You are here

Meditations on Brutality and Digital Imagery

How realistic do you want your virtual dreams to be?
Cheryl Greene and Zachary Waggoner

Issue #61, September 2002

the machine
the computerized wet dream
soaking, sucking
our creativity, our sensitivity
our capability to grasp the concept of humanity
So I have one question
Are we gonna utilize it or become it
— Ursula Rucker "Digichant"

In a year of record profits, outselling even the film industry, the video game industry has created some of the most violent games ever. In Sony's Grand Theft Auto III the gamer, playing as an escaped con who specializes in car-jacking, drives around a fictional metropolis. In order to survive in the city, the car-jacker needs to find work — the mission to "earn" money. The exciting part of this game environment is that drivers and pedestrians move about freely; it's a living world. As the avatar drives around they can participate in gratuitous and senseless violence because it is a way to "earn" more money. They mug and murder citizens by driving over them in their car, then go back and take whatever cash they can off the bodies. Another option is to go find a prostitute, who will get in the car when it stops. When she leaves, the avatar is down some cash, but they can always go back and steal it back by running her over like the other citizens.

The increased popularity of ever-more violent or mature games is a disturbing trend. Set in "smart environments" designed to give the gamer "genuine social interaction," these games are beginning to move beyond merely shooting someone, by providing a scenario where a gamer must figure out how to get a character to work with them. However, many of the social interactions depend on a violent construct. Not surprisingly, three of the best selling games of 2001 for Nintendo, whose empire was founded on E (everybody)-rated games, were M(mature)-rated. Half of the industry's 2001 retail profits came from Sony's Playstation2 which features the best-selling and highly controversial Grand Theft Auto III. Not wanting to miss out on the profits, Microsoft finally entered the console gaming market in December 2001 with its new system Xbox.

The questions and controversies surrounding violent M-rated video games have grown over the last 25 years as digital technology has allowed companies like Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft to depict ever more realistic violence that promises to immerse the gamer psychologically as well as viscerally. What forms do these games take to create a "smart environment" to arouse and satisfy gamers' desires? Where does digital entertainment enter the realm of human needs, and how do these video-worlds mimic reality?

Killer Self-Esteem

Imagistic violence, such as figuring out how to shoot someone, has been the norm where gamers explore an architectural environment. First-person shooter games like House of the Dead II, Duke Nukem 3D, and Doom ask gamers to become the main character. You look through their eyes and control their actions — that main avatar is you. These games have mostly linear plot lines, where a gamer's interaction with their world is limited. Generally, the avatar begins by following a preset path, killing the bad guys in front of them, finding keys to open the locked passage ways, and gathering weapons and healthpacks. This pattern is repeated ad nauseum throughout various levels of a game.

Aesthetics of Violence Picture! In a Rhetoric of Motives, Kenneth Burke notes how watching realistic violent imagery in films can begin to define aspects of identity. "[Their] awareness of [themselves] as a developing person requires a vocabulary — and the images of brutality and violence provide such a vocabulary, empowering the self by the punishing or slaying of troublesome motives as though they were wholly external." Understood this way, gamers build confidence and self-esteem through killing when they complete the game objectives. Visual excitement comes from maneuvering through a changing architectural scene, as well as solving the problem of how to kill the unique bad-guy character types that an avatar encounters on a quest for survival.

House of the Dead II, one of the most popular arcade games, is an example of one of these first-person shooter games, where the gamer must choose between killing zombies and victim citizens. Saving citizens from the zombies gains the avatar points. Although they lose points when they kill victim citizens, it doesn't prevent them from successfully completing the game's objectives. There is a double-ness in such violence, one that nominally penalizes but simultaneously permits ultimate reward for such killings. An ambiguous vocabulary of violence informs the game, one where success proves more important than representations of life.

Video games satisfy human curiosities, desires, and fears. They are constructed on models that combine consumer psychology, evolutionary theory and software. When we enter these visual realms we find the denizens of the underworld. Aliens, terrorists, monsters, zombies, and femme fatales challenge our fears and desires. M-rated games use interactive environments that present a scenario that requires the avatar to perform violent acts in order to fulfill the game's objectives. Shooting, maiming, exploding, pillaging, rioting, looting, and fornicating are norms in these worlds of total immersion, where bullet-induced carnage is often made to seem virtuous. Violent crime pays as you navigate built-in escape routes in Grand Theft Auto III.

Gender, Race and Nationalism

Myths of gender, race, and money permeate these video realms. In Fallout 2, set in the wastes of a post-apocalyptic world, the Chosen One embarks on an epic journey to uncover the secrets that will preserve their people's way of life. Fallout 2 can be played as a grave robber, a baby killer and a porn star (all are "attributes" that the Chosen One can attain). Although this game of survival is steeped in a narrative of noble quest, the Chosen One still must kill and loot bodies in order to achieve the game's objective. Because provisions are scarce in this post-apocalyptic world, extra supplies are important for bartering. Even though there are many female opponents, heroism remains carefully couched in hyper-masculinism where the only rewards are for violent behavior. Thus, Fallout 2 follows a model of evolutionary theory where the fittest survive.

Such notions play into the popular American belief in individualism, making the game an ideological training ground for proving an ability to climb violently to the top. The noble quest is a justification for preserving dominant cultural beliefs and values, and the visual rhetoric heroicizes the image of the individual as a killing machine — a stoic individual with a "natural" predatory instinct.

