Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Signifying Violence, Part Deux: Lost in New York

Why, if we've dispatched millions of goombas and koopa troopas in our gaming lifetimes, do some symbolic acts of violence come to matter, and others come to be dismissed?

In part, there is the matter of signification. In most early video games, death and violence serve as handy referents to the act of playing and progressing, but contain none of the symbolic weight of the actual acts. The earliest model of this is found in arcades, where 'lives' referred directly to play-time and performance: In playing against the clock, and your own dime, the notion of the "free man" evolves directly from Pinball's "free play": the literal notion of a free bit of playtime.

When games moves from arcades to consoles the system of "points" quickly went from being a chief arbiter of performance to a vestigial limb of earlier media, but the notion of playtime as finite and operating within a window of opportunity remained. Death in this context is a soft reset, a do-over: Fall a thousand feet onto rows upon rows of jagged spikes? Yikes. Well, just don't do it again.

Similarly, when you "kill" a sprite, it flickers for a moment, and disappears. Not disappears in a "Your soul will be dead before your body: fear nothing further", Nietzsche-type-deal. It's a time-out: according to the rules of the game, it's gone for a little while. Die and start over, and everything's back to status quo.

It's only when the signification of death and dying are brought to the fore that this transaction comes to have any type of moral weight. To suggest that all you are doing in Mario is "killing things" isn't just disingenuous, it's downright Froot Loops.

Pictured at down-right: Froot Loops

This isn't to say that the signification of violence and death are possible in a game-space where respawns and points-for-killing are the norm, only that an environment like this functions as a kind of null-space: You get what you give: Consider a game like Stainless Games' Carmageddon, a proto-GTA sandbox racer where the way you generate points is by hitting people with your car. Here is a game boating "motorized carnage", where the very goal of the game is to slaughter people. Here, people don't flicker and disappear when killed: They explode like blood sausages in a microwave.

As a caveat, blood sausage is actually quite delicious.

Though made in 1997, and boasting the graphical wizardry of the mesozoic, we have here a game capable of inciting widspread revulsion, to the point of moral rejection: For some time, the game as ported to countries like Germany changed the 'people' sprites to zombies, thus hammering home this basic pillar of ethics: It's okay to kill everyone, so long as they're already dead.

Of course, in either case, no act of violence is actually being committed: It's a matter of whether violence is being signified, or not. And it's here that we encounter the moralistic questions raised by individual playership: Do I want to be playing a game where you can kill people? Where you must? Which has the greater capability to offend: The game that insists we do something that offends our morals, or the game that simply offers it an option within a spectrum of action? Next week I hope to look at games that are conscious of this type of signification, and attempt to put it to use in one form or another.

- Rook

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