Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The World's Most Difficult Subject

This is not an argument from biology or tradition, but let's begin with both. Here's a dog:

Chewbacca (pictured above) was born into a life of--by dog standards--magnificent and omnidirectional luxury.

Here is a typical day for Chewie:
Life is chill for Chewie.

Nonetheless, like most dogs, like many of us--Chewie dreams at night of violence, murder, hunting, fight and flight. These are dreams of panic and survival vastly out of proportion to the amount of any of these things he has direct experience with in the waking world.

When Chewie romps, with stuffed toys or other pups, his romps are about attempted murder. More scientifically concrete, if less experientially familiar to the average reader, studies of some of the least molested and most isolated communities of monkeys in the wild reveal that though their daily lives consist 99% of doing seriously fuck-all, their play consists almost exclusively of pretending in one way or another to kill each other and to avoid being killed.

Violence in fiction, which began when the first mammal, Eomaia Scansoria "climbing dawn mother"--a kind of shrew--first lay its head down to dream, and in play--which likely began long before Eomaia, as octopuses, crocodiles and possibly even insects play--thus has a very long tradition. Nearly every genre in pop literature with the exception of some strains of romance is defined by how it uses violence (in a war, in a mystery, at the end after a long chase). There is a lot of it.

As everyone smart in DIY D&D knows, tradition is no excuse for anything. So to get beyond that...

The modern takes on the overwhelming violence in games fall roughly into three camps:

1-Many humans have inherently violent instincts which once helped us survive but now are channeled (pick one: healthily/unhealthily/sometimes healthily) into games of violence.

2-Our fundamentally unfair society has grown in such a way as to be fixated on making people accept or even enjoy violence, and so it shows up in our games.

3-Some mixture of 1 and 2.

These three ideas are incomplete and stupid and, most importantly, insult and underestimate the vast powers of art and leisure.

1 suggests games are merely mental downtime (they aren't) and 2 suggests art's positive role is purely didactic and imitative (you do nothing but parrot what you play). Neither is supported by the science: art actually involves thinking and responding individually and disparately--games especially and RPG doubly especially.


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Consider this:

Since Vietnam, fewer and fewer Americans have joined the military. Consequently, when we do go to war, the US government's been increasingly reliant on private security forces--i.e. mercenaries. These private forces (Blackwater, et al) are far less accountable to the nation than their public equivalents and have been responsible for what you could fairly uncontroversially call some fucked up shit.

Point being: whether or not we enjoy violence, there is a kind of violence happening far away from most US citizens that is related in some way to the actions and ideas US citizens have that we should be thinking about. What the correct policy decision to make about mercenaries doing jobs soldiers used to isn't the point: the point is to do anything responsible at all, we should be thinking about it. This is violence that's not on a savannah 300,000 years ago, but now.

Other kinds of violence we should be thinking about: the average city cop's average call on the average day concerns domestic violence, the most powerful nations in the world (via arms trade or direct action) all profit daily from violence, women spend time finding ways to come home at night from work in ways men don't for fear of violence, and, of course, the entire world is the way it is now because of how and when this or that person managed to arrange a monopoly on violence.
Yet in the face of that, the average life of the average game-playing citizen contains (like the happy monkeys alone on that island) no violence at all.

Few people manage to get to become a teenager without the intimation that, even if things are lovely here, there is violence out there: in Rwanda, in the next neighborhood, or in the alleyway behind the bus stop--and they begin to listen to music which processes this violence, and they watch movies which process this violence. Violence and the threat of violence pervade the unconscious of the entire quiet world--and for good reason. Once violence appears, it isn't quiet any more.

The brain is a problem-solving engine, it focuses on bad places because that's where the problems worth solving are. The last century brought us three new things, the third tremendously influenced by the first two:

-Violence on a scale previously unimagined
-An ability for the average person to find out about distant or hidden violence on a scale previously unimagined
-A willingness on the part of artists to talk about violence with a rawness previously unimagined

A key point here is--as an aggregate, as a "more of this, less of this"--what fiction is actually trying to say or is saying is less culturally important than simply bringing the subject up, not letting it sit repressed and undiscussed. A Road Runner cartoon, a DMX song, an Indiana Jones movie, a Friday the 13th movie, a dungeoncrawl may or may not be articulating a new or useful idea about violence, but they exist because violence is a subject every culture's every real and currently functional survival instinct suggests is worth bringing up. Artists as an aggregate would begin to notice they were not doing their job if they didn't include an awareness of violence in their work. The relevance of the subject is, regrettably, evergreen. And any smart person is going to start thinking about a subject once it's in front of them, even if it's in front of them because of a Road Runner cartoon.

