Violence, Sanctioned and Unsanctioned

by Darius Kazemi on November 21, 2005

in Uncategorized

There is an incredibly insightful article by Clive Thomspon in Wired Magazine about the mostly evaporated line between authority and criminality in modern video games. I think it’s worth quoting in bulk, so here goes:
Nine times out of 10, when you’re blowing people’s chests open with hollow-point bullets, you aren’t playing as a terrorist or criminal. No, you’re playing as a cop, a soldier or a special-forces agent — a member of society’s forces of law and order.

Consider our gaming history. In Doom, the game that began it all, you were a Marine. Then came a ceaseless parade of patriotic, heart-in-hand World War II games, in which you merrily blow the skulls off Japanese and German soldiers under the explicit authority of the U.S. of A. Yet anti-gaming critics didn’t really explode with indignation until Grand Theft Auto 3 came along — the first massively popular modern game where the tables turned, and you finally played as a cop-killing thug.

Why weren’t these detractors equally up in arms about, say, the Rainbow Spear [sic] series? Because games lay bare the conservative logic that governs brutal acts. Violence — even horrible, war-crimes-level stuff — is perfectly fine as long as you commit it under the aegis of the state. If you’re fighting creepy Arabs and urban criminals, go ahead — dual-wield those Uzis, equip your frag grenades and let fly. Nobody will get much upset.

Indeed, conservatives have long been fans of the Dirty Harry beat-down. Consider what Bill Clark — a former NYPD office who consulted on True Crime: New York City — said about the game in a recent news report: “Marcus is the type of cop we all wished we could be. He doesn’t need warrants to burst into buildings, search cars, or
people. He doesn’t have to deal with politics or property damage or paperwork.”

These days, Dick Cheney is fiercely lobbying to grant the government virtually the same powers. And indeed, Congress is set to re-up the Patriot Act, preserving and extending the CIA’s special, magnified powers to detain and wiretap suspects — their “extra life” upgrades, as it were. If art imitates life, maybe it’s no wonder that
we’ve seen a rise in games that blur the lines between criminals and state authority.

The irony is that, in reality, New York’s actual police have moved in the opposite direction. They’ve become more successful at keeping the peace by being less bloodthirsty. In the ’90s, they drastically reduced the city’s crime rate by “community policing” and beat walking, the sort of quiet, low-key work that makes a city genuinely secure. (Wired News: The Bad Lieutenant)

This has always been my theory as to why we make so many World War II shooters. I mean, aside from the fact that they sell well, in Western culture, the killing of Nazis is probably the most approved form of murder there is. Killing is okay if it’s morally righteous, which is again why military shooters in general are common. Military violence is the ultimate in sanctioned killing. Of course, it’s only sanctioned if it’s the right military. No surprise that Mercenaries, a game where you play a mercenary operating against the North Korean government, caused an outcry in North Korea (who would have guessed?) but nary a peep here stateside.

I always used to joke that iD got away with the incredible violence in Wolfenstein 3D because nobody could argue with killing Nazis. What did they do for its successor, Doom? You killed demons. Who can argue with that? But behind the joke lies the fact that sanctioned violence plays an important role in almost all violent media. Saving Private Ryan was a visceral, violent movie unlike any other, but nobody complained about it. But Reservior Dogs is a completely different animal.

Not sure if I have a conclusion here or anything. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the matter.


Craig Perko November 21, 2005 at 7:20 pm

As a note, the reason NY has less crime than in the darker days is not because they are a kindler, gentler NYPD. They may be, but that’s not why crime went down:

It went down because of more police, more jails, and, arguably, legalized abortion.

Anyhow, yeah, the reason GTAIII was so controversial had nothing to do with blood and violence so much as the fact that you were not a good guy. That’s always been what people get upset about.

Darius Kazemi November 21, 2005 at 7:29 pm

Once again Craig, my politics completely disagrees with yours. I would like to see any evidence that shows that more jails mean less crime. Also, I’ve seen firsthand the effectiveness of community policing and would argue that it has a profound effect on community crime rates.

Darren Torpey November 22, 2005 at 5:30 pm

I’d like to comment on the question of when a piece of media (let’s say a movie) promotes violence or not.

One of the long-running (eternal?) debates this obviously relates to was brought up in passing on Ebert & Roper the other day. They were reviewing Get Rich or Die Trying and they mentioned the fact that whether the movies is promoting violence (and the gangster lifestlye) or not is ambiguous and certainly a matter of opinion and perspective.

Ebert admitted that the fact that 50 Cent (clearly) succeeded in his gangster career may lead some younger viewers to get a pro-ganster message out of it. At the same time, the movie shows the violence of a ganster’s life without sugar-coating — it’s brutally honest and a lot of people die.

So does it promote a gangster lifestyle or not?

My take is that it can only promote the gangster lifestlye if you go in with the naivite and mindset needed for being a gangster to ever seem like a good (or acceptable) idea to begin with. So really, the movie itself won’t make a big difference either way in anyone’s life. Part of what would make a difference, however, is how people around a kid respond to, talk about, and present the movie.

But that’s just the way everything is in life. Does a rockstar’s life promote the rockstar lifestyle? In and of itself, probably not, unless you look at it from a memetic perspect (ahem, not that any readers of this blog would do that). Does having your friends or your friends’ father or older brother talk about how awesome rockstars are promote the rockstar lifestyle? Probably. Unless, of course, the kid thinks little of those people for reasons relating to their view of music performers. ;)

Hmm… I guess this doesn’t sound particularly on-topic. I think my point is that it’s not always clear when people (the majority or vocal majority, I suppose) do and don’t believe that a piece of media is promoting a given undesirable quality to begin with.

Matt November 30, 2005 at 6:51 pm

My only response to this article is “duh.”

I mean, it’s just pointing out the age-old contradictions in state-sanctioned versus non-state-sanctioned killing. Why *wouldn’t* videogames follow this model as well?

Even so, it is a timely topic. I remember at Boston Postmortem once I got into an argument with a reporter (I forget which Boston paper he wrote for.) I was trying to say that I was offended more by America’s Army than GTA… basically because I find sheer amorality less creepy than ideology-fueled self-righteousness. He just *would not* accept this, claiming that–and I’m paraphrasing here–all military crimes committed by U.S. soldiers were not representative of the true chain of command which has, on the whole, been more or less righteous throughout history… so therefore it was much better to reinforce righteous violence in games than total anarchy. I felt that was fairly naive, but I obviously couldn’t *prove* he was wrong I just let it drop.

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