Fake Blood On My Hands
Perhaps the most common -- and certainly the most annoying -- criticism leveled by non-gamers against games and the people who play them is that games are steeped in violence, and gamers are blood-obsessed barbarians. I have just claimed that any such criticism is "most annoying", but I wish to state clearly that I am not annoyed for the same reason as most gamers. You see, I am fully willing to concede that most genres of gaming are broadly permeated by violence, and that, nearly by definition, many gamers are fascinated by violence. Insofar as the detractors of gaming make the above two claims, I find little ground from which to mount an objection. I do, however, resent any further implication that the prevalence of violence in gaming, and our coincident fascination with it, is a bad thing.
With respect to the claim that violence in games is "bad", I do not necessarily speak of "badness" in a moral sense -- although many people do think that violent games violate some moral code or another. I use the word "bad" as a stand-in for "objectionable" in the broadest possible sense; for it is my ambition to render all such objections untenable. Let this document serve as a source of refuge and refutation whenever the non-violent non-gamers come calling for your head on a pike.
If violence in games is a bad thing, it may be said to be bad in an intrinsic manner, or in an extrinsic manner, or in a manner that is both intrinsic and extrinsic. If violence in games is intrinsically bad, then there must be something about the violence per se that makes it bad; which is to say, it must be bad in and of itself, without reference to any other effects, phenomena, or considerations. Perhaps there is room to argue that real-world violence is intrinsically bad, but I detect no such leeway in the realm of fictional violence. And violence in games is, after all, entirely fictional.
Things become more complicated when addressing the issue of the extrinsic badness of violence in games. It is said that violent games may have a wide range of negative effects on young people whose parents are too busy with other affairs to bother with parenting. Many gamers refuse to be moved by this claim (for the obvious reason), and they often voice their rejoinders quite bluntly... and appropriately so. Rather than proceed down that familiar road, I'd like to pursue a different tack and explore some of the extrinsic goodness that violence in games may hold. Consider the following argument:
1. Gaming violence is a type of fictional violence (i.e., the persons and objects harmed in violent games are not real).
2. All types of fictional violence are, at least on occasion, extrinsically valuable.
3. We ought not to oppose any general category on the whole, if any of its member species are sometimes extrinsically valuable.
4. We ought not to oppose fictional violence on the whole.
Few people would argue against this conclusion; for most recognize the important role that violence has played in literature, theater, and art throughout the ages. Artistic pacifism is not, in my view, a respectable position. Or would you prefer that Sophocles had granted Antigone a long life, free from turmoil? I hope not. Depictions of violence can enthrall us and motivate us to (ostensibly non-violent) action; they can sicken us, sadden us, and sober us; they can give us cause to reflect on the most important things in life; they can even make us sing or laugh with glee. Don't believe me? Try watching Pulp Fiction with me during the scene when Marvin gets shot in the face.
Enough said about fiction in general. What, then, of gaming in particular? Is gaming one of the avenues of fiction wherein depictions of violence are occasionally justified, for one reason or another? If not, then the enemies of gaming may yet retain some sparse ammunition.
First, it is worth noting that there is nothing essential to games that would indicate that they are any less fit for mature subject matter than other expressive media. However, my hypothetical (yet all too real) opponents will likely call out for a specific example of game violence as high art. If I were to claim significance for any of the violent acts that my virtual avatars have inflicted over the years, my opponents could easily respond with a simple "Nuh-uh!" However, at this point in the argument, I have already won -- for reasons that Elysium has already explained. (Yes, I intend to make a habit of linking to Elysium's article on objectivity and art. Yes, there was an exchange of money involved. Smears of lipstick, too.) In short, I am the only person qualified to say what strikes me as important, noteworthy, or valuable when it comes to matters of aesthetics and art. I and my opponents will therefore cancel each other out on this matter, and the only thing remaining will be my initial (and entirely logically sufficient) claim that there's nothing preventing games from being every bit as weighty with respect to violent subject matter as the various, more aged forms of expressive media. A universally recognized example is not only unnecessary; it may even be infeasible.
My opponents will at this point be tempted to say that the problem is not violence at all, but only violence that crosses some (arbitrary?) line of decency. To which I may once again reply by linking to Elysium's article. Nor can my opponents fall back on the notion that communal standards of decency should apply, since the violent content of any given game is only ever viewed under private circumstances. In other words, my playing violent video games is not in any way analogous to my engaging in public sex acts with another consenting adult... say, Elysium. The latter is objectionable on grounds of communal decency, but the former is not.
It would probably be prudent of me to wrap things up before anyone gets the wrong idea about me and Elysium. If I may simply reflect on where the preceding words have left us:
In typical fashion, this entire dispute may be attributed to an error in semantics. My opponents would seek to articulate the circumstances under which the following phrase might be truthfully uttered: "This game is just too violent." What my opponents fail to realize is that that sentence is effectively broken as written. It is necessary to stipulate a referent for the judgment, like so: "This game is just too violent for me." Only then is it obvious that this entire irksome affair is as much about the person doing the judging as it is about the thing being judged.