Art isn't simply downtime and it isn't simply about making people copy the art: It's exercise. Like stretching expands your range of movement--play expands the range of ways you can think about things, the kinds of creativity you can bring to bear on problems.

In the face of a lack of any evidence that violent games cause widespread societal violence or that they are made by violent or bad people, the new line is that violence in games is "boring" (denotation: "not to my taste" connotation: "unappealing to those of sophisticated sensibilities like mine") or aesthetically conservative. A point of view that pronounces boredom with Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hot Fuzz, West Side Story and King Lear all for the same reason is not the mark of a thoughtful and discriminating critical voice. And: "This work of art is progressive and avant garde because it avoids making you think about the world's most intractable subject" is not really a hill I can see anyone wanting to die on.
Epidemic of nonviolence
Likewise you have to wonder about critics who feel the bizarre need to remind game designers that there are "Other Ways To Solve Problems Besides Violence": The whole reason violence holds such a prominent place in our fiction is because everyday life for most people is pretty much nothing but solving problems without violence. This is not an exotic skillset.

The average person goes to wild lengths to avoid violence even when provoked--look out the window right now no matter where you are and chances are you'll be gazing down on a positive epidemic of problem-solving via nonviolence. Tokyo, birthplace of Godzilla, every fucked-up thing in Takashi Miike's head, the Tokyo Gore Police, and that children's show with the red octopus that just hits everyone with a bat, is a really safe place to live. Since the popularity of art about violence--even the most gleeful, irresponsible, unconsidered violence--is not actually correlated with real societal violence, the strident reminder that art doesn't have to be about violence is just a case of You Must Not Like What I Like Because You've Never Heard Of It.

People who drop that particular monocle fail to grasp basic paradoxes of life: Violence is relatively rare but excruciatingly important. Thinking about things we should not do can help us learn to prevent them. It is breathtakingly unserious to suggest the way to defeat violence is to simply quench some personal attraction to committing it--especially because so many of the people who could address the problem aren't committing it. They're avoiding it--like Tetris does. Attraction to violence isn't their issue--failing to think hard enough about it is.

Violence goes unseen not because there is no violence but because violence likes to be ignored, glossed over, kept secret, smiled past, kept private or (worst of all) delegated to places we choose to ignore. There are great games that don't make violence a central feature: Peggle, Pictionary, soccer, bocce ball, billiards. But there is nothing inherently noble or progressive or difficult or even informative about a game not having violence in it, any more than ice hockey is a threat to the status quo for not having a ball in it. It's just another game. If violence in art bores you all that means is that violence in art bores you. Cauliflower bores me, I don't get all-caps about it.

Being a dick about your taste is still being a dick about your taste--even in the name of nonviolence, the worthiest goal in the world.
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31 comments:

JDsivraj said...

Violence in games is fun because no one actually gets hurt. Clue, Risk, and Chess would be pretty different without the violence.

Gus L said...

This is a lovely piece of writing on violence - I can't remember where I read it but I heard that an American man is something like 50% less likely to ever be involved in a fist fight now than he was in the mid 20th century. That is to say that the Don Drapers of the world were socking each other a lot more often then we do now - across race and class, yet popular media was far more mannered about violence - maybe when people are more connected with something, when they know it personally, they don't need as much description or visual detail to visualize it (of course special effects are better now as well).

As to thoughts about games - those that express concerns about excessive violence always also seem to be the ones where the consequences of the (inevitable?, climactic?) violence are far more minimal. In your first edition dungeon crawl giant rat bites often mean rolling up another character, while in games where non-violence through rules facilitated narrative manipulation is described as an optimal solution to obstacles the results of violence for the player character is often minimal.

To set aside or discredit violence as an aspect of play it seems to me that the best system is to (like Ichi the Killer) have a world where the graphic excesses of violence are all too apparent, rather then one Disney style where everyone if constantly boffing each other on the skull without consequences. In game terms this means that mechanics that gloss over and so "de-emphasize" violence are counter productive unless they also retain very high risks to playability (that is a likelihood of character death) when violence is used as a problem solving tool. Mechanics that focus on violence may glorify it to a certain extent but will also give the player pause if the risk and consequences of violence are high enough.

