Video Games Don't Make Us Violent. So Why Do I Feel So Guilty?

As a writer, it's my job to put things together, to construct a narrative out of disparate pieces. As human beings who try to make sense of the world, we all do that unconsciously: when everything is a story, the world makes sense.

The stories don't help sometimes. Hell, the stories go away sometimes. In their place comes a void, a puncture in our ability to reason and understand why things happen the way they do.

You might notice this phenomenon after a death, after a tragedy — they all seem kind of senseless when put under scrutiny, huh? The Columbines, the Virginia Techs, the Sandy Hooks.

So right now, I have only pieces. Memories of things I'm afraid to talk about — maybe the timing isn't right, or maybe it would make me sound unhinged.

They're recollections of things, sometimes games I know for certain go together somehow, amount to a small piece of some puzzle that's supposed to help me understand where violence and death fit in my life.

***

"No more Power Ranger games. No more video games, period," my mother lamented."They're not good for you."

The SNES and the accompanying Power Ranger game had been a Christmas present when I was about six. But one night I pulled a butter knife on my mother, demanding whatever it is a child demands at that age. Who knows? And just like that, the console went away as easily as it had appeared.

Thinking back, I couldn't have meant to hurt her. I couldn't have. That would be ridiculous. Games don't have that effect on people.

Right?

I couldn't have meant to hurt her. I couldn't have.

***

Well, if we want to be technical, that SNES was my first console. But if asked, if prompted to talk about my early gaming days, I don't mention it. It didn't exist.

My first console was the Gamecube. Wholesome little thing, adorable handle and everything. I wanted to be Mario. Mario defeats things, he doesn't kill them. It's good, clean fun.

I agonised over that Gamecube, in the way a kid that finally learns the value of money does. I spent over a year saving up for the console, saving up every last nickel I could.

***

With my family, violence is there even when it's not there — maybe at a party I make out the lyrics to a popular song that goes: "hit your woman with a club, put her in her place," booming overhead. I'll try to ignore it, only to notice the dancing — my sister, my cousin, my mother all in tune — and I'll need to excuse myself before I get angry.

Sometimes it's there as a historical record, something for everyone else to see. The women in my family tend to have a number of visible scars across their bodies, scars we never talk about.

Maybe it's noticing a belt starting to unbuckle from the corner of my eye.

Sometimes it'll be a threat — maybe you should settle down before I make you settle down sort of thing. Maybe it's noticing a belt starting to unbuckle from the corner of my eye.

Then the women stop the shenanigans. But sometimes this looming thing finally arrives, finally finds a release. One of the moments that refuses to leave my head is one that happened over a decade ago.

***

I am laying in bed with my eyes closed, pretending to be asleep. This is what you do when my stepfather is drunk, you try to get out of the way. We try to avoid this situation as much as possible, my mother and I, by making sure we never stay too long at a social event and that he's not around alcohol much. But every so often, he'll pull a fast one and get drunk anyway.

When he's drunk, something snaps. Something goes wrong. The meekness and niceties fade away, and are replaced by anger, sometimes by rampage. Nothing in the house is safe.

From under the covers, I can see that he's playing my Gamecube. But he can't stop losing his matches in Mortal Kombat. That's the game he turns to when he feels agitated. His favourite parts are the fatalities, they go farther than other fighting games dare to.

As the night goes on, he's getting more and more visibly frustrated, until eventually he stands up. Then I notice he's not playing anymore.

He makes his way to the Gamecube, rips it off the TV, and sets it down on the table. I hear him fumble through his power tools, trying to pick out the best one for the job.

I know what he's about to do. I know what he's about to do but I can't move and I don't dare open my eyes. I just hope that he can't hear me crying.

He always apologises after things like these the next day, always tries to make things right by repurchasing whatever he destroyed. But I never played the new Gamecube he bought. The new one wasn't mine and I felt sick looking at it.

***

A few years later I'd stop with all the wholesomeness and Nintendo, instead opting to purchase a 360. It's on this 360 that I learned how to play shooters — I started out with the ridiculous ones like Gears of War, but eventually moved my way to 'realistic' shooters like Battlefield.

I adored them. They tapped into something that I couldn't explain, couldn't name. What I did know was that I wanted to share this interest with my significant other, in the way you want to share everything with someone you love. But he wasn't having it.

"I fucking hate it when you play that thing," my then-boyfriend once growled.

"But it's so good! Look at how realistic it is."

"...realistic. Right."

"Yes — like, listen to the way I play. Listen! I'm giving out orders and moving like I'm a squad. It's all very — "

"What, fun? You think this is fun?"

" — tactical."

"I just can't stand the sound of bullets. I can't stand all the shooting. I don't understand how you like that shit."

