Pixels With Perspective: Understanding the Role of Violence in Gaming

On March 8, 2018, the White House official YouTube channel uploaded a video called “Violence in Video Games”. In this video, it displayed small cuts of various graphically violent scenes in games ranging from Call of Duty to Dead By Daylight to Fallout 4. While the nature of the video’s purpose is unknown, it was met with near-unanimous dissent as the like/dislike ratio as of a week later remains overwhelmingly negative. Many comments call out against the accusation that violence in video games causes violence in real life. Some make light of the alleged hypocrisy that the nation with the most powerful military in history is arguing for the regulation of violence within games. More defended gaming’s ideal as an art form protected by the 1st Amendment of the US Constitution. However, what I think the most egregious sin this video has committed is that it has disregarded the narrative context these games have within their stories and how those stories shape the industry.

What stuck out to me more than anything else were scenes from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, specifically the infamous “No Russian” chapter of the story. In this level, the player takes on the role of undercover CIA agent Joseph Allen who attempts to gain the trust of a Russian terrorist group by taking part in a mass shooting at an airport in Moscow. The group that the player follows actively shoot any and all of the civilians they see with extreme prejudice. After the shooting and a firefight with FSB soldiers, the leader of the group, Vladimir Makarov, kills Allen before escaping with the rest of the group inside of a van using his body as a false plant to blame the attack on America. The chapter itself suffered negative press due to the depiction of a mass shooting but “No Russian” proved to be an important part in the maturity of gaming as an art form. Already, games serve to be an interesting beast because they themselves are a culmination of other art forms. Games can combine the aria of music, the brush strokes of artistry, the emotion of writing, and vibrancy of animation into one form. So why is it that some take exception to violence in video games versus violence in other forms of art and media? It’s the one thing that makes gaming unique: interactivity.

Books, movies, music, and art are all passive mediums for the experience they wish to provide. One doesn’t actively see themselves inside of a book or become a character in a movie. We watch from afar with no way to effect to what unfolds in front of us. When it comes to gaming however, it’s an active experience. Nothing happens until the player inputs keystrokes, mouse movements, and controller inputs to force something to happen. Because of that, it’s not hard to imagine that players often put themselves in the shoes of the character they are playing as. This can prove to engross themselves into the plot entirely or ruin immersion rapidly depending on the game. Ultimately, what makes “No Russian” so important not only to the game its set within, but to gaming as a whole, is that it tested the waters by making the player play center stage in an atrocious act. The player is supposed to feel disgusted. The dead bodies lying on the ground are supposed to make the player shocked that they must let this happen regardless of if they decide to participate in shooting. The character they play as needs to keep their cover safe all for the greater good. In fact, I would argue that Activision and Infinity Ward didn’t let the game go far enough and allowed players to skip the level unpunished if they felt too uncomfortable before they’ve even started the campaign.

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