I guess what I'm saying is that my OD&D players are real reluctant to reach for the gun/sword if they can see another option and that I like this as a way of playing at and thus thinking about the ethics of violence

Zak S said...

I think that's still basically assuming a more striaghtforward relationship between what smart people do in a game and what they think when they get home than really exists.

John said...

I do a lot of martial arts, so I spend a lot of my leisure time thinking about hurting people. Not just chopping orcs (that too), but thinking about how do real physical harm to living human beings. I'd call it a direct consequence of thinking about it so much that I have a very strong disposition against violence. Most violence is thoughtless.

Strangely when a martial artist says martial arts has taught them a peaceful and beneficial attitude towards violence, people have no trouble believing them. When other art forms involve violence, that's somehow detrimental to the fabric of society.

JDsivraj said...

Violence in games is fun because no one actually gets hurt. Clue, Risk, and Chess would be pretty different without the violence.

JDsivraj said...

Soory I have noi dea how that double posted.

1d30 said...

What do you think about a variant of Modern Take #2? The pressures of a nonviolent society, where people must negotiate and can't resort to violence to achieve their goals, creates a tension and frustration relieved in games where violence is an option (and the empowering game of course gives great violent ability to the character so that he not only has the societal option but also the wherewithal). People then gravitate toward games where violence is at least an option, more likely those where it's center-stage. And in fact any game involving non-consensual theft of resources includes some of that forbidden fruit of violence: being able to take after asking politely and being refused.

I think people who fantasize about a golden age nonetheless full of savagery in the past, or a post-apocalyptic future, and thrill at the opportunities to get their way, ignore the fact that they'd likely just become the ones ground under the boot heel if they were there in reality - without the empowerment of the game rules, probably half the players are below-average humans in terms of survival fitness (ignoring that a portion of gamers gravitate toward martial arts, handicraft, or survival hobbies and another portion are more like Star Wars Kid broomhandle enthusiasts). People benefit greatly from the structure and safety of a Lawful society.

I also think people revile criminality not only because they fear a loss of safety, but because the criminal seized an opportunity to get ahead while breaking the social contract. He was able to enjoy all the benefits of the secure society and also all the benefits of violence. The response is jealousy, despite the jealous person even then being unwilling to follow in the criminal's footsteps. The value of Lawful society is still too strong in the citizen's mind, the detriments of criminality still too severe. So the citizen won't join the criminal but will jealously try to destroy him - using violence! Uncomfortable conditions, imprisonment, theft via fines, exile, whipping, even execution. And the citizen, who may be viscerally repulsed by filthy prisons and bloody executions (primarily because he does not live in filth or witness violence in person and isn't used to it), that citizen who may bridle at the intimation he enjoys violence, will rejoice that his society has punished a "cheater".

Zak S said...

This is all just a variant of Take 1--"games are a sterile outlet where you pretend to have powers you do not and satisfy urges you cannot in life"

Games are not merely letting air out of a poisonous balloon--they are an exercise in themselves, inventive and productive.

Lloyd Neill said...

This is the type of commentary on violence in gaming (or any media or art for that matter) that I wish I was reading in the mainstream media.

Zeframsee said...

A great read, but I feel your conceptualization of violence may be a bit too literal.

How would you reconcile structural and symbolic violence with your sense of 'non-violent' everyday solutions? In the sense that certain forms of violence are integrated in many institutions on a sort of fundamental, if relatively 'invisible' level.

Example: Structural violence would include the construction of black poverty post-WW2 and gentrification/gerrymandering. Systemic and thus endemic poverty in populations is a form of violence, as it directly harms the people living within them.

Symbolic violence would involve denying the lived experiences of people. One can look to recent media to see ,say, black narratives being dismissed as acts of 'thugs,' and that protests are unfounded and that racism is 'over.'

Just looking to see how or if this may change your perspective on a relatively 'non-violent' reality and violence-as-play.

Zeframsee said...

Another example of systemic may be the construction of labor within the domestic, or home, social sphere.

This may include the wage-gap between men and women, and the fact that even if a woman may work full time, she may be expected to perform the bulk of non-wage labor at home: cleaning, cooking, child-rearing. Both would result in a drastic economic disparities (she cannot work more bc she is expected to fill certain home duties that the man is not) and economic (she has other responsibilities aside from the career combined with the wage disparity, affecting social mobility/success). Which is super shitty, btw.

Zeframsee said...

