• Heroic Immortality: Why We’re Cool with Violence in Games

    by  • June 23, 2012 • Essays • 5 Comments

    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.



    Monica is a gamer who is relatively new to the roleplaying scene, being introduced to the hobby through White Wolf's Exalted. She is an armchair game designer, a frequent producer of fan-work, and her local group's token GM. She also co-hosts the podcast, 1d4cast and is a co-developer at Fable Streams Entertainment.

    5 Responses to Heroic Immortality: Why We’re Cool with Violence in Games

    1. avatar
      June 23, 2012 at 16:45

      I like the thought behind this article, but I’d respectfully disagree with the sanitisation of violence as the key element in its fantasy, at least from a male perspective. I’m actually really curious if this is a gendered difference.

      Violence is super-attractive (at least as a fantasy) to many men (and maybe some women) because of the agonistic qualities, sanitary or not. This is as true of sexual violence and torture as any other kind of violence. This agonistic quality is even introduced into dramatic presentations of types of violence that lack any sort of competition or hierarchical sorting IRL as a way of making them interesting to a male audience. For example, the battle of wills between interrogator and interrogated is a stock situation in dramatic works that resolves into one triumphing and the other losing and includes torture, whereas IRL torture is a deeply degrading and damaging thing that people with power do to people without. The transformation going on from IRL to drama is to allow the winner to assert their agency and mastery. Displays of violence where there is no agonistic element are treated as shameful and vile, and if there is sanitisation going on, it’s to introduce the possibility of the agon where none exists.

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      • avatar
        Monica Speca
        June 23, 2012 at 19:25

        That’s a pretty interesting point, and one I didn’t consider when I wrote it. I think I can safely say that the original piece was written by a man, and it was a viewpoint that I (obviously) agreed with. I think the concept of violence as a man thing is flawed, but I’m not a sociologist and I really do think that exploring the concepts of where the division with violence and gender comes in is very much worthwhile.
        I, personally, feel that men and women approach that agonistic element differently – but we both kinda like it. I’m of the opinion that it’s a human thing. (Which is kind of an ugly thought about us a species, don’t you think?) I also think by branding conflict and violence as a masculine thing, we devalue pacifism and the resolution of conflict by other means as ‘lesser’ because it’s associated with women. That is also total crap.
        I’d also argue that the guts it takes to be a pacifist character in a violent world also ties into that ‘heroic accomplishment’ thrill, too. And maybe I’ve gotten too far off topic.

        Anyone else have thoughts on this gendered matter? Now I’m curious!

        • avatar
          June 23, 2012 at 20:24

          TV tropes and idioms have a trope called Badass Pacifist. Nuf said.

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      • avatar
        Melody Haren Anderson
        June 23, 2012 at 20:05

        I’m going to disagree here, though not entirely. I was thinking earlier today about this article and its relation to the Final Fantasy games, specifically two that I have heard most often touted as the best in the series IV and VI. The thing is, in IV there is very much an agonistic quality going on where you defeat your enemy and then they put a face to them… they give them an identity and honestly there’s a feeling (for me) of definite wrongdoing there. Your character (admittedly before you take control) kills and beats people and a whole village to take their sacred crystal. You kill a dragon (and learn therefore the woman who had summoned it) and kill/burn down an entire village (though you didn’t have knowledge of the exact plans)… these are things the main character knows are wrong. He does so out of personal respect (even love?) for the King and loyalty to his country. That doesn’t make it right, and the game makes that fairly obvious.

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    2. avatar
      June 23, 2012 at 17:09

      I think that most of us have a distinction in our minds between violence and sadism. Most of us, even the most torpid peaceniks among us, can imagine a situation in which they might use violence to solve a problem that might actually happen to them — defending themselves or their family, for example.

      Sadism, however, is another beast entirely — at least in our minds. I don’t think most of us can think of a situation where we would be likely to need to torture another person in our everyday lives.

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