The Fetishization of Violent Enslavement in Gaming: A Response to Retro Gamer

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.

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5 comments

  1. I can honestly say I’ve never felt I “had” to play a part. I almost turned off The Walking Dead when Clemintine had to stitch her arm together – but I made a choice to watch, not look away or turn it off – to your point.

    I don’t however feel that the above statement from retro suggests “we” are all dumb, unable to think for ourselves,” but rather in a game of ‘choices’ not having an option could’ve been a disappointment.

    The statement about unintelligent gamers made me chuckle a bit, even if that applies to me at times.

    Good read. Don’t agree on all of it, but very valid points.

    1. To your point about Retro Gamer’s statement, I will say that my reaction connects a lot of dots that weren’t even in the Retro Gamer article. That might come across as unfair, as Retro Gamer is a fairly humble magazine. Unfortunately, I’m one of their readers!

  2. I am very troubled by the assumption around a lot of the game-criticism community that players of some games are ignorant, and of others are part of the elite. I’ve mostly seen it in how we talk about games ‘for critics’. Graeme Kirkpatrick’s Aesthetic Theory and the Video Game includes some discussion of the McDonalds Game, which includes the assumption that the player of the McDonalds game… does not eat at McDonalds. Because this player is Kirkpatrick, or is like him, and so is better than McDonalds.

    As much as it pains me to say, the gater community have a point about being looked down on by the critical community. I’ll try not to do that myself in future at least…

    1. I agree, the assumption that someone is dumb or ignorant does not sit well w me. But in my experience, I have close friends, that fit into that category – of being ignorant about games and social/cultural issues.

      Unfortunately if the shoe fits…

      Now as for being looked down on, I agree again, that doesn’t need to happen. If someone is ignorant of music are they not entitled to enjoy what pleases their ears? Sure they are, if someone is ignorant of games – in a sense – that should be fine, not everyone needs to be critical. Some folks just like playing football and shooting stuff, which in the end, that’s what we all end up doing.

  3. Aside from Shinobi and Ninja Gaiden, I’m certain there were dozens of games in between that time and Bioshock’s release that featured confronting a father or father figure. My guess is that the reason Retro Gamer focused on that title specificially is because of the atmosphere it created, one that earlier titles were unable to because of limited technology, and how that enhanced the impact. (subjective impact, of course) That or they were more interested in how the game tricked players into thinking they had control all the time when in actuality they were being subtly coerced without their knowledge into following the objectives of another character. Again though, this had been done before (Legacy of Kain series, for example)

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