Or even certain social attitudes regarding trans-people or sex workers can fall within the borders of victims of structural violence, as I am sure you are aware!

Zak S said...

The meda analysis i was making does not apply if you use the broader definition of 'violence' people use to describe various other kinds of harm

Zeframsee said...

I agree; yours is too limiting. Especially considering your description of the development of violence over the past century.

Your examples:
-Violence on a scale previously unimagined
-An ability for the average person to find out about distant or hidden violence on a scale previously unimagined
-A willingness on the part of artists to talk about violence with a rawness previously unimagined

all encompass the more contemporary academic considerations of violence, structurally and symbolically, as well as literally, as you have stated. And these all are, in your words, "places we choose to ignore."

It also challenges your statement that 'violence is exceedingly rare.' in fact, it happens and is reproduced every day! And is still excruciatingly important!

Zeframsee said...

One can argue that 'violence play' also encompasses toys and role-play; the 'girl toys' that represent domestic tasks fulfill as perform the same role.

Zak S said...

No what i said is not 'too limited' its simply that I chose to write about why physical violence is on games not why harm (or 'symbolic violence') appears in games, which would be a different .subject.
You dont need to continually reiterate that harm is bad, too, we already know that

Zeframsee said...

It is not 'harm.' It is violence.

Zeframsee said...

You do not seem to consider symbolic or structural violence as such. You say "harm." and not "violence."

If you like, I can send you some articles on the subject, bc I know you are well educated and would probably enjoy the reading.

Let me know, and I would be happy to share my resources with you!

Zak S said...

You are incorrect. I am using 2 different terms for clarity's sake, not lTo demy the connection.Since physical literal violence plays a different role in games.

Zak S said...

@JDsivraj
Please don't derail the conversation w/irrelevant semantic fights

Dak Ultimak said...

This is pure anecdote, but the gentlest and non-confrontational player in my weekly group is the most violent and troublesome character in the party. He's pretty much a murderer, and I find it a lot of fun.

JDsivraj said...

Sorry Zak.. Wasn't trying to get all nit picky about semantics.
To me violence is the direct threat, and application against individuals.
When pushing pieces about on a tabletop I don't think we are endorsing war or violence.

JDsivraj said...

Sorry Zak.. Wasn't trying to get all nit picky about semantics.
To me violence is the direct threat, and application against individuals.
When pushing pieces about on a tabletop I don't think we are endorsing war or violence.

Nagora said...

Art doesn't have to be about violence, but in gaming terms violence is in the same class as magic or high-tech: it's wish-fulfilling. The game character can achieve things that the player can't by simple, quick applications of any of these three common game mechanics over the course of a 5 hour game session and then go home. Problems that in real life would be intractible or require huge teams of people can be sorted out by the right-minded character waving a sword/wand/hypno-ray; of the three, violence is both generic and exists in real life, so it's very common. And it's fun to pretend the individual can make a difference so easily.

But you can't have it both ways - you can't say that violent games have no negative effects and then say that art gives us practice at solving problems in new ways. If a person thinks that their problem is too many black people, then games about walking around shooting everyone until the cops catch you might well present them with a spark of an idea for solving that problem. Art can make us look at ourselves and our values, but if it offers nothing more than a representation of those things, with no criticism or analysis then it's pretty weak art, frankly - "Whaam!" is not "Guernica".

Nations and people who have been on the receiving end of war will tend to have a different PoV on violence from those that have never been (or have not been for a long time). I think that is the difference in end result. Japanese people know that violence can end in firestorms and nukes; so do the Germans. The British have a deep history of being toe-to-toe with enemies that pose an existential threat. America has not been seriously threatened in that way since, what, 1812? Those Americans who personally experenced losing the Vietnam War had a very different attitude to war from their parents who experienced winning WWII.

So the soil on which violent art falls is different in each country and can produce different fruit. Simply saying "violent games are not a problem because: Japan" is too crude. If your society has a pre-existing problem with violence, and the US certainly has, then pretending that violent art will have the same effect there as it does in Oslo or Tokyo is just sticking your head in the sand. The art isn't inherently the problem, but what difference does that make to the dead and wounded?

Rather than censorship we need leadership that is prepared to move to a higher moral ground than "it's about the economy, stupid". So long as voters don't care about the latter, then we're probably going to get the former. We're certainly not going to see anyone address the underlying problems.

