Foie gras is a French delicacy invented around 2500 BC. The process of making it involves force-feeding a duck or goose by inserting a tube filled with corn down their throat. For about two weeks, roughly three times a day, this process is repeated whether the animal is in the mood or not. The force-feeding tube delivers way more food than your average duck or goose was ever meant to eat. Once the liver has been engorged and fattened up to ten times its normal size, the duck or goose is later killed, the liver extracted and served either cooked or fresh. Presumably with onions or carrots or something. There’s no other dish like it. It requires the constant torture of an animal in order for it to be served. Think about it. This isn’t a case of sloppy farm practices in some remote eastern European hellhole. The recipe actually calls for it. Basically recreate the Saw movies upon a defenseless bird and you’ll soon have a tasty spot of brunch.
As a species, we’re so selfish and desperate for gratification that not even centuries of witnessing the raw terror in a duck’s eyes will deter us from getting what we want. Whether it is through physical or psychological harm, we are lifelong experts in the most unspeakable acts. At our core, human beings are essentially monsters who have been chained down and told repeatedly to not give in to their baser urges. If Moses did indeed descend from that mountain with the Ten Commandments in hand, it must have been because God looked at the nearest village and thought “Christ on the cross, these animals need to be given some guidelines ASAP”.
With that in mind, here’s a question: could you kill another human being? I bet you could. I bet, under the right set of circumstances and stress levels, you’d find it no more difficult than opening a particularly stiff jar of pasta sauce. What if that racist dude at work just wasn’t around anymore? That creep you see on the train who might just follow you home one day? Or that friend of a friend who is so incredibly tedious to be around. Nobody would miss them, right?
These aren’t questions we want to answer. Most of us don’t spend any time in our busy days thinking about whether we would be capable of reducing the population of the planet with our bare hands. It’s a terrifying thought that none of us want to think about due to one reason and one reason only: of course we could do it. If you’ve put the time into constructing an Ikea bed frame, you could definitely pull off a murder. You might not get away with it, but the act itself would be amazingly easy. An uncomfortable thought, no?
In Tom Clancy’s The Division, there has been more than one scenario that unfolds along these lines. I’m walking along a snowy New York street when up ahead, I see a couple of looters searching the pockets of a corpse. I already know these two people are a threat as this town has gone to hell and ruthless gangs roam the streets. I swap my weapon to my highly effective double-barrel shotgun and walk towards them. They complain loudly about not finding enough loot and don’t notice me until it’s too late. I empty one barrel into the side of the first looter’s head and he drops like a bag of oranges. The second guy has enough time to briefly freak out, stand up and try to reach for his gun. The second barrel delivers insta-death into his chest and he’s finished. Now staring at three corpses instead of one, I calmly reload my weapon while keeping an ear out for more trouble. With no other danger in sight, I search their bodies and move on. The street is silent once more. And I walk away feeling absolutely righteous.
Barely a flicker of emotion crosses my face while I engage in this scenario. I’m not pumping my fist in the air or gritting my teeth in bloodthirsty purpose. But there is a quiet, dark section of my brain that is feeling satisfied. It is gratified by what just took place. A sense of completion. This hungry beast has been fed yet again and in the words of Cypress Hill, I know I’ll be saying “Boom biddy bye bye” to plenty more virtual New Yorkers.
Over the years, I must have killed hundreds of thousands of people in video games. Wall upon wall of human flesh has been decimated by automatic gunfire just in first-person shooters alone. I’ve planned perfect murders and also barely survived countless moments of blood-soaked frenzy. Transfer this body count to real-life and I would be shackled in chains in the depths of a Siberian gulag after being charged with too many life sentences to remember. Waiting for the inevitable day where I’m put to death for being a genocidal maniac.
With every virtual life I take, my skills and knowledge improve. I’m quicker on the trigger. Better with headshots. I learn which weapons are more effective in certain situations. If there’s multiple enemies rushing at me from different angles, shotguns and pistols are next to useless. Probably best to employ to lethality of an MP5 sub-machine gun or toss out an incendiary grenade or two to thin out the herd.
I know these things thanks to video games despite never holding a real gun in my life. I don’t want anything to do with an actual weapon in reality. Those things are completely abhorrent to me. Any time I read a news report about a mass shooting or suicidal bomber, I feel dismay and horror. Shut this whole ‘human race’ experiment down because we’re obviously failing as custodians of this world, right? Sure, but that won’t stop me from locking and loading in a video game. Not out of some spiteful defiance but rather because the thought just doesn’t cross my mind. Real life murder is over here and video game killing is over there and never the twain shall meet. And it’s clear I’m not the only one.
