Welcome to my movie blog, containing reviews and articles. I've been writing since 2004 - with a short break during 2009.

A man chooses; a slave obeys

I want to talk about violent video games. Today's issue comes with headers, to tidy up my circuitous prose.

Some History

An area which fascinates me, but only in a theoretical way as I have never lived in a house with them before. The arrival of a new housemate gave me the opportunity to properly play a console game for the first time in my life - to the general amusement of everyone else, who went through this phase age 5 or 6.

My parents were rather old fashioned on that front, and on the whole I am greatful: games do feel like a terrible drain on life. Abstractly, I believe that if a video game gives you a compelling aesthetic and narrative experience, it's no better or worse than watching a film (and that, no more than reading a book). And the ability to beat difficult games is no better or worse than any other ability (arguably, better because their effects are confined to so small a world they can never be used for evil). But in practice, less games seem to come up to my high movie watching standards, and looking back on most of my gaming experiences they seem like wasted time

A classic example would be Guitar Hero, which I played for half an hour and switched off in disgust. It is a challenging game which requires dedicated practice, but if you're going to put in that much effort why not just learn the sodding guitar? Especially because the required skillset for hitting the keys in time is far closer to playing the piano.

Belief Systems

Bioshock is a staggering exception, but I'll discuss that later. I'd like to get onto violence, and I'll preface this by saying I no longer believe in an objective "self". We have different modes of behavior we shrug on and off like clothes: Sunday best for the vicar, formalwear for family occasions, something smartcasual for work and sloppy jeans for weekends alone. From person to person, we might have different morality sets - lying to a child or a door-to-door Evangelist in a way we wouldn't to an adult or a friend. We certainly behave differently (i.e. use of swearing) and have different interests depending on the company. With all that taken into account, it seems holding any belief and claiming it is indomitable is problematic, without boiling everything down to a pragmatic "it depends". There are always exceptions, and indeed there has to be.

This might be obvious, but I'm fascinated by the sincerity behind all this. We know that habit can change people by sheer persistance. You can come to love dull activities, endlessly-repeated radio earworms and even people just because they are always there and you get used to it. With all this slipping we do to survive life, surely then we also change our own minds - our basic principles - many times a day.

I now live in two different places, and what my two groups of friends can get away with is very different. Purely because I met one aged 11, and another aged 18, and what I needed at those two times was also different. I'd like to say my metronome behavior was caused by not wanting to freak the older set out by seeming to suddenly change, but in truth it is habit. I just snap back into old patterns.

This isn't necessarily a problem, because both places make me feel at home and I'd even miss the elements of both which piss me off because hey! Friends are the people whose defects you can adore as madly as their qualities. Nevertheless, it is an interesting illustration of the point above. I now live two lives. One lot are amused by my love for violent films, the other is less about cinema and more about me being a secret serial killer. It's the same joke, but an interesting change of emphasis. There, I like gory cinema; here I have a blood fetish. I'm not sure either is correct, or quite that simple. Which of these two people am I? Am I huggy, or rather detatched? Am I an endlessly accomodating doormat, or do I stand up for myself, albeit in a roundabout fashion? What are the level of lies, conscious, unconscious, white and by omission, I am prepared to tell?

The answer to that question relies on your postcode. And how do I answer a question like that, if accepting and enjoying myriad personalities is the strongest life stance I hold (except, naturally enough, when it isn't)? A pal recently used the rather lovely phrase "Schroedinger's Emily", and as if to prove my point, one close friend was really surprised I was enjoying the game - whereas another wasn't surprised at all.

I went into that for two reasons: first, to warn you I'm perfectly capable of holding multiple, contradictory beliefs and I think that on some level you must be too. But chiefly, to illustrate that I am mentally flexible and aware of my flexibility, and thus incredibly susecptible to things I experience. On this basis, I believe if it's mad enough for one person to experience life like this, it stands to reason that many others must also.

And finally, on violence

The chief question involving violent entertainment is "Should we legislate against it?". I find this a hard question to answer:

Nothing should legislate against art. A solid hangover from my Oscar Wilde days.

Art impacts life. Shakespeare knew as much:
"That guilty creatures, sitting at a play / Have by the very cunning of the scene / Been struck so to the soul that presently /They have proclaim'd their malefactions"

This point is irrefutable. If what we see does not change us, then why would there be advertising? Why would pressure groups be so concerned about the depiction of their chosen minority on screen? Why do companies put product placement in movies, and pay celebrities to wear their clothes? How does tie-in merchandising work? Why are documentaries made, or movies with a social concience? Why do cosplayers expend time and effort creating replica costumes from their favourite heroes?

If art did not impact life, then none of these strategies would work. The fact is they do, QED. Arguably, holy books are nothing but books containing stories so marvellous, so affecting that they move people to be better than they can be and dedicate themselves to a cause - and thus art impacts life quite profoundly.

