Friday, September 2, 2016

Dissecting "The Necessity of Violence"

I genuinely thought I was done this time. But, you know, every so often I find a post that's just so bad that I feel morally obligated to tear it apart just so I can say "I did something to try and stop this".

The current target is "The Necessity of Violence" by indie game dev Winnie Read. It is an extremely overwrought work. For simplicity's sake I am going to be as direct as possible with my criticisms and phrase them as direct responses to their assertions.

ASSERTION 1: "Violence is natural, and thus a necessary subject in media"
Supporting Statements from Text:
1. We talk about every other truths about our nature through games, we test our greed, gluttony, lust, pride — so why not violence?
2. What violence can say about ourselves both as human beings — beings that are, as we’ve now established, violent by nature — and also as players who are smart enough to distinguish what precise part of violence gives us catharsis.
3. Murder existed in media for as long as media existed, for as long as there were people on earth. Violence is as much a capacity in us as empathy is, as hunger is. It’s unnecessary for video games to compensate for its excess.
4. I believe only once we accept our own biology, and embrace our nature unchanged in philosophy from 10 000 years ago, art is possible.
5. I live for the games that say, “no, no, this is what you are.” And what we are is violent.

Firstly, the "appeal to nature" is well-established as being a fallacious argument unless your discussion partners are Social Darwinists or extremely religious. You will note that in the previous link it is referred to as a "fallacy" and not a "form of argument".

Secondly, there are many "natural" things that it is considered distasteful to enjoy in media, or to support in general. This includes xenophobia, homophobia, authoritarianism, social inequality, and the most prominent, rape. And wouldn't you know it, I've already written about the comparison between rape and violence. But with regards to this current argument, the issue is that people like this generally aren't okay with including (or glorifying) rape in games, especially not as a mechanic. Winnie Read is making a game where one player hunts another to kill them. Would they be willing to make a game where the same mechanics are used but the end result is rape instead? I know some people would be, but most would balk at it.

And this leads me to the point: "violence" is a natural part of humanity. But, like many other "natural" parts of humanity, it can be successfully suppressed or (more commonly) redirected. Saying that violence is natural is like saying that rape is natural. They are founded in the same instinctual drive, the drive to conquer and dominate and humiliate. The Vikings raped both men and women after defeats, because rape was about humiliation, not sexual attraction. That's "natural". Delve too deep into "nature" and you'll probably see something you're not actually comfortable with. This is why you should't use it to justify things you are.

ASSERTION 2: "Violence in Game Form takes harmful instincts and refines them"
Supporting Statements from Text:
1. Embracing violence in gameplay does not encourage and incite, but rather socialize and civilize. It allows for exploration of a fundamental wiring in our biology.
2.What’s more interesting is the hypocrisy of a video game trying desperately not to make reference to or comment on the world we live in through its mechanics and visual representation, while also being interactive media that impacts all aspects of mass culture, with more influence than ever before in history.
3. I think instead of celebrating and advocating for the nonviolence of video games we should consider the language violence provides to talk about what makes us, us.

This ties into the first point in that the author is attempting to solidify the idea that violence is natural. However, they also recognize that violence is undesirable, and so they try to justify the connection by saying that violence in games can be used to "discuss" violence in real life.

This is like arguing that The Birth of a Nation is an exploration of race relations and should be lauded for its artistic creativity.

This is not to say that games cannot talk about violence. Rather, if I am going to say that something is capable of "talking about violence", it needs to reflect something about actual violence. Which means it should not have:
- Enemies who refuse to surrender
- Enemies who refuse to flee or otherwise display concern
- Dehumanization in any form
- Removal of consequences for taking a human life
- Removal of consequences for being hurt or injured or killed
- Removal of consequences to the psyche during the act of killing

If a game glosses over any of those things then it is not talking about violence, it is talking about a cartoon simulacrum of violence. It's relatively well-recognized that a work talking about sexism or homophobia or racism that cuts corners for the sake of "easy access" is incomplete and may even be poisoning the discussion. A discussion of police violence, for example, would be considered incomplete if it did not mention that police are frequently cleared of charges in cases that often seem clear-cut against them. Removing that information would fundamentally change the discussion and more importantly present a false image for the uneducated. Why, then, are we expected to have a discussion about violence when so many people are so fundamentally opposed to including the whole set of components?

