A Morally Serious Videogame about Guns and Violence

After mass shootings inevitably someone will suggest that violent videogames had something to do with it. This time it was Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper who obliged in a interview with CNN’s Candy Crowley, while in the same interview he dodged a question on gun control (a position memorably skewered by George Carlin). Yesterday in this space my colleague Sam Knight looked at the evidence, finding that violent crime has fallen even as videogame sales have spiked, while social science has found no link between violent games and violent behavior.

Sam’s point is well-taken, but as a fan of videogames generally I confess to being a bit disturbed sometimes by the direction things have been going in the “realistic” shooter genre—games like Call of Duty, Battlefield, Medal of Honor, etc. The jingoism, the glorification of violence and high-tech military hardware, and of course the slaughter of umpteen zillion brown people all make for a rather nauseating experience for those prone to introspection.

A recent game called Spec Ops: The Line totally upended those conventions, working within the genre itself to criticize it far better than a battalion of Hickenloopers ever could. Here’s a trailer (mildly NSFW):

But like any great art, Spec Ops is far deeper than any intra-genre dispute (which is why Brendan Keogh was able to write a thoroughly excellent 50k word “critical reading” on the title). Among many other things, it is a profoundly disturbing look at how violence is carried out in the name of the American state today. I took a look at how here in detail (massive spoilers), but suffice to say that war games do not necessarily glorify their subject.

This is why it’s so grating when people like Hickenlooper (or, for that matter, Roger Ebert) reach for the same tired bucket of cliches when talking about violence and videogames. They just don’t get it, and moreover don’t seem much interested in trying.

Today much of America’s fighting is done by remote-controlled drone, executed by people at computer screens halfway around the world— a trend which is only likely to increase. It’s perhaps not surprising that a videogame would have the most profound exploration yet of both that strange, remote violence and the popular disconnection from it.

UPDATE: Alyssa Rosenberg has some good thoughts on this subject as well.

@ryanlcooper

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.