But when it impacts life should one man's right to "make art" be counted as more important than the rights of others to live safely? My answer to that would depend on whether Oscar Wilde or Doctor Who is closer within my mental reach. I mean, art is immortal and makes humanity seem meaningless in comparison: a few lives in exchange for the Mona Lisa (or pick your favourite work of art, including great albums or movies) which will be adored by generations doesn't seem like a big sacrifice. But then on other days, it's life, life above all - one single human life is more important than anything else. It's humans who create art after all.

I'm not sure I can ever work that out. Would it really matter to us, now, if ten more nameless Greeks had burnt at the Library of Alexandria - but the complete works of Socrates and Euripides had survived?

Art affects people in different ways. Should we kill off whole genres of entertainment because it might just set off some lone nutter, already primed by life. I don't think there's ever been conclusive proof of killings purely in the wake of vicious media. There have always been other factors - enviroment, upringing e.t.c. And they often inspire the means through which sprees take place, but as far as I'm aware, don't cause them. My evidence is that I've seen Clockwork Orange and my dad's seen Natural Born Killers, and we're both still sane and dandy. If any film was that dangerous, then how could the BBFC raters - who see all the most degrading cinema has to offer - not be locked away in maximum security?

But see above. If Clockwork Orange is even tangentally going to be implicated in the death of a real human being, would it not be better never to have been created? Regardless of the thousands it has inspired in its turn?

How do you reconcile all of that? Even if I could untangle those three threads to my satisfaction, there are other things to take into consideration:
Is there a difference between commercial violence and artistic violence? i.e. Rambo vs Antichrist, violent rape porn vs Irreversable, The A-Team vs Saving Private Ryan. Movies aim to make you feel by using images. Does it make a difference if violent images are designed for enjoyment? Or if you enjoy violent images regardless of their creators intent? If you're going to judge between art and "porn", how do you tell? And once you've said "you can watch these films because their intent is art", how do you force viewers not to enjoy them as porn?

Saving Private Ryan is an interesting one there, because the BBFC rated it a 15 - despite the loopy levels of violence. They judged that it had important historical merit, and as such teachers should be able to show it in class. Does its "artistic" intent automatically mean no kid has ever laughed "phwoar, look at that head go!" while viewing?

Why do we rate realistic violence as more dangerous than tame? If protecting the young is our goal, then surely presenting painful death is more important than showing something gleefully consequence free?
It's clear then that there are two strands in the debate on legislating violence: preventing people from copying what they see AND protecting young minds from scary images. Sex is case in point. While I don't want my hypothetical kids seeing all that on screen till they're much older, nevertheless sex is basically a good act, while violence never is. Seeing a happy consensual couple get on with it at whatever age is not a damaging image - violence is always "wrong" and is always "disgusting".

And this leads us onto one of the bigger ethical questions never asked in this debate:

Should we be enjoying this? We should respect the human right to choose - to an extent. We can all agree that extent is causing actual damage to actual people. It's written in the BBFC basic manifesto that adults should be able to choose their own viewing so long as it is not dangerous. But should we choose to watch pain for our entertainment? Is it good for - dare I say it? - our souls? Is someone who refuses violent imagery a "better" person?
Violent video games

I thought I knew where I stood on all of this. I love a bit of violence, me. My stance on film is, broadly, put the art first - even though I value life, and I admit influence exists. I do not want a world where we cannot make movies about war or crime. I have great faith in the idea of rating systems, and the BBFC in particular. We have to change the world before changing movies would have any noticeable effect on violence in society. I am suspicious of "entertainment violence", such as The A-Team, particularly with reference to children - kids need more heroes like Doctor Who, saving the world through brains and not brawn. But that's the role of parents in judging what is wholesome for their kids to consume.

The twin in the movie violence debate is the violent video game. As mentioned above, video games are as valid an artistic experience as a film - so should get the same rights. Having never played one, I've always assumed I stood in the same place.

No. No I don't, emphatically not - coming into proper contact has raked this whole debate up again, even when I thought I'd done it to death and was bored.


The problem wasn't so much with Bioshock. The game is beautifully designed, giving you a strong experience aside from killing stuff. I experienced very vivid emotions while playing, but this was targeted on the characters: pity for the splicers, mad love for Andrew Ryan, and a strong sympathy with Jack, the character I was playing. His desire to get home, his total dislocation really affected me. When sneaking down corridors, my mind was ticking on the issues being raised by the story - in particular, something the game never explored. I couldn't help but be distracted by the tragedy of having to "splice" magic powers to survive attacks by "splicers" who had gone mad and become addicted because of the splicing process. The thought of becoming what I was fighting was my primary concern; and with it, that to escape I had to contribute to the destruction of a beautiful city which I really came to love. The enemies are obviously mad zombies, you primarily attack them with magic powers and the location is very far dislocated by anything you could experience in real life. It is also a very scary game - you get sufficienly involved by it that the survival instinct kicks in, and you kill things because you have to. Opportunities to hurt anything like a real human raised in me a huge level of antipathy, and I believe this is encouraged by the game.

