Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Violence, Gaming, and the Circus

I am, as a pastor and a gamer, rather selective about what I play.

This does not mean that I'm persnickity about only playing certain gaming genres. I play 'em all. Real time strategy? Love it. Turn-based strategy? Sometimes that slower pace is just what the doctor ordered. Tactical combat shooters? Sure, why not. Role playing games? Yup. Tower-defense? Oh yeah. Side-scrollers? Uh-huh. Nifty little free flash-based physics games? Oh my goodness. Don't click on this link, or you ain't gonna get nuthin' done today.

But as I select my virtual diversions, I find that I'm attentive to the gestalt or the feel of the games I'll play. That means I find myself setting certain boundaries around my gaming, boundaries that reflect both my interests but also my ethical framework.

Take, for instance, my approach to violence in gaming. I am, in the real world, not particularly fond of bloodshed. The reality of war harbors no appeal for me, and is radically opposed to the ethic of lovingkindness that stands at the center of Christ's teachings. In the actuality of the meatspace world, I'm not fond of either violence or aggression.

But I'm perfectly willing to play games that simulate combat. Why? Because as a male homo sapiens sapiens, I find the competition invigorating. I am perfectly willing to fire a TOW missile into a hapless cluster of circling noobs in Warhawk, or lob a virtual grenade into a bunker in Battlefield 1943, because it's just sport. It's ritualized combat, in which the human desire for competition is sublimated into a non-lethal and mutually enjoyable pastime. Some martial games, like the turn-based combat strategy game Valkyria Chronicles, are actually notably moral. I've been playing through that watercolor-Japanime game for the last month, and marvel at how it's narrative arc explores themes of racism, loss, and the humanity intrinsic in even an apparently faceless enemy.

That said, there are games that I know I will never play. These are the games that don't just present combat, but actively celebrate brutality. It doesn't matter for me if they have received astoundingly good reviews for both their technical prowess and the huge adrenaline rush they provide. I just won't touch them, because I have this deep heart reaction to my immersion in them. They're not spiritually healthy.

Take, for instance, the recent release of the final game in the God of War series. God of War III has arrived to absolutely boffo reviews. But ain't never that game gonna show up on my PS3. Why? Because one of the things that makes it so much "fun" is an endless stream of visceral, brutal killings. Hear the neck bones of your opponents pop as you break their spines in Dolby 5.1 surround! Watch in full 1080p HD as you rip the eye of your enemy clean out of it's socket! As the review at Gamespot gleefully puts it, the game causes equal parts "...nausea and sadistic joy." That has no place in my gaming repertoire.

I'm also unlikely to play the recently released game Bayonetta, which included as a centerpiece a hypersexualized protagonist who dispatched her enemies using magically-summoned instruments of torture, some of which are the same horrid implements that sit in the dark underground rooms of the world's despots and monsters. This trend in gaming seems to follow a familiar pattern. It's an old, old pattern, that path towards the more extreme and outrageous, for the thrill that is harder and harder to find as we grow more and more numbed by what has come before. It's our own virtual Circus, not in the Ringling Brothers way, but in the Roman way. Where once wrestling and races were enough, now even eviscerating a Christian or two seems BOOOO-RIING unless we get a slo-mo bullet-time close-up.

Sure, it's not real. But the stories we tell and the tales we hear and the things we see define us, even if they're entirely simulated.

From that knowledge, games that celebrate the monstrous, the gruesome and the brutal have no place in my little wall of entertainment. Garbage in, Garbage out, as they say.


  1. I'm right there with you, man. Some of these games are as far as I can tell, "sick". One such debacle carries the name, Madworld. Upon seeing this particular game played in a demo video on gamespot, I can say I felt really uneasy. It is so much porn when its all said and done. No thought, no real substance, just slaughter.


    But I do loves me some video games. Medal of Honor and its offerings and the Call of Duty titles and of course, Fallout 3, but I do like survival horror, like Silent Hill and the RE games as well. I am not a fan of the newer renditions in the RE mythos, 4 and 5, however. Just seems to have lost its appeal.

  2. You just HAD to put a link to Magic Pen in this post without warning me, right? :) Now I'm POSITIVE I won't get anything else done today! LOL

  3. I am a gamer as well. I particularly like to stick with the stuff that I grew up with Mario, Zelda, Castlevania etc. Classics!

    The only overly violent genre that I like is survival horror. Those games have a lot of blood and you usually end up shooting a bunch of stuff, but I find that most of the time I am playing them, I filled more with a sense of dread about what may be waiting for me around the corner and a feeling of desperately trying to keep from being killed in various gruesome ways that this becomes the focus for me rather than eviscerating anything in my path for the joy of seeing it splatter on the wall.

    I particularly find the Grand Theft Auto games kind of bothersome. I don't really want to play as a violent rapist, drug-dealer, thief. I'd like my in game avatar to be someone I find sympathetic and am able to identify with on some level.

  4. I do have to admit to previously enjoying ridiculously violently graphic games but more when they were made with ridiculously terrible graphics. I also admit to having picked up a prostitute in GTA 3 and then ran her over to see if you could really do that. I don't find it so funny these days, particularly after becoming a feminist. I used to skip the plot and enjoy running over pedestrians. It's not very bloody, just...bumpy.

    These days I find myself pausing more to think about what's going on in video games. I know that it's not real but there has been some evidence that people become more violent by exposure. Sure, it's not everybody but there are those twisted enough to see it as permissive. I won't even get into the lack of parental responsibility and game ratings. :)

    I enjoyed Fallout 3 and you can spend leveling points on a setting that makes it more gory. I chose to spend my points on something more useful. ;P Just seems so pointless.

    I tend to enjoy plot over HD gibs. Sometimes the simpler the better. You want another game to get sucked into? I've been addicted to Robot Unicorn Attack lately. It uses only two keys and is pretty simple. http://games.adultswim.com/robot-unicorn-attack-twitchy-online-game.html