Thou dost not protest

Dan Golding of Subject Navigator brought up a point that has played back in my mind quite frequently over the last four years (the amount of time I have been a vegetarian). Being a vegetarian opened up my eyes to a lot more than just what I consumed and the labels of the foods I eat (you would be surprised and possibly disgusted at how meat and its products pervade everything): suddenly, I was aware of my previous pacifist tendencies in connection with how much violent media I personally consumed and experienced (as opposed to how much of it was present). I believe I’ve come to the conclusion that until we admit it to ourselves, we are likely to ignore these obvious contrasts because they don’t align with our views.

For four years I was also the roommate of another vegetarian gamer. The games in our dorm room and later apartment in Chicago were typically of the violent sort. I’d watch him play Resident Evil 4 and Metal Gear Solid 3 numerous times, while he’d plop on the couch and watch me through Devil May Cry 3 and Final Fantasy XII. While we would also play games like Katamari Damacy and Dance Dance Revolution, it struck me as odd that two vegetarian, pacifist, and generally easy-going chaps like ourselves could lose ourselves so quickly in this medium of extreme and/or repetitive violence. Videogames weren’t the only ones, either–violent films often catching our attention and making us giggle with glee (yes, one of us is straight, and yes, we both giggle).

However, I’ll go ahead and say it: films are different. Without the interactive element, watching Kill Bill, Vol. 1 does not make me feel complicit in the bloodshed that occurs. Instead, I watch with, admittedly, a certain fascination, but from the removed stance of piecing together the cultural signifiers, plotting out the revenge motif, and noting the portrayal of the feminine in this role (yeah, I don’t watch movies on dates unless I know the person is willing to discuss it). Even while watching, I can disagree with her methods while being morbidly curious. It also usually lasts all of two hours before I can move on and go about my life. Unlike videogames, there are also plenty of films that don’t have many violent elements to them at all; at least physical, we could easily discuss how violence has infiltrated even the more demure films.

Currently I am sixty hours into Fallout 3 (thorough much?), and being a sniper, I have seen my fair share of either heads flying off into the distance or very meaty, if also watermelon-y, explosions in every direction. It reminded me of various artistic movements to see meat as its own medium and has made me pause at times to wonder at what I was doing. I’m quickly realizing that completing Fallout 3 without any or considerably little violence performed is an extremely unlikely event, unlike its predecessors. Though let’s be honest, I never played the games as a pacifist anyway.

How many games actually do offer non-violent methods of completion or are non-violent with which to begin? Of those that offer a non-violent completion, how many could be assumed by someone not familiar with the game through previous playthroughs? For the other category, I can think of examples such as World of Goo, Animal Crossing, and others of that ilk, though I’d be lying if I didn’t turn around, look at the titles on my games shelf, and cringe at the incriminating evidence. I doubt I’ll be giving up violent games any time soon, which, like it did with Golding, makes me wonder how much I actually believe in my pacifism.

There is very little doubt that I’ll ever enact such violence; I may occasionally envision violence against someone in a flash of anger, but can count on one hand the number of physical altercations in which I’ve involved myself (all but one with my brother, and all while I was under sixteen). Do the games then speak to a hidden desire? I find this difficult to actually believe, as these flashes of anger with a desire for violence are rather sparse, and they usually last all of a few seconds’ time before I move on to dealing with the anger. Violence (and/or sex) permeate our every day lives in many cunning, albeit frighteningly so, methods.

However, these games are, to put it simply, fun. We enjoy them on one level or another. The question that has begun interesting me would be whether or not this would reflect itself in real life, rather than affecting real life. Do our avatars enjoy this violence? In many cases, they are given personalities which align with an affirmative, though I’m questioning this with the games where I create a personality. With problems soldiers face upon returning home to a normal life, I also wonder what the longer effect of this on our avatars is. We often see the goal of game completion the ending of a menace, but we haven’t seen many, if any at all, games that make us question the return. Michael Abbott questioned this return not too long ago, though for a different purpose.

Games, much like any artistic medium, usually give us a sliced out portion of a larger whole. We can have our avatars go on a massive killing spree in the name of jingoism or extreme loyalty to some ideal and accomplish his or her goals, but when does the reflection occur? Are we as a culture ready to ask these questions? What happens when you have no one left to kill and are suddenly left with the thoughts of what you’ve done in contrast with the life you may now lead? Perhaps I want games to explicitly ask of me the questions I find myself uncomfortably pondering, because there’s certainly a plethora of issues there to face.

P.S. While I used an image of a PETA demonstration, I frequently find myself disagreeing with their methods.

About Denis Farr

Writer interested in intersectionality, games, comics, nerdy stuff in general, theater, and how it all mixes. Graduate of Wabash College, with studies in Theater, English, German, and Gender Studies.
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4 Responses to Thou dost not protest

  1. Ben Abraham says:

    Great post responding to a very interesting issue. I would love to see this conversation picked up by more bloggers and even the bigger media outlets.

  2. Very interesting post. You and I evidently share many worries. There is a huge proportion of videogames which involve violence of some description, and I half suspect that it is simply because it is such an easy interaction mechanic. I also half suspect, half hope, that this will change in the near future, as casual gaming gains more and more momentum.Nonetheless, I’m pleased to see that there are other gamers out there who take the time to consider the ethics of what they play.

  3. Jorge Albor says:

    I am also a vegetarian gamer who majored in Peace Studies and sometimes it is hard to meld my personal philosophy with my enjoyment of violent videogames. I’d love to see more non-violent games that are not “casual”, we have plenty of those. Character driven stories tend towards violence as a problem solver. Two games that I think are interesting in these regards: Mirror’s Edge, which could be played without shooting anyone, and Call of Duty 4, which had scenes of violence that were intentionally distrubing and self-reflective (eg: the aerial bombing level).

  4. Denis Farr says:

    @ben: I certainly hope this is a topic that be explored more. Especially by non-vegetarians. ;) While it’s becoming more mainstream acceptable, it would still be easy as passing this off as just something that affects that portion of the community, rather than how games can progress as a whole.@daniel: It would be most interesting to look at this through the lens of other medium’s beginnings and see what exactly has shaped videogames. Interaction is obviously an easy enough mechanic to use, but what does it say about us that it is the one that we jump to first?@jorge: Yes, while I love casual games, it would be nice to see more games that take perspectives like Fatal Frame and find ways to remove the weapons from our hands (and not have it be a female, I might add). I still have to pick up Call of Duty 4, but I am absolutely fascinated with Mirror’s Edge for a number of reasons (gender/sex dichotomy, perspective, and as you mention, the violence level in the game (which ties back to gender/sex, I believe)).

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