Sometimes games want you to think they're critiquing violence, but instead they legitimize it

There is a cost for everything.

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.


  1. Brauhaus

    It’s the “Truffaut was right” trope, I suppose. The one that says one can’t make a truly anti-war movie. In games, interactivity demands players to perform action and the most fundamental action in any game is to win, conquer and kill. If killing is how you communicate in games, we will never be able to make a non-violent game.

    • fnord3125

      @Brauhaus But there are already non-violent games.

      • @fnord3125 Meant anti-violent; sorry.

  2. The fact that the bonus you get for stationing your base in South America is called “We have ways…” and grants instant interrogation and autopsies made feel a little uneasy, since it summoned vaguely Nazi-esque connotations for me. This is reinforced by the way the game starts the interrogation by lowering a wall that obscures what actually happens. The implication of torture is clear, but it dodges the nitty gritty fundamentals. Also, not to quibble but I thought Dr. Shen (the engineer) was Asian, given the name and the fact that he was voiced by this guy:

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  4. Fengxii

    It’s too bad you didn’t go over Hotline Miami; I think that would strengthened your case even further.

    • ckunzelman

      @Fengxii I hadn’t finished Hotline Miami when I wrote this, and I’m also not sure how I feel about that game yet.

  5. lordtrickster

    What’s your take on the Warhammer 40k mythos?  It doesn’t even try to set up the grey area, humanity is a long way down the path of doing what is necessary.  At best, the only vaguely moral decision you get is whether to dabble with demonic powers, basically a choice between Inquisitor or eventual target for Inquisitors.  Does the lack of a mask make it better or worse?

  6. A Viescas

    “The possibility for cooperation was always-already closed off, though I can’t articulate why.”

    From a critical perspective, the answer is simple: because it’s about defending Earth from ruthless and terrifying aliens who are fundamentally different from us AND attacking us for no reason, e.g. as far from real war as you can possibly get. A game in a long line of similar “alien invaders” concepts, which is occasionally use to demonize other cultures (e.g. Red Dawn), but is tolerable to non-bigots because the “aliens” don’t really exist. This is “righteous war” taken up to the nines. Everything complicated about real war–namely, that it involves conflict with other humans and ideals about reality–goes away and becomes a matter of pure survival.

    (This is also why I never played the remake. I played the original game back in the day, but the demo turned me right off because everything I needed to know about the game’s “ethics” I got in the first five minutes, and I found it… repellant.)

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  10. Michael Boucher

    Well said! While playing Skyrim, I decided to make my character “chaotic good” but I found out to my disappointment that in order to enjoy the game thoroughly and to discover key secrets, I would have been better off playing murderous chaotic evil person who do whatever he damn pleases including participating in murders and cannibalism. Wonderful eh?

    • Mygaffer Nunya

      That is a little bit of a chicken and egg thing though, isn’t it? I assume you are referring to the thief’s guild and dark brotherhood quest lines? If your character is a chaotic good he wouldn’t be joining those types of organizations anyway, correct? There are plenty of other quests and free form play your character could have undertaken.

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  12. Mygaffer Nunya

    You are not giving nearly enough credit to these game’s audience. You really think the majority of XCOM players are OK with the idea of extraordinary rendition b/c of the dissection of aliens?
    That is preposterous. Of course the great things about these articles is that you can espouse a view like that and give no convincing evidence and no convincing argument that it is true.
    The game plays out like it does because the game play takes precedence over the message. The hand wringing takes place to add flavor, not to provide a nuanced view of the ethics of war.
    I hate to sound so harsh but you have totally got a hold of the wrong end of the stick here. Gamers are not forming their world view from CODBLOPSII and XCOM. They are not building a personal value system by playing video games. They may explore their value system in the safe space of a video game, acting out scenarios they wouldn’t in real life.
    Postal 2 does not legitimize urinating on corpses.
    The No Russian level does not legitimize gunning down crowds of people at the airport.
    Mass Effect does not legitimize sex with aliens.
    Bioshock does not legitimize killing young girls.
    Can a game have an agenda? Sure. I think America’s Army is a good example of this, and more obviously games like Muslim Massacre. Even a game as offensive as Muslim Massacre is unlikely to make some think it is ok to kill a specific racial group. More likely people who are predisposed to think this way will enjoy the game and those who don’t will be repulsed. In both cases nothing has been legitimized by the game.

  13. kski

    did you seriously end this article with “you sheeple think war crimes are OK because video games taught you to think that way”

    lmao faggot

  14. Well said.

    I feel like the glut of military FPS games we’ve been getting lately are the worst offenders in this regard. These games frequently portray battlefields (often battlefields based on real, current conflicts) as abandoned shooting galleries devoid of all life save for hordes of faceless brown people who must be slaughtered to the last man before victory can be achieved. Civilians are almost always completely absent, as though they vanish by magic whenever a war starts. I don’t think I need to explain further why this makes me uncomfortable.