Some ground rules for today: we are sailing over morality. Let’s not focus on right/wrong/good/bad; let’s just talk openly and frankly about some current events.
A guy opened fire in Tuscon and murdered several innocent people. Americans spent a few days assigning blame to several factors. For the first time since Doom, videogames were barely mentioned as a factor.
In fact, the primary inflection point in the calculus of some stranger’s brain seemed to be Gifford’s unknown reaction to the question: “What is government if words have no meaning?" This question launched the media into a week-long argument over the contextual meaning of words — i.e. what is violent rhetoric if "don’t retreat, reload" has no violence embedded in its intent? This argument was then compounded by the debate over the phrase “blood libel”, as used by the woman who blessed us with the excellent malapropism “refudiate”.
To be frank, I lost track of who in this country was sane and who was delusional—who had a misogynistic streak and a disturbing series of bizarre YouTube videos, and who was manipulating the country into a nihilistic debate about the proper, state-mandated usage of language. For most people the crazy one is “the one who opened fire into a civilian crowd with no provocation, murdering several”, but I actually find that difficult to accept when every day my country wages war. We have at least that much blood on our hands.
We, as Americans, don’t think about violence when we wage war against Iraq or Afghanistan. We don’t think about violence when we use drone strikes or execute civilians at checkpoints. We just accept the violence because it happens to Not Us—until it does happen to Us, in which case the president hauls ass across the country for a funeral. We accept violence much in the same way we accept torture and indefinite detention and cops killing the “wrong” suspect, but stage massive Twitter protests at the injustice of the TSA seeing our breasts and penises.
Violence is an inevitable part of our culture. We’re capitalists. We’re a republic. War is an industry that creates jobs in congressional districts, jobs are profitable, and profits sponsor political campaigns. We can talk about RPGs without combat all we want, but violence is the mode of expression for the vast majority of games we play. I don’t think Ben Kuchera is even aware he wrote, “As I blew things up and bodies flew and missiles zipped to their targets, I felt like pumping my fist in the air.” That unawareness is a privilege accorded to him because after years of tenuous links between gaming and violence, we’ve finally stepped out of the shadow of NWA and into the spotlight of socially-acceptable violence—the kind targeted against America’s enemies. It’s just patriotism!
Again, this post isn’t a conversation about right/wrong/good/bad. As a rule, performative violence—the not-so-subtle idea that violence can be metaphorical—is a concept our brains can probably handle quite comfortably in games, movies, TV, and everyday language. I mean, I haven’t been tempted to commit the murder act at any point. Still, at some level that violence is ingrained in us. Fuck, it’s probably a part of us at the basest level, and we embrace the performance while simultaneously denying its literalness. We pretend that shooting people in the face and carving up Necromorphs is just a mechanic. We’re thrilled by killing that difficult boss, murdering the worthy multiplayer adversary, and racking up body counts with everything from goomba genocide to the calculated extinction of WoW mobs for their drops.
Sure, sometimes Nathan Drake is told that he “also murdered a thousand people today” by the genocidal Bad Guy, and we ignore the glib conflation of performative violence -- unloading twenty rounds into a dude wearing a wife-beater just before hiding behind a wall for a few seconds until we recover from the gunshot wounds we received in retaliation -- with actual literal violence because, for a moment, we are asked to forget that violence is really our only verb when a controller is in our hands. When Andrew Ryan (fuck you if this is a spoiler; I haven’t even played the game and I know this) “Would You Kindly”’s Jack into involuntary obedience, the interface between player/avatar and real violence/performative violence gets muddled – the irony of our in-game actions being outside the avatar's control contrasts the fact that the entire game is predicated on aiming and squeezing the trigger.
And, bizarrely, it seems to work. Despite ourselves, we transcend “shooting people in the face” as a performative mechanic and look at it as an unholy action, an action with consequences and context and meaning. We look under the veil, we “go under”, and submit to the maya of the performance. Then, satisfied with our momentary adventure, we let the veil fall back into place. Another round of fake gunshots are exchanged, and we teabag corpses.
“’When Big got into it with Tupac, some hip-hop journalists were like, ‘Hey, isn’t this the same nigga who said c4 at your door? Why hasn’t he planted a bomb in Pac’s house yet?’ which is just the kind of dumb shit that rap always gets subjected to. Not to say there wasn’t real beef there, lethal beef, maybe, but Entertainment Weekly isn’t outraged that Matt Damon isn’t really assassinating rogue CIA agents between movies.” – Jay-Z, “Decoded”.
Jay-Z talks a lot about the duality between the act rappers put up and the reality of the rapper’s life. He also talks a lot about the literal violence inflicted on the black population by the government:
“…hostile to us, almost genocidally hostile when you think about how they aided or tolerated the unleashing of guns and drugs on poor communities, while at the same time cutting back on schools, housing, and assistance programs. And to top it all off, they threw in the so-called war on drugs, which was really a war on us.[…] Almost twenty years after the fact, there are studies that say between 1989 and 1994 more black men were murdered in the streets of America than died in the entire Vietnam War.”
These quotes from Jay-Z reflects the kind of real violence/performative violence divide I’m trying to explore here. Real violence occurs, shockingly, terrifyingly often—not to us, but it permeates the barriers, it seeps into our culture, and we erect these metaphorical acts of violence. Thus: violence is inevitable. Can we transcend it? Can we find meaning in it? Should we?