A relatively common criticism of works of all forms is that they’re ‘gratuitous’, a word which here means ‘tasteless and vulgar’. It’s a particular buzzword whenever the ever-lurking presence of moral panic around gaming rears its many middle-aged heads, in which context it’s usually followed by the word ‘violence’.
I can’t deny that there are cases in which games – though the phenomenon is by no means peculiar to gaming – go a leeeetle bit too far in their representation of violence. Hatred, a recent game in which the player’s sole mission is to kill as many innocent people as possible, is a good example of a game that provided a easy target for the ‘games are bad and violent’ camp. Its developers claim that it’s a sort of reactionary satire on the idea that games (and by extension, I guess, art in general) ought to restrain themselves and be ‘politically correct’, and maybe that really was the idea, but there’s no escaping the fact that it’s a really super-violent piece of work which was either deliberately manufactured so as to incite as much controversy as possible (which, if the case, wasn’t a bad move given that the game probably got oodles more publicity on the grounds of how very naughty it was than it could ever have achieved through regular marketing), or was designed to be violent for other reasons and the resulting controversy was just a happy side effect. It’s possible that, in actuality, the devs just wanted to make the most violent game they possibly could because they thought it’d be fun, which is a totally legitimate reason for doing anything, and the claim that it’s meant to be read as satire is a weird case of authorial-intent-retcon.
Do I personally think Hatred went too far, or that there’s cause for moral condemnation of the work itself or its creators? Heck, I don’t know. I haven’t played it; I’m too poor to buy it and it probably wouldn’t run on my laptop anyway. What I do think is that works of this oeuvre – the ‘deliberately over-the-top’ variety, which I’ll assume Hatred legitimately counts as – can fall into one of a few categories.
There’s the ‘gratuitousness as satirical or reactionary statement’ variety, which Hatred purports to be. This kind of over-the-top-ism lends itself to games which mock the public conception of gaming as an invariably ultraviolent medium by being exactly that and more. Take Saint’s Row, a franchise which started as a relatively standard GTA-like gangster shoot-’em-up and somehow evolved by the time of the third and fourth games into a ridiculous, hilarious universe in which the President of the United States beats digital aliens to death using an enormous dildo (and owns a dubstep gun, attempts to seduce Keith David and might well have the voice of either a zombie or Nolan North). It’s stupid. It’s ludicrous. What I think makes it more than just mindless beat-uppery, though, is the self-aware side of it. It’s hard to quantify whether something has that, because it’s at least partially to do with what the creators had in mind, and we can’t know that for sure, but Saint’s Row is so chock-full of knowing references to its own exaggerated tendencies that it can’t be anything other than a reductio ad absurdum poking fun at gaming conventions. It’s also probably relevant that it never dwells on the violence in such a way as to glorify or realise (in the sense of making real, rather than ‘OH SHIT I JUST REALISED’) it: it’s slapstick in the most absurd sense, never turning its cartoonised fights into bloodbaths or gorefests.
Along similar lines, Just Cause began life as a fairly unremarkable sort of franchise, kicking off proceedings with a fun game that didn’t really break much new ground but developing by the second and third into a really rather uniquely fun smorgasbord. The main attraction, at least for me, is the variety of possibilities for traversal of the open locations: come Just Cause 3, it’s possible to soar, wingsuit-clad, into a boat that you’ve attached via grappling hook to a plane mid-flight, then slingshot yourself over a mountain and directly into the seat of a sports car as the plane (with attached boat) crashes right into an enemy facility. Then, naturally, Rico Rodriguez (who sounded Cuban in the second instalment but seems to have gone a bit Ezio by the third, and to my eternal amusement shares a name with the actor who plays Modern Family‘s Manny) will prevent gravity from destroying his body by grappling into the earth, thus speeding up and somehow making landing much safer.
The Just Cause series is perhaps singly brilliant at combining a mishmash of elements that, each taken on their own, would be a neat little addition to standard third-person shooter gameplay, and the meat of the game is in total destruction. Just Cause 2 actually uses ‘chaos’ as a sort of hybrid experience point-cum-currency, meaning that the best way to progress in the game is simply to blow stuff up. It is enormously over-the-top; Rico lives in a weird cartoon world where parachutes are infinite, obvious pastiches of Kim Jong-Il literally ride nukes, and the laws of physics are temperamental at best. But, ultimately, it’s not about being violent. It’s about hyper-exaggerated explosions, kooky villains and bad one-liners, James Bond-style. It all combines to make something that’s just fun. In fact, if it were a film instead of a game, it would be described as being to action movies what Black Dynamite is to Blaxploitation. It wouldn’t be considered violent, it would be considered a comedy.
