In Real Life

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

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