I often find myself on the back foot defending my particular interests as an adult. Putting aside my love for professional wrestling, the other hobby that has consistently always given me the most flak is my love of video games. For the most part, the source of these discussions are rooted in misinformation. Video games are a young medium, only existing for about 50 years, and is subject to a large amount of stereotypes that assisted its resurrection in the late 80s and early 90s that still persist today. On occasion, however, I find myself answering one of two very specific and enduring claims: “why aren’t you doing something better with your life instead of playing video games?” (because I’m a disappointment, that’s why), and “video game violence causes violence in real life”. This familiar refrain has reared its ugly head once again, thanks to Imperial Overlord Trump’s comments regarding potential effects of violent video games on their players, in the aftermath of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.
Video game players, critics and enthusiasts have been challenging these claims ever since the formation of the Electronic Software Ratings Board in 1994, and even further beyond that, and it is a discussion that we are tired of having. But, in my humble opinion, it is also a conversation we are going about in completely the wrong way. We could point to legitimate scientific research that indicates there is no evidence to support the theory that video games prime their players to behave or react in certain ways, or any number of formal court rulings that firmly place the correlation as a myth. The fact remains that as long as violence exists in our media forms, it will be scrutinized by those looking at in at a purely surface level. This is even more problematic if the players form an interactive relationship with that violence, even while we claim that this relationship is purely cathartic.
So let’s answer a different question. Are video games using violence properly? To answer that, we have to examine a few examples throughout video game history, and we’re starting with the one that assisted in the creation of the ESRB all those years ago: Mortal Kombat.
OH JESUS CHRIST I’M SORRY I’LL STOP
In 1991, creators Ed Boon and John Tobias were tasked to make a game that would compete with the arcade juggernaut known as Street Fighter II. After ten months of development, they had come out with the original Mortal Kombat, which grabbed attention in the arcades for being the bloodier, more mature answer to its competition, and also because you could rip someone’s head off with the spine still attached. The genesis of this “fatality” system- the title given to the most grotesque finishing moves in the games – came from the concept of being “dizzied” or stunned in other fighting game systems, allowing a free hit from the opponent. Instead of the feeling of receiving cheap hits from an opponent, the developers decided to input that same system at the end of the fight, where the outcome had already been confirmed.
This end-match dizzy became a point where players were encouraged to one-up their opponent. One of the lead story writers and artists for the Mortal Kombat series, John Vogel, credits the idea of the fatality as “the desire to rub it in someone’s face, to just…finish that person…”. That in itself, is innocuous enough, and the fatalities that followed were seen as a last minute addition more than anything else. With Mortal Kombat II, however, Boon noted the fatality as a “showcase feature”, wanting to push the envelope to separate his creation from the competition. The progression from that point on was textbook: a desire to shock and wow the audience with increasingly brutal finishing moves as a cornerstone to their fighting system defined the series’ adherence to the escalation of violence into graphic absurdity.
Basically this, but with more blood explosion. Blo-sions.
Looking at the game’s origins, it is not hard to see what the creators were going for. From the outside looking in, however, these acts of simulated violence, and the player’s willing and enthusiastic participation with them, caused a media firestorm that still flares up even in the present day. This shock and disgust could be seen as potentially misinformed troglodytes that don’t know what video games even are, but their fears are completely justified. When the Mortal Kombat franchise entered the realm of home consoles, with gratuitous violence as its primary selling point, moral panic was a logical conclusion. To defend such a game put you in the cross-hairs of advocacy groups claiming your psychopathy, because it was violence for violence’s sake, at the behest of its creators and marketers. And yet somehow, some twenty years later, Mortal Kombat X is hailed as one of the best fighting games ever created, surviving the waves of consumer watchdogs and various attempts to censor the violence that the Mortal Kombat series required to survive.
At its core is the notion that, regardless of any intentions to shock and awe the audience with over-the-top displays of violence, Mortal Kombat displays exactly that: over-the-top, almost impossibly grotesque violence, as acts that could not ever possibly be replicated. In the pursuit of excess, Mortal Kombat has the good sense of embrace and relish in it, without ever endorsing its violence. Placing it as a selling point, as a showcase feature, meant that you could never experience these flashes of violence when playing with amateurs. Yet in the back of your mind, you knew that below the surface of its slightly jammy exterior was a river of over-the-top bombastic displays of pixelated brutality. That is its primary catharsis: the heart that keeps the Mortal Kombat series alive and well.
To say all of this, Mortal Kombat is not aiming to be a morally appealing game. It does not have it in its DNA. This brings me back to the conversation: does Mortal Kombat use its violence correctly? If the context is to shock and disgust, then Mortal Kombat succeeds in spades. On the other hand, no one would accuse Mortal Kombat of positing any deep moral quandaries. It is a game about beating people up in horrible ways. That, in and of itself, does not need defending or policing. It just is, and Mortal Kombat’s continued existence is the red headed stepchild to any conversation about violence and video games. While games like it exist, as well as similar games like Postal, Hatred and the God Of War series – games that also revel in excess – the comment will always be in the back of the minds of everyone that casts a cursory glance over the medium: how could it ever have anything meaningful to say when games like that not only exist, but enjoy huge amounts of success?
“It’s so over-the-top violent and crazy that you almost can’t take it seriously” – EB
It goes without saying that the discussion of violence in video games, particularly in its effects on players, should always be contextualised. In Mortal Kombat’s case, violence is its glue, and fantastic feats of blood and gore are its constituent parts. But unlike other mediums, we are compelled to participate in this violence in order to play the game to its fullest. The question, then, changes from violence in its intent, to violence in the message it conveys. Is the violence that the player participates in simply a tool for catharsis, for stress relief and for the act of showing up another player or avatar competitively? Can violence be harnessed to tell a meaningful message about its impact, its consequences, and the damage it leaves behind?
A question like that is hard to answer. I think I have the right game for the job though.
Part 2 of this article will land Tuesday, where we look at one of the most talked about games of 2011: Spec Ops: The Line. Image credits go to Netherrealm Studios, the Chicago Tribune, and The MMA Corner.