by Jed Pressgrove
As surely as artists have the right to depict violence, people also have the right to enjoy and criticize violence in art. From the enjoyment angle, many gamers are sensitive about criticism of violence in video games, partially due to politicians and media using violent games as a scapegoat for their own failures to foster a safe society. Indeed, the idea that violent games breed killing machines is an overstatement from a statistical standpoint. At the same time, it’s fair to raise questions and make claims about how violence is used in games and how its usage might impact our sensitivity to violence or conflict with our morality. Some game critics have written good analyses of game violence (see articles by Patrick Lindsey, Ed Smith, and Mark Filipowich, among others). But a recent article in Retro Gamer (Issue 131) gave me considerable pause after I read its evaluation of a certain act of violence in BioShock. The most troubling sentence was in the article’s final paragraph:
‘A slave obeys,’ it tells us, as we smash our own father’s head in with a golf club — an activity we had no choice but to perform.
Let’s note that we, the audience, always have a choice about what art we consume in our homes. We can stop reading books, watching movies, listening to music, or playing games at any point. I recall Takashi Miike, the transgressive filmmaker of Audition and Ichi the Killer, saying that if the violence in one of his films gets too much for you, take a break and resume later. This very simple choice that we have as an audience stands in contrast to the notion that a game segment was “an activity we had no choice but to perform.” This notion rejects enjoyment of violence in favor of a morbid fascination with supposed enslavement.
The Retro Gamer article in question is part of a regular column called “Future Classics.” I was unsurprised to see BioShock selected for this distinction. The game is overly loved by game critics. The issue doesn’t lie with people enjoying the game or discussing its themes. The issue arises when critics, such as Leigh Alexander and Tom McShea, promote a sort of cultural elitism when speaking about BioShock or creator Ken Levine (Alexander’s and McShea’s negative reviews of BioShock Infinite do little to refute their appraisal of Levine’s superiority). All that said, my disappointment in Retro Gamer’s article is more related to its refusal to place BioShock’s patricide in a meaningful historical context; after all, history is the magazine’s strength (Retro Gamer is my favorite magazine for this reason). Instead, the article blandly sets us up with an unenlightening genre statement: “It [BioShock] took the assumptions developers (and players) had made about the FPS protag, turned them on their head, and fired them back at us.”
What about the assumptions that the above claim makes about all of us? This line of thinking about BioShock’s “subversion” brings to mind the commentary of The Stanley Parable, which draws a useless parallel between pushing buttons in an office, pushing buttons as part of a mechanic in a video game, and pushing buttons on the controller as a game player. Sure, some gamers are unintelligent and exploited by big studios, but are we all as unaware and dumb as The Stanley Parable suggests?
Moreover, are the gaming literati that unaware and dumb? Have they forgotten that not one but two 1980s action games toyed with the idea of confronting one’s father in violence? As if it couldn’t be anymore obvious, both of these 1980s games starred ninjas! Retro Gamer should have known better. The BioShock article ignored the precedence of Shinobi and Ninja Gaiden and glorified a more graphic form of patricide with the takeaway that we really didn’t know any better. On the contrary, I’m pretty sure most players know what a plot twist or design choice is. The suggestion that BioShock and The Stanley Parable enlightened us might be more than condescending. It’s starting to seem flatout dishonest.