Perhaps apt to the questions I mentioned above, the game touches on the morality/life dichotomy. You crash land and discover an underwater city, built to escape the cold war and where "the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, where the great would not be constrained by the small". In other words, built on selfishness - built on people who would make violent cinema without considering the human consequences. But the city is in ruins, death by selfishness; and the game's narrative gives you regular opportunities to either act selfishly or for personal gain. All this puts morality at the forefront of the experience, and constantly forces you to think about what you are doing and why. Maybe this softens the effect of the violence?

The chief emotion I experienced throughout- and this is absolutely exploited - is pathos: for the Little Sisters, for the Big Daddies, for the splicers, for Ryan and the rest, for the city itself, for the main character, and ultimately, it all rather upset me in a very enjoyable manner.

Grand Theft Auto

I had been thinking about the debate while playing it, because I did enjoy killing things very much. So my next choice was perhaps obvious: Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.

Well, shit. I didn't actually try the whole game, just spent an afternoon on sandbox mode, but my response was very different. Unlike Bioshock, it is set in a very familiar location and is packed with real-world detail. The fact the graphics were unrealistic actually made it worse - I think I would have found it harder to hurt or threaten people if the visuals had been less bright and blocky. There are no long-term consequences to creating mayhem: escaping cops is easy, nothing goes on your permenant record and you merely lose your arsenal and get let out ten hours later if caught. And there are certainly no emotional consequences - unlike poor lost Jack onto whom I could project my isolation at being in a strange place, you are playing a criminal. And unlike brooding horror, GTA is packed with exciting upbeat rock.

All that is cold rationalisations why the violence in GTA affected me in a different way to Bioshock. I don't know how far any of them are "true". All I know is that pointing and clicking at someone's head, then watching it explode in a shower of blood gave me a very visceral reaction. If I could avoid killing in Bioshock, then I did - and those times I had to assassinate something I recognised as human gave me a very vivid "do not want!" experience. Within five minutes on GTA, we were attempting to replicate the Ripper killings by luring them around corners and dicing them with the katana for the LOLs. Holy smokes, I'm a pacifist. And a Doctor Who fan. And I think trivialising the Ripper killings is sick.

I think the chief difference is, GTA does not give you an emotional compass to work from. Life hasn't shown you how to respond to your myriad violent options, and the game doesn't help. And one of the ways humans react to such situations is with humour - think of a nervous laugh, awkward smiles or bad taste jokes. You can't comprehend the horror of a child's corpse - so here, have a dead baby joke. A lot of my generation feign racist/imperalist beliefs - even among my most liberal pals - that they absolutely do not hold, and to my mind it's because racism is so terrible you often can't respond to it sincerely without being totally swamped. Tarantino movies do something similar with their combo of violence and humour. Hence why replicating the Ripper killings suddenly seemed amusing and acceptable.

I also experienced, even temporarily, a total desensitisation towards violence. As mentioned above, my mind is as malleable as pulped intestine - so being immersed in such a game did have an effect on me. I felt like yes, this could have a noticeable effect on my real life if played to excess. Humans respond very quickly to learned behavior - there are stories of WOW players who escaped wild animals with their online skills, of ER viewers who have saved lives. Scientists have proved that neurotics are better in survival situations - people on, say, a train who spend the journey panicing that it might crash respond quicker to their mental worst-case-scenarios instead of freezing. I was so pumped up after watching Run, Lola, Run that when I was accidentally locked into the bathroom ten minutes later, I climbed out of the window and made my own escape. I do not think I would have done that in a calmer state of mind.

On the Sims, when you click another character you get a dial of interaction options. If they are a stranger, you might be able to "Greet" or "Tell Joke". But if you put time into making them friends, the number of interaction options increases - and now you can do everything from "Attack" to "Romance", with numerous options within. I feel that if confronted with a real weapon, I feel my options have expanded from "Panic!" and "Put It Down" to, in the right situation, "Use". Bear in mind I only played for about four hours, so I am sure the number of positive messages I'm getting outweighs the negative ones.

Nevertheless, I felt rather queer about the whole experience for a while afterwards. My chief question, as mentioned above, was "should we be enjoying this?" Which is NEVER a question I have asked about film before. You identify with film characters and you choose to watch, so you are thereby complicit in any bloodletting taking place. But having the power to point and shoot when you choose draws attention to the decision making process, and makes you directly involved, which is perhaps now it suddenly seems dirtier.