Moving a little further along the scale, we find ourselves face-to-face with Hotline Miami, which if we’ve got any sense makes us run very fast in the other direction. Unlike Saint’s Row or Just Cause, Hotline Miami is inescapably violent in the generally-condemned sense of, at least superficially, being gory and largely mindless. The carnage caused by the player is loosely directed, with your only real sense of objective being to just kill everyone in the room before moving to the next, rinsing and repeating. Improvised weapons are key to success, with the player being able to smash the heads of their foes in with a gamut of deathbringers ranging from lead pipes, bricks and wooden planks to samurai swords, shotguns and throwing stars. Generally, by the time each stage is over, the area’s left in a complete bloodbath.
It’s a bit harder to argue that Hotline Miami is not gratuitous, but I would still suggest that it’s aware enough of its own nature that it can be read as a deconstructive treatise on why violence is such a pervasive criticism of games. It’s a retro, gaudy top-down experience filled with eerily pulsing music and a constantly wobbling stage surrounded by neon colours, giving the whole thing an otherworldly flavour. Perhaps the protagonist is on drugs altering his perception of the world, or perhaps the game is distancing its universe from a reality in which violence is done to real people, instead emphasising that the spatial nature of games simply lends itself to interactions with the world that involve violence. All media are better suited to some forms of expression than others: novels, being composed of the written word, lend themselves to the expression of complex concepts, while films convey their ideas through imagery. Video games involve a player interacting with a fictional world, and one of the simplest ways to depict an interaction which can be won or lost is to introduce violence. The other common exploitation of this nature is platforming, since that too utilises the uniquely spatial aspects of games.
There are also those games which are didactically violent. Take Spec Ops: The Line, which employs its superficial nature as a generic military shooter to shock the player when the protagonist realises he’s unknowingly inflicted a horrific act of violence. Or Shadow of the Colossus, in which the titular colossi – many of whom either attack only in retaliation or completely fail to defend themselves – are slaughtered by a boy who gradually becomes more and more infected by a darkness brought on by his killing.
Perhaps the best examinations of violence in video games are those which remind the player that committing a true act of violence (not a cartoonish or exaggerated one) is a truly horrific thing. Games are, of course, uniquely well-placed to do this, because in no other medium does the audience feel any sort of responsibility for the actions of fictional characters. When a player character kills a person, it’s not just the character but the player who’s committed that act.
In short, I think there’s a place for violence in games. I think games can employ depictions of violence to make legitimate points about the nature of games, or the nature of violence, or even the nature of people. I also think that there probably are cases in which games have been violent for violence’s own sake, and that might not have been totally OK. Meanwhile, there are games which are just damn good fun because they utilise violence in a comical or non-realistic way. While the debate over violence in games rages on, I’ll be over here whacking aliens in the nads with my dildo bat.
To me, ‘gratuitous’ is more about whether something was really necessary to include. In Grand Theft Auto, crime is necessary (it’s in the name), just as over-the-top action is necessary to a game like Just Cause, or ridiculousness is necessary in a game like Saints Row (similar in nature to Deadpool).
What makes me cringe in response to gratuitous content are things like the torture scene in Grand Theft Auto V, or the sexual content in games like Watch_Dogs or Far Cry 3. They serve no purpose, other than to either be shocking or provocative; that content adds nothing to those games. In this situation, what’s important to me is the context of the game. Does it fit?
Honestly, the best parallel I can draw to film in this regard would be the movie Demolition Man (which is a great movie). In one scene, the main character is sitting on his couch, getting ready to knit and watch an evidence video, when he receives a video call from a wrong number that features a topless woman. It’s showed onscreen for only a few seconds, and the main character exhibits the same confusion as the audience.
I personally agree with you about violence in games, that there is a place for it. I just think that some games try to insert gratuitous content for the sake of having gratuitous content. It lacks context, which affects the impact that it has on the audience.
Good write-up by the way! You got me thinking at 10am.
That’s a really good point, actually: the word ‘gratuitous’ literally means ‘unnecessary’ or ‘without good reason’. I think any sort of potentially controversial subject or technique can potentially be justified if it’s necessary for the piece of art (I’m including games in that) to say what it wants to say. As you point out, there are a lot of egregious examples of sex for the sake of sex and so on.
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