Was there something wrong with him or was there something wrong with me?

Sure, we were in conflict with some of the countries in the games, and sure, maybe with games like Medal of honour, there was the possibility we were playing as the type of groups highlighted in Wikileaks for committing war crimes, but I still thought he was being completely absurd. A well-rounded human being should be able to understand when something is just entertainment. Jesus christ, come on!

Thinking back on it now, it seems stupid to imply that someone being sensitive about this stuff is in the wrong — like the only way to live is with cynical fortitude. Rationality dictates these things are obviously divorced, our entertainment and our reality, so can we stop talking about it already?

Like we shouldn't be phased by something that's supposed to be uncomfortable. Even now, I keep going back to it: was there something wrong with him or was there something wrong with me?

It stuck with me, that conversation. It got under my skin. After we had it, I noticed how games were often hours and hours and hours of killing endless mobs of men that often looked exactly the same. Why does every room and level have a bunch of shit to kill no matter what it is I'm playing? And why can't I just turn my brain off like I used to; what's wrong? Why can't I just aim and shoot?

Games became exasperating for a long time after that.

***

The girl in indie platformer They Bleed Pixels starts off looking so innocent. Just a precious little kid, you know? All it took to change that was one book; one evil, corrupting book and suddenly she's transformed into this terrifying creature with claws for hands.

Much of the game focuses on what you can do with those claws. You juggle your enemies with them, you throw them into spikes and gears and chain combos where you lacerate them into pieces.

You do this because if you don't, then the game is much harder. Every kill, every combo fills a meter that lets you put down a checkpoint. The game is basically the Dark Souls of platformers, and my being awful at video games, I need those checkpoints. I don't want my inevitable death to catapult me back to the start of the game. I need to be creative in how I kill for my benefit.

It's ugly. stylised and therefore detached, but ugly if you really think about it. And it feels so, so good to play.

I hate how often this is true no matter what I'm playing. And now we've got the situation of having games become self-aware about it, kind of going 'you like this, don't you, you sick bastard' — there is Hotline Miami, Bulletstorm, a few others.

I feel like these games implicitly ask me if I like it, and I can't help but answer "yes, yes I do." At the same time...I don't know if this is me absolving myself of responsibility, but I like the way Andrew Vanden Bossche puts it:

Game: "You pulled the trigger. You are holding the gun."

You: "You gave me the gun. You ordered me to pull the trigger."

***

I've shot a gun before. I must have been 10, maybe 12. I was in El Salvador.

"We can shoot these cans," my uncle offered. "Or, we can aim for the lizards crawling about the jungle."

Cans seemed boring to me versus a living creature. The humane thing seemed boring to me. What?

"You gave me the gun. You ordered me to pull the trigger."

But the moment that revisits me about that trip to El Salvador isn't learning how to shoot a gun. It's a different memory.

My family is largely composed of farmers who own horses, chickens, cattle — that sort of thing. In those years, we'd visit El Salvador often as a group, which meant that we needed enough food to feed dozens of people.

We needed to kill one of our cows to do that. We all know where the meat comes from, but you know how the saying goes, right? Don't want to actually see how the hamburger is made?

I can't remember what I felt when I watched my grandfather pick up his machete and bring it down hard on the cow's neck. What I do remember is the horror of seeing the meat pile up — there was a lot of it, sure, but...sometimes, some parts of the cow will pulsate well after the cow is dead, even if it's completely detached from the skeleton.

Like the thing is giving one last reminder that it was alive once, dammit. Don't you dare forget it.

***

I kill people nearly every day via controller, but I don't actually know death. Not really. I'm 22. I've never known anyone who has died — personally, I mean. I'm afraid there's a critical gap in my experience because of this, or that when it finally does happen, I'll react worse to it than one is ‘supposed' to. Whatever that means.

I live in a crystalline place right now. Death mostly exists on a pixelated plane. You don't have to deal with a dead body here, they often simply disappear into a level. Poof.

But I have nightmares about death sometimes. I have nightmares of what would happen if so and so who is important to me died, if I wake up one day and finally, finally, it happened — someone is gone.

Just like that, gone.

***

Playing against an AI, you can tell — there's no will to live, not really.

I'm not sure if I feel uneasy or excited to talk about why I love multiplayer games. Maybe both. I could frame this love any which way I wanted, I could make this sound less 'bad,' but this is how I articulate what I like about them: there are people on the other end.

People who don't want to lose die. People who are trying their best, out of competitiveness, to survive. Playing against an AI, you can tell — there's no will to live, not really. The movement is too precise, too measured, acting out scripts of logic of what to do under pressure.

