Thursday, February 24, 2011

a moment of violence

Streetlight Manifesto is the last, best ska band. This song is necessary for understanding the song at the bottom of the post.

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[1]—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.



See? totally worth listening to the first song. Incredible album, by the way.



“’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?


  1. As long as we're aware of our violent impulses and seek to control them through societal interactions (this, I think, can include teabagging corpses in codblops), we as individuals can lead healthy, productive lives. Apart from that is our society's disconnection from real violence. America still has two wars being fought overseas, while there are rallies and protests over only one or two dead here at home. So I think I agree on some of your points there. What I'm really curious about is your feelings towards videogames that take that disconnect and kind of invert it. Games like that rather horrible simulation of the JFK assassination where the real violence is kind of a subtext behind everything that goes on. Where the real violence is a bit less disconnected from your actions in-game.

  2. If you don't mind me further commenting, I really do think that the urge to violence is one deeply rooted in our human origins. It's the same urge that propelled cavemen to murder each other and steal their wives and property that found Edison working in his laboratory to try and make the best new invention that'd sell better than his competitors.
    If there was some amazing new justice system that forbade even the merest thoughts of violence, I really think you'd see the end of humanity as a whole. Taking away our basic urges takes away something deep within us that helped us survive as hunter-gatherers thousands of years ago as much as it helps us survive today.

  3. comment away! comment thoroughly and frequently! :)

    the kind of violence that disturbs me the most is the kind that picks up additional subtexts and uses it to "other-ize" the enemy. As much as I admire Modern Warfare's incredible scripting, the fact that the entire game is about slaughtering Muslims makes me really queasy when I consider the silent apathy the American population has towards that sort of action every day - in cases like these, where there's a clear connection between performance & the literal violence it represents, I really have trouble getting onboard.

    So when it comes to JFK Reloaded... I mean, to me, that specific act of violence is kind of abstract. Horrible, but abstract. To my mom, that act is very literal. I think the rap music parallel is pretty useful here - I have no problem listening to Biggie saying "c4 at ya door", but when I hear Jedi Mind Tricks use "beat a fuckin faggot / until he ain't fuckin gay no more" I go - woah, what a second, that's super-fucked up, that actually happens really often! To me, to Jay-Z, "C4 at your door" is strictly performative - as trying to recreate the exact angle of the assassination of JFK is to me, a kind of winking commentary on "this shot is impossible, Oswald was a stooge". To my mom that's way more literal and she wouldn't be so considerate. And I haven't played the JFK game - nor I have I played Super Columbine Massacre (an event that is literal to me) - but I can totally understand the rap music defense of "but the BEAT is so good, the FLOW is incredible - just ignore the lyrics" aka how I'm able to continue listening to Jedi Mind Tricks. If the game is fun, I can understand the people whose privlege lets them overlook the specific violence embedded behind the gameplay. Do I think it's fucked up? Yeah, sometimes it's just a little fucked up, but sometimes when the line between literal and performative violence gets blurred it's much more inhuman to me. Do I think that these games shouldn't be made? Well.. probably. I don't think we need a 9/11 simulator, I wouldn't encourage anyone to make one. Would I ever tell a producer not to make a game? ...nah. Will I say I think they're inhuman maniacs for making it? yes.

  4. i just remembered there was some hubbub around Six Days in Fallujah that I wrote about here:

    and a little bit about the "we're not political we just want you to shoot muslims" stance a lot of developers take here:

    and a bit about some of the more outrageous "edgy" games created here:

    ...i should probably have links to those posts somewhere in the body of this one. OH WELL.


    i agree that violence is very innate, and probably not detrimental in the evolutionary scheme of things. this is kind of the same idea as Nietzsche's "will to power" when you take care (as he has) to strip the moral component of the discussion and only talk about it in strictly nihilistic terms.



    One last point I want to make here is that I don't think the demarcation between performative, individual violence and societal violence is really super-clear to me. Gamers kind of have this knee-jerk reaction to "games don't cause violence in gamers!" and while I think that's generally true, there is something to be said for a society that consumes violence on a daily basis being a bit more aggressive than a theoretical society that finds all forms of violence abhorrent and considers violent acts to be completely taboo. Michael Moore makes this point in Bowling for Columbine, and on a purely emotional basis I find myself agreeing with him.

  6. Timely post, Zach, as we were discussing issues surrounding the military entertainment complex in class just yesterday. We arrived at a similar place as you: when wrestling with the question of the line between actual and virtual violence, wherever one chooses to draw that line we must accept that we culturally value violence. This value is very capitalist in nature: we buy it, sell it, and consume it. It has real value.

    In a discussion of advertising in games, we touched on the point that an in-game billboard encouraging the purchase of a specific product is small potatoes next to the ability of games to brand (or re-brand) and market capital-C Culture to us, figuring us as consumers and our very ontologies as products. Violence is a crucial component of our current ontological brand.

    That's an observation, not a judgment. I'm on the inside looking out just as much as anybody. Articulating the system doesn't confer any kind of immunity to its workings.

  7. i think it goes beyond capitalism too. the anarchist line of thinking basically says that *any* form of Statehood - any governing body that needs to enforce rules - will inevitably result to violence in order to subjugate the population.
    i think the particular brand of capitalism marketed at middle class americans happens to be this capitalist-realist class of violence where we can perform the perfect act of violence - the headshot, rapping the revenge fantasy, etc - that happens to line up with this idea of performative violence. and as you mention that ensnares us in a specific way. but certainly other economic/political systems have their own violences, even their own idea of *performative* violence. In many senses an act of terrorism IS a performance, where the violence symbolizes a larger struggle.

  8. fuck you if this is a spoiler; I haven’t even played the game and I know this

    Classy. I stopped reading there. If you don't care about other people, I don't care about your opinions.

  9. Michael StraightMay 22, 2011 at 9:38 AM

    fuck you if this is a spoiler; I haven’t even played the game and I know this

    Classy. I stopped reading there. If you don't care about other people, I don't care about your opinions.