When I say “violence,” I mean cinematic, fantasy violence. Hacking down orcs in a rousing game of D&D or shooting zombies in the head. The fun, sanitized kind of violence wherein we focus on the fact that “Lightning Bolt” does x-number-of-d6 damage and shotguns get the 9-again property. We don’t focus on how godawful it might be to get killed by an “Acid Orb,” or even know the pain of being shot (though some gamers might – but I don’t think they’re in the majority). Why? Why are we okay with this kind of violence and murder, but flip our collective lids over things like rape, torture, and other problematic elements?
I recently worked on a scholarly paper at my day job that shed some light on the answer. I’m under an NDA about the stuff I look at, at work – so I can’t tell you the title or the author, or directly reference or discuss any specifics from the work. Therefore: everything to follow is my own thoughts, as synthesized from my understanding of what I happened to read. If you are reading this, and think the framework sounds familiar, then my credit goes to you for giving me these ideas.
That disclaimer aside, here goes.
We all know that we’re going to die. Instinctively, intrinsically, every one of us mortals upon the earth know we are going to die. Quite frankly, as living beings, we hate that, because it’s fucking terrifying. If you also buy into other theories like “the selfish gene” – at the same time, we’re also wired to want to reproduce and prosper! It’s a tough place to be, being alive.
We also know that our biology, our real, physical bodies, our meat won’t save us. Everything that lives also dies. Human beings instead create culture to attain immortality and with culture comes the concept of the hero.
The hero is an icon of victory – not just of the individual, but of the whole species. The hero performs great deeds and creates a legacy and that legacy is remembered for ages to come which is therefore a form of immortality.
We want to be that hero. We want to carve our legacy on the stone tablet of history and stand victorious, dripping with the blood of our enemies. We want the thrill of heroic accomplishment.
…but we’d really rather do it with little-to-no actual threats to our physical person.
In real life, we’re probably not going to run off to war. Most people know that actual combat is hell and that being a real hero is hard work. It’s scary. It hurts. There’s a lot of pain, suffering, and enemies, and not a lot of glory. Still, we want that glory – so, we turn to games instead. Games let us have that glory and sense of heroic accomplishment at the cost of some time and money. Consider the popularity of video games like the Mass Effect trilogy, the Halo series, and Gears of War and that whole series of games a friend of mine calls “browar” games (Battlefield, Modern Warfare, etc.). As we all know, pen and paper RPGs came first, and they sprung fully-formed from the forehead of historical miniature war gaming.
All these things allow us to be heroes at no real threat to our lives, and that is fucking awesome.
As gamers, we’re okay with violence, because it’s part of the thrill of being a hero. It’s part of that need to be the sole victor, to leave behind that legacy – but not get hurt ourselves. I’m totally okay with that. I think it’s wise to take a step back, understand why you feel a certain way, and then carry on with that understanding in mind.
Now, time for some more disclaimers: I am absolutely not saying that everyone desires a high powered game, or a game in which characters don’t die regularly. If that’s what you got out of this, you missed the point. I am not saying that people don’t prefer ‘low powered’ or ‘slice of life’ games.’ I am saying that the exhilaration of a brush with danger, with no real risk to yourself, is something we crave, as part of this heroic concept. Your character could be a blood-soaked barbarian or a gay man dying of AIDS, but you yourself are not really physically harming anyone or actually dying. Games allow us to experience these things without danger, and that gives us a sense of heroic accomplishment, regardless of whether that accomplishment is ‘the lamentations of their women’ or a deeply emotional experience. It’s thrilling, and as human beings we really fucking dig it.
Back to my thoughts. I think sexual violence, torture, etc crosses outside the lines of the sanitary, heroic thrill. These things are not universally shared experiences, and therefore need to be handled with care. There are countless other articles about why these things are a problem, and also how they can be dealt with well, and maturely. This is not another article on that subject. There are plenty others, and many of them worth your time.
Bring on the heroic thrill! I am the Shield of the World, the Fire of Hope and the Breaker of Chains! Extraplanar invaders beware, for I am the fiery salvation of the Prime Material! …but, only on Wednesdays.