The scene in the trailer for the upcoming game Homefront: The Revolution paints a somewhat familiar scenario in modern warfare: the attack by armed civilians on a military checkpoint. From Ulster to Afghanistan this is a situation that soldiers have faced countless times. When it happens we very often call the perpetrators terrorists, and such attacks are considered cowardly and criminal. So why would somebody want to play a character who carries out such attacks in a game?
It is tempting to say that video game fans simply love explosions and violence in games just for the sake of it, but in practice this is seldom enough. You can’t just give a player a character and expect them to enjoy using that character to slaughter non-player characters. To get a player into a position where they are not only comfortable with violence but actually enjoying it takes some doing.
The first thing to do is dehumanize the victims so that nobody feels bad about their being destroyed, and there are plenty of ways to do that. We can see the most overt in the Homefront trailer above: you hide their faces. The aesthetic of Homefront is very similar with regards to the soldiers as seen in Half Life 2 and also Wolfenstein: The New Order. Make the enemy look like machines, computerize up their voices a little bit, and suddenly stabbing them, blowing them up, or feeding them to giant alien insects is no problem. Other elements can make enemies appear less human too, such as their behavior. Enemies that don’t express fear or pain or other emotions likely to create sympathy are more comfortable victims. Lastly the art style can make a big difference. Hotline Miami, for example, was a game that featured some incredibly violent scenes, but the art style gave proceedings a marked sense of unreality.
The next thing is to make sure that the people who are going to be killed are of a suitably expendable nationality or ideology. Nazis are a good shout, as evidenced by Wolfenstein or The Saboteur, but Russians will do in a pinch, especially in a Cold War setting. Another of the current favorites is North Koreans, appearing as villains in both Homefront games and also Crysis. Very few games will actually risk putting the player into a situation of killing NATO soldiers as part of a single-player campaign (one notable exception being Spec Ops: The Line).
Spec Ops: The Line demonstrated the difference that the nationality of fictional victims of violence can make, because shooting at American soldiers in the game, hearing their voices as they get gunned down or blown up, was unsettling. It was unsettling because it is just not the done thing to shoot American soldiers. It’s jarring. Spec Ops: The Line was invoking Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness. It aims to unsettle players, and it works. For games that don’t want you to worry, for games that don’t want you to be uncomfortable, the victims can just be from some other country.
While most games will typically say that one set of characters are perfectly fair game based on their nationality or being a bit robotic, or just being Nazis, another justification that is often used is geographic. In The Saboteur you are killing German soldiers in France, in Homefront you are killing North Koreans in the USA. Players are invited to accept that the presence of a foreign soldier as an occupying element in another country legitimizes his being targeted. In this instance the act of killing soldiers in cold blood becomes instead an act of liberation.
In some ways it could be argued that the way games try to legitimize acts of great violence by players are similar to the propaganda sometimes used to motivate soldiers in wartime. Paint the enemy as less than human and stress how different they are to us and our allies. Make them the other. Rationalize any violence by saying that it is their choice to be where they are and by not going home they are really bringing this upon themselves. This kind of thinking is not limited to any one culture or even one period in history, and even in a digital world, tribalism can be used as a shield against sympathy.
All this work to make acts of violence more palatable isn’t necessarily going to make them fun of course—empathy is powerful, and even collections of pixels on a computer screen can provoke it. You don’t want empathy towards the people you’re blowing up in a video game. So instead to really glory in their annihilation we need more than just being told that they are bad pixels who have it coming. We need to be told that it is fine to enjoy the moment when "it" happens. This is where tone comes into play.
Getting the tone of the game right is vital when you’re encouraging players to commit acts of wanton destruction. Game series like Just Cause or Mercenaries essentially cast you as a terrorist. You are dropped into countries, often fictional, though not always, and you are tasked with blowing up infrastructure, killing soldiers, assassinating people, stealing things and toppling the regime. But those series managed to make it work because they kept the tone light. Instead of coming at the audience with pomposity and a firm belief in their own ineffable seriousness, they are both very silly. The full titles for the Mercenaries games spell it out: Playground of Destruction andWorld In Flames. In these games you can play acts of violence for laughs and it works. In Just Cause 2 your character has a grappling hook which you can use to attach enemy soldiers to things, all kinds of things. It allows for moments of broad physical comedy in the middle of a ferocious gun battle.
Games with a more serious tone don’t often make playing the part of the mass-murdering guerrilla particularly enjoyable. For example, when you make the life of one person mean something in such a game you can break the game's internal logic by killing other people. You start to wonder who else’s life might have value in the world. For example, Watch_Dogs has your character wrapped up in a revenge quest over his dead niece, but in pursuing that revenge he causes absolute havoc across the city. Is it terrorism? Of course it is, he’s chucking explosives around and shooting people. Chicago is like Baghdad with Wi-Fi when he’s around. All that violence makes the initial loss at the start of the story seem insignificant and makes the hero appear self-indulgent and hypocritical.
Ultimately what we can say is that much of the design of games is deliberately manipulative. We are manipulated into thinking that the bad guys are bad, we are manipulated into enjoying fighting against them. We are manipulated into thinking it is perfectly fine to shoot them in the back or blow them up with hidden bombs. Manipulation of this sort isn’t inherently wrong; enjoyment of any creative work will usually demand a certain willingness to go along with what the creator is trying to get you to feel. But if it is done too overtly or if it is misjudged then it can be abrasive and objectionable. The best-designed games will control you without your even knowing that it is your buttons being pushed just as much as the game pad’s.
This piece first appeared on newstatesman.com.