Doomed to violence

Anita Sarkeesian is not the first person to make the implied connection between generic violence in video games and feminism. But recently, during June’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (or ‘E3’) presentation of the updated release of Doom, Sarkeesian tweeted criticism of the amount of violence inherent in the game. She elaborated on this in a post on Feminist Frequency, and examined the numbers of women in the games on display.

It’s worth pointing out now, that when I talk about violence in games, I’m not talking about sexual or gendered violence being perpetuated by the protagonist, but rather indiscriminate shooting or slaying of monsters (human or otherwise) regardless of the gender of the protagonist. It happens that a lot of people often talk generic game violence and feminism in the same breath, and not about the actual interactions between a player’s motivation and their game narrative.

Like James Crafti, I do not believe that violence in games is inherently anti-feminist. Though whilst Crafti argued that violence can be brought out of the game to be analysed by feminism, it is also interesting to think about how feminism can be brought into the game. As he pointed out, violence in games can sometimes be reminiscent of historical examples of minorities using force as a tool against oppression, and in that way can smoothly conclude violence is not inherently anti-feminist. But the more games adapt and require conscious decision-making, the more difficult it is to argue that your actions in the virtual world are free from political analysis as a stand-alone situation. The need to analyse these actions becomes directly proportional to the level of narrative immersion.

The more freedom and plot integrity a game has, the more self-aware you are in your decision-making. For example, no one is going to put the same amount of thought and confliction into Doom as they are into The Last of Us. That’s because while the former is more or less a monster-killing game, the latter has the propensity to turn you into a black hole of emotional angst. In Far Cry 4, I remember being riddled with regret as I missed the opportunity to kill a particular character. I was only given a few seconds to decide, and my finger hovered over the ‘shoot’ button. I tried desperately to make a moral choice, and by the time I had decided that this particular death would be justified, I had missed my chance. That hesitation and conflict came from me as a person, not from the character which had been developed for the game.

I am a feminist, and so the decisions I make in a game are unconsciously and unavoidably a result of my feminism, and whatever other politics I hold. Michaël Samyn, co-founder of games studio Tale of Tales, explained what motivates his company to make use of this interactivity.

For us, interactivity is not about ‘making interesting choices’ or ‘overcoming meaningful challenges’. It’s about make-belief. About becoming part of a story, about being embedded in a world, about filling the shoes of somebody else for a while. For us, computer entertainment is not this democratic medium that empowers the viewer to do “anything they choose to do”. Instead, it’s a powerful medium to allow people to experience an unusual emotion, to be something else, to be in another place.

When are faced with the option of attacking a character or letting them escape, you often find that your decision is directed by personal politics, which is exactly what those developers intended.

There is a quest in the recently released Witcher 3, when faced with a man who has killed numerous sex workers, you can dictate to what extent you want to pursue him – I did with the fullest extent of force. And while choosing that course is not indicative of an external mindset of wanting to kill people, it is a choice substantiated by deliberation. And in this particular case, deliberation motivated by my pro-sex work beliefs.

On the other hand, when a game strips you of that obvious and autonomous choice, you can feel it. And it can sometimes be uncomfortable. In the same game, there is another quest in which you are asked by a Baron to find his missing wife and daughter. A little while later, you learn they fled because he was abusive. You can’t always see how your choices will affect you, and somewhere along the line I made the wrong choice, only to watch horrified as the daughter was found and ordered around by a commander, and the wife led off back home with the Baron, who assured me he was a ‘changed man’.

Another example of this is a vegetarian who hates killing animals in games. It can be unavoidable, depending on the game, and can force you to interrogate yourself closely – quite an incredible feat. Writer Cameron Kunzelman spoke of this in relation to his experience with Minecraft:

I hit [the pig] once. It squealed and snorted and tried to run. I chased it. I hit it with a shovel and it tried to run, panicked, and didn’t make it very far. I hit it until it tipped over and pieces of meat flew out of its body.

I’m haunted by it. I’ve killed hundreds of AI humans in video games. I have executed civilians. I have ended civilizations. I’ve cleared out a fictional Dubai of all living beings. I’ve made a wasteland of digital worlds and preemptively struck with nuclear weapons.

Does killing animals in a game make Kunzelman anti-vegetarian? No, because it allowed him an interrogative look at actions in games as a reflection of other choices. In Far Cry 4 when choosing to, quite graphically, kill and skin an animal, your character expresses audible displeasure at the task, every single time. Although not exactly a choice, it is still an example of how the politics of reality are applicable in a fictional situation.

Violence in video games can easily be consistent with feminist ideals basically because they can be consistent with any ideals depending on who is playing. Provided we’re discussing a player who is of the recommended age, a violent game shouldn’t be analysed on the basis of that act of violence in a vacuum. It should be analysed on the basis of its motivation and context. And the more games become subject to the choice of the player, the sooner that motivation is going to rest on the players head. A player’s choices in dialogue or behavior align with the persona of the chosen character – resembling, arguably, you, or a technological representation of what you believe yourself to be. Violent video games do not make people violent; violent people will just go through a game thinking the violence is a validation of their mindset.

But these examples are fairly mild compared to some of the extreme levels of violence you encounter in other games. Sarkeesian used Doom as an example of the pinnacle of unnecessary, gruesome and aggression. As did Jonathan McIntosh, a co-writer for Sarkeesian’s Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games, tweeting at E3 about the trailer: ‘We just saw a packed auditorium full of adults cheering at seeing bodies cut in half with a chainsaw. Really think about that for a moment.’ But Doom comes from the era of first-person shooters, along with the equally ridiculous Duke Nukem. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that a lot of those adults cheering on Doom are probably doing so out of nostalgia: their childhood favourite game just got remade with better graphics. They aren’t going to play it because it is mentally and emotionally stimulating; they just want to play it because it’s reminiscent of the past.

And while it’s certainly reasonable to question the level of generic violence in games which doesn’t contribute much in terms of emotionally driven narratives, this is arguably a question which can fall out of the realm of feminist, or even political, discourse. This is unless, of course, the violence is driven by gendered concerns. And then it becomes the same question which has been asked since the advent of games: is it a concern to have such violence depicted in games?

As is the example of Doom, not all games use violence as a tool rather than an entertainer. But if this use character projection was not contributing to the worth and demand of games, than we would have stayed in the Mario era. We wouldn’t be having arguments and discussions over morality and meaning in games. And if we didn’t have these choices in games which allowed you to use your own politics to decide, you wouldn’t recognise the feeling of conflict after certain decisions go astray.


Image: Pelle Wessman/Flickr

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Leigh Nicholson is a PhD student at the University of Sydney studying cellular biology. She is a reporter for Honi Soit and writes regularly about science, video games and queer issues.

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