Violent Video Games Help Me Get Beyond My Violent Past

Violent Video Games Help Me Get Beyond My Violent Past

I like playing violent video games — the really violent ones, the ones that sometimes even disturb my fellow gamers. Why? It’s complicated, but they make me feel better.

I’m talking about games like Manhunt, which allows you slowly suffocate someone with a plastic bag as they cry and gasp for air, or the yet-to-be-released Hatred, the controversial upcoming game that starkly appears to emulate real-life mass-shootings and that I want to play.

Even the worst things have their utility. As critical as much of the conversation surrounding games such as Hatred has been, it still has value. It pains me to see others discounting it out of hand. A game like that can be helpful for a person like me.

I’m at a stage in my life where I hate violence in just about any form. I find it deeply unnerving and uncomfortable. I squirm at the thought of thinking of someone — anyone — suffering. When I imagine a murder, all I can think about is the victim’s last thoughts. Were they terrified? Had they made peace with their inevitable end? Quickly, and dramatically erased. Lost forever. The thought fills me with dread. I’ll shiver and shrivel and cry if I dwell on pain and suffering just a bit too long. This is a defence mechanism for me. Some may think that response makes me weak, but it reminds me that I can feel compassion.

Violent Video Games Help Me Get Beyond My Violent Past

When I was younger — much younger — I hurt a lot of people. When I was three years old, I took a toy truck from a child and beat him over the head with it. Sometime later, I remember holding down a classmate whom I thought was “fucking retarded” and repeatedly kicked him in the testicles. On a few occasions I drew pictures of specific people I hated and used them as “practice.” Countless schools and daycare centres expelled me, as I became a consistent “problem child.” I’d pick fights and come to enjoy lashing out and hurting others. I was always looking for an excuse to go off. Until, one day, I did.

I grew up in a neighbourhood so fraught with drug addiction and gang violence. Before I turned ten years old, I had been stabbed in the leg. People had shot guns in my general direction several times, once while I was in a church van.

I saw the world as hostile. I thought that it hated me and wanted me to die.

One afternoon, while on the school bus, a classmate insulted my mum. To this day, I can’t remember what exactly he said… but it set me off. I grabbed him, slammed him on the ground, and hit him as hard as I could as many times as I could. After that, he couldn’t mount much of a defence. Still seething with rage, I pulled out a small knife I’d stolen from my mum’s boyfriend and moved to stab his chest. I saw his eyes widen as he filled with panic. I tried to bring the knife down, but several kids grabbed my arm.

But what if they hadn’t? What if I killed him? How many more people might I have pushed into doing the same? I can only imagine the despair his parents might have felt or how traumatized all of the students on that bus may have been. I was seconds away from becoming just another “troubled” kid on the news. Looking back on it now, it frightens me and reminds me that just about anyone, when faced with the wrong circumstances, can be violent. A quick look at just about any of the psych studies from the days before ethics committees can confirm that. What’s important to me is that there is a way to come back from that.

After many years of counseling, I’ve all but shed my violent past. My therapists, forward-thinking as they were, taught me that I shouldn’t ever lose sight of what I was. They said I needed to come to terms with it and address it; I chose video games as a safe way to confront myself.

I was lucky, because someone saw that whatever awful things I might have done, I wasn’t yet lost. But there’s always the fear that I’ve just put on a façade to make my way through society. I’m terrified that, if I were to peel everything away, I’d find a monstrous person.

Violent Video Games Help Me Get Beyond My Violent Past

I haven’t harmed someone in more than a decade, and I think part of that is because I seek out violence in the media I consume. Everything from Manhunt to the latest trailer for Hatred remind me that sometimes people do terrible things. When I play the most violent of games, I aim for sadism. I kill anyone and everyone in the most horrific way possible. I don’t find joy in this. I’m filled with self-loathing and anguish, repeatedly coming back to who I was and struggling with the realisation that, while I may not have killed anyone, I did a lot more damage than I can ever hope to atone.

In the pained, panicked faces of these game’s fictitious victims, I find my own humanity. Knowing the cost of cruelty helps me internalize the abuse I’ve caused. The fact that it’s all fake never really crosses my mind. The screams are real enough that it triggers disgust all the same.

Games in particular give me a safe place to open myself up to the worst of people — of myself — so I can continue to commit to being a better person, without ever forgetting the wake of destruction I left behind me. When I play an extremely violent game, I can access that darkest part of myself. I can step just a bit closer to the brutality. Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty aren’t enough. While they’re violent-ish, it’s not tangible enough for me to be effective. When I cross into the realm of games that let you hear the agonized wails of people that I am torturing, it reaches a different level. I can’t laugh it off in the same way that I can when I run over a pedestrian in GTA. It becomes real for me. It torments me.

