Tearing out an opponent’s still-beating heart, ripping out his spine, and impaling him on sharp spikes – these are just a few of the colourful ‘fatalities’ from the notoriously violent video game Mortal Kombat. At the time of its release in 1992, it caused quite a stir, not least in my own household. My parents were appalled at the savagery, and only my relentless pestering managed to persuade them to let me play it at all (albeit with the blood and guts deactivated).
It’s amusing to look back on the outrage produced by these blocky, pixelated displays of virtual homicide. They certainly can’t compare to the anarchic omnislaughter of Grand Theft Auto V – now the bestselling entertainment title of all time, with takings of more than $6 billion – nor the gruesomely anatomical, slow-motion kills of games such as Sniper Elite. Perhaps that’s just a sign of our maturing social attitudes to the medium. Several generations have now grown up surrounded by virtual carnage, and whatever the myriad faults we’re accused of, millennials haven’t turned out to be dramatically more aggressive or antisocial than our parents.
Yet we can’t let video games off the hook entirely. As the philosopher Morgan Luck pointed out in 2009, we’re still likely to be discomfited by certain kinds of virtual brutality: child abuse, torture, racism and sexual violence, to name just a handful of nasty examples. It’s not immediately clear whether this difference in disgust tracks anything of moral significance. After all, virtual sexual violence and virtual murder are alike in that they don’t involve real victims, and both would be uncontroversially wrong if done in real life. This creates what Luck called ‘the gamer’s dilemma’: how can we be so sanguine about virtual bloodletting, but react with appalled horror to the idea of simulated paedophilia or sexual violence?
Philosophers of art and culture have taken up this question. One option is simply to accept that these kinds of virtual immorality are morally equivalent. For example, we might wonder whether our intuitive response to virtual sexual violence is misguided. Or we might rethink our relatively blithe acceptance of non-sexual violence in video games; perhaps we should be just as appalled by virtual murder as by virtual sex crimes. Maybe my parents were right to be horrified at Mortal Kombat back in the early 1990s.
However, gaming isn’t unique in its obsession with violence, death and criminality: it’s everywhere. Tempting though it might be to blame it all on Hollywood, hip hop and HBO, this tendency is hardly new. In a classic 1944 essay, George Orwell bemoaned the fact that ‘a detective story not containing a murder has been a great rarity, and the most disgusting details of dismemberment and exhumation are commonly exploited’. Violence has gone hand in hand with entertainment from the dawn of Western literature, from the incessant gore of Homer’s Iliad (‘the copper shaft punched out the other side from underneath his brains, and cracked the white bones in two … his eyes welled up with blood, which bubbled up out of his mouth and down out of his nostrils’) to the misogyny and murder of the Bible.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we’re all moral monsters. Even as entertainment has become more graphic in the past few decades, crime rates have fallen in most rich, industrialised countries. But the ubiquity of violence does show, I think, that violent video games are just a surface phenomenon that reflects a deeper, universal fascination with the extremes of human behaviour. In most of us, this never translates into anything more than voyeurism. But perhaps it is dishonest to feign total incomprehension of why people commit terrible acts: their choices can mirror the myths of struggle, violence and warfare we all consume, from Casablanca to Star Wars. Insofar as we’re different from criminals, it’s not in our capacity to find enjoyment in violence, but in our willingness to confine it to the virtual world.
Perhaps what underlies the gamer’s dilemma, then, is not some unique revulsion towards sexual crimes and child abuse. Rather, watching these acts might tap into the viewer’s uncomfortable affinity with, and even desire for, the more familiar forms of violence. While depictions of sexual violence and paedophilia do occur in film and TV, they’re hardly pervasive in the same way as warfare and murder, and they typically serve to demonstrate a villain’s malevolence. We can happily imagine ourselves as Luke Skywalker or Katniss Everdeen, but who wants to be Humbert Humbert? The idea of someone deliberately enacting child abuse or sexual violence in a video game strikes us as alien and perverse, and we’re happy to condemn it. By contrast, the idea of being able to resolve our problems with a hail of bullets speaks to something within us that most of us can’t deny.
That’s not to say that virtual violence should avoid moral scrutiny. Now that I’m a father myself, I find my parents’ reaction to Mortal Kombat much more understandable. But I can also appreciate what makes the simple carnage of these titles so rewarding – and why their proximity to equally unsettling acts isn’t something I’d want to be reminded of.