When the author writes a sentence like "Outsmarting and outliving another person requires intent and bloody-mindedness that could be only performed by a human with as much to lose as another", I call bullshit. Because what you're playing is still "a game". There are no consequences outside of the immediate win-or-lose. It is still a game. Saying that such a game "discusses violence" is like saying that tag "discusses rape". It is a shallow game that you have chosen - chosen - to cover with a visual layer of violence meant to evoke real-life blood and guts. You are not discussing violence. You are using the idea of it, unnecessarily, to "spice up" your mechanical experience. And in that sense you are making a mockery of the real thing.

ASSERTION 3: "Games are an outlet"
1. Games provide an interactive context in which we can exercise the acts that make us feel things like the thrill, the guilt, the regret.
2. I didn’t intend to make a violent game with BADBLOOD, I intended to create a playable treatise of human nature.

So seriously, is this guy going to make a rape game or what? Clock's ticking here, friend. You want art, that's the way you should be going. Everyone's made a murder game at this point, it's not even taboo.

3. What do I believe the human beings behind the controller are capable of? What do I want to say about them? How will they act in this situation? Will they choose their own safety over the killing of their opponent? Will they hide or will they fight? What is it about the world that I live in that I want to figure out?

And you will never figure this out with a video game, because a video game is designed specifically to depict violence while keeping all involved parties safe. Violence without consequence does not say anything about real violence. It's shallow indulgence into a real issue without any of the factors that make the issue what it is.

The problem with "art games" as a community is that absolutely no one is interested in learning. They're just interested in feeling. You already get information about feelings from every other game. That is what emotions are. You have them all the time. Art games are about provoking a different set of emotions and going "aha, now it's interesting". It's really not. It's a researcher who works entirely by cribbing off of other people's work, never discovering that they themselves are doing the same.

MY OWN CONCLUSION:
1. "I watched Tarantino movies, samurai comics, TV shows like Vikings where violence is both the foundation of society and also the show’s main aesthetic."

Please notice that when the author says he learned about violence, what he was learning from was works of media depicting violence. And in this way he believed he had actually learned about the thing itself.

The reason this article exists, and is even remotely popular, is because most "social justice" gamers are desperately trying to justify the discord between their own critical analysis of sexism and racism, and their blase acceptance of violence. As evidence I cite the staggering number of people who have told me directly that violence is "natural" while also making excuses about why rape and sexism and racism should not be included in those same products.

This article is a weak salve. And it is a poorly constructed one. Unfortunately, moral wounds are highly susceptible to the placebo effect, and thus a good number of people will convince themselves that they've been healed.

If you want to explore violence please, for the love of God, learn something about real violence first.

Relatedly, I am working on a book discussing human cultures throughout time and across the globe. It includes cultural values related to violence as well as cultures that embraced pacifism entirely. Please keep an eye out for it! Do not try to learn about violence from Tarantino films in the meantime!

I mean it! I will be very cross with you!

17 comments:

  1. Trying to learn about violence from video games is like learning about sex from hentai. Not even real porn, because porn at least keeps some of the 'mechanics' of it real.
    Also, "I intended to create a playable treatise of human nature."? Sounds pretty amibitious, if not pretentious

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    1. And sorry for the double post, just wanted to say I really enjoy and appreciate your content

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    2. Thanks! Sorry I don't make more of it.

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  2. So it's not so much the "Cartoon Simulacrum of Violence" that's the problem, but the fact that people try and learn from it?

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    1. People *are* going to learn from it, whether or not they try to. It's a problem when people don't have real knowledge to compare against fiction, and even if they do, it's *still* a problem because fiction is often emotionally manipulative in nature.

      The fact that people think they've learned from fictional violence is a symptom of the larger problem, not the problem itself.

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  3. So fiction is a drug apparently?

    I suppose every fictional work should have a warning sticker warning the reader that anything they learn from this might not be sound.