I can rarely finish these games. Condemned: Criminal Origins, a game that lets you mercilessly beat insane bums to death with lead pipes, was the only hyper-violent game I ever played to completion. And even then it was in short bursts over five years. Every few months, I’d settle in, shut out all distractions, wait until late at night and push further. I’d play until I was nauseated, before putting the game — and my past — in a box, not to be opened for another few months. I worry, sometimes, that the reason Condemned is the one I finished is because its bloodshed can be easy to rationalize: it’s got more thematic ties to survival horror than Manhunt‘s wanton destruction. Instead of preying on others, you’re merely trying to endure in a ghastly world. In that sense, unnerving though it may be, I was able to stick with it a bit longer than the others.

There was a time in my life when I knew what it was to live without remorse. I destroyed and hurt everything and everyone I could just to extract what I thought was justified revenge on a world that I saw as openly hostile towards me. Games such as Hatred have the potential to remind me of who I was and prove that the progress I’ve made is real. It proves that I still feel something. I have empathy. I can prove it. And I choose not to hurt.

Daniel Starkey is a freelance game critic currently based in Minneapolis. His work can be found at GameSpot, Eurogamer and US Gamer. He has a Majora’s Mask tattoo on the back of his neck, because let’s face it, no game will ever be better.

Illustration: Jim Cooke


  • What a powerful article.

    Gives a really fresh perspective on these types of games.

    I personally wouldn’t want to play them, but I have always had doubts in my mind about the criticisms levelled at games such as Hatred. This is a really strong reason for these games to exist, despite their horrific nature.

    Thanks for the read, Dan

  • It’s interesting but I don’t feel like stories like this actually mitigate people’s concerns about violence in games at all.

    As I see it any time the emotional reaction to a violent entertainment product seeps through into the psyche of the player in a way that affects their real-life behaviour or mood then that’s going to be a concern for people, whether that impact is positive or negative.

    I know it’s a poor summation of the story Daniel is telling, but “violent games are good because I had a violent past and they actively make me feel less like behaving violently” is a poor argument when it becomes an admission that violent games can and do modify peoples behaviours.

    Honestly I’d be happy with games not going much further than the GTA V level of violence. I’m ok with people taking creative licence if they’ve got a point, but I don’t know that anybody in the world needs a “torture porn” genre of gaming. That sort of thing really is likely to do more harm than good.

    • “violent games are good because I had a violent past and they actively make me feel less like behaving violently” is a poor argument when it becomes an admission that violent games can and do modify peoples behaviours.
      Completely different context, though. There’s a really huge fundamental difference between the arguments of, “I use this as a therepeutic tool/stress relief/sublimation outlet,” compared to, “People are being brainwashed by these things and will be subconsciously reprogrammed.”

      The keys are choice, awareness, intent.

      (Edit: By your logic, Daniel might as well be arguing, “I like stress balls/landscape paintings because they actively make me feel less like behaving violently,” with the opposition then arguing that we should ban stress balls and serene paintings. It’s not the content itself that has the agency, it’s the person who uses it as a medium and how they choose to use it. The point which still stands is that none of these things can modify your behaviour unless you choose for it to, violent video games included.)

      • I wasn’t saying that’s what Daniel was arguing, just pointing out that when considered against the argument that people put forward about violent games (“violent games influence violent actions”), this kind of article actually does as much to suggest that violent games are dangerous even if that wasn’t the intention of the story in the first place.

        I’m just theorising though, I don’t feel super strongly either way (I know that’s against the laws of the internet).

        Since you mention stress balls though, I did see a study once that suggested that those kinds of forms of stress relief (as well as things like ‘slam head’ dolls or even going to the gym for a round of boxing) actually teach negative habits in the long term.
        The idea being that pandering to those kinds of urges when under stress helps habitualyse (guess spelling) that kind of reaction instead of teaching you control.

        Basically it might be better to learn to control your stress rather than always going straight to fist clenching, desk slamming, face punching or violent game playing because those reactions teach you to be intuitively violent.

        I’m crapping on though, I really have no idea.

    • What you are saying is that what you consider to be tasteful should be the yardstick by which people consume media and interact with it.

      Videogames are just another push into art that conflicts and confronts people. Nobody has ‘concerns’ that need to be addressed about Goya’s Saturn Eating His Son, Marquis De Sade’s 100 Days of Sodom, or Baise moi, because as distasteful as you may find them, they are an exploration of the things that make us human.

      You don’t seem to get what the author is talking about in the piece and that’s fine. That kind of exploration of that particular corner of the human condition isn’t for everyone, or even most people. But it doesn’t mean you get to decide that anyone other than you needs it. Neither you nor anyone else gets to decide what ‘we’ as a society, or as a race needs or wants.
      The idea that this doesn’t alleviate the concerns of the pearl-clutchers of this world doesn’t even warrant a mention.