Zak S said...

the "wish-fulfilling" theory is moronic:
invention of new ideas is far more important that wish-fulfillment

this is also idiotic:
"with no criticism or analysis then it's pretty weak art"
A tool is a tool--it does not have to offer criticism or analysis itself, it offers a model to make those things easier

It's like you didn't even read the thing you're commenting on.

Zak S said...

Looking back, you also gave a glib, evasive answer last time you commented (The Nazi Games) so unless you up your game and actually engage what you're reading, you're banned.

richard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
richard said...

What you say here makes perfect sense to me in abstract - in particular I agree strongly with this:
violence likes to be ignored, glossed over, kept secret, smiled past, kept private or (worst of all) delegated to places we choose to ignore.

I'm curious about the more concrete context for you writing this, though - are you responding in this piece to some specific bunch of people bemoaning violence in games? It seems like it when you write about getting all-caps about it and being a dick about your taste.

I haven't read those people and their particular moans (I've become fairly good at filtering stuff out of my stream over the past few years, for better or worse). I have some moans of my own, but I'd like to know the context before I get into them.

Nagora said...

It's strange; everytime I post a comment here and then think "well, I just basically agreed with Zak, so was there much point?" you complain that I'm not engaging or something.

Anyway, on with the show:

"the "wish-fulfilling" theory is moronic:
invention of new ideas is far more important that wish-fulfillment"

Basically, bollocks. Violence is the easy solution, if you're the stronger party. If you think that the majority of adventure gamers (at least) are not getting a kick out of the feeling of being able to make a difference in their game worlds without all the real-world hassle of organising a grass-roots movement, holding that together, really hammering out a good alternative to the current situation and possibly formulating a mid-term fiscal policy then you're deluded. Fortunately, since you agree with me ("The whole reason violence holds such a prominent place in our fiction is because everyday life for most people is pretty much nothing but solving problems without violence.") you're not deluded, just weirdly inconsistent.

"A tool is a tool--it does not have to offer criticism or analysis itself, it offers a model to make those things easier".

Some tools are better for an intended purpose than others. I'm saying that art that simply reflects reality is one thing and art that tries to go beyond that is another thing and the latter is better than the former. If you want to say that all art is equivilent, I'm not going to agree any day soon.

I like the idea that art offers a model to make criticism and analysis easier, but I don't accept that that's all it is, I think the best art actively offers a new model - it is a communication of specific things in the artist's head, not just a generalized inspiration.

As to being a tool, a match is a tool too, but you don't want to strike one when you can smell gas. This was the main point I was making, and one which is problematic. If you know that your society is one that is able and willing to treat violence as just an easy-sounding idea that doesn't pay off in the long run (Japan) then violent art isn't a problem. But what if you live somewhere that has not ever had to learn that lesson? Do you just ignore the smell and strike the match anyway and then say "just a tool, man?" That sounds a lot like "guns don't kill people" from here.

It sounds like a call for self-censorship, maybe it is, but I hope it's just a call for alternatives. Thinking about things we should not do, when a lot of people are in fact doing them, maybe isn't much use.

Zak S said...

This makes no sense:
" If you think that the majority of adventure gamers (at least) are not getting a kick out of the feeling…"

…I didn't say anything about "what the majority of adventure gamers" felt I am talking about what makes violence creatively important. Important was the word I used. Invention produces new ideas wish-fulfillment without invention does not. Invention is why these genres appeal even to people who aren't in it to pretend to be a badass and why they produce new and interesting material.

So engage with that idea.

"Fortunately, since you agree with me ("The whole reason violence holds such a prominent place in our fiction is because everyday life for most people is pretty much nothing but solving problems without violence.") you're not deluded, just weirdly inconsistent."

I am (of course) never inconsistent. what you should do is ASK when you see an apparent paradox instead of idiotically assume I said something inconsistent.

My theory: Violence, whatever else it does in fiction provides an _opportunity to think about an important subject_ that would otherwise feel strangely absent and, therefore, appears in fiction.

Your dumber, simpler theory: "violence is wish-fulfilling" doesn't fit many uses of violence in art. It fits some but not all. It fits that one statement you quoted, but so does mine.

"I'm saying that art that simply reflects reality is one thing and art that tries to go beyond that is another thing and the latter is better than the former...I like the idea that art offers a model to make criticism and analysis easier, but I don't accept that that's all it is, I think the best art actively offers a new model - it is a communication of specific things in the artist's head"

Provide proof.

Zak S said...

The usual suspects.