A person will be creative. They will fumble. Your interaction with them will be messy and haphazard in a very human way. And best of all, I can practically taste the tension, the fear that comes when someone is closing down on you, about to kill you in a game. I imagine their heart racing madly, because that's what happens to me when under pressure. It's exhilarating to think about.

Managing to overcome an aggressor in a situation like that to me is like saying, "no, I want to live. I want to live. You're not taking this from me."

Ultimately, you might have a good kill/death ratio at the end of a match. But what does it mean if all your lives were laughably short? The one that kills and lives the most, that person is the one that gets to gloat at the end.

There is a reason I don't talk about this much.

Picture: Shutterstock


Comments

    These personalized rants are getting more rambling and disjointed Patricia.

    Because you have a lot of other personal issues that permeate other aspects of your life... essentially. Its almost like the first and second parts of this title were entirely seperate thoughts.

    I still don't understand the guilt. But you shouldn't feel guilty for survival or consuming media or anything. You have every right.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing. I love your pieces.

    so in the wake of this tragedy, are we as gamers supposed to feel some form of guilt when playing shooters now? and if we don't, are we accused of being heartless?

    "I kill people everyday in games.." well there is your problem, you see them as people rather than avatars or simply pixels. It's quite clear from you're recent 'blog' posts that you've got a number of issues that you need to sort out, I'm not meaning this in a bad way but from your episode of cheating on your husband and blaming it on video games to having obvious childhood problems that are still unresolved.

    You keep trying to latch onto video games as the cause of these issues when in reality, you're the problem and you are just using video games as an escape goat; must like mainstream media does.

      I agree with That Teemo, Patrica. Your problems are personal, not video game related. Video games are just a fun escape from every day life, not the root of your problems. If your problems are having such a negative impact on your life that you feel you have to shift the blame to something completely different, then perhaps it's time to get professional help?

      Also, again, I agree with That Teemo re seeing enemies in your games as real people. They're not real people, and never have been, and it's quite ridiculous of you to say that you "kill people everyday in games". The closest to real people they could be is if you're playing multiplayer, but even then the real people your playing against aren't getting hurt. Frankly, I'm a little disturbed that a grown adult is having such trouble distinguishing a difference between the two. Unless you're just being over-dramatic for the sake of getting people to read your article?

      Are you referring to the "How Diablo III Told Me My Marriage Was Over" article when you say "but from your episode of cheating on your husband and blaming it on video games"? Because that one wasn't written by Patricia Hernandez.

    Perhaps it's not proper guilt your feeling, more empathy for the people who died in these matters while people blame Video Games as the sole source of the problem.

    Mental Health was the real problem here, easy access to weapons wasn't exactly helpful either, but the woman who owned those guns was never a threat to anyone. The question America needs to ask itself do they like semi-automatic guns more than they like people.

    Why is Kotaku turning into a goddamn blog?

      Apparently it has always been a gamingnews/blog site.

        You know what I mean. Not blog format, but a place for kotaku writers to keep a personal journal.

      And an overly dramatic one.

      Some of the content in these posts should be shared with a therapist, not kotaku readers.

    I will re-iterate the point i have made on the past few "articles" you have written, you are paid to write articles relating to video games or pop culture this article has next to no connection to either.
    You wont find the support and help you need by writing articles, your articles seem to devolve into rants about various things not connected to video games, yet you blame them on video games.

    Please try and find some help, regardless since 'tis the season to be jolly i wish you all a happy holidays

    Last edited 25/12/12 1:46 pm

    For fuck's sake Kotaku.

    I swear the only reason I still come to this site is to bitch and moan about it in the comments.

    Another article on the messed up life of Patricia Hernandez with light video game references to justify its presence on Kotaku.

    It never fails to astound me how people in the comments are so against articles that delve beyond what games are coming or bits of trivia about games, and try to examine philosophy and ethics in regard to gaming. This was an incredible article and it had plenty to do with games, but no one seems to care because it wasn't announcing the next thing or showing fancy trailers or detailing an interview with some developer. I find that saddening.

      Agreed videk. Gaming is more than an escape for some people. Some find gaming as a part of their experience in life and some use it to escape for a few hours and then move on, either way it is a part of who we are if we game and sharing different experiences should not be met with "Ahh this is another bullshit article" or "I come here for.... not...." but unfortunately it is constantly is.

        @videk_2012/Jones: I think the problem is less the fact the article delves on ethics/philosophy but the fact that at it's core... this is a terribly written article more fitting in a personal blog than an actual tech site. Hence the huge "I didn't come here to read this" responses.

