Earlier today, Sparky Clarkson tweeted about this article from Steve Gaynor from a few years back. I re-read it and really latched onto this part:
Violence in film, literature or on stage can either be meaningful or meaningless. When it is meaningful, it resonates with the audience; when it is meaningless, it is largely (and rightly) derided. Consider the death of Shakespeare’s Hamlet following a duel, or of Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, or of Evelyn Mulwray at the end of Chinatown, versus, say, the nameless mooks mown down in Rambo II or Commando or Hard Boiled. The killing by the protagonist of those without identity devalues human life in the work, and thereby robs the violence of meaning (it being perpetrated upon human forms with no value.)
And so a metric for games comes to mind: violence performed by the player in a video game is only legitimate if the victim is a unique and specific individual.
The metric becomes a constraint on content: don’t remove the violence– remove the faceless masses of “enemies.” If every character the player interacts with is a unique and specific individual, then any act of violence committed by the player is invested with some amount of meaning: individuals have families, homes, jobs, friends, and most importantly, relationships with other characters in the game. The player’s act spiders out from the individual to those that surround them, even if that social web is for the most part only implied. There are no more broad swaths of generic violence, then; there are only discrete acts of specific violence, each of which has the potential to matter.
I think of myself, in my most haughty moments, as someone whose work focuses on nonhuman ethics and how those ethics get parsed out. What does it mean to be ethical toward an inhuman thing? How are specific beings or objects plotted on the human-animal-object spectrum? Why?
Reading Gaynor’s post, I immediately think: when is an enemy faceless? When is an enemy lacking a face? And at what point, narratively or systemically, do we begin to understand a being in a videogame as “legitimate”?
Not foreclosing any possible answers here, but this is definitely part of my larger set of (academic and games criticism) questions.
Very curious about examples of things done well or horribly in games in the comments.