War Stories

FallingDown

America has a relationship with violence that is, let’s say, a little too friendly. That’s not to say that the American mindset is violent necessarily, that we are predisposed to do violence, but that so much of our outlook is defined in terms of violence. The distinction isn’t obvious, but here’s where games provide a useful demonstration: Most games are about shooting things, of course, and that’s partially habit and fashion at work, but when we make games about choices those choices are themselves framed in violence. To kill or not to kill, that is the question that so many games boil down to, even when they tout their freedom.

It’s not just games. We construct this dichotomy everywhere. Either suppress the riot with brutal force or do nothing. Either invade a country or do nothing. These are the nails for our hammer. Other solutions are not even dismissed, so much as never even considered. We have constructed a vocabulary of violence, of do or die, and forgotten that any words exist beyond it. Questioning the decision to use violence is similarly always contextualized as an argument to do nothing, “So you’d rather let the terrorists do whatever they want?” Ignoring the wide realm of options in between doing nothing and violent enforcement.

We question the necessity of violence, but rarely its utility. We have violence defined as The Thing That Works in our minds: If you can’t pick the lock you kick the door down, if the vending machine doesn’t work you knock it over, if the ants get in your house you poison them. For simple problems, sometimes it does work. But simple problems aren’t really problems, and by saving violence as a last resort we are frequently reserving our least effective option for our most desperate moments. This is most egregiously apparent when it comes to the many justifications our government has recently, shamefully, deployed in service of its ongoing torture and interrogation programs, violent acts which are of little demonstrable security benefit. People who defend these programs do so by balancing the lives of these torture victims against hypothetical lives saved, neatly eliding the questions of whether those lives are actually saved by these acts, whether there would be any more effective way to save those same lives, or whether more other lives are lost because of consequences of systemic state-implemented torture.

We American’s love justified war. Every narrative centers around it. He killed my family, so I can kill him now. He’s going to blow up a building, so I can kill him now. This is every fucking movie and every fucking game, the story of how the bad guy did a bad enough thing that it’s okay to kill him now, and the journey of how he and everyone who works for him gets killed by the main character, and maybe there’s some kind of prize at the end for doing such a good job with the killing. If it’s a kid’s show then instead of killing them he just beats them up and they do it once a week, each week a different justification for the inevitable ass-kicking. What’s the first thing everyone talks about doing with a time machine? Assassinating Hitler. Trying to prevent the greatest massacre in history by murdering someone. Not only is it unlikely to work, since Hitler was the product of his environment and someone would likely have filled his role if he weren’t there, but it’s also just one of many ways to approach the problem. Why not just sit him down and explain the tragedy that will occur if he follows his current course? Why not provide him another path in life? Why not get him into art school? Of course, it’s a bit galling to do favors for Hitler, but at the point where you would presumably contact him using your time machine he would not yet be Hitler, just one Adolf among many. More likely, a serious attempt to prevent the tragedies of the second world war wouldn’t involve Hitler at all, but trying to sow the seeds that unravel the national socialist movement before it gained its murderous momentum.

We so desperately want to kill Hitler, though. We so desperately want to be the unequivocal good guy kicking the shit out of the definitely bad guy, we will do whatever we can to construct those bad guys and turn ourselves into good guys. We want to win world war 2, over and over again, more than we want to prevent that war from ever happening.

This maybe sounds like some ‘won’t someone think of the children’ Jack Thompson horse shit, but this isn’t about the violence itself being damaging or immoral: It’s about the narrative we construct to say that our violence is justified — and I’m not even saying that it isn’t, that violence isn’t ever justified or anything like that, merely that boiling every conversation about the usage of violence to whether it is or isn’t morally okay in this circumstance is completely myopic and misguided. Sometimes the relevant question isn’t whether it’s okay to put a sledgehammer through your wall, but whether it’s useful for your goals.

People in power all over the world tend to have a child’s understanding of violence. Like gangsters, they want to ‘make a problem go away’, and by their lauded power and influence they believe that because they can make that ethical compromise that they should, because that’s the kind of big weighty decision that big weighty men make. Add to that a national desire to be the cowboy who wears the white hat, who everyone knows is right because he’s on the side of justice and has a shiny badge, and you have an explosive mixture. It’s just now starting to really mature, and the explosions are only going to get bigger.

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3 comments
  1. Jōchō said:

    This is really well written and brings up a good point at a great time. I’ve been recently working on a game with a choice-dependent narrative, and a lot of my choices have been about whether or not to use violence. I’m clearly too American though. I need to branch out from the “use violence” or “talk” / “do nothing” dichotomy. The more options I offer, the more difficult the game becomes to make, but I think it could end up better for it. And not only for the game, but I’d rather not perpetuate the idea that violence is one of two options.

    Thank you so much for this and all your writing.

    • I’m glad you enjoy it! Writing a game like that is a big undertaking, best of luck. It’s tricky because, yeah, you want to offer options, but it’s easy for that to explode out into an exponential variation of game state. On the other hand, sometimes explicitly taking the option of violence off the table can help with that too. I think it really depends on the character you’re trying to express, how they feel about violence, and what decisions they’d be predisposed to make (though from your description it’s not clear whether you’re making a character-centric game like The Walking Dead or an open narrative like Fallout).

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