Violence in games, movies, and Shakespeare


How different is it to watch a soldier be riddled with bullets in a movie than to pull the trigger in a video game? Society obviously thinks the latter is more damaging.

photo courtesy Games Press Screenshot from Manhunt 2 

Manhunt 2 was released this week after being slapped with an “Adults Only” rating by the Entertainment Software Rating Board this summer. An “Adults Only” rating pretty much guarantees that a game won’t make it into Wal-Mart or games-only stores like GameCrazy – and that it won’t be made for a Nintendo platform at all. The new version isn’t much different from the original – a couple of cut cut scenes and some blurrier executions – but was just enough to get through.

In a New York Times article dissecting the debate, Seth Schiesel pointed out that while “Halo is often described as a ‘violent space epic’ or a ‘violent shoot-’em-up game,’” “when was the last time Star Wars was described as George Lucas’s ‘violent space movie’?”

It’s a fair point, but it’s also a little bit misleading. I’m an avid video gamer, and I like nailing a head shot as much as the next guy, but I can tell you that it’s a vastly different sense of euphoria than what I get from watching Luke make the run down the Death Star trench before, in an infinitely more violent act, wiping out a space station filled with thousands of people.

And it’s a good thing, too.

Video games are visceral, active experiences. Movies and TV shows are passive. That’s not to knock TV. I’m currently ending most days now with an episode of The Wire, but that’s only after an hour of Team Fortress 2 (and occasional social engagements that actually involve leaving the house). Team Fortress 2 takes my participation whereas I can wind down watching The Wire.

photo / Official Star Wars Blog Will these kids really grow up to be smugglers and bounty hunters? 

Or, in a more McLuhanian approach, if most movies are “hot media” in that they overwhelm one sense and don’t require much participation to create meaning out of the experience, and TV is “cool” in that it’s more roundly engaging, then video games are ice cold. They’re colder than cold. They’re haptic.

Most video games require touch. Even if it’s just in the single joystick of Atari’s pong, players are physically connected to the events on screen at the same time that they’re trying to rack their brains to process the mass of information being streamed at them. In modern games, there’s rumble and motion control. (Motion control makes some groups particularly concerned, or excited, about the Wii’s version of Manhunt 2.)

In fact, the experience of playing a video game isn’t very much like watching TV or a movie for me. It’s a lot closer to being on stage as the actor. I’ve had the good fortune to both play Leonato in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and watch it performed – a lot. In one scene, Leonato goes apeshit on his daughter for sleeping around. In the Kenneth Branaugh version of the play, he knocks her around their arbor and pulls some of her hair out. It didn’t phase me much, but – and I’m not a great actor – I had a tough time bringing myself to just shout at the poor girl.

Somewhere in between are video games. In Bioshock, the steampunk-meets–Ayn Rand epic that hit in August, users have the choice to “harvest” (kill) little monster girls and steal their energy or rescue them for a lower immediate payoff. I rescued every last one of those girls. My friend, who’s a great guy, took the quicker route. He didn’t feel bad at all.

And he shouldn’t. Just like viewers shouldn’t feel bad about the thousands – well, probably million – of lives lost on a moon-sized battle station. Because one is a game and one is a movie. They’re both fiction, and they both offer ways for people to (1) experiment with how that sort of action feels, and (2) take part in the type of stories that have been told since the Stone Age. Though it’s only fair to note that Star Wars and The Sopranos, which Schiesel also references as violence without the bad rap, are more narratively engaging than most video games. Bioshock may tell a good story, but Halo 3 is still mostly a shoot-’em-up.

I decided a while ago that some ethical questions – like whether or not violent video games or violent movies are dangerous to society – are best left to science. Unfortunately, the jury is still out on that question. Come on, science!

In the mean time, common sense can hold some sway. Kids, the itty-bitty ones and the immature, probably shouldn’t play games where they eviscerate cops. They probably shouldn’t watch those types of movies either. For us older folks, everything in moderation. And when we do play violent video games, we should experiment with how it feels to be both the good guy and the bad guy.

Because while there’s a bias against new media like video games – and before them television, film, radio, comic books, and theatre – it’s not completely reasonable to compare their treatment to older media. It’s not a case of apples and oranges, but one orange to a much more intense, emotionally stimulating, and interactive orange.

By the way, if you want to test the theory for yourself, hackers have already reinstated the cut material into Manhunt 2. Happy mauling.