        By all means feel free to inject some personal life as a juxtaposition for your point in an article or even as basis. But when you get a disjointed paragraphs of someone's personal life and problems w/ video game references thrown in to hold it all together your using a completely different writing style that is wholely unsuited for tech/news blogs like these. These are usually the one's you would expect on a personal or self help kinda blogs/websites. As people have said "I come here for information/talk/discussion on games and pop culture not to read someone's personal blog". It's not the article or topic its the standard of writing that puts it down

          Exactly. This is a blog post at best. Nothing more. This has no relation to the wider gaming site, this is the personal feelings of ONE barely known kotaku writer. Which is fine, but don't try and make like it's actually relevant to 99% of the people who come here.

          Next I'll write how I really enjoy shooters and I'm well adjusted and the like, and submit it to kotaku for consideration because it's 'relevant' to gaming.

    I know you guys are mostly atheists and this is pretty religious and some parts might be completely off topic and irrelevant but it seems good. Maybe someone might get something out of this.
    ignore the bits about God if your not into it but still, it's not a bad read:
    https://www.lds.org/ensign/2009/08/just-a-game?lang=eng

    Lol stupid people, there's always something to blame isn't there, except yourselves. Take some responsibility for your actions. Never wanted to attack a family member with a knife either, unless you have some sort of mental issue, then again, blame it on the illness? Grow up.
    Never will I feel guilty about killing a digicharacter and if you feel guilty you have some sort of filter where you're not 100% about is this good or bad, the average person plays games to escape from the bullshit, whether its work, or your girlfriend, if your wondering if its a good or bad thing maybe you have bad tenancies that you lash out on digisoldiers, in that case, do not play video games, it's not good for the over sensitive people.

    Fire this "GAMES" writer already, every time I see her name I know I will regret opening the page yet somehow i still do...........

    When will i learn....

    Learn to live in the present. It's good to prepare for the future, and learn from past experiences but that is all they are good for. Don't dwell on them... What will be will be, and what you worry about being may not be. So why waste your precious energy worrying about it?

    Oh man! I hate when I have to think about things! Especially things about a girls feelings. That's not gaming, that's not gaming at all.

    you need to get some professional help. this article does not sound like it comes from a professional point of view or from some one that is stable and emotionally sound. In fact you are the exact type of person the fringe lobby groups use to stereotype gamers.

    No Patricia, you don't kill people every day. You click a mouse on animated 3D models, it is functionally no different from playing with dolls or figurines. If you're having emotional trouble with it the problem lies with you. You need to take a break from technology for a while and sort your life out.

      If I should feel nothing when Commander Shepard survived the suicide mission at the end of ME2 because I've been functionally just playing with paper dolls as you would suggest, then I and probably a lot of others would have emotional problems as you suggest.

      There is a difference in analysis of what the pixels represent and what games mean to people and how they feel about the actions they perform in games rather than just dismissing it all because its just all about the pixels.

    I found this article very disturbing Patricia. I certainly do not relate to violent games anything like the way you do, and I doubt many other people do either.

    In rebuttal to the one main actual point I see in your article, the appeal of human multiplayer is the superior intellect of another person providing a challenge far beyond what any computer AI opponent can do.

    Saw the title, saw the author, skipped the article, read the comments, didn't comment.
    Saw the title again, read the article, it's pretty bad. Bad as in... it's just dumb. It's like an answer to a question nobody asked - "What goes on in the mind of Patricia Hernandez?"
    It's about as relevant to Kotaku as Brian Ashcraft's infamous "Mentally disabled boy who liked video games raped by two girls" article.
    Not as bad as that one, but still dumb.

    Why feel guilty? Feeling guilty about 'killing', (I use this term loosely as nobody actually dies) is not something that I would think a reasonable person would do. I can comfortably differentiate between IRL and real life. It's a competition and these victory/loss or kill/death systems are how it is scored. Why should I feel guilty for defeating another player in a game?

    Back to the article, I found it interesting if not specifically game related at times and honestly, not that well written. However, some of the comments were particularly callous and based on nothing but conjecture. You don't know the author and I personally don't think it's appropriate to make judgements about anothers mental state based on a single piece of literature.

    Another piece of shit opinion article only written to Jew in clicks and views. Great job Slowtaku, this kinda stuff makes the Ashcraft articles actually news worthy, since some of them actually revolve around videogames, the hot topic of the month bullshit.

      I disagree. I can slightly relate to what the writer is feeling. My life is crap. And yeh, like she once did, I seek solace from my shitty life in a videogames, namely Battlefied. One of the reason these games appeal to me is because of their intrinsic simplicity; something my social life and life in general lack. You see, today i was punched in the face. It sucked for sure and I get over it by playing games. simple as that. And in defence of Patricia, you don't have to read this article so go be an arrogant prick somewhere else.

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