Last week Donald Trump, who is somehow actually a president instead of another old man whose career was ruined by #MeToo, tried to shift the gun control debate onto a familiar distraction. During a school safety meeting last Thursday in the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, Trump argued that violent media should be blamed for the rise in school shootings. “I’m hearing more and more people say the level of violence on videogames is really shaping young people’s thoughts,” Trump was quoted as saying by the New York Times, with that first use of the word “people” probably referring to the aides who drilled into his brain that morning that he should blame videogames instead of easy access to guns.
The argument that games cause real life violence has been hashed over and dug up and put back down again several times over the last couple of decades. Multiple academic studies have found no direct link between the two (that same Times piece lists a few studies, if you want to check those out), although the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry both take the stance that violent games can inspire violent behavior. The overwhelmingly vast majority of people who play violent videogames don’t turn into mass shooters, of course—if they did there’d be way more mass shootings than there already are in America. (Also, read this CNN piece for a quote from a survivor of the Stoneman Douglas shooting who plays first-person shooters and says he’d “never, ever dream” of doing anything like that in real life.) And the mass shooters who are big fans of violent videogames probably enjoy all other kinds of media that could also be unscientifically and unilaterally declared a factor by pro-gun activists, as violent movies and heavy metal often are.
With these comments Trump’s continuing a common line of disingenuous distraction espoused by the NRA, whose opinions on anything should basically be ignored by the world at large at this point. Blaming games for mass shootings, instead of the easy availability of the semiautomatic guns that make these shootings far too easy to perpetrate, is a tactic used to undercut the gun control debate that’s always reinvigorated whenever these tragedies happen. It’s a transparent deflection from the real issue, one that’s regularly put forth by the politicians and spokespeople who profit greatly from the NRA, and one driven almost entirely by money, both the money regularly funneled into election campaigns and PACs, and the massive amounts of money made every year by the gun industry. Simply put, it’s bullshit, and Trump and the NRA and the GOP know it’s bullshit, but they all keep repeating it anyway.
Still, though. Look at this:
That’s from the opening moments of Bioshock Infinite. It’s the first bit of violence seen in the game, and it’s a little ridiculous how gory it is. One guy’s head is split open by another’s blade, with blood, brains and bone splattering everywhere. Immediately after this the player kills the guy on the left, slicing into his jugular as torrents of blood cascade over the screen. This happens after an opening half-hour or so that could genuinely be described as majestic; that intro is easily the high point of the entire game, and it crashes as soon as that blood starts to flow.
I’m not here to criticize a five-year-old game. I’m using it as an example of how bad the videogame industry can be at countering arguments like Trump’s. Most games are violent to some degree, and I’m not arguing that games should never be violent. Some games are so exceedingly, unnecessarily graphic in their depiction of violence that it simply doesn’t make any sense, though.
It came out in 2013, but Bioshock Infinite remains the gold standard for a game with an incongruous amount of sickening violence. Here’s a (far-too-self-satisfied) game that struggles to make a statement that approaches some amount of depth, overseen by one of the most (self-admittedly) pretentious game designers around, and yet it devolves into an almost cartoonish orgy of blood whenever you have to harm someone (which is often). More recently, the current Wolfenstein series features some of the sharpest storytelling in big budget games today, commenting on such hot button issues as the recent rise of open racism throughout the west, but it too embraces an absurd level of graphic violence that distracts from what the game does well. Grand Theft Auto may not be visually graphic, but its violence is egregious in other ways; in its cynical embrace of nihilism under the guise of player choice, GTA continues to allow and encourage extreme antisocial violence in everyday settings in a tired attempt to be shocking. The viscera and torrents of blood found in Gears of War and God of War and certain other action games are, at best, misplaced stabs at realism in an otherwise unrealistic setting, and, at worst, cynical marketing decisions based on what the industry assumes is the bloodlust of the audience.
Here’s a screenshot from Wolfenstein 2. It’s just you cleaving a woman’s head in half. This is the same woman whose face is pummeled until it collapses into a pulp of blood and broken teeth in the previous Wolfenstein game. The series has made a running joke out of brutally and graphically crushing this character’s head. As Holly Green wrote here at Paste when the game came out, this extremely graphic violence doesn’t quite square with the game’s story.
None of the games mentioned above need to depict violence in such an extreme and over-the-top manner. The graphic violence of Bioshock Infinite and Wolfenstein actively undercuts what these games, each more ambitious than the typical shooter, are trying to say. Meanwhile Grand Theft Auto’s continued commitment to pointless mayhem and misanthropy exists solely as a provocation to the kinds of activists already waiting to find something to complain about it in videogames. It’s like these games are specifically playing into the plans of the NRA and other anti-game activists, encouraging the kind of politically motivated attacks on the medium that Trump engaged in last week.
Graphic violence has a place in games, just as it does in movies. Resident Evil 7 is grotesque, but it’s a crucial part of its atmosphere as a horror game. When military shooters show battlefield injuries in detail, that’s often just a fairly realistic result of combat. When used judiciously, or as an effective part of a game’s aesthetic, extreme violence is simply another tool designers can call on.
Game designers shouldn’t eliminate graphic violence altogether—they just need to be smarter about how and when to use it. Otherwise they might make the bad faith arguments of Trump and the NRA look more legitimate to those who aren’t familiar with games, which could have unexpected—and unwelcome—ramifications for the entire industry.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.