Today, I had the privilege of watching a good friend play Dishonored 2. It’s an interesting game, with a good plot and more than adequate mechanics – it even features some quite brilliant level design. But the feature that most stood out was the violence, and not in a good way. From wanton dismemberment to swarms of bloodsucking pests, the game isn’t exactly a pretty picture. But is that inherently wrong?
People have always had different levels of comfort with violence in media, and video games are no exception. They only represent the latest and most interesting front of the debate. Like movies and books before them, games can contain depictions of violence with varying intensities, and some of those depictions can be quite graphic, even unsettling. But unlike books and movies, games put you in the seat of the action. You’re seeing the violence yourself, and perhaps even committing it. That can have a marked effect on a person, and we’re still exploring the full depths of that effect. Does it make a person more violent, by reinforcing patterns of behavior? Does it make them less violent, by serving as catharsis? Does it desensitize people to violence, or does it force people to consider the implications and the consequences of it? Which is it? Can it be both? Either? These are questions we still do not have the answer to, but one thing is certain – each game portrays violence in a different light, and I’m afraid I have to say that Dishonored 2 glorifies it, which is something I’m not really okay with.
At the same time, Dishonored 2 does provide paths to play without killing anything – and even rewards players for doing so. Different playstyles and levels of comfort with violence are supported, and that’s a good thing to see in a game like this. Perhaps it’s because it gives you choices that it can cause discomfort – what one person finds entertaining may be deeply disturbing to another; what bores the first person may be deeply engrossing to the other. There’s no way to tell, and the result is that video games tell us something about what we find entertaining – do we like the violence, and if so, why? Is it entertaining because it’s not realistic? Is it disturbing to us because it reminds us of something we wish we had never seen? Is it sickening to us because we empathize so strongly with others? Does it make us feel powerful, and yet somehow afraid of that power and of what we might do with it? What does violence do to us? Does it bring out the best in us or the worst in us, and how can we come to terms with that? These are important questions we must answer, and each person must wrestle with them individually.
For me, violence in video games can often be sickening, as it was today, but it can also be cathartic, as it is for me when I play the games in the Batman: Arkham series, of which I have only had time to get through the first two titles. In those games, being Batman means you beat up the villains, but it isn’t a case of wanton bloodshed. Batman doesn’t kill, and that’s one of the things that sets him apart from the villains of the world – in this adaptation, they do. Part of what makes Batman a hero is his immense restraint in not killing the villains, or anybody else, despite the fact that it would often make his life a whole lot easier, and probably save a lot of innocent lives to boot. And yet he just can’t kill. We wonder why. It appeals to us, and we’re intrigued. We want to know more about this strange man who seems to have an almost supernatural strength, who faces his problems with a relentless resolve that never diminishes. Who is such a man? What drives him? What makes him who he is? These are the questions that keep us coming back to Batman – the questions that drive his identity, drive his story, make us aspire to and wonder about who he is, and ultimately make him the hero that we all know and love.
If you’ve caught on to the fact that this post has more questions than answers, you’d be spot on, and that’s because I don’t have answers to a lot of life’s tough questions, like “How much violence in video games is too much?” I think that’s something each person has to decide for themselves, but in my personal opinion, I think a game has crossed the line when it glorifies mindless violence and the degradation of humanity, rather than the exploration of it. Games that are built out of hatred and founded on the principle that destruction and power are all that matters are not worth playing – they don’t even tell a very good story anyways. Play all the games you want – and even play Dishonored, which I find to be borderline – but remember that games which glorify mindless violence, sacrificing story and gameplay, are generally not worth playing. If there’s not a reason you’re playing the game, you should maybe just stop.