Not only is murder integral to video games, it is absolutely crucial. The video game industry as it stands today would be nowhere without killing. So many million-dollar franchises were successful as a result of mass murder and while it’s refreshing to see tons of new genres being created and indie games blazing a trail towards more personal stories, none of us should be arrogant enough to deny the fact that we stepped over an endless amount of make-believe dead bodies to get here. Video games are built on death. Murder is the river in which game design flows. If the most critically-acclaimed games of all time were simply Madden or Tony Hawk, your favourite groundbreaking story-driven games would have never come to the surface. They can’t exist in a vacuum free of Assassin’s Creed or Destiny.
However, despite the importance of neck-stabbings and multi-kill fireballs, a few fragile rules still remain. In the modern era, there’s no game that is strictly about killing innocent people. Sure, you can do it in a few open-world universes, but it’s never the point. It’s always a distraction. And despite a few adventures culminating in it for emotional story purposes, child death is a subject that few people want to even consider, much less make a game about. Now, whether anyone wants to break these taboos in the future is up for debate. You could feasibly imagine a game where an inexperienced assassin inadvertently murders a pre-teen boy and has to answer for that mistake. Or a hero who unwittingly becomes a villain after their plan to save the day results in the death of thousands. Will they regret it or revel in their actions? These ideas aren’t outside the realm of possibility these days considering the amount of risks being taken with storytelling and characters in games.
We’re all very comfortable in the knowledge that video game murder doesn’t translate to real-life. That’s old news. Even the once reactionary mainstream media no longer cares. Thanks to widespread popularity, games have joined the ranks of comic books and heavy metal. Once thought to be tools of the devil, they’re now no longer a threat to young people’s sensibilities. And yet, it’s worth noting that the dark hungry beast in the back of your brain that wonders if you could remove that sexist co-worker from society without anyone realising is probably the same one that nods in satisfaction when you stalk your prey in Hitman.
I don’t consider myself an especially psychotic person but I know for a fact I’ve grinned in elation after murdering someone for a new hat in The Division. It was a really cool one too, with flaps to keep my ears warm. Would I speak about this with a stranger at my workplace? Of course not. They would look at me like I’m crazy and probably tell a supervisor. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m one of millions. Publishers, especially ones that sell online games, love to announce how many kills were delivered in their game. “88.5 MILLION PEOPLE WERE SHOT IN THE FACE DURING OUR OPEN BETA” they’ll proclaim, even so far as to use these facts as marketing. They’re not advertising the groundbreaking visuals or fascinating characters but rather “Bro, you see how many punk asses got jacked in our game? Dude, plunge your hands into this carnage! You don’t want to be a pussy, right?”.
Murder works. Not only does it satisfy whatever ravenous creature we have locked up inside us but it has successfully built everything we now stand on. Our cherished memories and childhood adventures probably revolve around so much killing and slaughter that we’ve forgotten most of it. Because it’s always been there. It’s the backbone of this industry and it is something to be respected. A lot of it is frivolous and poorly designed but when taken as a whole, murder is arguably the most important part of video games. It has spawned franchises, memorable characters and innovative storytelling. With every refinement, it becomes more efficient and as such, leaves more room for more experimentation in design. In its wake, the sheer revulsion to its commonplace in games has produced stunning new ways to twist plots we never expected and tap into emotions we thought we would never touch. Whether you dive into it or steer clear, the long tendrils of murder’s influence will be felt in video games forever.
That inner beast I mentioned will always be hungry. Whether we feed it the slaughter of sprites or something that will land us in prison, we like to think our personal monster is easier to tame than that weird guy sitting across from us on the train. His rabid murder-wolf is probably massive.
We should probably stop thinking about this kind of thing before someone catches us. Regardless of great strides in the wider acceptance of video games, no amount of “But I had to execute these guys to get that sweet new sniper rifle!” will help us in the court of public opinion. That being said, if that beast ever comes to the surface looking for food, try playing Hotline Miami on Vita with headphones at two o’clock in the morning. That should keep it down for a good long while.
This article was posted on Kotaku Australia on 4 April 2016.