Steve Gaynor on Violence from 2010


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.

– “Specific Violence

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.

This entry was posted in Video Games and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Steve Gaynor on Violence from 2010

  1. Gaynor’s quote above seems a little presumptuous. I don’t think violence in action movies is “largely” derided; if it were, why would Gaynor have to bother making his point? I also think it’s too easy to call violence “legitimate” when it is individualized. Gaynor’s positive conceptualization of “specific violence” could be used to justify torture porn and shock value.

    To your question about faceless characters, I have an example that further calls Gaynor’s dichotomous reasoning into question. The violence in the gun-control propaganda game The Slaying of Sandy Hook Elementary features a shadowy protagonist gunman killing his shadowy mother at home and gunning down shadowy children and teachers in a school. Since most people know the Sandy Hook story, those shadowy characters are not faceless; they’re representations of real people who are still being mourned by their families. So the depiction of these real deaths in the game, all for the sake of trumpeting an agenda, raises the question of whether the use of the violence is legitimate; it doesn’t make the violence in the game legitimate.

    I prefer Ed Smith’s dichotomy of controversial/noncontroversial game violence ( Some of Smith’s language sounds a lot like Gaynor’s claims, but Smith’s idea of controversy and his application of that idea to Grand Theft Auto V carry more weight than Gaynor’s critique.

  2. DJ Ian says:

    Don’t forget the classic aesthetic trick of helmeting cannon-fodder: when you want the killing of baddies to be okay in your film/video game, you put the baddies in helmets that obscure their features (or, more insidiously, specifically homogenize their features to an “unnatural” standard). An example of the former might be the literally faceless minions of Cerberus in Mass Effect 3: their helmets have eye slits, and the rest of the face is curved and textured planes. An example of the latter might be Star Wars’ Stormtroopers, whose white helmets boast black eye-holes which are just too wide and wide-set to be “natural”, a nose-slit which horizontally bisects the face, a mouth-hole that seems like three mouth-holes and suggests insectoid mandibles.

    When the former die, they are almost literally nothing; they are little more than aggressive environmental obstacles to be overcome. Shooting to death a Phantom in ME3 is satisfying only because an obstacle has been overcome, not because that Phantom is an ethically Bad Guy. The player’s response is pragmatic exultation, not moral relief. (It is interesting to note that Mass Effect 3 and countless other games of its relentlessly morally reductive/lazy ilk DO offer that ethical catharsis, but restrict it to bosses. Do the creators believe that we can’t handle so much moral satisfaction? Do they refuse to attempt to offer it? Who can say?)

    When the latter die, their featured homogeneity reminds viewers that a) they are legion, b) they are replaceable, and therefore c) their deaths really don’t matter that much. The otherness of their features reminds viewers that a) they are unnatural, b) their unnatural (aggressive) behavior matches their unnatural appearance, and therefore c) their deaths are not the deaths of humans, and therefore are not deaths that matter. Stormtroopers and other cannon-fodder with unnaturally featured but homogenous helmets are more than environmental obstacles, but little more. They are the other who seek to colonize and subjugate; their aggression is proactive rather than reactive. To stymie proactive aggression offers somewhat more ethical catharsis than to overwhelm reactive aggression. But the being which is overcome is still not a “legitimate” being; killing it merely terminates a sign of the incursive hegemonic thing signified.

    Neither helmeted figure–neither Cerberus operative nor Stormtrooper–is a person. The former could be replaced by a mobile turret (an example of an aggressive environmental hazard) with no loss to the game. The latter operates as significant of but only barely embodying political motivation; it is therefore a tiny shard of an ideology, and to kill it is to temporarily stop one prong of the incursion of that ideology, but only temporarily, and only one prong. Neither is a person; neither is human; neither matters; enaction of violence upon both is “legitimate,” since aesthetic and writing code neither as human. Killing a thing is legitimate; it matters not if that thing could otherwise be conceived of as a person. It matters not if that thing could begin to become a person by taking off its helmet and delivering lines.

    This is depressing, but I cannot remember the last time I killed an enemy in a video game and it felt like my killing of that enemy mattered beyond the removal of an obstacle which prevented my reaching my goal. To this ethical point, perhaps, my above reflection trends: most, if not all, of the video games I have played enforce a pragmatic ethics–an ethics of “kill that thing because otherwise it will kill you/your family/your civilization.” It is a reactive ethics, an ethics of survival. Perhaps this is a more tenable ethical position than an ethics of ideology: “kill that thing/person because it/they are morally wrong.” But “kill to survive” is essentially monologic, and certainly simplistic. It offers little opportunity for careful consideration of the rightness of chopping that thing/person in pieces. By contrast, “kill that unethical thing/person” very much can–and, perhaps, should, incite conversation, within or without the game, on violence and its legitimacy.

    Sorry for rambling.

  3. PK says:

    I agree with the above two comments. Gaynor’s quote seems to echo the truism that it is easier to do bad things to people once you dehumanise them. But this is not a comprehensive description of the way players (and people) legitimise violence.

    Also, the idea that characters with personality cause us to spare violence should be seen as a flexible rule. Often stealth games and RPGs depict NPCs which are reasonably well-developed but are still set up to be treated cruelly by the player. The player is forced to adopt a nihilistic attitude towards the mad, isolated, afflicted or zombified – Thief, Dishonored, Vampire: The Masquerade, Oblivion … Often you run across these characters in their own homes. However, the game world is cruel and senseless, you can’t help these people, the only ‘ethical’ attitude available is pity. Also, such scenarios often encourage you to ‘euthanise’ the afflicted, and if you choose not to, the zombified NPCs inevitably become aggressive and attack the player.

Comments are closed.