Kick-Ass And The Ethics Of Gameplay

The Need for Videogame Literacies

Kick-Ass is an important film for video game scholars to see, especially with an audience. Many have made the claim that video games have influenced film, but this influence has never been more apparent to me than in Kick-Ass. However, my concern is not with tracking the obvious visual/stylistic similarities (e.g. the first person shooter sequence featuring Hit Girl); rather, what I am interested in is how the apparent but not functionally established connections between gamic logics and filmic logics can actually lead to serious ethical misunderstandings by the audience. Even though Kick-Ass and games are alike stylistically, there are still significant affective and logical differences that, if confused, can lead to ethically troubling audience responses. This ethical confusion, wherein audiences misread a film by applying gamic logics to film, demonstrate the desperate need for better video game literacies that teach viewers how to interpret and understand games.

Disclaimers: 1. I have not read the graphic novel yet so these reactions are based solely on how I interpret the film (and I would love to hear from someone who has read the graphic novel). 2. I do not believe that games are making people violent. See my chapter in The Meaning and Culture of Grand Theft Auto for how violence in games can be productive. 3. Beware there is a mild spoiler ahead. 4. I understand my argument is based on one anecdotal experience. The point is to throw an idea out there and see what people think.

To Laugh or Not to Laugh

Let me illustrate what I mean by this ethical confusion. Early on in the film, the hero, Dave Lizewski, debuts his Kick-Ass persona and is beaten up by thugs, violently stabbed and then hit by a car and left for dead. The purpose of this truly brutal and jarring scene is to disrupt the lighthearted tone of the film's opening and confront the viewer with the dire consequences, as well as the incredible stupidity/bravery, of what Dave has chosen to do with his life. The entire film relies on this balance of extreme violence, humour and very real consequences. Each "hero" is introduced with an emphasis on the fact that, while fighting and violence can be dazzling and fun, ultimately pain hurts (Hit Girl via the bulletproof vest sequence and Red Mist's jump down into the alley) and that things can - and probably will - go very badly. Significantly, Hit Girl and Red Mist's scenes do not have the presence of danger and the pain they endure is funny, while Kick-Ass's scene is incredibly dangerous and not funny. The decision to show Kick-Ass in deep trouble is key to the plot of the film since Kick-Ass is the everyman the viewer is meant to identify with. Kick-Ass's asskicking also exposes the fantasies of unrealistic violence in comic books.

Yet the majority of the audience in my theatre laughed when Kick-Ass was stabbed and laughed even harder when he was hit by the car. They also laughed at many other moments I felt were not supposed to be funny but horrific. From my perspective, and that of the person I saw it with, the audience's response was disturbing. The inappropriate laughter  is the effect of the transposition, by some viewers, of video game logics and ethics to other media-in this case, film.

Violence as a Mechanic in Video Games

Here's what I think is happening: it can be assumed that a lot of the audience for Kick-Ass, especially the predominantly 17-25 year old male demographic of my screening, are video gamers. Death, destruction and violence are a nearly pervasive element of all video games and hold, for most games, very little consequence. Games are often allegorical and thus violence can take on a host of different meanings that's more often than not is reduced to its function as a mechanic of the game. To be reductive, violence is a way to score points or to accomplish goals. As a result, violence in games can almost always be interpreted as funny and in most games pain is just a mathematical value with little affective response from the characters or player. Consider the player of Grand Theft Auto who runs around in a world that resembles real life but those resemblances conceal gamespace that essentially functions as a complex system of obstacles to impede free movement. In this situation, getting hit by a car is structurally equivalent to being hit by a hammer as you try and jump between platforms in a Mario game.

For those audience members at my screening, Kick-Ass getting stabbed and hit by a car was funny because they are viewing the film as if it was a video game. This is a fundamentally incorrect way of understanding what is happening in the film and a detriment to the experience. To look at the character of Kick-Ass as a video game avatar/crash test dummy corrodes the humanity and fragility of Kick-Ass that provides the emotional centre of the film. I acknowledge that viewers can and should interpret a film differently but to laugh at that scene represents a destruction of the narrative architecture of Kick-Ass. Moreover, the laughter exposes an ethical disposition that is troubling. (NOTE: I do think some video games have characters that need to be understood as fragile and draw their power from that fragility but they are few and far between. Since games have extra lives and life bars, etc, it is difficult to have a player invest much in their well-being. Of course, permanent death of characters (e.g. Aeris in FFVII) do famously affect players but that is different than emotional concern over injury or brutality.)