Aesthetics of Violence Picture! The newest games, like Medal of Honor Frontline and Command and Conquer Renegade, immerse gamers in interactive battlegrounds. In Renegade the avatar begins, in the words of a Wired article, "with nothing more than a pistol and an attitude," yet acquires heavy assault guns, C4 explosives and sniper rifles. In these popular real-time war battles emotions of patriotism pander to an American desire for clear-cut nationalistic triumphs in a new age of terror. More games are being created to appeal to American desires for a digital world that mimics real-life and real-time situations in the way films allow us to escape when we visually enter a film's narrative space.

But are these avatars maneuvering through a suburban scene from American Beauty? In Medal of Honor Frontline your character can track down Germans in a deserted French town right out of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. Characters prowl through liminal spaces where violence appears to erupt "naturally." They hunt for enemies in shady streets and alleyways, explore abandoned warehouses for zombies, and drive through the dangerous zones of cities that we recognize as the spaces where prostitutes, gangs and drug dealers thrive. It is here, in the seedier sites of our national psyche, where avatars pile up carnage, bodies are hacked to pieces, and blood endlessly spurts — all in the name of the pursuit of individual "happiness."

Today's games play into our never-ending desire to buy our way to" happiness." For it's the ideology of consumerism that allows individuals to pursue their every pleasure no matter what the actual cost. In a consumer economy where money gives us the power to achieve anything and everything we desire, these digital realms fulfill the gamer by allowing them to pursue their killing desires. Killing is equated with "happiness" as the need to consume is transferred into a need to win by shooting and hunting down enemies. In the world of games the more challenging the game the more fulfilling a victory becomes. Furthermore, the power we achieve through controlling others in the game allows us to renew our dwindling sense of freedom in a world where we feel constantly surveyed by our own technological underpinnings.

In this way, the games' visual aesthetics reinforce images of "normalized" violence we see everyday on the evening news. Thus, games don't provide an alternative digital world where everyone is "free." Instead, the never-ending rhetoric of violence re-inscribes the same dominant stereotypes where women and minorities are delegated to the position of Other. Most of the heroes are white men, and when they appear, women have anatomically impossible bodies.

History and consciousness become sites of aesthetic production for contemporary ideologies and trauma. As games provide more artful versions of reality, the PC games and console games like Nintendo, Playstation 2 and Xbox allow players to star in their own version of World War II as in Medal of Honor. Better yet, it's possible to navigate three epochs of violence — classical Roman, medieval and modern-day — as a tortured soul who confronts natural, psychological and supernatural forces in Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem. A character's sanity changes as they maneuver through the unique violence of each historical period, of course armed with period-appropriate weaponry. The actual game environment and interface turns hostile as a player's sanity drops. Violent hallucinations occur, and as a player struggles to retain a "sense of reality" during play, the avatar's arms and head fall off.

Aesthetics of Violence Picture! Such untrustworthy images force a player to continually face this myopic world of visual and psychological violence. Violence takes on a new edge when a gamer struggles to distinguish psychological trauma from "real-game" trauma. But is there a difference? And how do we process the difference between imagistic violence and psychological events when it is all happening in real-time? Psychological violence moves the gamer beyond the aesthetics of visual scenes of heroic bloody carnage and takes the gamer to a virtual world that adapts in ways the gamer can't always anticipate. The game becomes an unforeseen psychological landscape where violence can unfold in ways that even the designers did not deliberately plan.

Virtual Nightmares

In the quest for perfect digital reproductions of human reality — how do we read violence? Barbara Stafford writes "Today — while a flood of electronic spectacles purvey pleasure, often through the infliction of pain, a rising tide of language-based criticism threatens to destroy any awareness that there is such a thing as a responsible image." Should we leave it up to the corporations making billion-dollar profits to determine what artful constructs will shape how we "see?" We don't even know what divergent feelings are aroused during immersion in a violent game.

Characters in games act spontaneously, developing new responses to situations as the game proceeds much like the way we interact in real-life when we make instant decisions about people and situations. In these new complex and interactive environments the eruption of violence occurs so unpredictably that the gamer must react instinctively and without a moment's hesitation. It's in these moments that the game ceases to be "unreal" for there's no time to stop and reflect before acting - this is just a game. The virtual training ground is too believable because the gamer is psychologically immersed in the need to fulfill their desired goals.

The hyper-real aesthetics of violence, in which we are invited to "star" in our own private versions of urban wars and crime sprees, does not bring us closer to a humane understanding of ourselves but rather farther from it. As Ursula Rucker sings in Digichant:

"Computer games improve hand-eye coordination
more than a nation of our children have become violent
start buckwildin' in quiet town schools
fool parents and neighbors with that nice kid bit
learned to hate on the Aryan website."

Virtual violence bleeds into our world blurring the lines between fantasy and reality.

Do we want interactive digital violence to be the aesthetic standard by which we understand and know our world? The video game industry is building its multi-billion dollar future by feeding our desires for "smart environments" that overload gamers with complete immersion into a world where psychological violence takes on the shape of our deepest fears.

How realistic do you want your virtual dreams to be?

Cheryl Greene ( and Zachary Waggoner (Zachary.Waggoner are both Ph.D. students in Rhetoric, Composition and Linguistics at Arizona State University.

Copyright © 2002 by Cheryl Greene and Zachary Waggoner. All rights reserved.