And that is the point of everything, Max Payne delivers what we want to feel and not how we should.

This part of the article will now take a look at how video game violence can be brought closer to the real world and which sociological frameworks does it use in order to achieve success.

As the perfect example of unhampered real world violence in a video game narrative, the second part of this article will focus on Spec Ops: The Line.

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Spec Ops has unresponsive gameplay and is not in the least bit fun. The player is forced to endure through gunfights where the guns won’t move like butter on toast and your aiming is forced and stiff. But then you ask yourself during the game – is that not how real aiming feels? Spec Ops focuses on a completely different experience than Max Payne and serves not to fulfill a fantasy, but to bring us closer to our hidden feelings and mock the established way of thinking when playing video games. The game serves to make the player think and not play as carelessly as we are used to. Every nuance carries some kind of symbolic meaning and the narrative itself is so bleak it mirrors real events completely.

In Spec Ops the player is forced to enter events that result in complete psychological trauma – namely PTSD. “Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a severe condition that may develop after a person is exposed to one or more traumatic events, such as sexual assault, serious injury or the threat of death.” (American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: 271–280.) The player is meant to feel the same psychic disconnect that the protagonist is feeling, as he dives slowly deeper into PTSD and questions what is real and what not. Spec Ops juxtaposes a serious narrative with overtly gamelike elements that highlight how impossible our vision of violence truly is. Spec Ops provides, unlike Max Payne, no hero fantasy, no way of escaping the grim reality of death and destruction, which is done ironically through unrealistic gameplay and serious narrative.

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Through both the gameplay and narrative the game sets out to bring the player on a journey in which he or she learns more about themselves, video games and what it means to be a soldier. Gameplay which is not focused or tight and a visible allusion to video game tropes and ironies are what make the game more of an experience than a game per say. Through feelings which are usually not associated with games, such as guilt, depression and trauma, Spec Ops brings the violence on screen closer to the person controlling the main character, Martin Walker. Through persistent messages and moral choices the player begins to question their motives for playing in the first place. There are no rewards for playing Spec Ops besides the completion of the game and the trophies available are a mere joke because of the way the game is meant to engage. Spec Ops engages the player through morose emotions and dismay as well as questions; everything serving the purpose of bringing the player closer to the violence.

Violence in Spec Ops is not as explicit as in Max Payne but comes closer to being realistic due to the feelings woken by the narrative. The combat stays like that of any video game and uses many tropes to mock its established genre, nevertheless making the player feel for every person murdered on screen. Another thing Spec Ops does is bring in civilians, who one kills in one instance without choice, but is given an option later on. In these two scenes we can see how human reaction makes us become blind to violence, as in the second scene one of the fellow soldiers is killed and the player can choose whether to open fire or move on. Again, in the first instance civilians are brutally murdered, but in the second it is up to your own grudge whether you murder them again.  Even when in the most heroic of instances the player is never comfortable in their role as killer or hero. “The truth is, you’re here because you wanted to feel like something you’re not… a Hero.” (John Konrad, Spec Ops: The Line)

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Spec Ops continues to bring the violence closer by way of there being no clear enemy, no one who is truly evil. A voice over the radio seems the legitimate evil doer. but during the escapades of Walker and crew the player is pulled out of the experience of chasing a bad guy because your own actions have cost lives. Every life is felt when taken and the descent of Walker into dementia is felt through both gameplay and outside of gameplay through cutscenes and loading screens which give the player third-wall-breaking messages. Everything in Spec Ops serves to make the player feel like what is happening is more than a game, it is something people go through every day and our wishes for power fantasies are nothing but something to be pitied. Violence like that in Max Payne is something we should actually think over more closely and stray away from because it only serves to objectify violence as something we have to do in games. Violence in Max Payne is easy while in Spec Ops every bullet counts.

Max Payne furthers an artificial infusion of self-worth as the protagonist led by the player cuts a crimson swath through scores of enemies for the sake of justified revenge. While in Spec Ops the player is meant to feel a sense of the uncanny through realizing how far games are removed from the real thing. The players is meant to feel the unreality of the situation and question how far removed what we do in video games is from the real world. Here we find an interesting notion – that killing people is what you are supposed to do in games. That simple knowledge that murder is allowed and even asked of you in video games removes any sense of possible punishment that would happen in the real world (i.e. the scaffold when we look at the works of Michel Foucault).

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Society exists to define clear boundaries of behavior and existence, but within the video games we have no boundaries, no clear messages of what to take for granted, what to fear, what to do and what not to do. There are many methods by which one can structure society, but as seen before when looking at Foucault’s theories, punishment is one of the most efficient ones. Foucault has a rule of punishment which goes like this: “The rule of optimal specification. For penal semiotics to cover the whole field of illegalities that one wishes to eliminate, all offences must be defined; they must be classified and collected into species none of them can escape. A code is therefore necessary and this code must be sufficiently precise for each type of offence to be clearly present in it. The silence of the law must not harbour the hope of impunity. An exhaustive, explicit code is required, defining crimes and fixing penalties.” (Foucault, Discipline and Punish: 98) When linked to video games it becomes visible that even this factor – the idea and image of punishment – is lacking, again describing a world where punishment stops being a form of control and is left solely to the individuals with power. Foucault states: “They must be as unarbitrary as possible. It is true that it is society that defines, in terms of its own interest, what must be regarded as a crime: it is not therefor neutral. But, if punishment is to present itself to the mind as soon as one thinks of committing a crime, as immediate a link as possible must be made between the two: a link of resemblance, analogy, proximity.” (Foucault, Discipline and Punish: 104)

Spec Ops continues to discomfort the player through means other than PTSD and has well-crafted sense of cognitive dissonance. “Cognitive dissonance theory explains human behavior by positing that people have a bias to seek consonance between their expectations and reality. According to Festinger, people engage in a process he termed “dissonance reduction,” which can be achieved in one of three ways: lowering the importance of one of the discordant factors, adding consonant elements, or changing one of the dissonant factors.” (Carlson and Heth, Psychology: The Science of Behaviour: 35) By holding two conflicting ideals, i.e. that we’re supposed to kill people in games and that it is wrong to kill people, we come to question ourselves and the reasons we play. When the violence becomes real, how far removed are we from simple killers and why do we want to engage in violence to bolster our self-worth? “This is Captain Martin Walker, United States Army. Attempted evacuation of Dubai ended in complete failure. Survivors… One too many.” (Martin Walker, Spec Ops: The Line) Walker refers to himself as the “one too many” because he has come to realize what he has done during the game. There is no escape from violence, which again leads to the question – do we play video games to escape violence? Can we remove ourselves from everyday violence by experiencing a power fantasy such as Max Payne and does it make us docile in the end?

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Lastly, Spec Ops raises more questions than it answers. As a game it serves to entertain in a special way – the way of self-exploration. Not as tightly crafted as other shooters for the purpose of narrative, it will engage the player in a yet unseen way in video games. Finishing this game will be a treat for any player searching for something more in the art of video games.