Sometimes games want you to think they're critiquing violence, but instead they legitimize it
Video games, I worry, carry this unknowing. We agree to things that would be utterly horrific in the actual fictions of a game. I want to distinguish between the anti-violence, anti-“manshooter” rhetoric that most people deploy on this issue. I’m not concerned with what you are doing. I’m concerned with what the action, repeated over and over again and celebrated, allows for us to legitimize it in our daily lives.
The celebration of ten billion digital deaths as a milestone in human history bothers me. The utter pleasure that games culture gets from these events, and the utter lack of reflexivity on the issue, freaks me out. Video games are a part of culture. Culture enforces norms. Anita Sarkeesian can tell you all about it. So can Maddy Myers.
So my worry has transformed into a keen sense of what kind of norm a video game enforces.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is brutal. Progression is synonymous with dissection and torture. Learning about the alien means tearing it apart and militarizing its body. Everything exists to be uncovered–tearing apart an alien cyborg, to quote Bruno Latour, “makes nature speak.”
The engineer explains: “We do not know our enemy. How can we hope to stop something we do not understand? If we can capture one of these creatures alive, we may be able to…communicate with it.” The military personnel immediately understands: “…and interrogate it,” he intones.
And I can’t help but feel like this is the exact same conversation that took place before the Executive Branch of the United States started performing extraordinary renditions.
The actions that we take have consequences that aren’t immediately apparent. The scariest part is that those actions don’t have to happen in the “real world” to have serious effects on our day-to-day meatlives. XCOM, in some small way, legitimizes a certain way of acting in and thinking about the world.
Mind you, XCOM is reflective. The engineer, old white worrying man that he is, repeatedly spoke to me while I was playing. In many worried voiceovers, accompanied by slow-moving text, he expressed his fears about “losing our humanity” due to the research that the XCOM Program was performing. The head of the science division, a knowledge-hungry German scientist at the end of a long line of the same, shouted over him.
And you know what? When I booted up my alien communication station and when I created my first psychic XCOM soldier and when I forced that soldier to communicate with the spooky alien hivemind, the scientist was right. The old worrying engineer with his concerns for my humanity was quickly forgotten because the scientist was right.
The relationship between the engineer and the scientist operates as a call and response. The young hotshot woman is your drives, your motor, your will to move forward and do whatever has to be done in order to finish the mission. The old white man is your conscience. He tells you to slow down. “Maybe we don’t need all these new-fangled psychic powers,” he emotes. “Maybe we can get along with our shooty guns and our explodey grenades.” (Side note: these representations are fucked.)
The strangest, and maybe saddest part, about all of this is that the player knows instinctively how to play. I knew immediately that I was going to have to torture aliens and genetically modify my soldiers in order to play that game. The possibility for cooperation was always-already closed off, though I can’t articulate why. I just knew. There is no question. The ethical question, then, is a beautiful failure. Why have the debate in game? Why pretend like there is some kind of grey area that the player is having to navigate? Is is supposed to make me ask questions?
A double danger, then. In the first register, the ideological problem: it legitimizes a certain way of thinking of science as a silver bullet that must be pursued at all costs. In the second, the critique it presents internally is only the shell of one. It is a mask that the game wears in order to make you believe a lie which is, in this instance, the very possibility of choice.
It’s normal. That’s how the world works, after all. A bad man does a bad thing–send a drone. That was the only possible choice, don’t you see? A country is in turmoil–we had to set up a puppet government, don’t you see? She knows some information. She had to be waterboarded.