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.