A friend has suggested that, with my background in violent media scholarship, perhaps my reaction was a response to what I know of GTA's reputation. This may be correct (and so it might also be of Bioshock).

Dead Space

Undeterred, I looked for another game to play properly, all the way through and chose Dead Space - sci-fi horror. Now, this was another realistic one and very beautiful too. You are running up and down rusty, light-flickery corridors, very post-Alien, and being attacked by fleshy spider creatures. One of the game's USPs is the combat. You can aim very accurately, and emphasis is on disabling Necromorphs instead of diminishing their damage points. Which is a pretty cool system, when you think about it, as it takes into account realistic injury. Once I got ahang of the controls, I adopted a definite tactic - one or two shots to the legs so they collapse to the floor, and while they flailing are struggling to move, one to the head. Followed by a good kicking to make sure they are definitely dead.

Well. Quite.

As such, it is a very sadistic game indeed. Even though the Necromorphs are the least human thing I've attacked in this experiment, the game system requires you to think carefully about how best to cause pain - with the obligatory satisfying splatter of blood. I was not comfortable with this, and switched off after about half an hour. It seemed like Deep Space was trying to develop a plot, but it didn't sufficiently draw me in that time to give an emotional compass which made killing Necromorphs in that fashion acceptable to me.

A summing up

I had three different responses:

  • Bioshock: realistic style, unrealistic situation. Could play.
  • GTA: Non realistic style, realistic situation. Could play, but later felt sick at myself.
  • DS: realistic style, fairly unrealistic situation. Couldn't play.
Perhaps we are dealing with two different debates, and far from what I always assumed what is good for cinema is not good for videogames.

Something Dead Space and GTA have in common is they are "third person". You play the game over the shoulder of your character; in Bioshock, your eyes are the whole screen. Of cinema, I would say that detatchment is the best response to violence - viewing the violent characters as alien to oneself, as something on show. If you feel close association with violent characters it is more likely for the film to break out into real life. Perhaps when I could see my avatars on screen in DS and GTA it enabled me to be more violent than when I was immersed in Bioshock. This is a strong reversal to what I would claim about cinema: I think immersive film violence is more dangerous than when you have a bit of perspective.

I would also say that consequence-free movie violence is more troubling than high-rated sticky screaming, and this is backed up by my video game experiment. GTA was sufficiently fake looking, and free from consequence that I created some quite enthusiastic mayhem even though the rendering of blood was quite dilligent. Bioshock felt like a real world, but my disgust was padded by an obvious fantasy setting and magical powers. I felt troubled at killing some characters - but not the hordes of default zombies. I completed the game. Deep Space had realistic graphics, and was set in a world which, despite monsters and the futuristic tech, still felt sufficiently real that I could not continue. I felt it was encouraging me to be cruel

Strong narratives are better than weak ones. Like the best movies, Bioshock manipulated me throughout - but I felt like I chose how to feel in any given situation. Even though it was usually how it wanted me to feel. It both dictated my emotional response, and asked me to formulate my own. I brought my real-world morals to it - it did not give it's game-world morals to me. GTA rewards villainy, Bioshock rewards something but it doesn't immediately tell you what that is, and that sense of identification made me check my own actions on several occasions. So freedom is not a good thing: GTA and DS never really told me how I should be responding to the game experience, and I found it consequently more difficult to create a story. Whereas I would say deciding how you stand on a film, instead of having it obviously prescribed, was important.

To sum up my response:
  • The more I recognise a creature as "real" - either due to the quality of graphics or their human appearance and personality - the harder I find killing.
  • Conversely, if characters have no personality, are fantasy/fictional or are presented with unrealistic graphics, I find it very easy.
  • The more immersed I am personally in a game, the more I feel as if my personal integrity is at stake - the better I will be have, the harder I find killing.
  • Conversely, the cartoonishness of GTA and possibly the third person perspective of both allowed me greater freedom to do things I would not in life.
  • The harder a game works to make a world emotionally satisfying, and ascribe ethical/emotional meaning to actions on screen, the more invested I feel in it, and the harder I find killing.
  • Conversely - you get the drift.
Despite all this - and this is the important bit - I feel these unrealistic games did tug at my primal human bloodlust in the real world with more than the realistic. This may only be true for me, but yes I believe they have real life consequences and can be dangerous in eroding moral values. Do I think violent video games should recieve tighter legislation? Yes, definitely - different to how I feel about film, but perhaps that is because I don't have the same passion as for them.

Probably. But then see every single argument I made on films above - they still apply. I'm flexible. I'm also a rather flawed test dummy as I've only ever played a few console games, and thus perhaps the novelty gave them greater effect over my emotions. If I had played hundreds, perhaps I would be desensitised and better recognise them as fiction, nothing more.


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