The study of video games is still in its infancy and public discourse around video games is still painfully immature and reductive. If I am correct in my theories here then there has been no better example to me of how far we still have to go than the reaction to this film. It's important that we talk about the ethics of games, especially when those ethics begin to creep into other media and everyday life. Games aren't bad for you and like all other media some games are ethically sound and others are not, but they must be understood on their own terms and the differences between games and other media must be acknowledged.

Reprinted with permission from Tanner Higgin: Gaming the System

Tanner Higgin is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Riverside. He researches race, gender and power in video game culture. His work has chapters in The Meaning and Culture of Grand Theft Auto and Joystick Soldiers: The Politics of Play in Military Video Games and an article in the academic journal Games and Culture. Currently, he's at work on his dissertation tentatively titled Race and Videogames.

For more information: http://www.tannerhiggin.com


Comments

    I'll be honest. I barely stopped laughing in that film, aside from a few rather heart-wrenching moments in it.

    But I think a large part of why I was laughing is that, being a fan of Mark Millar in general, and especially Kick-Ass, I knew exactly what to expect when I went in there. Well... almost exactly. Anyone who has read the comic will know that while it is indeed at least as funny as the movie, if not more, it's a few orders of magnitude more disturbing and depressing than the movie turned out to be.

    I can see why some people had issues with it, after all, the screening I went to had a whole group of people who barely laughed, and in some cases appeared completely disgusted. Especially the guy sitting right next to me, who for some inexplicable reason had gone to the cinema and bought a ticket to a completely random film that he'd never heard of. I actually had to explain the basic idea of the film to him before it started... he thought it was something to do with a donkey, leading me to believe that he'd somehow got Kick-Ass confused with some upcoming Shrek film. Anyway, this is beside the point.

    It's all down to an individual person and their particular sense of humour. Personally there is very little I find more amusing than someone setting themselves up to do some good, failing miserably and THEN having the universe decide to rub some salt into the wounds. Seriously, we're talking about a teenager dressed in scuba gear trying to take on a couple of thugs, getting stabbed and stumbling away for help, only to get hit by a car whose driver decides it's too much trouble to stop. That scene made me laugh so hard I almost started choking. However, I can understand why other people didn't like it.

    It's the same reason a lot of people didn't like Wanted. And before anyone says anything about it, I am talking about the original comic, not the mockery they made of it in the movie. A lot of my friends who have read my copy of it go in expecting it to have a strong moral or ethical message behind it. Some of them even expected to be a redemption story, the main character going through some kind of change of heart. No. It's about a pathetic man who finds out he can kill anyone he want, do anything he wants with no consequences, and he loves it. It's about the fact that the villains rule the world, and the rest of us just have to suffer it. If there is a message to it, the message is that we should stop taking crap and just stand up for ourselves. Once again, some people loved it, like myself, and others hated it. It's all down to personal taste.

    I've rambled on for a bit longer than I intended to, so I apologise for the ridiculously long post. Oh and just to make this clear, this is just my opinion. I don't have an issue with people disagreeing with me, I don't even have an issue with people thinking I'm unbalanced because of my sense of humour. I often look at them and wonder why they find something so funny. Once again, it's all just down to personal taste.

    I think this is a little bit of a stretch to be honest; the simplest reason why people laughed may have been something WAY simpler.

    They could have been laughing at that point because frankly they expected something else to follow on, an action hero-esque sudden revival perhaps, or that this was a set-up to some other kind of gag or stunt. But to be honest a lot of people laugh or find comedy in such things as a means of coping with the disturbing-ness of what they have just seen. It may seem callous, but there it is.

    to be honest, i do think a large amount of gamers don't get the wide range of emotional responses as other people, but i dont necessarily blame that on video games, i blame it more around the fact that the typical current generation have been emotionally coddled.

    Leading to an emotionally stunted generation, in which the emotions that should be triggered by certain scenes are met with either laughter or apathy as they don't know how to properly react.

    I don't blame this on gaming though, i know people who do but i think it is society as a whole, there is a sense of 'someone think of the children' as our society is more and more accepting of showing gratuitous amounts of violence, without first making sure the audience is ready for such violence or that the violence is explained.

    When i watched The Hurt Locker and when the protagonist talks with his son, i found that incredibly touching but people my own age, just shrug it off, same with kick ass, he gets stabbed and ran over and its just an apathetic response.

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