The Leaderboard: E3 and the American Art of Violence

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Drew Dixon views the violent videogames of E3 from a broader cultural context.

If someone completely oblivious to American culture were to visit E3, they’d likely perceive us to be a gun-and sex-obsessed culture at best—barbaric jingoists at worst. And yet, videogames are supposedly a bastion of creativity;—a medium rife with innovation. In an era of economic uncertainty, videogames are a thriving business;—one to which some of the brightest minds are turning. And yet, as I watched demo after demo at E3, I couldn’t help but notice what all this supposed creativity was being devoted to, namely, the taking of human life. It wasn’t just the fact that the majority of games at E3 featured guns and violence that caught my attention, it was the elaborate manner in which that violence was being carried out.

In Splinter Cell: Blacklist, the player is encouraged to pile up kills with a certain savage elegance. After Sam Fisher systematically takes out a group of seven Arab terrorists, Maxime Beland, the game’s creative director, rejoices;, “Now that’s killing in motion!” As if our previous modes of killing were far too crude and arduous. Another Ubisoft game, Assassin’s Creed 3, showed the protagonist using special gadgets to hang enemies from trees and elegantly jumping down to stab assailants with tomahawks and bayonets. Far Cry 3’s demo showed the player shooting the locks off tiger cages releasing them to devour your enemies. Even the much ballyhooed Watch Dogs promoted creative means of taking human lives as the player orchestrated a massive car wreck in the demo.

Add to the above examples the savage violence on display in The Last of Us, the continued presence of predictable military shooters; and the misogynistic violence of games like the new Tomb Raider; and Hitman: Absolution, and you get a pretty clear picture of the creativity present in AAA videogames. If videogames are a hot bed of any particular brand of creativity, they are hot bed of creative killing.

There have, of course, been many attempts; to tie various problems in society to the popularity of violent videogames. It should be noted that these attempts have failed to prove a correlation between videogames and real social ills. And yet the amount of creativity devoted to violence at the medium’s largest trade show certainly says something about the culture in which they are represented. Given this narrow focus in the AAA space, what is supposedly the most exciting medium in entertainment reveals itself to be creatively impoverished.

It is important to note the intent of most elegantly violent videogames. In most game narratives, the player is not enacting stylized violence for selfish gain but rather for social good. To be fair, videogames rarely give us violence for violence’s sake. Violence in games tends to be simultaneously productive and cheap—it solves problems and rarely comes with significant consequences. For every game like Far Cry 2 or Shadow of the Colossus that highlights the futility of violence, there are a dozen war games with infinite respawns and regenerative health. The counter argument in favor of such games is that they are entertainment, not violence simulations. Lana Polansky recently offered this refutation:

“Sure videogames are not violence simulators—this is a ridiculous strawman—but no less are they ‘simple entertainment’ incapable of affecting the way we think about the world around us. So we must address them with respect for nuance;. Games, like all media, are capable of influencing our attitudes toward real-world social ills, how we process them and how seriously we take them. This is a far cry from videogames actually making us do anything, but still hugely important to how we internalize and think about our culture.

We must not blame the videogame industry for this lack of nuance. Given the massive growth of the game industry in the last 10 years, it’s safe to say that big game companies are doing their market research. These companies are giving players what they want. Furthermore, consider that 183 million Americans play videogames for a least an hour a day; and 69% of American households play games regularly. Most people in our country play videogames and the many violent games displayed at E3 were not created in a vacuum. Further videogames aren’t alone in re-imagining violence. We stylize violence in our highest grossing films (i.e. Avengers, Transformers and Avatar) and rap about it in best-selling songs.

We live in a country whose military is carrying out operations in the majority of the world’s countries and that has produced a cult of school shootings that have proven to be a decidedly American phenomenon;;. Clearly our fascination with violence runs deeper than our love for Call of Duty games.

While there is little-to-no data signifying that videogames have made our culture more violent, it seems clear that violent videogames are products of an already violent culture. We are aware of this culture of violence but we rarely stop to consider it. For instance, we know our country’s many wars represent a tremendous loss of life. But we stop short of considering the cost and settle for thanking our soldiers for their sacrifice. We maintain a rather convenient cultural distance from the violence inherent to the real wars that real Americans are fighting.

I wonder if we cultivate a similar, if less dangerous, distance between ourselves and what the violent actions our avatars represent when we constantly praise games for giving us creative means of killing our enemies?

We must recognize that E3 is not an accurate representation of videogames as a medium or even the majority of gamers. Indie games represent a wealth of creativity and some big games are at least claiming to explore the implications of the violence they depict;. However E3 is an accurate depiction of the values of our culture. So while it is certainly important to challenge developers to extend their creativity beyond the realm of violence, I believe it’s even more important to ask why so many games continue to be cavalier about violence. It’s a question that might help us better understand our country, the world we live in and our place in it.

Drew Dixon is an editor-in-chief of Game Church. He also edits for Christ and Pop Culture and writes about videogames for Relevant Magazine and Think Christian. Follow him on Twitter.