  • well written article and brave to put yourself out there like that. I have never been to as dark a place as yourself, but in terms of violent video games, i love them. I think stable people are able to seperate the difference between reality and fantasy. I agree that a ratings system is a great thing, and yes I know sometimes its hard to monitor what your kids are playing (for example at a friends place), however I dont think those of us that can play these games and not want to go out and murder the world should have to suffer because of the mental few.

  • I get where the author is coming from but it doesn’t do the video game genre any good by expressing it. Even though it may help curb the author’s violent tendencies from childhood, I think that a lot of the “video games cause violence” crowd could latch on to this article and run with the viewpoint that video games are so violent that they satisfy the violent needs of people who may need psychiatric help. Not exactly a great brush to tar and already heavily targeted genre with.

    Even for someone with an admittedly violent past who claims that violence in games helps to control his violent tendencies IRL, the games he plays still nauseate him. NAUSEATE. Games that are so violent and twisted should not be allowed to see the light of day. I have played Postal2 (so violent it was banned here) and while it was heavily violent, it had a satirical note to it, NPC’s that fought back or instigated violence and a smattering of comedy which distanced it from a straight up mass murder simulator. I found it funny that the violent game protestors quite frequently whipped out weapons to gun you down. Killing people with rotten cow heads or putting out fires with urine are crude elements but lighten the tone – its not realistic, its silly. You aren’t sadistically trapping someone, torturing them and hearing their screams. You’re facing armed opponents.

    A game where the victims don’t fight back isn’t a game – its sick. If people need to play these hyper violent games, perhaps they need help. The creators of these games sure sound like the need help.

  • See, that’s why I do not mind games like that as a way of self expression. People cope in different ways. Some may raise a brow at death metal, but for others it’s an outlet of aggression, a vindication of hurt feelings or other stuff that ultimately is released harmlessly.

    The problem with Hatred is that it is none of that. It is not genuine, it has no artistic vision nor heart. It’s only a unabashed device for controversy for the sake of profit and mockery. There is nothing redeemable about it.

    • Way to dismiss it out of hand without knowing shit about it beyond a couple video clips and some bombastic media releases. I think you’re confusing the PR tone with the game’s content.
      Unless you’ve actually played the game long enough to evaluate that for the rest of us.

      Nevermind the fact that the creator’s intent is only a fraction of the picture, and what people choose to take away from it is what is of actual use. ‘Reefer Madness’ is still being screened in film studies and a handful of whacky B-movie-nostalgia cinemas, but not for the purposes of educating the public about ‘social diseases’.

      • Fair enough. I do believe, though, that authorial intent is key. I don’t mean that you have to interpret the resulting media exactly as the author intended, but rather that something coming from such a shallow and reproachable set of mind (for the “lulz”, to line one’s pockets, etc -all reasons clearly admitted by the creators) cannot have much merit. Hatred (the feeling, not the game) and similar motivations are destructive, they cannot, in principle, have part in the act of creation; something created under such influences will never be beautiful, constructive or useful.

        Sure, some people still will subjectively find something of worth about media like that, but such value will come from the intersected space of that content with their own minds, in other words, it will come from inside that person, not from the external source.

  • I totally agree with this. As someone that also came from a shitty background, I find that games are great to get out that deep seated rage (and im 37). They make my violence feel satiated… I never understood people saying that it makes kids more violent.

    Also try BDSM (Safe Sane and Consensual of course), you get to hurt people and they fucking love it… Just saying

  • Really powerful article.

    I’ve always been the opposite, I can’t stand hurting other people in video games and if I’m given a non-lethal option I’ll almost always take it. I find that I morally justify any of my actions with a vague sense of real life morals. I tried to play renegade in Mass Effect, and I stopped after the very first dialogue choice because I felt guilty for just being rude to Joker. At the same time, in reality, I’ve always been confrontation averse, often having issues with telling someone that they’ve wronged me, or putting my desires on level with someone elses.

    I don’t play games the same way you do, I believe that the way I play tends to reflect the way I’d like things to ideally (read: unrealistically) be in reality (in Mass Effects example, a situation in which trying to please everyone doesn’t end up screwing things up, and it’s always the “bad guy” who refuses my help, as juvenile as that is).

    The way you describe video games as something of a utility for self improvement is a very interesting and pertinent point to be made in wake of recent media reactions to these types of games, thank you for sharing such a difficult and personal story to this end.

    • I think a lot of people (myself included) play video games in the manner you’ve just described. Whilst it’s certainly a good thing that we are able to extend our empathy into the virtual world, it’s also a positive sign when we are able to make ruthless, violent and horrible decisions yet recognise that they are not real, and not necessarily a reflection of our inner-selves.

      • Although, some moral choices in games really walk that line… God knows Heavy Rain gave me some minor crises that I have not and may never be able to resolve with my own RL values.

        • Yes, even if I’m trying to play an “evil” character in an RPG, I often have huge difficulty in killing innocents, stealing from the poor, etc. It’s only a game, but I can feel bad about it for hours afterwards.

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