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    1. I have described fiction as a drug before, although not on this blog I think. But yes, you're fundamentally correct - fiction exists for the specific purpose of emotional manipulation.

      And as far as warning stickers - a lot have the opposite. "This work was based on a true story". It's an encouragement to treat the work as legit even when it's not. See also this http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BasedOnAGreatBigLie and this http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/DanBrowned

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    2. You mentioned before the realism can be a tool for agendas or shooting down criticism. It seems many agree with you
      https://www.overthinkingit.com/2014/05/12/to-hell-with-your-realism/

      I'd enjoy alot more stories if they didn't try to be "relevant" or "meaningful" or were actually those things.

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    3. I don't really care for that article. I agree with some elements - realism is a tool often used to justify design decisions, and it is applied hypocritically in many cases - but I don't really agree with the attitude.

      People like "realism" as a concept because it makes the show easier to connect to, viscerally and logically. I write about the same thing but I call it "believability" so that I can include unrealistic internal consistency as well as "adherence to reality". I write about why this is important here: http://exploringbelievability.blogspot.com/2010/11/importance-of-believability.html

      In contrast, the article you linked seems to believe that the core concept of people wanting consistency in their works is itself a masculine conspiracy propagated by both STEM majors and literary enthusiasts.

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    4. Didn't the article point out that it was "Realism" that lit snobs and stembros wanted, and that consistency was more important?

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    5. That wasn't how I read it. There were some tacit "yes I get that you might like consistency" stuff in the beginning and very end, but look at the "hard vs soft" comparison. The very idea that things in life are knowable is considered "masculine". That's not "consistent", that's openly objecting to the idea of consistency.

      To be honest: the author writes low-rent genre fiction and it seems like she's just unhappy that she isn't respected for it.

      "The lit-fic world seems to be slowly changing (thanks, Michael Chabon, et. al) but I doubt my sword-and-sorcery manuscript will be welcomed in an MFA workshop any time soon. You even see this anti-genre snobbery when major outlets discuss YA literature."

      She just straight-up discounts the idea that, hey, maybe people are embarrassed by that shit because it's DUMB. I mean, I struggle to get people to understand basic, obvious concepts like "dehumanization is a form of propaganda", and she's trying to argue that nobody respects her sword-and-sorcery 10-cent-novels because of masculine prejudice against feminine mysticism and emotion.

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    6. "but look at the "hard vs soft" comparison. The very idea that things in life are knowable is considered "masculine". That's not "consistent", that's openly objecting to the idea of consistency."

      She said it was CODED as masculine. It's a prevelent sexist attitude that masculine=logic and feminine=emotional.

      "To be honest: the author writes low-rent genre fiction and it seems like she's just unhappy that she isn't respected for it."

      No she isn't

      "I doubt my sword-and-sorcery manuscript will be welcomed in an MFA workshop any time soon."

      Stick to her paper, not who you think she is. She wrote it cause she was sick of people using it as a way to brush off criticism and she gave GoT controversies as an example.

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    7. Not sure why you're so adamant about defending this, honestly. It's not that great an article and not particularly important by itself. I've written about the same thing, and in more depth, too. Multiple times, even:

      http://exploringbelievability.blogspot.com/2010/12/failed-justifications.html
      http://exploringbelievability.blogspot.com/2015/06/realism.html
      http://exploringbelievability.blogspot.com/2012/03/realism-as-tool-for-agendas-discussion.html

      Realism is invoked by women just as much as it is by men ("that female character shouldn't wear that, it's Not Realistic"). And I support them in that, as long as they're consistent about it.

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  4. Yet another amazing article reminding us of the problem with violence, the depiction of violence, and a lot of "arty" video games.
    I'd love to communicate with you about a lot of things pertaining to these subjects, and also to culture, narration and worldbuilding. You're a great inspiration in my work (plus you're one of the few individuals on Internet who actually see Kojima for the fraud he is, and that's such a relief when one is surrounded by blind fanboys).

    If you're interested, contact me at raphael.lafarge[at sign]gmail.com

    Raphaël Lafarge

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    1. If you have questions I'd be happy to answer them here.

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