Hyper-realistic video games and the pathology of violence
It was primarily through video games that I interacted with my older brothers. They would beat me mercilessly in fighting games and get pissed at me for always dying when we played X-Men Legends on our Xbox. When my father – disguised as Santa – gave our family an Xbox for Christmas one year, he addressed it to the family, but we all knew that it really belonged to my brother. It was within the confines of that black plastic box that I had the vast majority of my exchanges with my older brothers, two people who were already men by the time I had become truly conscious of them. And I suppose it’s because of this kinship, and because video games played such a role in bringing me into my family that I am so fond of them now.
One of the things which I missed about the United States is having my video game console. Although I rarely played games last semester because of my busy schedule, I still found solace in having my Xbox 360 with me at school. When I had friends over, I would challenge them to play me in fighting games – Soul Calibur V, Injustice: Gods Among Us, and Street Fighter IV, to name a few – and it would be enjoyable to use the simulated reality of video games to foster a deeper connection with my friends.
One of the games which I miss the most is actually Grand Theft Auto V. The game is revolutionary for so many reasons, and demonstrates just how successful Rockstar Games is at developing a small universe as complex and dynamic as our very own for the consumption and enjoyment of millions. The game is, of course, problematic for several reasons, but one is remiss to ignore the inherent social issues which such a game raises because GTA V, like all videos games, seem to function outside of a world tainted by the touch of social justice warriors. Within this digital realm of voice actors, graphical engines and simulated physics, we can escape the terrors and tribulations of our existence, diving into a hyper-realistic world in which we can make true the wildest and most debauched of our primal fantasies.
Oftentimes when I find myself bored with missions, I partake in a bit of destruction and mayhem. You can tell from the way that the game is created that this is something the developers perhaps encourage. Within the expansive area of Los Santos, there are millions of generated non-playable characters (NPC) which walk or drive in the streets on simulated, predetermined paths. Some of these NPCs are walking with friends, partaking in conversations which draw from GTA V’s incredibly large bank of voiceover data. The player often cannot interact with these characters as we would interact with pedestrians on the street. He – it is important to note that the protagonists of the GTA games and most, if not all, of the games within its genre, are always male and usually white – cannot say hello, cannot wave, cannot ask them how they are doing. The only possible interaction between these simulated ghost-people is violence, the degree of which is determined by the severity of the player’s intent. A brush will often send an NPC spinning to the side, prompting the computer to respond as a real person would – “Watch it, bitch” or, depending on where you are, a Spanish or Patois variation of this phrase. Sometimes they may attempt to fight you, provoking even more of a violent response.
What happens most often when you give someone a controller and let them play a game like GTA V or Watch Dogs or Sleeping Dogs or even Skyrim is an expression of violence which these games condone. The person realizes how easy it is to kill someone in a fictitious world because there are no real-world ramifications for their actions. There is little guilt in our murderous affairs in this simulated world, and the absence of that guilt – that which we assume, perhaps incorrectly, to be an essentially human emotion – as we take the lives of innocent pedestrians baring an increasingly uncanny likeness to real world people tells us something about the role the video game serves in expressing our innermost savagery.
When we are violent to one another in real life, we often must deal with the repercussions of our actions. Friends will no longer speak to us, loved ones will grow distant and we will find ourselves lonely and remorseful for our behavior. It is for this reason, this fear of ostracism, that we curtail this very human desire within us. And still it bubbles out in forms which we deem to be less hurtful – in mean gestures or the spreading of vicious lies – but violence of any kind still possesses the ability to wound us for violence is a deliberate infliction of harm unto another person, be it bodily, spiritually or emotionally. We are raised to despise violence, although it is impossible to escape it. In fact, we often find violent displays deeply satisfying in ways we do not understand. When there is a fight in the school cafeteria, we are often driven to chase the scene and watch, shocked by the horrors of blood and battery which the display creates, but nonetheless mesmerized by what is perhaps at the heart of our human experience. We pay millions and millions of dollars to watch two men beat each other senseless on cable television, betting millions more on the victor of a contest of grit and brawn.
There is something both gratifying and disturbing about our human desires towards bloodshed, something we all, as members of civilized society, strive to reduce or remove from our lives. Our major religions teach us to see violence as a sin, and therefore as behaviors which are to be avoided, but are at the same time very critical to our natures. To be good people, we must curtail and contain our primal urges for sex, money and violence lest we become artifices of the very things used to define us our characters.
Yet, the video game allows for a way out of this moral dilemma. Just as a person taught to view his sexuality – his body’s natural yearnings, the wiring of his brain and genitalia – as inherently evil, repressing his desires, allowing them to bubble up and out dangerously, a person who fears the inner wrath within him may find himself leaning towards disastrous and unhealthy ways of sating his urges. The person is perhaps not broken innately, but the programming which he has been given by his environment has trained him to ignore what is within his very nature and to fear himself for bearing such emotions. Of course, we cannot allow men and women to go around killing one another in order to sate their innermost urges, but we also cannot continue to teach a dated and markedly flawed approach towards developing social consciences. Thus we must develop new tools for releasing the foul energies to which some of us – or most of us, really – are prone, and video games offer a solution to this.
A video game functions within an alternate reality ungoverned by the legal or social codes of our societies. Within a world like GTA V, there is little punishment. A player can kill forty civilians, have the cops chase him for twenty minutes before he dips into a part of town where the cops aren’t on the prowl, hides in an ally and becomes, once again, anonymous. Video game police officers do not have records, do not remember faces – they exist as solely a countermeasure towards uninhibited mass killing, the likes of which can be overridden by a player with enough skill. In the case that the character dies, in the example of GTA, they are rushed to a hospital and revived, a bit of their money siphoned off to cover the fictitious expenditures of their ordeal. In the case of Skyrim, a game which has the open-world aspects of GTA within the framework of a fantasy adventure game, characters are fined for their crimes, thrown in the local jail or attacked until they’re killed by the town guards. In the jail cell, one is given the opportunity to escape if they have the cunning and skill to do so, or to simply interact with the bed and sleep their way through their jail sentence.
Because the video game reality is so much unlike our own, granting us immortality and godlike powers, the video game can therefore serve as an alternative form of reality in which the governing rules of our scientific, legalistic and moralistic world do not apply. We are free to live out our fantasies by having sex with prostitutes (GTA) and buying up land and taxing the high hell out of our tenets (Fable II) or drowning an entire family in a swimming pool (The Sims). There is no psychosocial framework at play, nor a legal system, nor the laws of physics, really, which inhibit us from living out our fantasies, and thus the video game is but a step above a lucid dream. It becomes a living, interactive fantasy through which we are able to live out the most terrifying of our vices.
I foresee a future where the video game will have less than a marginal and misunderstood role in our society. As the technology increases, so too will the possibilities of what the video game can accomplish for our society. There is a general fear that video games encourage immoral behaviors, but the academic community is currently at odds with this question, mostly because the question assumes that one can easily make a one-to-one correlation between video game consumption and violence. Often, when considering someone’s aggressiveness or sexual deviancy, there are a variety of factors at play, likely dating back deep into one’s development as a child, before most parents even allow their children to play video games.
At the same time, I imagine that the push for hyper-realism in video games will also begin to shift our interactions with the video game world. Will the mechanics change, forcing us to obey sets of moral codes which developers have programmed into the games? Will we only have one life, forcing us to completely start over from scratch in order to make the game more challenging and reflective of our daily lives? Will our devilish interactions with the world around us impact our visibility and treatment, and if so, how will this treatment disadvantage our characters? All of these are questions which developers have programmed already into their games, and which will shape the ways by which we interact with these digital worlds in the coming years.