Supple Think: robotignoreskitten


by Zen

Posted on Tuesday, February 19, 2013
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Villains in video games are a troubling thing.  I don’t even mean villain characters like Sephiroth and Kefka, or anime conventions about saving the world from a malevolent ham.  Now that we’ve actually developed the medium to a point that moral questions become relevant, the question for all video game violence is: “Just whom, exactly, are we supposed to have fun killing?” Video games are generally violent and almost always supposed to be fun, and while most negative reactions to this violence are ill-considered and reactionary, I don’t think it’s responsible to neglect the issue entirely.  The fact is that we have found solutions to the problem of video game violence that are in many ways more socially dangerous than the problem itself.

It doesn't get any easier than this.
Nazis, for example, are the ideal antagonists: they’re never the underdogs, they’re maximally white, they fought to build a fascist empire that committed one of the most appalling genocides in human history, and they lost the war.  It is a convenient moral loophole that a fighting force existed who were so ideologically repugnant that any act committed against them could be considered, at worst, justice.  Over and over again the victory pornograph played for us, until Nazis became cartoonish impossibilities.  Instead of a terrible lesson about unchecked nationalism, instead of an illustration of the tendency toward racial scapegoats in the face of poverty, we have Snidely Whiplash and his Silly Accent Brigade.

After too much of this we risk feeling sorry for them.  So once the buzz of moral superiority wears off and the crass repetition is impossible to ignore, whom do we kill?  Monsters and aliens were always fair game, of course, but those can still be conceived as having rights and morals.  Self-defense takes some writing to make plausible, too, and you always risk the audience identifying with the people he or she is slaughtering.  This is where horror films supplied the next step, and it is my position that despite its grounding in kitsch and classic horror the zombie is as morally problematic as any human antagonist, and probably more so.

There are thousands of games that are just this.
It’s not just that Zombies are a lazy device, or that there is only a small number of stories you can tell that include them.  The problem is that zombies are such a forced black-and-white morality, the nuclear option of unsympathetic antagonists, that people who are specifically into them as a genre are probably sociopathic.  Nothing about them is particularly interesting, so the only exceptional characteristic they have is that you can laugh and smile as you shoot them or blow them up.  Or set fire to them.  Anybody who is, as a rule, a fan of anything with zombies in it is probably just a fan of setting people on fire.  The very thing that made Zombies terrifying in early horror (their lack of moral agency) has made them a flashpoint for contemporary disaffected blood lust.

It’s like that scene at the beginning of Bad Boys II (yeah, we’re doing this) where the heroes are performing a drug bust, but there’s no reason for the audience to care that these people are doing drugs.  They’re having a party in the woods, and happen to be popping some pills.  Is this gunfight going to be a thrill ride?  What if someone in the audience has ever done a drug and it wasn’t a big deal?  Well, what if we also make them members of the Ku Klux Klan?  Problem solved, fire away!

A 2000 Penny Arcade strip that almost makes a point.
It’s a mostly unspoken rule these days that it’s okay to hate anybody who is a member of any form of the Nazi party, or the KKK, or is a pedophile.  That’s probably fine, since those are some spectacularly terrible things.  It should not be okay, ever, to delight in their being the victims of indiscriminate violence.  And here is where the problem has turned itself around.  We needed a scapegoat, an easy target that wouldn’t make us uneasy.  But now that very desire has revealed itself as reprehensible.  In this way Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty are no different: one has virtual innocent victims and one has virtual victims that are sanctioned by the community, but both revel in the violent act itself.

The common theme is one of dehumanization, and it’s a serious problem.  The fantasy of video games, the escape from reality they provide, is that nobody in them is a real human being.  Once a person becomes accustomed to looking at people this way, the danger is developing a solipsistic lack of concern for one’s fellows.  I would like to make, or at least see made, a game that explicitly reinforces this tendency.  Thus made concrete, we will have the opportunity to confront it.

In this game the player will commit no violence, witness no shocking images, and be exposed to absolutely no sexual content of any kind (in fact, this lack of agency and exposure is the goal itself).  The game is set in a nondescript New York apartment, which should be fully interactive.  There is a television with compelling dramas playing, a newspaper, Monopoly, and other everyday distractions.  The player can make coffee, order pizza, call a friend, etc.  The only remarkable thing about the setting is that outside, in an alley, Kitty Genovese is being murdered.  If the player tries to interfere, call the police, or even look outside then he or she loses the game.

Kitty Genovese
This is not a murder simulator (per se - it is, arguably, a second-person murder simulator), and it won’t train anybody to become violent, yet it is perhaps the most base and monstrous game imaginable.  What it will train is a lack of concern for other human beings.  It is the worst kind of role play, explicitly encouraging the player to not help anyone, ever.  To this end, care must be taken in ensuring that the player is never ignoring the game itself, but instead focused exclusively on the task of ignoring the atrocities that occur within the game (for example, if the player is idle the game will automatically start toward the window or the phone, forcing the player's hand).

Jack Thompson once proposed that no video game developer would dare make a game about killing video game developers, since they would be training their own murderers.  Thompson assumed that video games so perfectly aped human experience that a player would find himself confused about what was real and what was the game.  Whatever apprehensions one has about games and technology, it's flatly evident that no such confusion exists.  I want to emphasize that the game I propose here is very different, because even though the murder in the game is a mere simulation of a real-life event, the player's active ignorance of it is real.  Part of the threat, too, is that once a person sees, face-to-face, the victim of a savage beating who is in danger of being murdered, involvement is inevitable.

The real murder of Kitty Genovese, as told and retold in college classrooms of every discipline in the humanities, was made possible because everyone who could have helped her was able to ignore the sounds and suggestions of her fate that reached them.  While these indicators are more urgent and real than anything we encounter in a video game, they nevertheless can be desensitized even where an encounter with the murder itself can not.

Ultimately, whether the target of your simulated violence is a simulated Nazi or a simulated game developer or a simulated woman in an alley, we have to have our debate about violence in games in a way that ties into the things about them that aren't fantasy, aren't simulated.  We have to wonder why we want to pretend the things that we pretend.  Video games aren't going to train us to do anything other than the things we're already inclined to do, but they can have a more powerful effect on our ideas about race and sex than any film or book ever has.  They can also have an effect on our ideas about humanity itself, and threats to the way that we care are considerable indeed.  I don't think we're going to prevent any real-life violence by preventing simulated violence, but we can maybe hope to exert some control over our apathy, and that's a start.
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